Lewis Balch - Witness of the First Execution by Electric Chair

Lewis Balch (July 7, 1847-August 9, 1909) was born in New York City to Lewis P.W. and Anna (Jay) Balch. In 1870 Lewis would marry Jane Byrd Swann and they would have one son, born on May 8, 1872, also named Lewis. In about 1870 he would join the National Guard as an Assistant Surgeon (later promoted to surgeon) and would remain in the Guard for most of the remainder of his life.

Lewis received extensive education starting with some time at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. After this he spent some time at the Berkley Institute, in Rhode Island and then Vermont Episcopal Institute in Burlington, Vermont. During this time his health began to suffer (some attribute it to over study) and he was forced to take a year off and recover. In the fall of 1866 he went on to the medical department of McGill University in Montreal (his father was living there at the time) and studied for a year. At the end of one year at McGill he was once again forced to take some time off due to poor health. During this time he followed his doctor's advise and spent the winter of 1867-8 in South America.

Finally, in the fall of 1868, he attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the medical department of Columbia College, in New York. It was from Columbia that he would graduate in March of 1870. Shortly after his graduation he would begin a year of work at the Brooklyn city hospital followed by a time in which he opened his own office. Also, during this time, he received the appointment of attending surgeon to the Northern dispensary a medical facility dedicated to providing medical care to the “worthy poor”.

In 1873, Lewis moved to Albany, and after a few years of being in that city he became an attending surgeon to St. Peter's hospital. In 1876, when the Albany medical college was reorganized he was appointed to the role of Professor of Anatomy while also being an attending surgeon at the Albany city hospital and a surgeon at the Child's Hospital. Later he was asked to take charge of the surgical division of the Homoeopathic hospital.

In the early 1880's Lewis was appointed to the job of one of the district physicians for the city of Albany. Shortly after this he was serving as city physician followed by some time as the city's Health Officer. In 1886 the state appointed Lewis to the role of Secretary of the New York Board of Health reappointing him, for another term, in 1889.

First Execution by Electric Chair

It was during his time as Secretary of the Board of Health, that Lewis would witness the first execution by electrocution. In 1881 a man by the name of Dr. Alfred Southwick witnessed an accidental electrocution in Buffalo, New York. It was from this event that Dr. Southwick got the idea for electrocution as a means of execution. Prior to this executions were carried out through hangings and Southwick thought of electrocution as a potentially more humane way of carrying out a death sentence. In 1881, at the urging of Dr. Southwick, the state of New York formed what would be called the "Gerry Commission (nicknamed the Death Commission). Dr. Southwick would serve on this commission with two other men, Elbridge T. Gerry (the Chairman) and an Albany lawyer by the name of Matthew Hale.

The purpose of this commission was to consider various different means of execution that had been used throughout history. After considering these different methods the commission was to determine which method they felt was the most humane means of execution. Towards this end they consulted with various experts seeking answers to survey questions they created. Apparently Lewis Balch was included amongst various medical men who were subjected to this survey. Lewis seems to have preferred hanging as a means of execution. After the survey there didn't seem to be broad support for Dr. Southwick's method of execution but he wasn't deterred. After a few more years of study and advocacy he seems to have persuaded the state to perform the first execution by electrocution.

On August 6, 1890 William Kemmler was the first prisoner to be executed in the electric chair. Kemmler had murdered his common-law wife with a hatchet and was now sentenced to death by the new method. As part of this execution state law required the presence of a minimum of five witnesses. Lewis Balch, in his role as Secretary of the Board of Health, was invited to be one of the seventeen witnesses.

At sometime between 6:30 and 7am William Kemmler received seventeen seconds of one thousand volts of electricity. It was assumed that this level of electricity would render him quickly unconscious and cause cardiac arrest. After this first jolt of electricity Lewis noticed that Kemmler's thumb had caused a slight cut on his right index finger. The cut on Kemmler's finger began to bleed and he quickly realized that the man's heart was still beating. The order for another jolt of electricity was given but the system had begun to be powered down and took time to power back up. In this time William Kemmler began to foam at the mouth and groan. Finally a second jolt, of two thousand volts, was delivered to the body of William Kemmler ending his life after aproximately eight minutes. Some witnesses claimed that William's body had caught on fire and the smell of burnt flesh was in the air. The first execution, by electrocution, was far from a resounding success.

Military Service

Lewis Balch had joined the National Guard shortly after his graduation from college in 1870. With the exception of a four year period, between 1873 and 1877, he seems to have remained in the National Guard for most of his remaining life. As late as May 2, 1898 we see Lewis being assigned to the Second Regiment New York Infantry, United States Volunteers. This regiment was assembled in Hempstead Plains, Long Island with the thought that they would eventually be sent to fight in the Spanish-American War (that had begun in April of 1898). By May 18 the regiment was in Tampa, Florida awaiting transport to Cuba. Lack of sufficient number of transports prevented the regiment, several times, from heading to Cuba. In the end the regiment was sent back to Troy, New York until the end of of the war in August of 1898. During this time Lewis served as the surgeon for the Second Regiment and his rank was that of Major and Acting Assistant Surgeon-General.

Final Years

It is unclear what happened in the eleven years following Lewis' role in the Second Regiment New York Infantry, United States Volunteers. On August 9, 1909 he passed away.

Primary Sources/Links:

Genealogy of the Balch Families in America - By: Galusha B. Balch

Access Genealogy - Lewis Balch, M.D., PH.D.

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison - By: Mark Gado

Cover Story The Shocking Truth - By: Buck Quigley

William Kemmler - Wikipedia

Major Lewis Balch Promoted - New York Times - October 20, 1897

Schenectady County, New York: Schenectady Soldiers in the Spanish War - Austin A. Yates

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License