The family of the late John N. Miskell has generously made available to this NYCHS website many of his writings, photographs, newspaper clippings and other materials amassed as Auburn Prison educational director and as a corrections historian. This March 1990 monograph was among them. All rights retained and reserved.

John N. Miskell's


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Hanging Execution
Former inmate Juan Cruz's 1974 painting of the original electric chair at Auburn prison. Image from Auburn's Citizen story about the Cayuga Museum Both Sides of the Wall April 2003 exhibition. Click image for the NYCHS web page of the newspaper story. At bottom of that page are links to the display announcement and to other Miskell monographs. At the bottom of the display announcement web page is a link to an announcement of the museum's art show guest-curated by Juan Cruz.

The concept of hanging a human being by the neck until dead for severe offenses against the law was an Old World invention brought to America by early French and English settlers. Hanging first became a legal instrument of the state under the reign of Edward III in 1334 . . . .

The first person in America to be tried, convicted and publicly hanged for murder was among the 102 pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. The practice astounded the Indians but to the settlers hanging was accepted . . . as natural an occurrence as breathing or sleeping.

Above is an image of the front cover of a 40-page 1996 booklet Executions in Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York: 1890 - 1916 by John N. Miskell that may have evolved from the 1990 Better Than Hanging whose text appears on this web page.

However, the two essays are so significantly different in their focus, development and treatment that both warrant being read by anyone seriously interested in the subject. The overlaps and duplications are minimal.

John died in November, 2006 at age 83.

In 1942, he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served aboard a destroyer escort on duty in the Atlantic Theater during WW II.

John, a graduate of Holy Family High School, earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at SUNY Oswego.

After 33 years at Auburn prison, during which he served as deputy superintendent of programs and education director of the Osborne School, he retired but continued his interest in correctional history and research. He was an assistant professor of criminal justice at Cayuga Community College.

NYCHS has been honored by, and is grateful for receiving his support, including his personal permission to present his writings on its website, including Executions in Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York: 1890 - 1916. Click image to access. Use brower's "back" button to return to this page.

Better Than Hanging is the seventh Miskell monograph transcripted to web format and posted on our site . . . . so far.

New York
In its simplest form, as employed by the crude Vigilantes in the frontier days of American society, hanging simply meant throwing a slip noose around a man's neck, pulling him from the ground and leaving him to die of slow strangulation. The so called "lynch law" paved an illegal but effective pioneer trail toward the American West and the primitive New World adventurers left cattle thieves, murderers, and card cheats swinging from the nearest tree.

Later on, in an attempt to hasten death, the drop or trap was introduced. The prisoner was taken up on a platform, the noose adjusted around his neck and then the floor upon which he was standing was pulled from beneath him, allowing him to drop for a distance supposed to be sufficient to break his neck. But hangings were often bungled.

There were a number of inexpert hangings in New York State where the death was often a cruel process of slow strangulation, a gruesome spectacle of brutal, unspeakable horror. Yet public hangings were well attended. Crowds of hundreds, eager to satisfy their curiosity with an excuse to see justice done and to ease the day-to- day drudgery that characterized their existence, collected to witness the show. Hangings, although morbid, were also exciting.

Over the years as the country grew, public attitudes changed. Large masses of people, aware of the basically barbarous nature of hanging as a method of execution, began to feel that hangings belonged to a past age. The movement for the abandonment of public executions began in the l83Os. Many citizens expressed a belief that the condemned had the right to die swiftly and with what dignity that could be mustered.

The death penalty became a controversial issue. Members of the Society of Friends and other organizations advocated abolishment of capital punishment altogether. However the majority of the people felt that death was the only answer for the offense of murder, taking the life of the offender had always been the ultimate sanction

The public continued to experience frustration, fear, anger, and rage when a vicious, incomprehensible crime occurred and the customary punishment of death by hanging was to continue for several decades.

