Published in 1892, this tale is a readable and humorous predecessor to the
modern comic book superhero "origin" story. It warns us that even learned
men of science may jump to unwarranted conclusions, or fail to recognize
the importance of their own research. Ironically, the narrator and his
"admirable" associates are blind to the incredible value of their
discovery--deeming it a "fiasco" in their narrowminded view.
I used to be the leadingpractitioner of Los Amigos. Of course, everyone has heard of the great electrical generating gear there. The town is widespread, and there are dozens of little townlets and villages all around, which receive their supply from the same center, so the works are on a very large scale. The Los Amigos folk say they are the largest on earth, but then we claim that for everything in Los Amigos except the jail and the death-rate. Those are said to be the smallest.
Now, with so fine an electrical supply, it seemed to be a sinful waste of hemp that the Los Amigos criminals should perish in the old-fashioned manner. And then came news of the electrocutions in the East, and how the results had not after all been so instantaneous as had been hoped. The Western Engineers raised their eyebrows when they read of the puny shocks by which these men had perished, and they vowed in Los Amigos that when an irreclaimable came their way he should be dealt handsomely by, and have the run of all the big dynamos. There should be no reserve, said the engineers, but he should have all that they had got. And what the result of that would be none could predict, save that it must be absolutely blasting and deadly. Never before had a man been so charged with electricity as they would charge him. He was to be smitten by the essence of ten thunderbolts. Some prophesied combustion, and some disintegration and disappearance. They were waiting eagerly to settle the question by actual demonstration, and it was just at that moment that Duncan Warner came that way.
Warner had been wanted by the law, and by nobody else, for many years. Desperado, murderer, train robber and road agent, he was a man beyond the pale of human pity. He had deserved a dozen deaths, and the Los Amigos folk grudged him so gaudy a one as that. He seemed to feel himself to be unworthy of it, for he made two frenzied attempts at escape. He was a powerful, muscular man, with a lion head, tangled black locks, and a sweeping beard which covered his broad chest. When he was tried, there was no finer head in all the crowded court. It's no new thing to find the best face looking from the dock. But his good looks could not balance his bad deeds. His advocate did all he knew, but the cards lay against him, and Duncan Warner was handed over to the mercy of the big Los Amigos dynamos.
I was at the committee meeting when the matter was discussed. The town council had chosen four experts to look after the arrangements. Three of them were admirable. There was Joseph M'Connor, the very man who had designed the dynamos, and there was Joshua Westmacott, the chairman of the Los Amigos Electrical Supply Company, Limited. Then there was myself as the chief medical man, and lastly an old German of the name of Peter Stulpnagel. The Germans were a strong body at Los Amigos, and they all voted for their man. That was how he got on the committee. It was said he had been a wonderful electrician at home, and he was eternally working with wires and insulators and Leyden jars; but, as he never seemed to get any further, or to have any results worth publishing, he came at last to be regarded as a harmless crank, who had made science his hobby. We three practical men smiled when we heard he had been elected as our colleague, and at the meeting we fixed it all up very nicely among ourselves without much thought of the old fellow who sat with his ears scooped forward in his hands, for he was a trifle hard of hearing, taking no more part in the proceedings than the gentlemen of the press who scribbled their notes on the back benches.
We did not take long to settle it all. In New York a strength of some 2,000 volts had been used, and death had not been instantaneous. Evidently their shock had been too weak. Los Amigos should not fall into that error. The charge should be six times greater, and therefore, of course, it would be six times more effective. Nothing could possibly be more logical. The whole concentrated force of the great dynamos should be employed on Duncan Warner.
So we three settled it, and had already risen to break up the meeting, when our silent companion opened his mouth for the first time.
"Gentlemen," said he, "you appear to me to show an extraordinary ignorance on the subject of electricity. You have not mastered the first principles of its actions on a human being."
The committee was about to break into an angry reply to this brusque comment, but the chairman of the Electrical Company tapped his forehead to claim its indulgence for the speaker's eccentricity.
"Pray tell us, sir," said he, with an ironic smile, "what is there in our conclusions with which you find fault?"
"With your assumption that a large dose of electricity will merely increase the effect of a small dose. Do you not think it possible that it might have an entirely different result? Do you know anything, by actual experiment, of the effect of such powerful shocks?"
