United States and American History: Late 1890

About the history of the United States in 1890, the first capital punishment by electric chair death, the death of Sitting Bull, the Massacre at Wounded Knee.



There are 3 great crops raised in Nebraska. One is a crop of corn, one a crop of freight rates, and one a crop of interest. One is produced by farmers who by sweat and toil farm the land. The other 2 are produced by men who sit in their offices and behind their bank counters and farm the farmers.

--Farm Editor

Aug. 6 The 1st man in history to die in an electric chair was put to death on this day. He was William Kemmler, alias John Hart, who was electrocuted in the new death chamber of Auburn Prison in Auburn, N.Y. Earlier, Kemmler had run off with Matilda Ziegler, wife of another man. Tiring of her, he killed her with an axe in March, 1889, in Buffalo, N.Y. He was convicted of 1st-degree murder, and sentenced to die in the newly installed electric chair, invented by Dr. Alphonse D. Rockwell. The chair had replaced hanging in New York as of January 1, 1889. A reporter for the New York World witnessed this landmark in human progress:

The 1st execution by electricity has been a horror. . . . The doctors say the victim did not suffer. Only his Maker knows if that be true. To the eye, it looked as though he were in a convulsive agony.

The current had been passing through his body for 15 seconds when the electrode at the head was removed. Suddenly, the breast heaved. There was a straining at the straps which bound him, a purplish foam covered the lips and was spattered over the leather headband.

The man was alive. Warden, physicians, everybody, lost their wits. There was a startled cry for the current to be turned on again. . . . The rigor of death came on the instant. An odor of burning flesh and singed hair filled the room. For a moment, a blue flame played about the base of the victim's spine. . . . This time the electricity flowed 4 minutes.

Kimmler was dead. Part of his brain had been baked hard. Some of the blood in his head had been turned into charcoal.

At last, capital punishment had been made civilized.

Sept. Indians from many reservations gathered at Walker Lake in Nevada to see Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah. He said that the whites had treated Christ so badly the 1st time that this time He was returning as an Indian. Wovoka promised that the next spring, when the grass was knee-high, the earth would be covered with new soil and all whites would be buried. Those Indians who danced the Ghost Dance would be saved and they would be rewarded with the return of the buffalo, wild horses, and the ghosts of all dead Indians. News of the Ghost Dance spread quickly and by mid-November Ghost Dancing on the Sioux reservations prevailed over almost all activities. Although the dance was purely Christian, many whites were afraid and the Indian Bureau prepared a list of "fomentors of disturbances." Because Sitting Bull's name appeared on the list, he was blamed for everything.

Dec. 15 Forty-three Indian police surrounded Sitting Bull's log cabin with the intention of arresting him. One hundred and seventy Ghost Dancers appeared to protect Sitting Bull. Catch the Bear pulled out a rifle and shot arresting officer Lieut. Bull Head in the side. Sgt. Red Tomahawk then shot Sitting Bull through the head and killed him. The fighting was stopped by the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry. So prevalent was the belief that Ghost Dancing would cause the white man to disappear by spring that the Sioux did not retaliate after the murder of Sitting Bull.

Dec. 29 The massacre at Wounded Knee Creek. Three hundred and fifty Indians (120 men and 230 women and children) being held prisoner by the U.S. Cavalry's 7th Regiment were being disarmed in the morning snow when a hidden rifle was discovered. Shooting broke out, and within minutes, half the Indians were dead or dying. Many crawled away to die alone, and 51 survivors were taken away. The soldiers suffered 24 dead and 39 wounded, most of them struck by their own bullets or shrapnel.

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