John N. Miskell's Why Auburn?
-- the Relationship between Auburn and the Prison


Page 7 of 10
A memorable date in Cayuga County annals in Friday, Aug. 21, 1885. It marked the last hanging in Auburn when Franz Joseph Petmeky paid with his life for beating a local woman to death with a hatchet. The public hanging in the morning at the county jail and a circus, The Barnum and London Big Shows, in the afternoon drew thousands of people to Auburn. It was a day of great hilarity and excitement.

Five years later visitors to the prison from outside of the community were more interested than Auburnians when the first legal electrocution in the world was held inside the walls of the prison on Friday, Aug. 6, 1890.

Auburn's Chair.

Several web sites detail the first use of Auburn's electric chair (above).

As the world's first state-ordered electrocution, the death of William Kemmler Aug. 6, 1890 for the murder of his common law wife Tillie Ziegler is frequently recounted. It gets retold as a key chapter in death sentence history or as a fascinating story on its own or as part of polemics against capital punishment.

A few sites with Auburn chair pages are cited in another image text box elsewhere in this NYCHS Auburn & Osborne section. A few more are cited here:

-- The Capital Punishment USA site includes a long section on the Kemmler death in its one-page history of electric chair use.

-- A target="_top">Criminal Law Association page that was on the University of Oregon School of Law site examined the Kemmler case in grisly detail.

-- An excellent timeline on the events leading up to and following Kemmler's execution can be found on The Electric Chair site.

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W. Kemmler sketch

William Kemmler from Buffalo was executed for beating a woman to death with a hatchet. The execution was conducted in private. The number of spectators was limited to 25 invited witnesses, the warden, and staff members needed to operate the equipment and escort Kemmler.

A sign requesting "Silence" hung on the wall in the execution chamber. Witnesses were very quiet as they observed the electrocution. Some were overcome with horror at the spectacle of death by electricity. There was no hilarity associated with the occasion.

In all, fifty-five persons died in the electric chair at Auburn between August 6, 1890 and May 1, 1916. The death house located at Sing Sing was used for executions until 1963.

There is no official record of any reaction by convicts at Auburn to the electrocutions, which were conducted at an early hour in the morning before the work day began. Power to operate the electric chair was generated by the prison dam in the Owasco River.

Electrification of the institution with power provided by private sources occurred shortly thereafter during the 1890s. For the first time artificial light was installed in prison cells and shops.


Progression of the education program soon followed. By 1900 a program of Americanization for foreign born prisoners was successfully operating in the prison. Classes in all basic elementary subjects were developed according to eight stardards or grades.

Prisoners were interested and relieved when the lockstep marching plan was finally abandoned in 1900. While inmates continued to march when escorted from one area to another, they now marched in columns of twos.

In addition, they were allowed to move their arms while striding along. It was much more comfortable for them.

The black and white striped uniforms created in Newgate Prison were abolished at Auburn in 1904. Solid gray uniforms were they provided. All clothing was made in the prison work shops.

Inmates were to wear gray clothing until after the riot at Attica Prison in 1971. Green clothing of superior quality then became standard issue and is still in use today. Zippers came with the green pants and jackets, much to the joy of inmates who had used button fasteners for years.

The history of Auburn Prison is a grim one, at times a bloody one, but the pages are brightened by the story of prison reform written slowly and painfully through the years.

In the early part of this century a group of humanitarians were calling for reform of the prison system. They had a powerful and persuasive spokesman.


Governor Sulzer had appointed Thomas Mott Osborne as chairman of a commission on prison reform in 1913. Through a special arrangement Osborne spent a week as a prisoner in Auburn Prison.

Following his confinement there evolved, through his efforts, the Mutual Welfare Inmate League whereby prisoners were to assume a portion of their own government in the institution. The inmates voted to establish the League on December 29, 1913 and the first meeting of the League was held on February 12, 1914.

Auburn's Osborne statue.

The Mutual Welfare League is described on Page 4 (entitled: "Thomas Mott Osborne's bio continues:) of a 14-page presentation of excerpts from the 112-page THE OSBORNE FAMILY: An Inventory of Papers in Syracuse University Libraries© elsewhere on this NYCHS site.

Pages 70 and 71 of the Osborne papers inventory outlines the Mutual Welfare League (MWL) records held in the collection. Those inventory entries are summarized here to convey some sense of league's activity:

MWL National organization -- Miscellaneous (1918-1927), Accounts (1921), By-Laws (1920), Description and history (1913), Incorporation: Store (1915), Minutes: Board of Directors (1928-1933), Printed matter (1912-1927), Publications: Monthly Record, Nos. 1-12. (1920-1921), The O.E. Library Critic, III-IX. (1914-1920), Publicity (1915), Reports: Miscellaneous (1918-1920), Treasurer (1918-1932).

MWL Auburn Chapter -- Miscellaneous (1913-1929), Constitution (no date), Minutes (1913-1914), Publications: The Bulletin, I-III (1914-1917).

