It was a ghastly beginning that produced sensational headlines the world over. Using electricity had been touted by Dr. Southwick, dubbed the father of the electric chair, as "painless and quick."
Later that day, Dr. Southwick insisted to a New York Herald reporter that the inmate had died "an absolutely painless death." He continued, "Not a cry from the subject. Not a sound. [He] died without knowing anything about it."
The nation's press though, disbelieving this version of the facts, roundly condemned the agonizing death. For example, New Jersey's Camden Chronicle editorialized, "the world is horrified. ... The electricity was turned on three times before the man was killed. The breath heaved; the nails cut into the flesh; the flesh sizzled and smoked, and was burned into a crisp; the clothing caught on fire, and one of the witnesses fainted." The editorial concluded, "If it is desirable to tincture executions with the milk of human kindness in the taking off of criminals, let us retain the old method of hanging by the neck."
Dr. Southwick had worked for a decade to change the national mode of execution from hanging and firing squad to electrocution. According to the Wichita Daily Eagle, he had advocated electrocution "in the interests of humanity and mercy." His sincere desire, according to the New York Tribune, was that hanging, a "cruel and clumsy method of execution," should "be relegated among the other barbarisms of punishment, which belong to a harsher age than the present."
Alfred Porter Southwick was born in 1826 in Ohio into a prominent family whose heritage dated back to the Mayflower. After graduating from high school, he found work in Buffalo, NY, servicing ship engines. In 1853, he married Mary Flynn. The couple adopted a daughter -- their only child. That same year, he was appointed chief engineer for another steamboat company. According to an article by David Marc in the American National Biography Online, the promotion was unusual because it normally "required formal study in engineering." He published a number of scholarly articles on nautical steam engine design and, according to Marc, "participated in scientific discussion groups."
In 1859, he attended the founding convention of the American Dental Association in nearby Niagara Falls. Marc reports that Southwick saw an opportunity to "develop new tools and mechanical devices" that would aid dentistry. Shortly after the convention, he apprenticed himself to a local dentist, eventually opening his own practice in downtown Buffalo. Marc relates that Dr. Southwick saw "patients by day and [pursued] research projects after hours." He successfully designed an implant for
March 13, 2014 -- Minutes after the first electric chair execution in the summer of 1890, Dr. Alfred Southwick, a Buffalo, NY, dentist, proudly told the assemblage of witnesses, "This is the culmination of 10 years work and study! We live in a higher civilization."
The execution had taken a mere 17 seconds. A few moments later though, the prison warden noticed the prisoner's "chest begin to heave," and another screamed, "Oh my God! He's breathing!" The warden ordered the current restarted. It took two minutes for the full charge of 2,000 volts to rebuild while the prisoner gulped for breath. Several witnesses left the room as the prisoner frothed at the mouth and moaned. "Smoke became visible" coming from the top of his head, and "the smell of burning flesh" filled the room. It took another 70 seconds before the current was finally cut off and the prisoner declared dead.