At eighteen, I left my home in Auburn, New York State, to go travelling for David Wadsworth and Company. My sister Laura had cleared out before me. She found a husband to take her away. I chose agricultural implements.

Of course Father was unhappy. He was all alone. He thought himself poorly paid out. I don’t mean to suggest that we felt no love for him. He was a kind and conscientious parent – effectively, our only parent, as our mother had died when I was three weeks old. But the burden of being all things to two children had made Father a little too conscientious, if not completely overbearing.

For six years he pursued me with letters. These smelled of his parlour fire, of coal smoke and stuffy confinement, and by association, of earnest lectures and the wounded idealism at his core. As a rule, he wrote to my Philadelphia post box, so that once a month, as I passed through, I would receive all his woes and desires in a bundle. He missed me. He missed Laura. But he couldn’t say this frankly, with the affectionate ease that other families enjoyed. Instead I was treated to political and ethical agitations. There might be a rousing poem, or a wry satirical piece. There might be a fiery editorial. And from his own pen, endless words: obtuse thoughts on money and power, mugwump regret for the state of the nation, lamentations on the decay of his beloved Republican Party – anything and everything but his personal pain. I was alert to his urging: ‘You should think about this, you should care.’ By which he meant, I guess, that I should think and care about him. After so many years, I understood that public contention was his language of love, how he gave and received, and I felt a tenderness for him that I would not have felt if we had remained under the same roof.

In the winter of 1888 he struck up a theme that neither of us could have guessed would solidify into the various accidents and choices of the following year. I’m referring to capital punishment. For in Albany the legislature was then debating a bill that proposed to replace hanging with electrical execution. A team of lawyers and medicos, led by a Buffalo dentist, had been lobbying for months. They claimed to have the endorsement of Thomas Edison. Hanging was barbaric and unreliable, they argued. Electrocution would be a humanitarian advance, painless and cheap. Father riled against this. He wanted judicial killing stopped altogether. Several important people shared his view, and he sent me what they had to say, often in multiple copies for me to pass around. But the climax of this reaction, at least in my mind, occurred when he sent a copy of a letter that he himself had composed to the Auburn Daily Advertiser. Father had a high-faluting literary style, perhaps too florid for our neighbours, but he made his points well enough. State killing was unchristian, he wrote, an abomination unworthy of right-thinking Americans. It reduced human life to that of a dog. It made injustices irreversible, since the execution of an innocent man could never be put right. Finally, Father attacked the electric innovation: if it truly was as slick and trouble-free as its advocates maintained, it would make state killing too easy. The gravity of the act, the natural feeling of psychic hazard, would be lost. How long before officialdom thought nothing of pushing the button, and pushing it more and more often? Soon we would lose any appreciation of the sanctity of human life.

He claimed that in Auburn his letter had caused a minor storm. I guessed he was exaggerating. I felt sad for him, which increased my allegiance to his position. Laura used to say we were possessed by the rescuing spirit. In this, you never knew if she was speaking in derision or self-congratulation. The rescuing spirit had certainly dominated our dependent years. It had pervaded the Sunday sermon and the dinner table, and was held up to us as an antidote to natural-born meanness. We were better people for pitying the unfortunate. We were better people for loving the sinner. I don’t know whether I bought this in total. It was the family faith and the family delusion. But I sure thought executions were wrong. They demeaned the state. They made us all dirty by association.

The effect of Father’s letters, as he’d desired, was that the controversy chimed in my head as I went about my business. I followed developments in the press and conversed with strangers on the train. The bill was signed into law in early June, and would take effect on the first day of 1889. Not only did it mandate a new means of killing, it changed where executions could take place and who was responsible for carrying them out. No longer would they occur in county jails, administered by the local sheriff. Electrocutions were to be limited to the three State Prisons, with the warden in charge. These changes, I realised, brought the new barbarity very close to home, as I had grown up within sight of Auburn Prison. I had been raised to take pride in this institution, which for seventy years had aimed not at punishment, but at the reformation of ruined lives. It was famous for the Auburn System, in which prisoners were kept separate and silent. I remember circumnavigating the walls with Father on warm summer evenings, a slow business, because he had a patriotic limp. I was very young, and curious to know what happened on the unseen side of the masonry. One night he placed his hand on my shoulder. ‘Listen to that,’ he said.

‘To what?’ I asked. There was not a breath of air. The birds were asleep in the ivy. No appreciable sound came from beyond the wall.

