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


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On June 4, 1888, Governor David B. Hill signed legislation which established electrocution as the method of executing death sentences for crimes committed after January 1, 1889.

David Bennet Hill was called "Governor-Senator" (mostly by his enemies, which were legion both in and out of his own party). The powerful Democrat had the state legislature elect him US Senator in January 1891 for a term starting in March but didn't take his seat until his gubernatorial term ended the following January.

The Senate web bio (to which the above image is attached) notes "he served from Jan. 7, 1892, to March 3, 1897 [and] was not a candidate for reelection in 1896."

Hill was a leader in Elmira politics, serving as city attorney and Assemblyman before the 1876 emergence of NY's first full-fledged reformatory there and as mayor during several of the institution's early years.

Elected Lieut. Governor in 1882, Hill became governor Jan. 6, 1885, upon Grover Cleveland's resigning to be sworn as President.

Gov. Hill was subsequently elected to two full terms, on Nov. 3, 1885 and Nov. 6, 1888. It was during his second full term as governor that he set in motion a series of official actions leading to establishing electrocution as the method for state executions.

Early in his Senate career, he was persuaded to once again run for governor. His foes charged his 1894 gubernatorial bid was part of his strategy to win the White House as depicted in an Oct. 13, 1894, Harper's Weekly cartoon. For a full version of the cartoon and more details on that unsuccessful candidacy, visit the excellent education-oriented New York Times "On This Day" series page for October 13, 1894 featuring text and a cartoon image from the visually fascinating and historically informative HarpWeek site.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

Electrocutions were to take place within the three State Prisons: Auburn, Clinton, and Sing Sing and the condemned were to be held in solitary confinement until their execution, when, after an autopsy, they would be buried in quicklime in the prison cemetery, if the relatives did not claim the body. Note: A copy of the Laws of New York relating to the death penalty is attached in the Appendix, Part A.

Doctor Alfred P. Southwick, a Buffalo dentist, was credited with inventing the electric chair.

Austin Lathrop, Superintendent of State Prisons, contracted with Harold P. Brown, an electrician, to install electrical apparatus for executions in Auburn, Clinton and Sing Sing. Brown also designed the first chair which was redesigned by Doctor George Fell before it was assembled.

The final version of the chair was built by convicts working in the furniture shop at Auburn. It was a simple, but sturdy, even ponderous oak chair, properly wired to produce the desired effect on its occupant.

Provisions were made for the utmost seclusion and secrecy of executions from the prison population. Two new, totally steel cells, 5 1/21 by 8 1/2, were constructed in the basement of the Administration Building to house persons sentenced to death. These cells were separate from any regular housing area to prevent occupants from communicating with other inmates.

Prior to carrying out an execution, the electric chair was a bone of contention between George Westinghouse, who employed alternating current in his electrical systems, and Thomas Edison, who used direct current in his systems. The argument was resolved when the first execution was held. Note: A complete explanation of this argument is contained in the Appendix, Part B.

William Kemmler, alias John Hart, was duly executed in accordance with the law at Auburn Prison, in the city of Auburn, Cayuga County, N.Y., at 6:49 A.M. on the 6th day of August, 1890. He was the first person in the world to be legally electrocuted. Alternating current was used. Note: A copy of the Autopsy Report made to Governor David B. Hill is attached in the Appendix, Part C.

The instrument used to electrocute William F. Kemmler and all subsequent victims sentenced to pay the extreme penalty at Auburn Prison was destroyed during the fire and riot of July 28, 1929.

A complete list of the names of all persons executed at Auburn Prison during the period 1890 - 1916 follows.

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