Aug 3, 2011

Idiotic: Man Attempts Murder with Electric Chair

Not since William Kemmler has an attempted execution by electric chair gone so horribly wrong. In the final installment of this test segment for July, we look at the story of 61-year old Andrew Castle of Lancashire, England. Andrew and his wife had been married for 18 years and to most people in their neighborhood seemed like a perfectly happy couple. However, Andrew’s wife served him with divorce papers back in March of this year, and that’s when he snapped a little. Instead of spiraling down into an emotional blob, Andrew figured the more logical approach would be to try and kill his wife with a homemade electric chair. He spent the next few weeks constructing the metal monstrosity.

The circuitry behind the chair is brain dead simple. The house AC runs into a switch that is connected to the metal contacts of the chair. When a person sits in the chair, they complete the circuit between the two metal contacts and current flows through the person’s body – assuming the switch is flipped. From what I could tell in the article, it seems like the switch had to be manually tripped, which is why Castle needed to get his wife to sit in the chair first.

Andrew Castle Mug Shot, Courtesy of The Guardian
When he had the chair ready to go, Castle lured his wife into their garage to “chat” about their impending divorce. He actually got his wife to sit in the chair, but she figured out something wasn’t right when he tried to knock her out with a rubber mallet. Apparently the plan was to incapacitate her and then throw the switch. The two started fighting in the garage and it eventually spilled out into the street. His wife managed to escape and called the cops. By the time they showed up, Andrew was bleeding out in the back garden from self-inflicted knife wounds. After he failed to kill his wife, he tried to slit his own wrists. In one version of this story I saw, they said he even attempted to kill himself with the chair after he couldn’t kill his wife.

Can you guess why this is an idiotic use of electric power? Castle is not the first person to try and kill his wife, but I think it’s fair to say that he is the first to build his own electrical apparatus to do it. If he had been able to get her into the chair she likely would have been killed. England uses 50Hz, 230V AC on their grid and the circuit breakers don’t trip until you get around 23 amps flowing for 20 milliseconds. I have heard different estimates on the exact value, but it only takes about 5mA across your heart to cause ventricular fibrillation/cardiac arrest. If you are curious as to what happened to Mr. Castle, he is facing 10 years in prison for attempted murder after confessing to trying to kill his wife with a home-made electric chair.

William Kemmler
I thought I would take this opportunity to explain a bit more about William Kemmler. He was a merchant in New York at the time of his conviction. From what I have read he spent most of his time in bars getting trashed. One night, he came home drunk and, in a rage, accused his girlfriend Tillie Ziegler of planning to run away with his friend, believing they were having an affair. After fighting with Tillie for some time, he went to the barn, grabbed a hatchet, and bludgeoned her to death. Afterwards, he went next door to tell his neighbor that he had just murdered his girlfriend.

Kemmler was locked away in Auburn state prison after his conviction on May 10th, 1890. By August of that year, he was poised to become the first person to be executed by electric chair after New York instituted electrocution as the default method of death (replacing hanging). The State decided to use 2000 volts of AC for the electrocution largely because Edison, who was famous for his electrical experiments, publically stated the only thing AC is good for is killing.

After a short legal and ethical battle, the courts eventually sentenced Kemmler to be executed by electric chair on the morning of August 6, 1890. Kemmler was strapped into the chair via 11 leather straps and an electrode connected to his head. With the whole world watching, the switch was flipped and current flowed through his body for 17 seconds before it was switched off. Kemmler’s body tensed and turned bright red as blood vessels under his skin began to rupture. Once the chair was turned off, the doctors went to check his body and to their horror they found that he was still alive. The generator they had chosen to use was not able to supply an ample amount of current to kill him on the first shot. Spectators begged to turn the flow back on, but the generator needed to be recharged. Kemmler was burned everywhere the metal made contact with his skin and the smell of singed flesh filled the common room. He struggled to breathe for the next few minutes while the operators frantically tried to get the generator back online. When it was ready, they flipped the switch for a second time, finally killing him.

This first attempt at electric execution was hailed as a colossal failure and an inhumane act by all the papers the next day. George Westinghouse, who campaigned for an AC distribution system, was quoted as saying it would have been less cruel to execute Kemmler with an axe.


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