MWL Portsmouth, N.H. Chapter -- Miscellaneous (1918-1921), Memoranda (1918-1921), Minutes (1919), Printed matter (1919), Publications: The Mutual Welfare News, I-V (1917-1921).

MWL Sing Sing Chapter -- Miscellaneous (1914-1921), Finance (1916), Golden Rule Brotherhood (1914-1915), Printed matter (1911-1930).

The Auburn Prison photos in the Correctional Photo Archives (CPA) of Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) include three Mutual Welfare League scenes. A detail from one of them appears below and shows Auburn inmates voting at an outdoor MWL meeting.

Visit EKU's CPA site -- featuring the most extensive collection of correctional history images on the web -- for the full version of the inmate vote photo as well as for scores of other photographic treasures selected from the hundreds in its archives.

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Auburn inmates vote.

Prisoner cooperation was the foundation of the League. Its operations were based on the premise that the prison could be treated as a community.

Osborne contended that self government was the practical remedy of the prison system. He always stressed the need to educate rather than punish prisoners.

Encouraqed and supported by Osborne, the education program was expanded and by 1920 a total of 539 men were enrolled in the school program during the year. About 9% were illiterate, over 1/3 lacked a sixth grade education and 305 persons were foreign born. Many learned to read and write enough English to get by rather quickly.

Because certain inmates used the Mutual Welfare League to further their own agenda and abused the system Osborne had initiated, the League was abolished after the fatal riots of 1929, but not before its presence had done much to bring about humane changes in the prison.

The League was of value in that it placed some responsibility on the shoulders of the inmates. Over time officials approved a plan of expanded yard recreation requested by the League as well as once a week movies, entertainments, baseball competitions with teams from the community, formation of a band, and organization of vocational education programs.

The League did much to bring about more human conditions within the prison. However, there was no organized training program to develop leaders. Eventually certain elements in the inmate body came to use the League for their own purposes and abuses worse than under the previous system came into being. The experiment in inmate self government had become a failure.


When originally constructed in the 1820's the prison was located on the outskirts of the village, surrounded by farmland and woods. It was remote from the four corners in the center of Auburn. For example, while the rear or west wall of the prison was being constructed, workers were forced to kill a black bear which came out of the woods to pester them. The bear was annoyed when the workers created noise.

A hundred years later in the 1920's the city of Auburn had grown up around the institution. A busy highway ran down the front and north side, homes and businesses were alongside and in close proximity to the facility.

During that period of time the facade and interior of the institution changed but little. Physical condition for convicts had not changed much over the years. Inmates spent their nights, and a large portion of them, many of their days, in dingy little cubicles 7' long, 6' high and 43" wide. They slept on skimpy pads over hard iron springs. The cells were antiquated, damp, dark, cold, and without sanitary fixtures or running water.

Each year for several years reformers recommended that conditions in the prison be changed or that the prison be closed entirely and relocated elsewhere.

While the warden did not recommend that the prison be closed, he did request more funding for its operation and increases in guards and clerks. In his annual report dated September 21, 1921, Warden Edgar S. Jennings stated that for several years sufficient funds were not appropriated by the legislature for the proper maintenance of Auburn Prison nor were sufficient funds made available for repairs and upkeep of buildings, heating plants, etc.

He also requested funding for new equipment in the laundry, hospital, kitchen and dining room and an updated sanitary sewer system. Unfortunately, his plea fell on deaf ears. Only the laundry building was changed during the 1920s.


Kemmler documentary.

The much praised 1998 documentary The Chair done by Nicholas O'Dwyer for UK's Chanel 4 TV reconstructs the first "electrified execution," tracing the legal, political, economic and scientific events that led to that Aug. 6, 1890 event at Auburn.

It visually documents how NYS' effort to find a method of execution more humane than hanging got entangled in George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison's rivalry and how the life and death of a convicted wife killer figured into that larger framework. It is distributed in this country by First Run/Icarus Films.

The Old Sparky web site that Keene State College (N.H.) Professor Craig Brandon maintains in connection with his book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History (published by McFarland and Co. Inc. Jefferson, N.C.) provides excellent background information on how The Chair came to be the standard execution method in the U.S. The extensive web site includes separate pages on the people, dates, and cases involved.

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Old Sparky web site.

Although there have been serious uprisings at Auburn Prison over the years, they have been few and far between. In the earliest days the prison was plagued with rioting and restless convicts. After the Auburn System of control was established, rebellious prisoners were contained.

In 1921 a serious race riot erupted within the inmate body and a large number of prisoners were injured. There never has been a time when all convicts were content.

By far the most serious trouble ever experienced at the institution were the riots of July 28 and December 11, 1929.

