“Hell, there are no rules here—we’re trying
to accomplish something.”
there were seventeen witnesses for the first execution of a human being by electrocution. William Kemmler, a sometime peddler of produce and a heavy drinker, was sentenced to death on March 29, 1889, for killing his common-law wife, Matilda Ziegler, with a hatchet. There are few details about Kemmler or his life. Born in Philadelphia but raised in Buffalo, he was said to be slender, with brown hair tending toward black. We know his parents were alcoholic immigrants from Germany. He could speak both German and English but couldn’t read a word. We also know that his father was a butcher who died after a cut he received in a drunken brawl became infected. His mother died less accidentally from alcoholism.
On the morning of August 6, 1890, Kemmler was presented to those attending his death at the Auburn Prison in New York by Warden Charles Durston. After one thousand volts of alternating current (AC) passed through Kemmler for seventeen seconds—one per witness, by accident or symmetry?—he was declared dead by the attending doctor. He, however and awfully, was still breathing. In an attempt to align the body with his declaration, the doctor ordered the current back on. Raised to two thousand volts, the electricity caused veins to rupture and bleed. As The New York Times reported the next day: “…an awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing. The stench was unbearable.” Other reports describe several of the witnesses as nauseated and attempting, unsuccessfully, to flee the locked room. George Westinghouse, the entrepreneur and engineer who financially backed both Kemmler’s unsuccessful legal appeal and the propagation of AC power, later remarked on the botched execution: “They would have done better using an axe.”
George Westinghouse, by most reports a conscientious man, also knew the electric chair to be bad for the brand. He had a team of lawyers appeal the death sentence on the grounds that electrocution met the criteria of cruel and unusual punishment. For years, Thomas Edison had led a publicity war against Westinghouse and AC power in order to promote his direct current (DC) as the standard method for the distribution of electricity. Attempting to stick a connotation of danger to AC power like gum to a shoe’s sole, Edison falsely reported fatal AC accidents, tirelessly lobbied legislatures on AC’s volatility, and, most spectacularly, publicly electrocuted animals to death— including stray cats and dogs but also horses and cows—using the competitor’s product. Though he professed to being opposed to capital punishment, Edison nevertheless surreptitiously paid Harold P. Brown to invent the electric chair for the State of New York. Though the electric chair has come to represent state-sanctioned death, its origins lie in merciless and mercenary marketing. In this case, the best means to disparage the competitor to the public— or at least the means adopted by Edison—was to afflict a common, albeit guilty, man with the painful product unto death. Edison, whose coinage of “Westinghoused” for death by electrocution never became common parlance, continued his very public campaign against AC power well after “the current wars” were lost.
You can find on YouTube Edison’s 1903 film of the electrocution of Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant who killed the trainer who burned her trunk with a lit cigar. Two or three men walk her into view. There’s a cut to the animal alone with some kind of harness on her. She sways once but seems to settle into place. Smoke starts at her feet as if it’s all part of a magic act and the elephant is about to disappear. But then she just pivots, a moving stutter shift to the right as she goes slack and collapses head-first in a heap. Smoke consumes the elephant, a man quickly passes the camera, and it’s over. Where do you bury something that big? Or do you burn it in place until just the bones are left for men to scavenge for trophies?
Eddie Lee Mays claimed that he would rather “fry” than spend the rest of his life in jail; the request was granted. On August 15, 1963, he was seated on “Old Sparky” in Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. With the temporary repeal of the death penalty in 1965 and the abandonment of the electric chair thereafter, he would assume the ignominious historical position as the last person fried to death in the State of New York. We know little about Mays apart from his last crime. While robbing the Friendly Tavern at 1403 Fifth Avenue in East Harlem on March 23, 1961, he shot a customer, Maria Marini, in the head after she fumbled too long with the contents of her purse. It was, the jury heard, his fifty-second or fifty-third robbery in just forty-two days. He earlier had served time in North Carolina, the state of his birth, for another murder. We don’t know whether he was born in Jim Crow 1928 or Jim Crow 1929, but it was a year when either depression was imminent or the crash had come. Did family join him on his migration north? We don’t know who his mother and father were.
In lieu of the traditional last meal afforded the convict, Mays made an unusual request—no T-bone steak, fried chicken, baked potato, or chicken-fried steak as his terrestrial make-a-wish. Instead, he asked for a pack of Pall Malls. What is it to imagine those last moments paired with a cigarette— the burning insistence of the orange tip like a lighthouse in miniature, the crackle of tobacco muffled by the tacky tar, the curl of exhalation rounding the nostrils and forming a momentary F clef? It is to be very literal about something as seemingly ineffable as going up in smoke. It is to give breath to death.