The problem of finding a substitution of some method of execution more humane, more tidy, and less gruesome than the hangman's noose was researched for many years. An amazing sequence of events followed before the substitution of a scientific new device dubbed "The Electric Chair" replaced the gallows in Auburn Prison. The invention had a curious and not altogether altruistic history.

In reality legislation changing the method of execution in New York State from hanging to electrocution can be attributed more to forthright competition between the two major suppliers of electrical power in that era than to any concerted effort by government to find more humane method of carrying out the death penalty.

Above appears an image of the title page of John N. Miskell's Executions in Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York: 1890 - 1916.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

In l879 Thomas A. Edison invented the incandescent electric lamp using direct current. It was a tremendous discovery and soon many useful applications of electric current developed.

In l886 George Westinghouse, an inventor, engineer and business man, pioneered the use of high voltage alternating current electricity. Almost immediately there was fierce competition between the two rival electric companies. Battling over the relative merits of direct and alternating current for home use, ‘both companies resorted to propaganda in various forms to take their case to the American people.

In its earliest stages of use, electricity had shown how powerful it can be if not used with great caution. Several accidents involving the loss of human life occurred due to ignorance, carelessness or other inadvertence. The public in general was fearful of this new source of power.

Hoping to benefit from this fear, a "DC" company staged a traveling exhibit which was designed to demonstrate the dangers of "AC" to the public. First a cat was led to the current - and promptly and dramatically electrocuted.

Next a dog was sacrificed and finally a horse was brought in. It too soon died. Experimenters Doctor Carlos McDonald and Doctor Alphonse David Rockwell had found that a current of 1,000 volts was sufficient to kill a horse instantly when it formed a living connection between the electrodes of a Westinghouse dynamo.

The message got across to those interested in capital punishment that electric current when controlled could kill a human being. It seemed that such a death would he both painless and instantaneous.

Above appears a closer view of the Auburn Prison front gates illustration on the cover of John N. Miskell's Executions in Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York: 1890 - 1916. Since that paper's focus was Auburn's electric chair, Miskell limited to one page an overview of the prison's history. For a more detail history of the prison, visit NYCHS' presentation of his Why Auburn? elsewhere on this site.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

Doctor Alfred P. Southwick, a Buffalo dentist, originated the idea of legal punishment of death by electricity. He started the idea of forming a commission in New York State to provide a new death penalty.

It was at his request that Senator McMillan of Buffalo introduced the bill in the 1888 legislature creating a commission to seek "The most humane and approved method of carrying into effect the sentence of death.

Doctor Southwick played a leading role in lobbying for the law. Elbridge T. Gary of New York city was the leading figure on the commission which decided upon the use of electricity.

On June 4, 1888, Governor David B. Hill signed legislation which established electrocution as the method of executing death sentences passed for all crimes of murder committed after Jan. 1, 1889 in New York State. The law provided for solitary confinement of the condemned while awaiting electrocution, for the disposal of the body by burial in quicklime, and forbade newspapers from publishing any of the details of the execution.

David Bennet Hill was called "Governor-Senator" (mostly by his enemies, which were legion both in and out of his own party). The powerful Democrat had the state legislature elect him US Senator in January 1891 for a term starting in March but didn't take his seat until his gubernatorial term ended the following January.

The Senate web bio (to which the above image is attached) notes "he served from Jan. 7, 1892, to March 3, 1897 [and] was not a candidate for reelection in 1896."

Hill was a leader in Elmira politics, serving as city attorney and Assemblyman before the 1876 emergence of NY's first full-fledged reformatory there and as mayor during several of the institution's early years.

Elected Lieut. Governor in 1882, Hill became governor Jan. 6, 1885, upon Grover Cleveland's resigning to be sworn as President.

Gov. Hill was subsequently elected to two full terms, on Nov. 3, 1885 and Nov. 6, 1888. It was during his second full term as governor that he set in motion a series of official actions leading to establishing electrocution as the method for state executions.

