IN America there is no professional hangman, and the duty devolves upon the sheriff of the county in which the murderer is convicted.
The mistakes of these amateur hangmen, resulting often in the most revolting scenes, convinced the thinking public that hanging was a brutal and unscientific way of inflicting the extreme legal penalty. The Scriptural and civil demand of “a life for a life” was not strongly opposed, but there was a considerable popular sentiment against hanging, because it was inexact and uncertain. This belief paved the way for the choice of some other method of taking life from those whom the law decreed were not fit to live among their kind.
The authorities who dealt with criminals had learned that hanging, with all its horrible possibilities, had ceased to have a frightening effect upon the Thugs, toughs, and roughs, who were most likely to commit crimes of violence. These ruffians believed that to “die game” on the gallows was almost a heroic ending to a career which would not otherwise be noticed except in the court and prison records.
From the moment of his crime a murderer became a celebrity among people of his own class and in the public prints. His trial would crowd the court rooms and command columns in the newspapers. After conviction his cell would be filled with flowers by religious and emotional women, and his time would pass easily in the company of any friends and sympathetic persons who cared to visit him.
As the day of his execution approached, the newspapers would record his hours of exercise, the minutest details of his diet, and everything in his conduct and demeanour which could possibly interest a morbid public. Naturally this made him still more a hero, and the last act of the tragedy was watched with an interest which made other possible murderers almost envy his position. Then would come the execution, and the sheriffs would be fairly overwhelmed with applications to witness the sublime spectacle of a human being put to death because he was not fit to live.
The newspapers would print every detail of the execution, even to the words of his last prayers. The highest encomium the reporters could print was that the murderer “died game;” which was a direct incentive to other criminals to murder and show that they, too, could “die game.”
Murders increased in number, and hanging, especially among the younger criminals of the large cities, became rather a glorious martyrdom than a punishment. This made possible the passage of the law which, in New York State, and later in some others, caused death by electricity to take the place of a punishment, which, since the days of Mordecai and Haman. has been the extreme penalty of the law.
The present statute not only substituted the scientific process of electrocution for the uncertain methods of the hangman, but when it was adopted opportunity was given to throw about the act of legal killing many provisions calculated to terrify the criminal mind, and to rob the criminal’s death of the publicity and notoriety which alone gave it any semblance of heroism.
When a murderer is convicted now he is taken at once to a condemned cell in one of New York State’s three prisons, and from the moment he enters its door he is practically a dead man. There is a mystery thrown about even the time when he is to die. The judge, in sentencing him to death, says only that he is to be taken to the designated place, and there executed under the laws of the State at any time during the week, beginning with a certain date.
The warden of the prison fixes the day and hour, and the condemned man may not know when it is to be. He may be called from his bed at early dawn, or his fate may summon him from that first slumber which is deepest and sweetest. Unless by process of the courts, or by act of the pardoning power, he never leaves the condemned cell except to take the few steps which lead him to the electric chair. His eyes never see anyone save his spiritual and legal advisers and the prison officials in immediate charge of him. until the day when he enters the death chamber, where are gathered the few persons whom the law summons to witness that its most solemn act is duly done.
The first electrocution was naturally an experiment, none the less an experiment because its subject was a human being, and the object death. The scientific electricians felt sure of their ground, but they could take no chances of the horrors which might lie between the strength of current which would only stun or half kill, and that which would wither and blast and burn a human creature, murderer though he was.
The law limits the number of those present at an execution to twelve witnesses outside of the officials charged with the execution. It may well be believed that the little crowd gathered in Auburn prison to witness the legal killing of William Kemmler, although most of them professional and scientific men, were awed and more than anxious. Their eyes were to see what no one had ever beheld before—the intentional passage of a tremendous current of electricity through the body of a living man.
We know now what the scientific theory was, and science has shown in the something like fifty electrocutions since that of Kemmler, that its theory was absolutely correct. In Kemmler’s case an over-powerful current was used to make death absolutely certain, regardless of other result, and the drying of one of the electrical conductors at the point of contact caused a burning of the flesh with its consequent odour, but the death was instantaneous and painless. In none of the subsequent electrocutions has so powerful a current been used, and sponges soaked with salt water are placed at the ends of the two electrodes which carry the current in and out of the body.
The electric chair—whose fatal image is ever before the murderer’s eyes from the moment of his crime until he enters the door of the death chamber and beholds the reality—is not electric in any sense. It is a massive chair of oak, with strong back and arms, but all the electric apparatus is entirely independent of the chair itself.
The chairs at the three New York prisons are of the same design, and the accessories vary only in detail. At Sing Sing Prison, which is nearest New York City, and its large criminal population, the great majority of electrocutions have been performed, and a description of its apparatus will serve for all.
