Untold History: Edison and the botching of the electric chair

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Below is a rush transcript of this segment:

I want to tell you a story about a guy you never heard of before, William Kemmler. He lived in New York City, a pretty bad guy, a drunk, very abusive to his wife, his child, ugly. He was a vegetable cart salesman, and he would take his vegetables and stuff out, and he would get the food from the farmer’s market, stack up his cart, push his push cart out and sell it all day, he’d come home, start drinking and beat his wife.

One day, he came home and I don’t remember what the scrabble was about, but all the neighbors heard it, and he went downstairs and he went back to his cart — trying to remember what he used. I think it was a tapper or 2-by-4, but he went back upstairs, in front of his child, he beat his wife to death. Blood splattered everywhere. He throws the weapon down, walks out in the hall. Everybody in the building had heard it. Everyone was standing out in the hall. As he came around, splattered in blood, he looked at the crowd in the hallway and he said well, they’ll hang me for this. He went outside, police came, arrested him.

It was one of the more famous murders in New York City. New York City at the time was a very rough and gruesome place, especially in the Tenderloin District. This is 1890, when political corruption had gone awry, but there was something else that was going on.

Before this murder, for about five years, there was a dentist up in Buffalo, who had written Thomas Edison over and over again, and said there’s got to be a more humane way of killing people than hanging. It’s barbaric. How can we do it? You are the smartest man in the country.

Thomas Edison wrote back I have no stake on this. I don’t know how to help you. The guy kept writing him over and over. Edison, you know, was perturbed by this guy. What does he have to do with me? But that
letter kept coming.

It was sitting on his desk one day, when everyone was up in arms about Kemmler. Edison was trying to stop Tesla’s new radical idea of AC. DC was where Edison put all his money. That’s a battery, but date, it was a
power plant. A power plant would have been about every two blocks, no more than a mile away, and this would have to be some sort of a coal-fired or diesel-fired generator. I think it was coal-fired at the time and they would have to keep the again rater running all the time to keep your electricity running in your house, and it was now battery-powered, but then, little teeny generators all over the country. That was Edison’s idea.

Well, Tesla thought that was ridiculous. You can’t have all these generators running every wrote, so he thought of alternating current, AC. That’s where we get our plug, our outlets are AC outlets.

Well, Edison had all his money in DC. Edison had all the power, literally, the power in Wall Street and the power of the government. He needed to start some way to thwart Tesla. So what he had done, just google search a couple things today. Google search Topsy the Elephant.

This came after the turn of the century, but in the 1880 an ’90s, Edison actually hired a really sick, almost Mengele-like doctor to go around in the towns, all around the country and electrocute with this new AC power, new AC current, electrocute horses and cows and sheep and dogs. It made people violently ill. The doctor would say, just want you to know, this is DC power. Look, I can hold onto it and it shocks you, but doesn’t kill you, but let me show you what AC can do. It will kill you dead. You don’t want this sitting in your home? How many of us will die because of Tesla and that greedy Westinghouse? Let me show you what happens to a dog.

He would fry a dog, kill a horse. Edison himself, after the turn of the century, just out of sheer spite, electrocuted an elephant. Topsy the Elephant, you can see it on Edison vision, Edison films. He was proud of it. Look it up. Google it.

The reason I bring this story up is because at the time, he couldn’t convince the American people, so he decided he would embrace AC. He would embrace Tesla. And say that is really good for something. There’s progress for you. We can use this to electrocute people. So because the world or the country was so enamored with the brutal killings that William Kemmler did, Edison used that as the case. He wrote the doctor in Buffalo, New York and said I know what to do. You need to Westinghouse Mr. Kemmler. Westinghouse has this new AC power. I have been saying how dangerous it is.

While Kemmler was in the prison for about two years, because this went on and on. They could have hung him, but they wanted a new humane way. So Edison went and he testified and said this is the way. The doctor that went around, the sick doctor that went around electrocuting horses and — testified this is the way to do it. Do you have the volts right? You sure we can kill them quickly?

Well, while this was going on, Kemmler, now away from alcohol, now being preached to by the guards and by the warden, had happen change of heart.

He accepted his consequence, knew he had to die, wanted to die, but didn’t look forward to it with glee, kill me now. He wanted to go meet Jesus. He knew the only way is if he asked true forgiveness, then accepted the consequences of his actions. At the end, he was actually preaching to the other cell mates, the other people on death row. When the warden eventually came in, the warden was crying, he didn’t want to kill him. He knew he had to. Kemmler said don’t worry about it. It’s my actions that brought this on.