Early in his Senate career, he was persuaded to once again run for governor. His foes charged his 1894 gubernatorial bid was part of his strategy to win the White House as depicted in an Oct. 13, 1894, Harper's Weekly cartoon. For a full version of the cartoon and more details on that unsuccessful candidacy, visit the excellent education-oriented New York Times "On This Day" series page for October 13, 1894 featuring text and a cartoon image from the visually fascinating and historically informative HarpWeek site.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

Three State Prisons, Auburn, Clinton, and Sing Sing, were designated by the new law as the places of execution instead of the counties in which the criminal was convicted, and the agent or warden of the prison, instead of the sheriff, was charged with the duty of carrying out the law's mandate.

William Kemmler
The first man to die in the electric chair.
On May l8, l889, William Kemmler, alias John Hart, of Erie County, was sentenced to be electrocuted in Auburn Prison for the murder of Matilda Zeigler of Buffalo. She was the sister of his brother Henry's wife. Willie killed Tillie with a hatchet during a drunken quarrel. He had no criminal record but was reported to be under the influence of alcohol at the time.

Kemmler's execution was delayed for a year and a half after the enactment of the law by Kemmler’s attorneys. . . . . Kemmler's appeals [went all the way] up to the Supreme Court of the United States which held that electrocution was not cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Electrical experts Snitzka, Rota and Resla, however, contended that it was a cruel operation on moral grounds. They did not approve of any experimentation with human guinea pigs. With no guidelines to go by, the electrical method by which death was to be brought about was new and untried on humans.

Kemmler, an illiterate man, was a pioneer in the exploration of a necessarily fatal region, a subject which proved beyond doubt that alternating current will kill.

On Friday, August 6, l89O, William Kemmler was electrocuted at Auburn Prison. He was the first man in the world to be put to death in an electric chair. Charles Durston was warden of the prison and there were 25 witnesses in the death chamber.

Of the actual electrocution of Kemmler, Dr. McDonald, President of the State Commission on Lunacy, reported:

Kemmler was brought into the execution room by the Warden and introduced to the witnesses who were seated in a semi-circle, facing the death chair. On entering the room he appeared strikingly calm and collected.

In fact, his manner and appearance indicated a state of subdued elation, as if gratified at being the central figure of the occasion; his low order of intelligence evidently rendering him unable to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation. He was given a chair nearby the death chair, and on being seated, in response to the Warden's introduction said, "Well, I wish everyone good luck in the world, and I think I am going to a good place and the papers have been saying a lot of stuff about me that wasn't true. That's all I have to say."

At the Warden's bidding he then arose, removed his coat and. without the least display of emotion or nervousness, took his seat in the death chair, calmly submitting to the adjustment of the electrodes and binding straps, himself aiding the proceedings by suggestions and fixing his body and limbs in proper position.

Observing the nervousness of the assistants who were adjusting the straps, he admonished them not to hurry, and said he wanted them to "be sure that everything is all right." He pressed his bare back firmly against the spinal electrode and requested that the head electrode be "pressed down harder" on the top of his head. from which the hair had been imperfectly clipped before he entered the room. At the same time, he remarked that he desired to perform his part to the best of his ability.

The preparations terminated with a final moistening of the electrodes, the whole occupying at most, three or four minutes. Everything being seemingly ready, at 10:19 a.m., the Warden signaled his assistants in charge of the switches in the adjoining room to turn the lever which closed the circuit and instantly sent the deadly current through the prisoner's body.

On May 19, 1890, U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller (above) signed the court decision rejecting the claim brought on Kemmler's behalf that NYS' highest court had erred by not ruling the convict's execution by electricity would violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment:

In order to reverse the judgment of the highest court of the state of NY, we should be compelled to hold that it had committed an error so gross as to amount in law to a denial by the state of due process of law to one accused of crime, or of some right secured to him by the constitution of the U.S. We have no hesitation in saying that this we cannot do upon the record before us. The application for a writ of error is denied.

