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Victorian Crazy Electricity

I subscribe to a couple great Historical Author Newsletters: Jennifer Kincheloe, Author of the Secret Life of Anna Blanc series and Stephanie Carroll, Author of A White Room. I particularily like their newsletters for the histroical artifacts they share. A White Room delves into the thin line between fighting to be an independent woman and being persucited as having psycholocial defects. Her next book is based on the true history of the first death by electrocution, William Kemmler. Her latest newslettter has some research gems. Here are a few:

EDISON ON ELECTRICITY. HE IS SURE IT KILLS QUICKLY AND WITHOUT PAIN. The Great Inventor at the Hearing in Behalf of Kemmler—The Results of His Experiments Leave No Doubt in His Mind.

W. Bourke Cockran expressed the other day an ardent desire to get Thomas A. Edison in the witness’s chair in the hearing before the referee, Tracy C. Becker, ordered for the purpose of finding out whether Kemmler, the condemned murderer, would perish by cruel and unusual, and therefore unconstitutional, means, if his life were taken by an electric current. Some, if not all, things come to those who wait, and this morning “the greatest electrician of the age,” as Mr. Gerry called him the other day, came to Mr. Cockran, whose anticipatory joy is reported to have been shared by the Westinghouse Company, to the extent of declaring that it would give $100,000 to get the wizard on the cross-examining rack. Mr. Edison, as he was introduced to Mr. Cockran and shook hands with him, wore a wonderfully smiling and peaceful countenance for a prospective victim. When Mr. Edison had taken his seat to testify, Mr. Becker rose, went across the room, and stood over Mr. Edison while administering the oath—a procedure which revealed the slight deafness of the electrician to those who were not already acquainted with the fact. Then Assistant Attorney General Poste, who has a sonorous voice, raised it to stump-speech pitch in examining Mr. Edison. Mr. Poste—In your opinion, could an electric current be generated by artificial means and so applied to the body of a human being as to cause instant death? Mr. Edison nodded his head as if affirmation to such a self-evident truth was not worth giving in words. Mr. Poste—In every case? Mr. Edison again nodded his head. Mr. Poste—Without pain? Another nod of the head from Mr. Edison. Continuing Mr. Edison said that the contact he would advise in executions by electricity would be the placing of the hands in battery jars filled with water containing a solution of caustic potash. He would advise the use of either an alternating current or a continuous current very much broken up—as it could be done by mechanical means. . . . Mr. Poste asked Mr. Edison what he thought of Franklin Pope’s testimony that among the possibilities for Kemmler was carbonization at the hands—or rather wires—of the Westinghouse dynamo. “I don’t understand that—I don’t see how it could be,” answered Mr. Edison mildly, shaking his head. . . . Mr. Poste (with considerable confidence of tone)—You are familiar with the Westinghouse dynamo? Mr. Edison (in a low voice)—No. I know it only generally. Mr. Poste—You have seen it? Mr. Edison (on before)—No, I haven’t seen it. Mr. Poste—Has Harold P. Brown any connection with you or the Edison Company? Mr. Edison—Not that I know. . . . Mr. Cockran began his cross-examination in his usual somewhat low tone of voice. “I’ll have to come over there,” said Mr. Edison, picking up his chair and dragging it across the room. “Yes,” said Mr. Cockran, without stirring, to the great electrician, “Come right over here, Mr. Edison.” The inventor turned his best ear to Mr. Cockran, and Mr. Cockran put his mouth pretty close to it, and then, at close quarters, the cross-examination proceeded. Mr. Cockran—You didn’t make those experiments in regard to resistances until the day before yesterday. You were preparing yourself for to-day, I suppose? Mr. Edison (with a smile)—Yes, in order to be able to answer questions from personal knowledge. Mr. Cockran—Do you know anything about pathology? Mr. Edison (promptly)—No, sir. Mr. Cockran—About anatomy? Mr. Edison—No, sir. Mr. Cockran—You didn’t consider that a part of your electrical education? I ask the question because Mr. Gerry testified that it was. Mr. Edison (demurely)—Yes, sir. Mr. Cockran—Do you know what blood is? Mr. Edison—I think I know pretty nearly. It is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Mr. Cockran—Well, you’ve named about all the elements of the human body. Mr. Edison (quietly)—I can’t help that. Mr. Cockran—In what proportion are these elements in the blood? Mr. Edison (testily)—Assume that I don’t know anything about it. Now, go ahead. At another time Mr. Edison told Mr. Cockran point-blank that his questions were “non-sense.” Mr. Cockran continued to press such questions, and in the end appeared well pleased with the result. Mr. Edison, however, did not modify any of his previous expressions of opinion.

The Evening Post: New York, Tuesday, July 23, 1889.

From The Elmira NY Morning Telegram - 1888

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