John N. Miskell's Executions in Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York: 1890 - 1916©

Legislative Action

Page 5 of 14

(a) The Legislature of the State of New York enacted the law providing for death by electricity for persons convicted of Murder in the First degree after it had been approved by a committee appointed by the Governor to seek "the most humane and approved method of carrying into effect the sentence of death."

On May 19, 1890, U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller (above) signed the court decision rejecting the claim brought on Kemmler's behalf that NYS' highest court had erred by not ruling the convict's execution by electricity would violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment:

In order to reverse the judgment of the highest court of the state of NY, we should be compelled to hold that it had committed an error so gross as to amount in law to a denial by the state of due process of law to one accused of crime, or of some right secured to him by the constitution of the U.S. We have no hesitation in saying that this we cannot do upon the record before us. The application for a writ of error is denied.

The full opinion by Chief Justice Fuller (136 U.S. 436, 10 S.Ct. 930 In re KEMMLER) is available on the web site of the University of Minnesota.

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Electrocution would keep the criminal justice system in tune with scientific advances besides being swift and painless and granting the victim a more merciful end than the hangman's rope.

(b) Shortly before the first execution was to take place, a writ of habeas corpus was served upon Warden Durston of Auburn on the grounds that executing Kemmler would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and was therefore unconstitutional.

The argument was then taken up at the General Term of the New York Supreme Court at Rochester, and the law's constitutionality was upheld on the grounds that electrocution might be considered unusual, but was in no way cruel.

The case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed with the original verdict. A new date was then set for Kemmler's execution.

(c) During the time executions were held at Auburn ten men and one woman sentenced to death and confined in the prison received commutations or were given new sentences or new trials. At least one man was released at his second trial.

Chief Justice Fuller, who hailed from Maine, had managed Stephen Douglas' presidential campaign against Abe Lincoln in 1860. He was named to the court by Grover Cleveland. This case came before the top court because Associate Justice Sam Blatchford, a former Auburn law firm attorney, granted a stay and suggested the full court air the issue. He had been appointed by Chester Arthur.
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In all other cases action of the lower courts was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

(d) In accordance with the law, the unclaimed remains of twenty-two death chair inmates were buried in pine boxes in prison ground by prison employees.

The corpses were not embalmed. Five bushels of lime were shoveled into the graves before the graves were sealed. All graves were unmarked.

No lime was used when bodies were claimed by friends or relatives and buried in private cemeteries.

Executions in Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York: 1890 - 1916 text ©1996 by John N. Miskell
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