The full opinion by Chief Justice Fuller is available on a number of website. Simply Google using as your search term: 136 U.S. 436, 10 S.Ct. 930 In re KEMMLER

Chief Justice Fuller, who hailed from Maine, had managed Stephen Douglas' presidential campaign against Abe Lincoln in 1860. He was named to the court by Grover Cleveland. This case came before the top court because Associate Justice Sam Blatchford, a former Auburn law firm attorney, granted a stay and suggested the full court air the issue. He had been appointed by Republican Chester Arthur.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

According to other written reports of the electrocution, the instant the electrical contact was made, the body was thrown into a state of marked rigidity, every fiber of the entire muscular system being apparently in that fixed, rigid condition known to physicians as tonic spasm. Kemmler, convulsed by the electric charge, lurched against the straps, and the chair, inadequately mounted, began a macabre rocking motion as though the condemned man was straining backwards and forwards to free himself.

At the end of seventeen seconds Kemmler was pronounced dead and the contact was broken. The condition of rigidity was instantly succeeded by one of complete muscular relaxation. The body remained motionless and apparently lifeless for approximately one-half minute, when there occurred a series of slight spasmodic movements of the chest, accompanied by the expulsion of a small amount of purplish foam which dribbled from the mouth. There was no evidence of a return of’ consciousness or of bodily sensation; but in view of the possibility that life was not wholly extinct beyond resuscitation, and in order to take no risk of such a contingency, the current was ordered to be reapplied.

This time contact was maintained for about seventy seconds when a small volume of smoke was seen to issue from the point of application of the spinal electrode. Willie's entire back was burned black. He had. been literally roasted alive on that fateful Friday,

An autopsy was held about three hours after death. Doctor E.C. Spitzka, a witness who also assisted in the autopsy, and Nicola Tesla, an electrical expert whose earlier discoveries made possible the construction of the electric chair, contended after examining the body that electrocution was a cruel operation and a form of torture. They were opposed to ever again using the chair to electrocute another human being.

Gov. David B. Hill
Jan. 6, 1885:
William Kemmler alias John Hart
Aug. 6, 1890
Gov. Roswell P. Flower
Nov. 3, 1891:
Joseph L. Tice
June 18, 1892

John Fitzhume
June 26, 1893

William O. Taylor
July 27, 1893

John Johnson
Nov. 14, 1893

Lucius R. Wilson
May 14, 1894

Gov. Levi P. Morton
Nov. 6, 1894:
William Lake
April 4, 1895
Gov. Frank S. Black
Nov. 3, 1896:
John Hoch
Jan. 20, 1897

Guiseppe Constantino
June 22, 1897

Robert G. Powley
June 29, 1897

Charles Burgess
Dec. 7, 1897

Gov. Theodore Roosevelt
Nov. 8, 1898:
John Kennedy
Aug. 2, 1899

Oscar E. Rice
Aug. 2, 1899

Gov. Benj. B. Odell, Jr.
Nov. 6, 1900:
Frank Wennerholm
July 16, 1901

Leon F. Czolgosz alias Fred Neiman
October 29, 1901

Fred Krist
Nov. 20, 1901

John Truck
Nov. 18, 1902

Clarence Egnor
Sept. 14, 1903

Frank White alias Harry Howard
Dec. 29, 1903

Antonio Giorgio
Aug. 30, 1904

Guiseppe Versacia
Sept. 5, 1904

Gov. Frank W. Higgins
Nov. 8, 1904:
Nelson Boggiano
Dec. 13, 1904

Henry Waverly Manzer
Sept. 12, 1905

Gov. Charles E. Hughes
Nov. 6, 1906:
Harold Sexton
April 16, 1907

Carlo Giardi
May 21, 1907

Charles Bonier
July 31, 1907

Chester Gillette
March 30, 1908

Andrea Delvarno
Nov. 16, 1908

William S. Brasch
Nov. 28, 1908

Salvatore Randazzio
March 13, 1909

Mary Farmer
March 29, 1909

Pacy Hill
April 26, 1909

William Scott
June 14, 1909

Guiseppe Santucci
July 6, 1909

Theodore Rizzo
Nov. 22, 1909

Earl B. Hill
April 18, 1910

William Gilbert
July 7, 1910

Gov. Horace White
Oct. 6, 1910:
John A. Dix
Nov. 8, 1910:
Joseph Nash alias Joseph Nesce
March 31, 1911

