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Rotten History - August 6

On This Day in Rotten History...

On this day in 1890– (126 years ago) – William Kemmler, convicted of killing his wife with a hatchet, became the first person to die in the electric chair. This new form of execution had been developed by a dentist named Alfred P. Southwick, who adapted a dental chair for the purpose and tried it out on hundreds of unfortunate stray dogs, experimenting with various voltages and placements of electrodes before arriving at a hardware configuration that he believed would kill a human efficiently. The new device was promoted as a more humane alternative to hanging, and it found favor with state governments after a recent series of bungled hangings that had made national news. On the day of his execution, Kemmler was strapped into the chair and given a seventeen-second burst of electricity that failed to kill him. As he lay in agony, the doctors in attendance ordered that more current be applied immediately — but several minutes had to pass before the generator was sufficiently recharged for the second big shock that finally finished the job. The famous electrical engineer George Westinghouse, who witnessed the whole grisly event, later remarked: “They would have done better using an axe.”

On this day in 1945 – (71 years ago) – some 80,000 people were killed instantly when an American B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, population 350,000. Many thousands more people died in the following years from burns and radiation poisoning, as the result of a decision taken by US President Harry S. Truman to use the bomb, which destroyed 90 percent of the city. Three days later, another American plane would drop an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing another 80,000 people. The overwhelming majority of dead in both cities were civilians. Truman argued that it was the lesser of two evils — the alternative to a US ground invasion that, according to American generals, could have cost the lives of 400,000 to 800,000 Americans and some five to ten million Japanese. But the atomic bombs were targeted less at military installations than at areas with high civilian populations—and the Japanese government was already in surrender negotiations with the United States, which some historians believe were progressing so well that the use of atomic bombs may have only hastened Japan’s surrender by a few days. Even documents from US General Douglas McArthur show that the Japanese surrender was just a matter of time. Some speculate that the US government’s intention in using the bombs was less to end the war than to punish the Japanese for their bombing of Pearl Harbor, and to frighten the Soviet Union.

On this day in 1988 – (28 years ago) – in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, which had become a de facto crash spot for homeless people, drug pushers, and runaway youths, several hundred people gathered to protest neighborhood gentrification, housing shortages, and a new 1 a.m. curfew in the park. New York law enforcement responded with an all-out police riot in which thirty-eight people were seriously injured, including professional journalists and passive bystanders. More than a hundred brutality complaints were later lodged against police, and a city review turned up many instances of their misconduct, but only two officers lost their jobs. The riot, which galvanized anti-police sentiment in the neighborhood, was later commemorated in songs by Lou Reed, Bongwater, and Blues Traveler.

Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi

Rotten History


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