Monday, August 06, 2007

August 6

William Kimmler, a vegetable salesman from Buffalo, hacked his wife to death with an axe, a crime for which he became the first person to die in the electric chair. The execution, which took place at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890, turned out to be a horrific spectacle lasting much longer than anyone had predicted. Kimmler himself assumed his death would be -- as advocates for the method like Thomas Edison assured -- humane and instantaneous. Edison and others had had electrocuted dozens of dogs and cats using various contraptions. Prison officials had tested the chair on a horse on August 5, and everything seemed to go well.

Less could be said for the actual execution the next day, as the initial 17-second application of current, did not snuff out Kimmler’s life. Albert Southwick, the dentist who first proposed the notion of an electric chair in 1881, was on hand for the historic event and expressed premature elation after the first surge. “There is the culmination of ten years work and study!” he ejaculated. “We live in a higher civilization from this day.” When doctors discovered that Kimmler was still breathing, they quickly ordered an additional four-minute surge of 2000 volts, the effect of which was to bake the man literally to a crisp, as his skin caught fire and smoke poured from his head.

The New York Herald filed a dramatic report on the incident:
The killing of Kemmler to-day marks, I fear, the beginning and the end of electrocution, and it wreathes in shame the ages of the great Empire State who, entrusted with the terrific responsibility of killing a man as a man was never killed before, brought to the task imperfect machinery and turned and execution into a horror . . . .

Man accustomed to every form of suffering grew faint as the awful spectacle was unfolded before their eyes. Those who stood the sight were filled with awe as they saw the effects of this most potent of fluids which is only partly understood by those who have studied it most faithfully, as it slowly, to slowly, disintegrated the fibre and tissues of the body through which it passed.

The heaving of a chest which it had been promised would be stilled in an instant peace as soon as the circuit was completed, the foaming of the mouth, the bloody sweat, the writhing shoulders and all the other signs of life.

Horrible as these were they were made infinitely more horrible by the premature removal of the electrodes and the subsequent replacing of them for not seconds but minutes, until the room was filled with the odor of burning flesh and strong man fainted and felt like logs upon the floor.

And all this done in the name of science.
Fifty-five years later, another deadly scientific advance was used for the first time. On August 6, 1945, “Little Boy” was dropped from the belly of a B-29 named the Enola Gay. The 4000 kilogram bomb -- 64 kilograms of which was enriched uranium from the Belgian Congo -- sailed quietly through the sky for 57 seconds before obliterating the Japanese city of Hiroshima and at least 70,000 people who lived and worked there. Tens of thousands more would later die from burns, radiation poisoning, and cancers of numerous and unpleasant kinds.

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