Joseph Nacco
June, 26, 1911

Dominick DePasquale
March 12, 1912

Ralph Friedman & Jacob Kuhn
[both on] June 18, 1912

John Maruszewski
August 14, 1912

James Williams
Sept. 16, 1912

Gov. William Sulzer
Nov. 5, 1912:
William Twiman
March 31, 1913

Raeffele Ciaverella
May 21, 1913

Michael Goslinski
June 4, 1913

Gov. Martin H. Glynn
Oct. 17, 1913:
Nelson Sharpe
Dec. 10, 1913

George Coyer & Guiseppe DeGioia
[both on] Aug. 31, 1914

Gov. Charles S. Whitman
Nov. 3, 1914:
Michael Sarzano
Dec. 9, 1914

Guiseppe Cino
March 23,1915

Vincent Buonemsegno
May 31, 1915

Guiseppe Cino
March 23,1915

David Dunn
July 12, 1915

Charles Sprague
May 1, 1916

[Information box by NYCHS webmaster]

Other witnesses, including Doctor Carlos F. McDonald who wrote the autopsy report, disagreed. William Kemmler was dead, and the intent and purpose of the law to effect sudden and painless death in the execution of criminals had been completely and successfully carried out.

"After all," he wrote, "compared with hanging, in which death is frequently produced by strangulation, with every indication of conscious suffering for an appreciable time on the part of the victim, execution is infinitely preferable." And in l890 it was the surest, quickest, most efficient and least painful method that had yet been devised.

Warden Durston in his report of the electrocution revealed that the machinery and electrical appliances were repeatedly tested in Various ways. "Live animals were subjected to the electrical current under the supervision of medical and electrical experts," he reported, "and any other tests that were deemed advisable were put into operation."

Warden Durston added this interesting comment: "The people in this locality took no extraordinary interest in this matter and deemed to have no concern when the execution would occur. The same was true of the prison population. The execution occurred at a time when the convicts were in their cells, 6:40 a.m., and from all appearances and indications they had no interest or thought of what had taken place. The demeanor and actions of prisoners on that day did not differ in any respect from their regular conduct."

The controversy continued between opponents and supporters until the second electrocution was conducted on May l8, 1892. Certain minor adjustments to the chair and changes in the overall operation were made during the interim. The routine was practiced many times and the chair was securely fastened to the floor.

Joseph I. Tice, known as "Dare Devil Joe" had murdered his wife, Agnes Leggett, in Rochester by stabbing her to death on July 11, l89l. He had previously stabbed her and done a term in the penitentiary. On his release, she refused to live with him so he stabbed her again, causing her death. A Civil War veteran, he was 63 years old at the time of his electrocution .

He was sentenced to die at Auburn Prison during the week of January l8, 1892. He was received at the prison on December 12, l89l. A stay was granted on appeal but the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court and he was sentenced to die on May 18, 1892.

Tice entered the death chamber at 6:35 A.M. At 6:39 the current, 1700 volts, was turned on and held for 15 seconds. With half-second intervals three additional shocks were given and he was declared dead at 6:40 o'clock.

There was no murmur, contortion or odor and the electrocution was pronounced most successful. As the mask was put on he declared:"Look out there boys, you'll break my nose."

There had been no panic, no confusion, no nervousness among the prison staff. Everything was handled quite professionally.

The supporters of the electrical execution law were satisfied that the substitution of the dynamo for the gallows was a change for the better. In effect, electrocution was better than hanging. It was an easier way to die.

The use of manufactured lightning to take the place of the hangman’s rope for dispatching condemned murderers was to be a reality for many years to come. The legislation which had established electrocution as a method of executing death sentences for capital crimes remained in force in New York State for seventy-five years.