"We know it by analogy," said the chairman, pompously. "All drugs increase their effect when they increase their dose; for example--for example--"
"Whiskey," said Joseph M'Connor.
"Quite so. Whiskey. You see it there."
Peter Stulpnagel smiled and shook his head.
"Your argument is not very good," said he. "When I used to take whiskey, I found that one glass would excite me, but that six would send me to sleep, which is just the opposite. Now, suppose electricity were to act in just the opposite way also, what then?"
We three practical men burst out laughing. We had known that our colleague was queer, but we never had thought that he would be as queer as this.
"What, then?" repeated Peter Stulpnagel.
"We'll take our chances," said the chairman.
"Pray consider," said Peter, "that workmen who have touched the wires, and who have received shocks of only a few hundred volts, have died instantly. The fact is well known. And yet when a much greater force was used on a criminal at New York, the man struggled for some little time. Why, history tells us of men who were struck by lightning and survived! Do you not clearly see that the smaller dose is the more deadly?"
"I think, gentlemen, that this discussion has been carried on quite long enough," said the chairman, rising again. "The point, I take it, has already been decided by the majority of the committee, and Duncan Warner shall be electrocuted on Tuesday by the full strength of the Los Amigos dynamos. Is it not so?"
"I agree," said Joseph M'Conner.
"I agree," said I.
"And I protest," said Peter Stulpnagel.
"Then the motion is carried, and your protest will be duly entered in the minutes," said the chairman, and so the sitting was dissolved.
The attendance at the electrocution was a very small one. We four members of the committee were, of course, present with the executioner, who was to act under our orders. The others were the United States Marshal, the warden of the jail, the chaplain, and three members of the press. The room was a small chamber, forming an annex to the Central Electrical station. It had been used as a laundry, and had an oven and boiler to one side, but no other furniture save a single chair for the condemned man. A metal plate for his feet was placed in front of it, to which ran a thick, insultated wire. Above, another wire depended from the ceiling, which could be connected with a small metallic rod projecting from a cap which was to be placed on his head. When this connection was established Duncan Warner's hour was come.
There was a solemn hush as we waited for the arrival of the prisoner. The practical engineers looked a little pale, and fidgeted nervously with the wires. Even the hardened Marshal was ill at ease, for a mere hanging was one thing, and this blasting of flesh and blood a very different one. As to the pressmen, their faces were whiter than the sheets which lay before them. The only man who appeared to feel none of the influence of these preparations was the little German crank, who strolled from one to the other with a smile on his lips and mischief in his eyes. More than once he even went so far as to burst into a shout of laughter, until the chaplain sternly rebuked him his ill-timed levity.
"How can you so far forget yourself, Mr. Stulpnagel," said he, "as to jest in the presence of death?"
But the German was quite unabashed.
"If I were in the presence of death I should not jest," said he, "but since I am not I may do what I choose."
This flippant reply was about to draw another and sterner reproof from the chaplain, when the door swung open and two warders entered leading Duncan Warner between them. He glanced about with a set face, stepped resolutely forward, and seated himself on the chair.
"Touch her off!" said he.
It was barbarous to keep him in suspense. The chaplain murmured a few words in his ear, the attendant placed the cap on his head, and then, while we all held our breath, the wire and the metal were brought in contact.
"Great Scott!" shouted Duncan Warner.
He had bounded in his chair as the frightful shock crashed through his system. But he was not dead. On the contrary, his eyes gleamed far more brightly now than before. There was only one change, but it was a singular one. The black had passed from his hair and beard as the shadow passes from a landscape. They were both white as snow. And yet there was no other sign of decay. His skin was smooth and plump and lustrous as a child's.
The Marshal looked at the committee with a reproachful eye.
"There seems to be some hitch here, gentlemen," said he.
We three practical men looked at each other.
Peter Stulpnagel smiled pensively.
"I think another one should do it," said I.
Again the connection was made, and again Duncan Warner sprang in his chair and shouted, but, indeed, were it not that he still remained in the chair none of us would have reconized him. His hair and beard had shredded off in an instant, and the room looked like a barbershop on a Saturday night. There he sat, eyes still shining, skin radiant with the glow of perfect health, but with a scalp as bald as Dutch cheese, and a chin without so much as a trace of down. He began to revolve one of his arms, slowly and doubtfully at first, but with more confidence as he went on.
