1890 One Hundred Years Ago


Given control over the Presidency and both houses of Congress by the 1888 elections, the Republican party quickly seized its chance to admit new states from the solidly Republican Western territories. North and South Dakota, Montana, and Washington had earned statehood in 1889; Idaho and Wyoming joined this list as the forty-third and forty-fourth states within a week of each other in July of 1890.

Both of the new states had a unique provision about voter eligibility. Idaho’s constitution contained a Test Oath Act that disenfranchised the state’s large Mormon population, once a dominant voting bloc in territorial elections, because its religion advocated polygamy. The church abandoned the practice only two months after Idaho’s admission on July 3, but the state legislature refused to restore the vote to Mormons until 1896.

Wyoming, admitted on July 10, became the first state to give women the vote. “This is the greatest event that has occurred in American history since the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Federal Constitution,” said the Woman’s Journal when the territory’s constitutional convention voted to retain the territory’s woman-suffrage statute. “It establishes for the first time in history a true Republic.” Wyoming’s example would inspire suffrage movements that within a decade would also give women the vote in Colorado, Utah, and Idaho.

“Science and civilization demand some more humane method than the rope,” complained Alfred Porter Southwick, a member of a New York State commission on capital punishment, to Thomas Edison. “The rope is a relic of barbarism.” Edison opposed capital punishment on principle, but he knew a business opportunity when he saw one. George Westinghouse’s system of high-voltage alternating current (AC) was replacing Edison’s less efficient direct current (DC) in the battle for electrification. Southwick’s suggestion of electrocution as an alternative to hanging struck Edison as the perfect way to gain back the customers he was losing to Westinghouse. Execution by alternating current would demonstrate that the Westinghouse approach was a danger in people’s home’s, Edison argued.

To prove the point, Edison hired a young engineer named Harold Brown to tour the country staging exhibitions at which he would kill stray dogs and cats with a jolt of alternating current. For the Albany commission on capital punishment, Brown electrocuted a calf, a horse, and an orangutan to prove the potency of AC on larger mammals. Impressed with his demonstration, the commission bought an “electrical cap and shoes” Brown designed to kill humans with Westinghouse AC dynamos. Among the names suggested at this time to describe death in the electric chair were ampermort, dynamort , and electricide ; Edison insisted that a person executed in this fashion was “Westinghoused.”

The first man to die in the new electric chair was William Kemmler, a Buffalo fruit peddler convicted of murder. On August 6, 1890, Kemmler received a seventeen-second jolt of electricity that appeared to do the job. “There is the culmination of ten years’ work and study,” exclaimed Southwick. “We live in a higher civilization from this day.” One of the attending doctors, however, noticed that Kemmler’s fingernails had gouged his thumb when his hand contracted during the procedure. This wound, to the alarm of everyone present, was bleeding. The current was switched on again, this time for more than a minute, during which Kemmler’s groans and spasms caused observers to retch and faint; the district attorney who had prosecuted Kemmler fled the room in terror.

“It has been a brutal affair,” Westinghouse said later. “They could have done better with an axe.” The press foretold a quick extinction of the electric chair. “Kemmler is dead,” said the New York World . “Aye, and the fair, sweet mercy of electric death should die with him. Better, infinitely better, the one quick wrench of the neck-encircling hemp than this passage through the tortures of hell to the relief of death.” Like “the age of burning at the stake,” wrote another New York paper, “the age of burning at the wire will pass also.” This proved to be a false prophecy: more than one thousand people have died in American electric chairs since 1890.