The electricity for executions comes from the great dynamos which are used for lighting the prison and its walls. These no prisoner could scale during the darkest hour of the darkest night without being seen instantly by the armed guards. The death building, which is an ordinary one-storied brick structure, is divided into two parts—the cell-room and the death-chamber proper.
The condemned man is brought directly from his trial to the former, and here is stripped, searched, and his description entered in the prison records. Then he is placed in one of the cells, and from that moment he may receive no article of any description except by the direct order of the warden.
The cell-room measures some 30ft. by 20ft. Lengthwise through its middle runs a partition of steel bars lined on the inside with coarse-meshed wire-netting. In the middle of the partition is a door which is kept constantly locked except for the passage of the keepers, of whom two are on watch every moment of the day and night. They sit, walk, or stand, in a narrow passage between the partition and the front of the cells proper. These are 5ft. wide by 6ft. or 7ft. deep, and are entirely open in front except for steel bars running up and down some 3in. apart. They are lighted from above, and are somewhat more comfortably furnished than ordinary cells if the prisoner shows no signs of becoming violent or attempting suicide. If it is considered safe, the warden allows the prisoners many little comforts which make their lot easier, and serve to pass the dreary hours. The cells are separated by solid partitions, but they have one peculiarity not possessed by cells used for any other purpose.
The law decrees not only that the condemned man may not see, nor be seen, by any outsider, but also that he may not see nor be seen by his fellow-prisoners awaiting electrocution. To avoid this the front of each cell is equipped with an iron shutter constructed on the same principle as the cover of a roll-top desk.
When it is necessary to bring in a new prisoner on the day when one is being taken to the death chamber—in fact when anything occurs which might expose the condemned men to view, a keeper is placed in each occupied cell with its prisoner, and the shutter pulled down. At other times the keepers command a view of every inch of the cells from their posts in the passage, and are able to note the slightest suspicious action.
The death-chamber is reached from the cell-room by a narrow passage between two of the cells. Its door opens directly opposite the fatal chair, and it is from here that the man about to die gains his first view of the mysterious and deadly apparatus which has been so long and so constantly before the eyes of his thoughts.
The chamber is a well-lighted room of about the same size as the cell-room. It has three doors—the one just mentioned; a door into the prison yard, by which the witnesses enter; and a third, at the side and back of the chair, opening into the autopsy room.
The chair stands 6ft. or 7ft. from the end wall, and directly in front of a little square wooden booth, to which there is no view or entrance from the chamber. It is entered by a door from the autopsy room, so that its occupant comes in and goes out without his identity becoming known to those present at the electrocution. It is he who actually releases the current of electricity to speed on its errand of death.
As one enters this booth from the autopsy room, one sees nothing but carefully insulated wires passing through its walls, and directly in front of the door, fastened to the front wall, a massive brass switch, with an ebony handle. Through a tiny hole in the right side of the booth passes a wire, on each end of which, one in the booth and one in the death-chamber, is a brass finger ring. At the time of the execution the mysterious man in the booth puts one ring on his finger and the prison electrician, standing beside the booth on the outside puts the other on his. At the signal from the warden the electrician pulls the wire taut.
The man inside on feeling the pressure on his own finger pulls down the lever with his other hand, and permits the current to pass. When the pressure is released the current is instantly shut off, and this is repeated once or twice, until there is no doubt that the electricitv has done its work. There is no doubt that the first shock kills, and the subsequent ones are administered only to remove any possible question.
The death toilet must be described to make clear the action of the electricity. Just before the execution one of the keepers shaves, on the back and top of the prisoner’s head, a spot about two inches in diameter. Then his right trouser leg is ripped from the knee down. There must be nothing except the moistened sponges on the ends of the electrodes to come between them and the actual flesh, as even the slightest obstacle might interfere with the direct and instantaneous passage of the current into and out of the body of its victim.
The death-chamber, with the exception of the chair itself and a semi-circle of stools for the use of the witnesses, is absolutely unfurnished. It is high-ceiled and, except for the gruesome object at one end, might pass for a country schoolroom. In the front of the booth are attached rows of electric light bulbs used for testing the strength of the current, and to make sure that it is passing without obstruction.
From the front of the booth come the insulated wires which go to the cap which is placed over the condemned man’s head and into the cuff which is attached to his right leg. The interior of these leather appliances is also insulated, and the flat ends of the electrodes come into immediate contact with the wet sponges.
The current passes in at the head and out from the side of the leg. What its action is science has not yet discovered, but the autopsies show that it entirely changes the character of all the blood in the system.