Accurate records were maintained when condemned persons were sent to three prisons for execution according to the county they came from.

In the interest of economy, on April 9, l914, Governor Glynn signed the Emerson Bill which provided that thereafter all executions would be conducted at one prison only. The last . electrocution at Clinton took place in 1913; the last execution at Auburn occurred in 1916.

All subsequent electrocutions were conducted at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining. The last person put to death there was a black man, Eddie Lee Mays, who was executed on August 15, 1963.

In all, 695 electrocutions have been conducted in New York State. There were 614 deaths at Sing Sing, 55 at Auburn, and 26 at Clinton. A total of 684 men and nine females were put to death before the death renal was abolished except in certain circumstances in June, 1965.

Only four persons were executed for crimes other than murder. Two federal prisoners, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who died on June 19, 1953. were sentenced to die for the crime of espionage.

Not all victims of the chair were as calm and complacent as William Kemmler, nor as fearless and stoical as Joseph Tice. Some went wailing to death.

Others, with trembling steps and weakened knees, almost collapsed as they neared the chair. Some even refused to leave their cells on death row and needed the assistance of prison keepers to make the journey to their ultimate end.

Some electrocutions attracted great deal of public attention while others were less noticed. Perhaps the most famous person to be electrocuted for murder in New York was Leon F. Czolgosz who shot President William McKinley in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. Shot twice, the President did not die until eight days later -- from blood poisoning brought about by a bullet which caused gangrene of the pancreas.

Leon was indicted for first degree murder. He was put on trial on September 23rd. four days after the President was buried. The trial itself lasted less than two days, actually a total of eight hours and twenty-six minutes, including the time it took to impanel the jury.

The jurors brought in a verdict of guilty after only thirty- four minutes of deliberation. Leon showed no emotion when the verdict was read. No appeal was ever filed.

Prison records at Auburn State Prison indicate that Leon F. Czolgosz, alias Fred Nieman, was executed at twelve minutes thirty seconds after seven A.M. on the morning of October 29, 1901. He was 28 years old. He went to death unfalteringly and unaided. He died unrepentant, unwept, and unhonored.

Relatives or friends often claimed the corpse of the executed prisoner and made private arrangements for the disposition of the remains.

Unclaimed bodies were buried in quick lime by officers of the prison accordance with law. Interments were made on prison grounds or in public Potter’s Fields.

Czolgosz’ body was unclaimed by any relatives. He was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, N.Y. on the evening of the day he was executed. A carboloy of sulphuric acid was poured into the coffin after it had been lowered into the ground. The grave was then filled with fifteen bushels of quick lime. A twenty-four hour guard was placed over the grave for three days to prevent vandalism or body snatching.

In 1974 New York State amended its penal law to require the mandatory imposition of the death penalty for persons convicted of Murder in the first degree. The legislation was vetoed by then Governor Hugh Carey. He had a preference for a sentence of life imprisonment instead of the death penalty.

His successor, Governor Mario Cuomo, holds a similar view but he advocates a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of the inmate ever being granted parole. In each of the past sixteen years the Legislature has passed a death penalty bill but has not been able to muster enough votes to override the governor’s veto.

Today a public that has been terrorized by many murderers and brutal assassins during the past twenty-five years finds the current level of violent crime intolerable.

The fear and rage experienced by an earlier generation when a vicious incomprehensible crime occurred continues to be a frustrating experience one hundred years later. In these angry times, many clamor for a return of the death penalty for the offense of murder in New York State.

John N. Miskell
Auburn, New York
March 27, 1990

To John N. Miskell's
'Executions in
Auburn Prison:
To John N. Miskell's
'Why Auburn?
Prison & Community
To John N. Miskell's
'Offering Hope:
Auburn Seminary,
Prison Connection'
To John N. Miskell's
'Medal of Honor
Rite at Auburn
Inmate Grave'
To John N. Miskell's
'Long Watch
of Copper
To John Miskell's The Bell: Auburn Prison.