"That jint," said he, "has puzzled half the doctors on the Pacific Slope. It's as good as new, and as limber as a hickory twig."
"You are feeling pretty well?" asked the old German.
"Never better in my life," said Duncan Warner cheerily.
The situation was a painful one. The Marshal glared at the committee. Peter Stulpnagel grinned and rubbed his hands. The engineers scratched their heads. The baldheaded prisoner revolved his arm and looked pleased.
"I think that one more shock--" began the chairman.
"No, sir," said the Marshal; "we've had foolery enough for one morning. We are here for an execution, and an execution we'll have."
"What do you propose?"
"There's a hook handy on the ceiling. Fetch in a rope, and we'll soon set this matter straight."
There was another awkward delay while the warders departed for the cord. Peter Stulpnagel bent over Duncan Warner, and whispered something in his ear. The desperado started in surprise.
"You don't say?" he asked.
The German nodded.
"What! No ways?"
Peter shook his head, and the two began to laugh as though they shared some huge joke between them.
The rope was brought, and the Marshal himself slipped the noose over the criminal's neck. Then the two warders, the assistant, and he swung their victim into the air. For half an hour he hung--a dreadful sight--from the ceiling. Then in solemn silence they lowered him down, and one of the warders went out to order a coffin to be brought. But as he touched ground again what was our amazement when Duncan Warner put his hands up to his neck, loosened the noose, and took a long, deep breath.
"Paul Jefferson's sale is goin' well," he remarked, "I could see the crowd from up yonder," and he nodded at the hook in the ceiling.
"Up with him again!" shouted the Marshal, "we'll get the life out of him somehow."
In an instant the victim was up at the hook once more.
They kept him there for an hour, but when he came down he was perfectly garrulous.
"Old man Plunket goes too much to the Arcady Saloon," said he. "Three times he's been there in an hour; and him with a family. Old man Plunket would do well to swear off."
It was monstrous and incredible, but there it was. There was no getting around it. The man was there talking when he ought to have been dead. We all sat staring in amazement, but United States Marshal Carpenter was not a man to be euchred so easily. He motioned the others to one side, so that the prisoner was left standing alone.
"Duncan Warner," said he, slowly, "you are here to play your part, and I am here to play mine. Your game is to live if you can, and my game is to carry out the sentence of the law. You've beat us on electricity. I'll give you one there. And you've beat us on hanging, for you seem to thrive on it. But it's my turn to beat you now, for my duty must be done."
He pulled a six-shooter from his coat as he spoke, and fired all the shots through the prisoner's body. The room was so filled with smoke that we could see nothing, but when it cleared the prisoner was still standing there, looking down in disgust at the front of his coat.
"Coats must be cheap where you come from," said he. "Thirty dollars it cost me, and look at it now. The six holes in front are bad enough, but four of the balls have passed out and a pretty state the back must be in."
The Marshal's revolver fell from his hand, and he dropped his arms to his sides, a beaten man.
"Maybe some of you gentlemen can tell me what this means," said he, looking helplessly at the committee.
Peter Stulpnagel took a step forward.
"I'll tell you all about it," said he.
"You seem to be the only person who knows anything."
"I am the only person who knows anything. I should have warned these gentlemen; but, as they would not listen to me, I allowed them to learn by experience. What you have done with your electricity is that you have increased this man's vitality until he can defy death for centuries."
"Yes, it will take the wear of hundreds of years to exhaust the enormous nervous energy with which you have drenched him. Electricity is life, and you have charged him with it to the utmost. Perhaps in 50 years you might execute him, but I am not sanguine about it."
"Great Scott! What shall I do with him?" cried the unhappy Marshal.
Peter Stulpnagel shrugged his shoulders.
"It seems to me it does not much matter what you do with him now," said he.
"Maybe we could drain the electricity out of him again. Suppose we hang him up by the heels?"
"No, no, it's out of the question."
"Well, he shall do no more mischief in Los Amigos, anyhow," the Marshal said decisively. "He shall go to the new jail. The prison will wear him out."
"On the contrary," said Peter Stulpnagel, "I think it much more probable that he will wear out the prison."
It was rather a fiasco, and for years we didn't talk more about it than we
could help, but it's no secret now, and I thought you might like to jot down
the facts in your casebook.
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