Shortly after the noon mess on July 28, an inmate gained access to the guardroom in administration building on the pretext that he had a lunch bag for an officer. When the steel door to the guardroom was opened, the inmate sprayed acid in the officer's face. Other inmates who had been hidng nearby rushed in and overpowered officers in the area and took over the arsenal where they obtained weapons.

In the excitement which followed, four prisoners escaped over the front wall. By this time most of the inmate body was in a rioting mood. They set fire to the prison shops and destroyed six buildings. The rioting continued for several hours but finally, with the aid of outside assistance, the rioters were subdued and locked in their cells. Tne fires were then brought under control.

Two inmates were killed and one prisoner was wounded during the rioting. Two officers were shot, one had acid thrown in his face, one was beaten and one was overcome by gas fumes. Three firemen from Auburn were also injured. The Auburn Fire Department lost considerable fire eqipment including one pumper truck.

The shower bath, substituted for whipping, was an Auburn original. Usually the prisoner was stripped naked, securely fastened hands and feet with a wooden hopper around his neck to prevent him from moving his head and to hold water up to his chin or even higher. He was seated under a wooden barrel four feet high which held between 30 and 40 gallons of fluid. The discharge nozzle on the bottom of the barrel controlled the flow of water.

Czolgosz sketch.

Besides the William Kemmler case, other Auburn executions continue to receive attention, especially two in particular:

-- Leon Czolgosz (sketch above) was executed Oct. 29, 1901, six weeks after mortally wounding William McKinley at the Buffalo world's fair. The anarchist, while being strapped into the chair, declared: the president . . . was an enemy . . . of the working people. I am not sorry . . . .

For fear his body and clothing would be exploited, Auburn prison officials dissolved his body and personal effects in sulphuric acid after his execution.

Czolgosz's case receives extensive attention on a web site devoted to the Pan American Exposition. The site is part of Buffalo History Works.

-- Chester Gillette (sketch below) was executed March 30, 1908 for the July 11, 1906 drowning of his pregnant girlfriend in Big Moose Lake. He claimed that she committed suicide when she became depressed. The trial drew much attention after the release of love letters she had written him just before her death. 

Theodore Dreiser fictionalized it in An American Tragedy that became the 1951 movie "A Place in the Sun." For more information, visit the Murder in the Adirondacks page on Professor Craig Brandon's Old Sparky web site.

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Gillette sketch.

The inmate count on July 28, 1929 was 1,768. Cell capacity was only 1,285. The prison was dangerously overcrowed. Fortunately, over 400 men were outside the facility working on road camps in Cayuga County. Road camps had been established in 1914. There can be no doubt that the first riot was a desparate attempt at escape on the part of a few men who felt that they had nothing to lose.

Overcrowding and idleness contributed to the outbreak which occurred on the hottest day of the year -- the overcrowding was especially irritatinq and frustrating during the summer. The low per diem allowance for food provided by law very likely playedits part. But it is believed that the above were much less decisive than three other factors, namely:

  • The long sentences meted out in the past few years.
  • The change in the law relating to earned "good time." The ultra conservative administration of the parole law in the past year or two -- good conduct no longer insured parole.
  • With long sentences men had nothing to gain or lose by riot.

Following the first riot the institution returned to a degree of its former normal operation. Damaged buildings were torn down and debris removed. But as most of the workshops had been burned, problems in the institution were compounded by the lack of work for inmates. Only 300 assignments were available.

In addition, none of the problems which existed on July 28th had been resolved. An ugly spirit of unrest smoldered in the prison. It erupted on the morning of December llth, the coldest day of the year.

The supper hash the night before was sour and the complaint had reached Warden Edgar S. Jennings. He went into the main yard of the prison to investigate the source of rumors concerning impending trouble in the prison. He, along with six guards and a foreman, were seized by a group of inmates and taken hostage.

The second riot was on. Some of the inmates were armed, the guns having been concealed in the July riot. They led the hostages to the administration building at gunpoint.

Principal Keeper George A. Durnford, on hearing that trouble had broken out, left his office and confronted the convicts. As he approached them he was shot and killed. The group of hostages were then bound together in pairs and led towards the guardroom. Even though they threatened to kill the hostages the convicts were denied exit through the guardroom.

Negotiations were carried ori over a considerable length of time to enable prison personnel to secure assistance from troopers and others, and finally the prisoners were told that the gates would be opened and a clear way furnished to the street outside where automobiles would be waiting for them to escape.

The door was opened and the group came into the guardroom where they were gassed and driven back. Shots were fired as the inmates tried to kill the hostages. Eventually the inmates were forced back and the hostages rescued.

The riot continued for several more hours, but it finally was brought under control and the inmates were locked in their cells. It was the bloodiest day in the history of Auburn. Eight prisoners were killed and nine persons, including two inmates were wounded. In the aftermath of the riot three convicts were later executed at Sing Sing Prison for their roles in the riot.

Why Auburn? the Relationship between Auburn and the Prison text ©1991 by John N. Miskell
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