6 August 1660
Spanish baroque artist Diego Velazquez died in Madrid. As court painter to King Phillip IV he had, in addition to religious, historical and genre scenes, produced scores of portraits of the Spanish royal family.
6 August 1759
Philologist and schoolteacher Eugene Aram was hanged for murder in York. His story was dramatised by Thomas Hood in his ballad The Dream of Eugene Aram.
6 August 1861
Lagos was formally annexed by Britain. It was declared a colony in the following March.
6 August 1890: The electric chair claims its first victim... eventually
The ‘humane alternative’ to hanging proves anything but as the condemned takes minutes to die
On 6 August 1890, William Kemmler was woken at 5am. He put on his best clothes and ate a quick breakfast. Then, after one of his prison warders had shaved Kemmler’s head, it was time to leave. Shortly after 6.30am, Kemmler walked into the last room he would ever see, where the warden and 17 witnesses were waiting. “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck,” Kemmler said. “I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go.”
A year earlier, Kemmler had murdered his lover, Matilda Ziegler, in their home town of Buffalo, New York. Sentenced to death, he spent his last days in Auburn Prison. For years the state authorities had been trying to find a more humane alternative to hanging. Now they had the solution: the electric chair.
Alas, Kemmler’s ground-breaking execution was something of a shambles. When the executioner threw the switch, a current of some 1,000 volts coursed through Kemmler’s body. After 17 seconds, the power was turned off. Kemmler was dead – or so it seemed. But then, despite the smell of burned flesh, somebody spotted him breathing.
“Have the current turned on again, quick – no delay!” said the doctor. The power was turned up, and smoke poured from Kemmler’s head. “An awful odor began to permeate the death chamber,” reported The New York Times.
“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.” This time, though, Kemmler was definitely dead. “It was an awful spectacle,” one reporter wrote afterwards. “Far worse than hanging.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
6 August 1962
Jamaica gained independence from Britain. The newly independent country’s first prime minister was Alexander Bustamante of the Jamaica labour party.