You’ve probably heard about Thomas Edison’s infamous 1903 film where he electrocuted an elephant. It’s just as horrifying as you’d imagine. But fewer people know that this wasn’t actually Edison’s first electrocution film. Two years earlier, in 1901, he produced a film re-enacting a famous execution. Perversely, it also served as a national advertisement for one of Edison’s latest inventions, the electric chair.
When the infamous Thomas Edison v. Nikola Tesla rivalry reemerged as a meme at the start of this decade, nearly everyone became acquainted with the poor elephant, Topsy. At the time, Edison’s direct current (DC) was responsible for a number of deaths and injuries as major cities like New York became electrified in the late 19th century; the most common incident being workers getting maimed while repairing and installing power lines. So to show that Tesla’s competing method of electricity delivery, alternating current (AC), was more dangerous than his direct current (DC) method, Edison came up with a disgusting public safety demonstration. Edison had an elephant electrocuted to death using Tesla’s AC power. It’s disturbing to watch, to say the least.
While the 1903 Edison film inspired plenty of joke videos and pop culture references, fewer people here in the 21st century know about the execution of Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley on September 6, 1901 at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York—the first assassination of a sitting American president since James Garfield in 1881 and Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Czolgosz, whose favorite book was reportedly a Polish translation of the 1888 socialist utopian sci-fi Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, is probably best described as an anarcho-socialist. His last words were, “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am sorry I could not see my father.” He was beaten to a pulp after the Secret Service crowd descended on him, but he survived, and was executed just six weeks after McKinley succumbed to his own injuries.
Today, few people have seen the film featuring a re-enactment of Czolgosz’s death, which was shown to Americans across the country in late 1901 and early 1902. I became aware of this morbid piece of history recently while I was researching movies at the turn of the 20th century. The Library of Congress holds the film, and has it available on its website.
The film starts with a panning shot of the actual exterior of the Auburn state prison where Czolgosz was executed on October 29, 1901. In the first interior shot we see the prison guards escorting the fake Leon Czolgosz out of his cell. The action cuts to the executioners playing around with light bulbs on top of the electric chair. The actor playing Czolgosz is strapped into the chair and gets quickly zapped three times with electricity, each time his body arching upward. The execution is all done in less than 30 seconds and the doctors quickly check for signs of life. They declare him dead.
As Canadian professor Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan points out in an essay about the movie scene in 1900 and 1901, the re-enactment of Czolgosz’s death is “clean.” There’s no smoke coming from the body. It’s clean and efficient, unlike a real-life electrocution which involves the internal organs reaching temperatures above 200 degrees fahrenheit and the victim’s eyes sometimes melting. “Botched” executions with the electric chair are horrendous. And even the “successful” ones can be incredibly disturbing, which is why the electric chair has fallen out of fashion in the 21st century. The last American execution by electric chair took place in 2013 and the U.S. is the last remaining wealthy, advanced nation along with Japan to still execute people at all.
In the faux-execution film, the audiences of the early 20th century got a glimpse of something that they’d never seen before. And for many people, it could’ve been the first time they’d seen a movie at all.
Movies in the first decade of the 20th century weren’t mature quite yet. The industry was still on the fringes in many ways and there were few dedicated movie theaters. Most American movie screenings in 1901 took place in multi-use buildings like town halls or in vaudeville theaters and in so-called nickelodeons, permanent spaces where people could often watch movies one-at-a-time through a viewfinder. Open air shows were also popular, especially when rents were high.
But motion pictures were rapidly becoming a popular medium nonetheless, as people were enthralled with short silent films covering virtually every genre we know today, including fantasy, horror, and drama.
President William McKinley became the first president to ever appear on motion picture film in 1899 and Edison’s film crew, led by his friend and associate Edwin Porter, would make a handful of movies featuring McKinley while he was alive. But it was the execution of McKinley’s assassin, even in re-enacted form, that would bring one of the first macabre visions to early cinema, despite the fact that it wasn’t real.
It wasn’t until the 1910s that controversies around the authenticity of films arose. Many still photographers who specialized in nature were excited by the prospect of being able to capture moving pictures of their furry and feathered subjects. But given the limitations of early movie technology—like film that needed a lot of light, and cameras that needed hefty stabilization rigs— capturing something exciting was often very difficult. Filmmakers often resorted to staging things like a ferocious lion being shot and hauled away in Africa. If the film was shot in Southern California with actors, who would be hurt if they didn’t know the difference?
The real Czolgosz was dowsed with acid before he was buried, a sign of disrespect to smudge out a presidential assassin. And strangely, the short movie was a kind of celebration of this erasure. Audiences, even today, can’t tell that it’s not Czolgosz—a man who isn’t prominent in the history books like other presidential assassins like Abraham Lincoln’s killer John Wilkes Booth and John F. Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.
The film wasn’t just a celebration of death for a presidential assassin but also served as a national advertisement for a relatively new invention first devised by Harold P. Brown that was financed by Edison, the electric chair. But far from a “quick” death, as Edison promised, the real thing was more horrific. Edison, despite claiming to be personally against capital punishment, saw an opportunity to make his rivals George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla look bad by employing the “dangerous” AC current in the electric chair.
The first person executed using the electric chair was William Kemmler on August 6, 1890. Kemmler killed his partner with a hatchet and Westinghouse even paid for his lawyers not to save Kemmler’s life, but to keep AC power from being used to kill him, which was seen as potentially disastrous publicity. When news was made public of the cynical scheme to finance Kemmler’s defense not to save his life but to save face in world of science and invention, Westinghouse lied and denied that he was behind it.
But Kemmler’s high-paid lawyers weren’t enough to save him from even the barbarism of the electric chair. He was electrocuted for roughly 17 seconds before they went to inspect him and found that he was still breathing. Witnesses in the room began to shout, “Great God, he is alive!” and “For God’s sake kill him and have it over,” as the room descended into chaos. They gave him another four straight minutes of electricity. Kemmler’s blood vessels burst and his skin was scorched, creating an “unbearable” stench in the room. Onlookers reportedly said that they could’ve “done a better job with an ax,” a dark reference to Kemmler’s crime. The New York Times headline the following day said it all: “Far Worse than Hanging: Kemmler’s Death Proves an Awful Spectacle.”
Czolgosz’s death wasn’t quite as chaotic as Kemmler’s but probably no less excruciating for the man receiving the shocks. He was jolted three times for roughly 2.5 minutes—far longer than the less than 30 seconds of electricity that we see in Edison’s film. The autopsy performed on Czolgosz after his death revealed no abnormalities in the brain, something that some who said the assassin must be crazy expected to see.
By 1913, fifteen states had made the electric chair their primary method of execution. This new technology was seen as more humane than the old fashioned and “barbaric” method of hanging. It’s possible the use of an electric chair wouldn’t have caught on, if Edison’s film had been realistic.
People watching Edison’s execution film probably had no idea whether what they were watching was the real thing or not. And the filmmakers didn’t really care. Back in 1901, the definition between real documentary footage and staged acting wasn’t really important. It was simply amazing that they were seeing anything at all.