Andy Warhol first made the electric chair a subject for his paintings— to join Liz, Elvis, and Campbell’s Soup—in the year of Mays’s execution. In an interview with the critic Gene Swenson from that same year, Warhol spoke of a projected show in Paris that would pair “the electric-chair pictures and the dogs in Birmingham and car wrecks and some suicide pictures.” He planned to title it Death in America. The paintings of the chairs always feature the image of the same empty one, differentiated only by the color or colors pressed over the silkscreen and how the original picture is cropped. As opposed to later iterations in 1967 or 1971 where the chair’s fearful symmetry dominates the picture as the featured product does in an ad, the paintings from 1963 and 1964—notably before the 1965 repeal—open into context. We are given some indication of the room’s height in relation to the chair. Doors lead elsewhere, and an EXIT sign is legible—and impossibly near—stage left. Are we in some kind of witness chamber? In the post-1965 paintings, where cropping expels specificity, the electric chair is no longer in a room. It’s located in the punitive anywhere, as oblivious to the first and last sitter as a cigarette is to its smoker.
After warnings and fines, the most common punishment for colonial sinners was time spent in the stocks. Located in the public square, the simple wooden device—a hinged block with holes excised for appendages—was introduced as a prototypically American act of efficiency. The stocks replaced the bilbo, a device bequeathed by the British that consisted of a long, heavy bar of iron to which the punished was shackled at his heels. Contemporaneous illustrations depict the subject debased, seated on the dirt or lying flat on his back. Because iron was as expensive and scarce as wood was cheap and abundant, the stocks became both a necessary cost-saving device and the requisite shame accessory for the village. The models differed only slightly, a matter of hole count. The three-hole version, where the head is centered between the hands, required the penitent to stand hunched over as she or he endured the jeers and jabs— or insults, kicks, spit, tickles, piss, and shit—of the passing and watching public. An approximately kinder model permitted a seat in trade for two immobilized feet. Completely constrained, free will voided, the subject was humiliated not only for the common’s retribution but as a means to make an example of the individual.
For her 1994 exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City, Cady Noland modulated her installation of flat, silkscreen-on-aluminum newspaper and tabloid depictions of famous mentally ill, deranged, and addicted Americans (for example, Senator Thomas Eagleton, Charles Manson, and Betty Ford) with sculptures that replicate obsolete forms of public punishment. Noland produced four five-hole stocks, at the same life-size scale, where the sole difference among the sculptures was material—faux-woodgrain aluminum, mahogany, ribbed aluminum, and ribbed aluminum draped with an American flag with the corresponding holes. Visitors to the gallery were permitted to use the stocks as they would some photo prop, plugging the holes with their specific parts, reenacting the acts—if not the humiliation—of unknown others.
Known for her sculptural installations that combine emblematic products of Americana (Budweiser beer cans, flags); manufactured objects that stand in for enclosure, surveillance, and disability (chain-link fence, barricades, walkers); and images of the sensational and sensationalized (Lee Harvey Oswald, Patty Hearst, the Manson Girls), Noland is often claimed as Warhol’s heir. In their enmeshing of the banal and the exemplary, Warhol and Noland are said to close the volatile circuit that flows between desperation and aspiration and passes through the products that structure the American standard. But if celebrity in Warhol mirrors the visual diet publics are fed to displace—only to acclimate to—banality, Noland’s regurgitation of notoriety makes competing claims. Structurally similar to unveiling the acts and images through which obedience or passivity is produced, Noland’s presentation of Oswald or Manson is an emblematic offering only in their positions as limit cases, hypertrophic exemplars of evil and violence. Their presentation—and their overrepresentation in the American family photo album—assures another form of obedience and passivity. In the paranoid—and yet rigidly patrolled—attempt to prevent another Oswald or Manson (or, by extension, Osama bin Laden), vigilance will be paired with lax discretion and less-than-scrupulous care to differentiation. In this rush for control, one body—in a chair or in the stocks (or, again by extension, in a prison cell)—is worth nearly as much as any other.
What is to make an example of someone? Is it to make the person interchangeable with her unfortunate act? Is it to make her nothing but that one act and its attendant punishment? When looking at photographs of Stand-In for a Stand-In —Noland’s 1999 stocks sculpture fabricated out of cardboard, roughly covered with aluminum-colored spray paint, standing on a rubber mat— I’m struck by its insistence that the viewer make distinctions: to see aluminum as paint and not metal, to see the cardboard as paper and not wood, to see that the rubber mat separates the stocks from the architecture of the room. We are forced to see witnessing as the least anonymous and autonomous of acts. There is no example, no standard current—only a volatile grid of vagaries.
I’ll let Noland plug the last hole:
What happened to the notion of relativity?…Even if there is one set of goals within a society deemed desirable to obtain—there is certain to be differentiated access to it for different groups within that society; and where one group may be positively directed with institutionally and constitutionally easy access to those goals, another group may have to try to attain those goals through other channels, in ways which are actually “against the law.” To dream up a society in which all things have been emptied of meaning is to aver in the end that there exist no class distinctions in that class—an irresponsible representation.*
David Breslin is the associate director of the research and academic program and associate curator of contemporary projects at the Clark Art Institute.
*Michèle C. Cone, “Cady Noland interviewed,” The Journal of Contemporary Art, Fall, 1990.