After death ensues the law provides that an autopsy must be performed at once bv the official physicians, and a certificate of death with its cause filed in the prison records. Then, if the relatives desire, the bodv is delivered to them for quiet burial under the control of prison officials. If there are no relatives, or if they have deserted the murderer, the body is directed to be covered with quicklime in a grave in the prison cemetery.
Arthur Mathew, a burly negro, and two or three others of his race one night waylaid in the suburbs of New York City an old man for the purposes of robbery. Their victim resisted, and was killed at one blow. His associates escaped, but Mayhew was caught almost red-handed. He had a long trial, and bis case was carried to the highest courts, but his sentence to death was confirmed, and the governor refused to interfere.
It was a solemn little body of men that gathered in the warden’s private office in Sing Sing Prison one grey morning in March last year. It consisted of physicians and a few pressmen, who were for the occasion officials of the State. They had come in answer to the warden’s summons to witness that Arthur Mayhew had been legally put to death.
What little conversation passed between them was in subdued tones. As they arrived the warden was several times hastily summoned to the cell-room. He afterwards told the writer that Mayhew. who had passed the night in prayer, a priest in the corridor of the cell-room aiding him in his devotions, had announced that he would never leave his cell alive, a threat which had some appearance of reason, considering the negro’s tremendous strength and the narrowness of the door through which he would have to he dragged. But prison experience had provided for such an emergency.
Near the cell was placed a two-quart bottle of strong ammonia, and if he had resisted it would have been dropped on the floor; then, when overcome by its fumes, he would have been lifted out and carried to the chamber. But Warden Sage, although in charge of more than a thousand criminals, is a gentle man, and had shown Mayhew many kindnesses, so that when the final moment came the murderer listened to persuasion, and left his cell without resistance.
“It is time, gentleman,” said the warden, and the party of witnesses filed slowly and silently through the prison yard and into the death chamber. Seated on the stools, we watched the tests being made by the electrician, the bulbs alternately lightening and darkening as the current was turned on and off.
Facing us was the chair with its five broad straps, one each for the chest and limbs, and each fitted with an easily fastened buckle. For each strap and each electrode there was a keeper thoroughly trained in his duty.
The tests finished, the electrician took his stand by the booth, with the signal ring on his finger, and near him stood the prison physician with his stop watch in hand. Near the closed door to the cell room were grouped four of the strongest keepers in their blue uniforms. In electrocution there is no desire to gain impressiveness by delay, and everything that follows occured in such a brief space of time that it seemed almost instantaneous.
A muffled sound behind the door told us the dreadful moment had arrived. It opened, and the warden, with a handkerchief in his left hand, quickly stepped to the right of the chair, and took his place next the physician, and where the handkerchief was in easy view of the electrician. In the doorway appeared the negro holding a crucifix, his burly frame leaving scant room for the priest, on whose arm he leant. Behind them could be seen two or three keepers.
Now happened what, with the exception of the burning of Kemmler’s flesh, is the only incident which has ever added a horror to those insuperable from the execution of a human being. Mayhew’s eyes had been fixed on the crucifix, and his lips were rapidly moving in prayer. As he entered the room he lifted his eyes, and, when he beheld the chair, he threw himself back in terror, his black skin turned to the ashiness peculiar to the negro terror, and he began to talk rapidly in an almost shrinking tone.
“God have mercy!” he yelled. “Don’t—don’t kill me—don’t, for God’s sake!—I’m innocent—I never done it—Oh. Mr. Warden, don’t push that button—for God’s sake!—Lord have mercy!—I never killed him!”
The emergency had been foreseen, and the moment Mayhew held back, he was immediately pushed forward by the keepers behind him, seized by them at the door, and quickly forced into the chair. In an instant he was securely strapped, and the electrodes secured in place, the cap covering his eyes but leaving the lower part of the face exposed to view.
The keepers fell back, the warden stepped forward a pace, and a quick glance showed that all was ready.
A quick lifting of the handkerchief in the warden’s hand—a movement of the electrician’s finger—and then absolute silence like that of the grave. There was a quick distension of the man’s great muscles, a slight froth appeared on his lips, and he was dead.
A few seconds—it seemed hours—a word from the physician, a movement of the electrician and the tension left the muscles, and what in the chair had been a living man was now a limp and lifeless corpse.
A pause, another word from the physician, and again the distension of the muscles and straining against the straps. Another signal, the same relaxation, and it was all over.
The doctors advanced and applied the usual tests of death. As they opened the clothing to apply the stethoscopes the magnificent chest and great muscular arch of the neck were revealed, causing one to marvel at the force which could so instantly reduce to the impotence of death such a perfect living organism.
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