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


Page 6 of 14

(a) Edwin F. Davis, state electrician, supervised the execution of William Kemmler. He also "pulled the switch" at 53 other executions at Auburn. In addition he attended to executions in Sing Sing and Clinton prisons in New York as well as prisons in New Jersey and Connecticut.

(b) Guard William C. Patterson escorted Kemmler and 53 other persons to their death. While he once remarked that "I was not employed at Auburn as a judge", he refused to participate in the electrocution of one man whom he considered to be innocent.

Charles F. Durston
July, 1887 -
May, 1893
James C. Stout
May 1, 1893 -
Feb. 1, 1897
J. Warren Mead
Feb. 1, 1897 -
Feb. 1, 1905
Charles K. Baker
Feb. 1, 1905 -
Dec. 15, 1905
George W. Benham
Dec. 15, 1905 -
May 26, 1913
Charles F. Rattigan
May 26, 1913 -
May 1, 1916

The Electric Chair and the Death Chamber

The 1855 building above -- now the Wayne County Museum but formerly the Wayne County Jail -- held many an inmate sentenced to Auburn Prison after trial in the courthouse shown below.

One of the Butternut St. jail's 24 cells once held John Johnson who became the fifth person executed in Auburn Prison's electric chair and the first electrocuted for a murder committed behind Auburn Prison bars.

Upon Johnson's technical release from Auburn in 1892 after serving seven years for an 1885 Newark, NY, burglary conviction, Wayne County Sheriff Jerry Collins took him into immediate custody and to that county's seat, the Village of Lyons. The county, on Lake Ontario's south shore, has no city.

In the courthouse -- completed in 1854 and used continuously since then -- Johnson was sentenced to eight more years at Auburn, this on a previous assault with intent to kill. While serving that term, Johnson was involved in a violent incident with other Auburn inmates, convicted of murdering one of them (Charles Peck), and executed on Nov. 14, 1893.

As Collins did similarly in so many cases during his colorful 51-year career as sheriff and deputy, he carefully preserved the gun from Johnson's assault case, along with related notations. One of the most interesting collections at the museum in Collins' old jail is the 60+ inmate items confiscated during his tenure. These include guns, knives, daggers, burglar's tools, etc., - all identified and all described in a leaflet prepared at the time of Sheriff Collins' retirement in 1934 at age 79. The ex-jail also serves as the county historian's office.

Some fine web sites recall Sheriff Collins' daring exploits, particularly his on-the-rails 1892 pursuit and capture of the notorious train robber Oliver Curtis Perry, subsequently sentenced to 49 years at Auburn. Perry died in 1930 at age 65, about a decade shy of completing his sentence.

A few Wayne County history sites referencing Collins, his jail and/or his Auburn-bound prisoners are listed in a text box below and to the right.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

(a) The electric chair and the death chamber were originally located in the basement of the Administration building in a section formerly used to process incoming inmates. The first seven electrocutions were conducted there.

Conditions of that location were considered somewhat unsatisfactory as the electrical apparatus and dynamo were located some distance away. Available housing was inadequate, for there was room for only two cells. Additional cells were needed to isolate persons with a death sentence from convicts sentenced to a term in prison

(b) In 1896 an addition was made to the South Wing. A gallery of seven cells, an open corridor and a separate death chamber were annexed to the electrician's office where the dynamo was located. All subsequent electrocutions were conducted at that site.

(c)-- The electric chair was a massive piece of furniture. It had a perforated wooden seat, a foot rest, and a high, slightly sloping adjustable back which supported the head. The arms were broad and flat. Buckles and leather straps, strategically placed to hold the occupant in position, were attached to the chair and to the foot rest in front of it.

The electric cap contained a sponge which was moistened before the cap was adjusted over the victim's head. In the William Kemmler electrocution one of the electrodes contacted the spine, which caused a problem. This was superseded by a leg electrode in all-remaining electrocutions. A second sponge was placed on the victim's left leg when the electrode was applied there.

The chair had only three legs which were fastened to the floor and were properly insulated. The center leg broke during one execution and that to be quickly repaired so that the execution could continue.

Grim and uncompromising in appearance, without a single curved line, the chair was nobody's idea of a thing of beauty, but, although it had to be repaired several times, it worked as it was supposed to do during the fifty-five electrocutions conducted at Auburn.

(d) Initially the electric voltage and amperage used and the length of time that a shock was administered were experimental, and varied from occupant to occupant of the chair. Adjustments were made in each case relative to the general health and body mass of the victim with different degrees of success. For example, the two jolts of 1,300 volts applied to Kemmler were held for too long and his body was badly scorched.

Later on a pattern of using a range of 1,740 - 1,800 volts and 6 1/2 to 7 amperes was established. The amount of current fluctuated in seconds. Most victims of the chair died in less than two minutes. Usually a second precautionary current was passed through the body to assure that death had taken place. Occasionally a third charge was applied.


(a) Among the fifty-five persons put to death at Auburn there were forty-seven white men and one white woman. Seven of the men were black. Two of the blacks had killed fellow convicts.

(b) The youngest persons to occupy the chair were Earl B. Hill and Antonio Giorgio; both were twenty years old. The oldest man, Charles Bonnier, was seventy-eight. He also spent the longest period of time in the condemned cells waiting for court action in his case, some forty months.

Scores of entries about convicts sentenced to Auburn Prison appear in the Criminal Evidence & Arrest Notes of Sheriff Jerry Collins web page on the excellent Wayne County GenWeb site.

The Newark Courier - Gazette menu of Lyons history includes articles on Sheriff Collins, the Great Train Robbery and the courthouse.

The Wayne County Historical Society and Museum, housed in the jail since 1961, also has a web site.

[Note by NYCHS webmaster]

(c) on three occasions two people were electrocuted on the same day:

  • August 2, 1899, John Kennedy and Oscar Rice,
  • June 18, 1912, Ralph Friedman and Jacob Kuhn, and
  • August 31, 1914, George Coyer and Guiseppi Di Gioia.

    (d) On two occasions two men were electrocuted for killing the same victim:

    • Antonio Giorgio and Guiseppe Versaciar and
    • Ralph Friedman and Jacob Kuhn.

    (e) One husband and wife team, Mary Farmer and James Farmer, were sentenced to death for committing the same murder. The night before she went to the chair Mary confessed that she had falsely implicated her husband in the murder. She was executed but her husband was later tried a second time and found not guilty. He became a free man once again.

    (f) Only one person was executed twice. William G. Taylor lived over an hour after the first contact failed to kill him and the prison dynamo stopped working before a second shock could be sent through his body. He was sedated until current was furnished by the city electrical department and a second contact was made. He never gained consciousness in the interim.

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