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Dentist and Faculty Member of the Fledgling University
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Great Lakes Steamboat Company
Details of the weird mishap were not lost on a respected Buffalo dentist and prominent faculty member of the fledgling University at Buffalo Dental School named Alfred Porter Southwick.An engineer for the Great Lakes Steamboat Company, and later the chief engineer for the Western Transit Company, he abruptly turned to dentistry at the age of 36.Brought up a Quaker in Ashtabula, Ohio, Southwick sported a beard with no mustache, giving him a stern, ecclesiastical look.Like many learned gentlemen of the Gilded Age, he subscribed to eugenicsâ€"the belief that the human race could be improved by selective breeding.Interestingly, Southwick and his wife adopted their only daughter, Mary. Southwick was enterprising and curious.For years he had been following the latest developments in electricity and was determined to discover a practical use for its primal power.He'd worked with it on Great Lakes steamers, and he wondered if it might have a useful application in his new profession, perhaps as an anesthetic for agonized patients in the dental chair. When Southwick read the articles and the accounts of Smith's autopsy, a light bulb went on above his head.Although it clashed with his Quaker upbringing, Southwick was an advocate of capital punishment.He wondered: If this poor unfortunate could exit the world in the blink of an eye, wouldn't his sort of death be a more humane alternative for a condemned man than, say, the hangman's noose? To satisfy his curiosity, Dr. Southwick began a pioneering series of experiments on stray neighborhood dogs.When he threw the switch on his primitive contraption, they were killed with an electric shock that to his purposes seemed painless.After a few years of experimentation, he sensed that his newfangled method of execution might be the solution the governor was seeking.The third member of the commission was Southwick himself. In order to conduct further research into killing by electricity, Southwick was able, in the summer of 1887, to work out an arrangement with the City of Buffalo and the SPCA to conduct more experiments on stray dogs.That summer, the city council placed a 25-cent bounty on all straysâ€"or six bucks a pup in today's dollars.Soon young boys began bringing in more dogs than the pound could handle.At the time, drowning was the solution for unwanted dogs.Concerned about the welfare of the animals in overcrowded conditions at the city pound, the SPCA stepped in and allowed Southwick and another Buffalo physician named George Fell to try out their newly constructed "dog killing cage" to put the animals away. Southwick and Fell continued to amass the results of their experiments in scientific papers.Unfortunately for Southwick, Elbridge Gerry, the chair of the Death Penalty Commission, was not easily convinced.Concerned that commission chairman Gerry was going against his recommendation, Southwick decided to send a flattering letter from his home at 456 Niagara Street to Thomas Edison in Menlo Park dated November 8, 1887.A month later Southwick received a disappointing reply from Edison.Southwick picked up his pen again, and wrote in his florid, stylized script that since capital punishment always had and always would exist, it would therefore be best to find its most civilized and humane form.Stroking Edison's ego, he went on to assure him that his opinion would greatly influence the Gerry Commission. Charles T. Saxton, chairman of the Assembly's judiciary committee and friend of Southwick, introduced a bill to turn the recommendation into law in the spring of 1888, making an impassioned plea for its passage.Dr. George Fell, who had worked with Southwick on the "dog killing cage," was called to testify and admitted that his experiments failed to determine what voltage would be required to kill every human being and the only way to make such a determination would be through conducting human experiments.Among the witnesses in town to watch the proceedings were Doctors Southwick and Fell, excited to witness their invention in action on a human beingâ€"though Fell was likely disappointed that the warden would not let him try out his electrical resuscitation machine on Kemmler, once he was dead.Southwick took the opportunity to deliver his prepared statement: "This is the culmination of 10 years work and study.Both the cottage where Kemmler perpetrated his dreadful crime and the home of Alfred Southwick are gone.Among these personalities, on a small hillside in section 31, you can visit the final resting place of Alfred P. Southwick, beside his wife and only adopted daughter, Mary, who appears to have died unmarried in 1919 at the age of 72.
The answer to his question was sitting among the spectators: Alfred P. Southwick.
He wasn't a corrections officer, or a member of any law enforcement. He wasn't even an electrician. The man himself, Alfred P. Southwick. Southwick was mechanically inclined. He moved to Buffalo and worked as a steamboat engineer, first for the Great Lakes Steamboat Company, then their rivals, Western Transit. At heart, though, he was a tinkerer, a toolmaker who always kept up to speed with modernity. And as a toolmaker he saw promise in dentistry, where he could make new gadgets and devices to aid in the increasingly professional-and lucrative-field. He retired from engineering and became a dental apprentice. Southwick may or may not have witnessed this. Either way he was deeply intrigued, intrigued enough to hear the examining coroner lecture on the man's death. Southwick was enthralled. There's no clear reason why Southwick made humane execution his crusade. Maybe he had seen a botched hanging, which were increasingly featured in the media. Southwick worked with his friend Dr. George E. Fell and two other men on a commission to determine the most humane method of execution.
Behind other monuments and headstones we found one that read, Alfred P. Southwick, 1826 to 1898.
He was an engineer turned dentist in the 1800's and dabbled in a new fad; electricity. Southwick thought this could be it."