When they strapped him to the electric chair, Kemmler knew that it was a big deal and knew that if it didn’t go well, it would hurt the warden. So as they strapped him in, they shaved his head, put a sponge on his head and strapped all this sponge with water, dripping down his face, they strapped his arms in, he said warden, because there were people from The New York Times, people from all over the press, witnesses there, they were all — I need to talk to you for a second. The warden came over. He said I need to talk to you privately. The warden leaned right into him. He whispered, ‘This is not going to go well for you if
I jerk too much. You don’t have the straps on my arms tight enough. Please have someone tighten them.’

The warden could barely hold back the tears. He asked for a guard to tighten them back up again. Then they threw the switch. The generator was down below. All the lights dimmed and the juice ran through Kemmler’s body. It reason through for I don’t know how long, and they stopped. And he was pronounced dead. Then he moved. They listened to his heart. And the people in the room cried out, ‘Dear God, he’s still alive!’

They scrambled and they turned the juice on again, and they turned the juice on so long to kill him. Reports will say — there were erroneous reports that he was actually set on fire. I believe he was actually set on fire. I believe that was the Edison machine that tried to lessen the effects, because the reports that I have read was that he was set on fire, that people were vomiting, that people couldn’t get out fast enough, because of the stench of the burning flesh. Edison was never, ever questioned or held responsible in any way for that electrocution.

The reason I tell you this story today is because there is a –there’s something that happened in Arizona. A man was given the death penalty. He was executed, and he lived. Now, there are some reports saying this was cruel and unusual punishment, because he was groaning, coughing, gasping for air. Others say that’s not true. I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what the truth is.

But there’s two things that have to be brought up: One, whether we agree with the death penalty or not is beside the point. We have the death penalty in certain states. If we are going to do the death penalty, it needs to be done correctly, swiftly, quickly. I don’t know why we don’t have a firing squad anymore. You have not 10, 12, 15 people, put a couple of bullets in, make sure they are marksmen, shoot them in the head. That’s if you believe in the death penalty. If you don’t, then let’s make that case. But if you do, what’s the fastest way to kill someone? We don’t stone people, we don’t do what Edison did. And Edison, the worst, I mean — I hope Edison had a lot of time to think about it in the eternal courts of what he did somewhere for money. But we do the right thing.

So there’s point number one. But a bigger point, because it is about us, is what’s now happening on the message boards. What’s happening on comment sections, what’s happening online, what people are actually saying about this guy. And it’s the same story we’re hearing, no matter what it is, whether it’s about Israel, whether it is about the border, or this execution. Yeah, well, look what happened. Look what’s been going on for so long. For instance, Israel. Yeah, but this has been going on for a long time. You don’t know how disenfranchised and humiliated they were. Whatever. I got it. With the border. Yeah, but this is destroying our country and we have been talking about this for a long time.

I got it. I got it. Justifiable anger. In this case, this guy’s been waiting for 25 years. How long do we have to wait? What are all of them saying? What do all those have in common? They all have one thing in common. I want justice. I want justice. When the government loses a handle on justice, we lose a handle on our mercy, because we get angry.

Now, I don’t think that the average person is what we’re reading on the message boards, the comment sections. I don’t think those people are, but I don’t know anymore. I don’t know anymore. I choose to believe that that is the vast minority, and I really, truly believe it. But I will tell you I don’t want to believe the other. I don’t want to live in that world where everyone is ugly and dark, because if that’s really the way we are, then we are so far lost, the Constitution, everything else, we are going to become Nazi Germany. If that is really who we are, where we don’t care and say well, I don’t care. Torture him. Kill him, who cares. If that’s who we are, kill all the Jews. Let those people on the border just starve. If that’s who we are, we are already lost and too far gone, but I don’t think we are.

This is why we have to talk about justice. Freedom is a concept, is a luxury, is a luxury for society that pays attention, but we are not even paying attention, so how can we possibly teach freedom when there’s no justice? Because what everybody says about freedom, yeah, but what do you do about the bad guys. Well, you don’t have an answer for that, because how do I make things — how do they make things more free, when justice isn’t being served under this system?

We have to look for the ways to be just and merciful. We have to boil it down, stop look at the big concepts for a while, and start — or the small concepts and start looking at the fundamentals, just the fundamentals. And we have to be those people that begin to demand justice on all fronts. If there’s an injustice anywhere, there’s an injustice everywhere, so we must start to train ourselves to care about the other person’s injustice, even though it is not ours, because quite honestly, it is easy to fight for our injustice. It is really hard and I think it’s the only when that gives us credibility, when we fight against the injustice against someone else we don’t agree with. And that’s where we need to be on the front line.

This is a battle, this is a revolution, but it is a revolution of the mind and the heart first.