‘To the sound of improvement,’ he said.

Silence, he believed, freed the mind from distraction. It shielded the sinner from unwholesome influences and awakened him to the promptings of the Lord. But perhaps what Father admired most was the wonderful productiveness of the place. It turned out so many desirable goods – carpets, brooms, buckets, barrels, harnesses, boilers, furniture . . . How many other towns could boast such a mighty commercial engine at its heart, beating powerfully through good times and bad, never failing to generate a profit? He promised me that when I turned thirteen we would go in together as sightseers. Auburn Prison did a nice trade in sightseers. I cannot say why this never came to pass. Maybe I lost interest. Maybe Father was reluctant to pay the twenty-five cents.

In any case, the salient point is that Auburn Prison did not deal in death. It dealt in penitents and tradable goods, and I shared Father’s view that this was admirable. The new law changed the nature of the place. It undid its reforming charter.

Father was still fuming at Christmas when I sat down at his table. ‘People that get themselves elected for five minutes,’ he declared, ‘have no business destroying the work of generations.’ He was referring to the Democrat governor. The meal was doubly glum because Laura and her daughter, little Ida June, were absent. Of course she had made her apologies: her husband, whom Father called ‘the Show Pony’, had a fever, keeping them home in Albany. We thought it a lame excuse, perhaps an outright lie. So Father was mournful and angry at the same time. He redirected his disappointment into a fierce examination of the electrical law. It was not, he said, motivated by humanitarian principles. It was all about money and commercial interest. It was a case of rival electric light companies messing with the criminal code. He grew ponderous, explaining the difference between Thomas Edison’s direct current system and George Westinghouse’s alternating current. The latter was said to have caused a great many accidental deaths, from power company linesmen to unfortunate citizens who’d happened to touch a wire. Father couldn’t judge whose system was safest, he had no intention of subscribing to either, but he noted that for one reason or another, perhaps simple cost, Westinghouse had been winning the battle, his AC dynamos multiplying across the land, and that Edison, in retaliation, had declared AC current deadly. In a masterstroke of cynical public relations Edison had put it about that the best and only machine for electrical execution was a Westinghouse. To prove his point he’d made his laboratory available for the experimental killing of dogs and horses with alternating current. The end result would be an electric chair for humans. He proposed a new verb. In future murderers would be ‘westinghoused’.

‘Can you imagine anything more sordid and self-serving?’ Father demanded. ‘And this from a man worshipped as a hero. A man so puffed up with dubious ingenuity that he thinks he can gainsay God’s commandment. Tell me if I’m wrong, Daniel, but it seems to me that killing is killing whether you do it with fairground tricks or your bare hands.’

‘You’re right, sir.’

‘Of course I’m right. There’s a blindness in this country. A malaise. They can keep their cleverness. I’ll take what Jesus says: Thou shalt not kill.’

I was not so fixed on scripture. My aversion to executions was, I suppose, imaginative, perhaps instinctive. I understood that killing was ugly. Father did not believe that all was lost. He vacillated between several hopes and possibilities: that judges would buck at the uncertainty of the method; that some smart lawyer would get it disallowed; that there would be a belated blast of opposition; that prison officials, appalled by their new duties, would undermine the scheme from below. He assured me that this last scenario was taking shape in Auburn, and that Warden Durston, a fellow Methodist, was throwing his weight around in protest. Father said that Durston had written defiantly to the governor, the very man who’d appointed him: If you suppose I accepted this office in order to butcher my fellow man you are much mistaken . . .

I knew Durston by sight. I had memories of him reading the Lesson in church: a tall, bull-necked fellow with a drooping moustache. Back then he had owned a newspaper, and had since moved on to insurance and politics. He was said to be a force among the county Democrats. Did that mean the governor would heed his opinion? I had no idea. But Father maintained a quixotic faith. Good people would rise to the challenge. We would defeat those Godless adventurers in Albany.

If Laura had been there we might have exchanged subtle looks: Father has his hobbyhorses, let him roam. I missed her collusion. I felt pummelled by the relentlessness of his conversation. He predicted that the first man chosen for electrocution would be in every way despicable, an ape in human form. ‘Oh, they’ll choose the most worthless-looking specimen they can find. I dare say they’re combing the jails as we speak.’

This was as close as we came to considering an individual. We were two men talking in the abstract, concerned with principles. How could it be otherwise? Billy Kemmler was not yet a name on anyone’s lips. His unique but commonplace life still rolled on in perfect obscurity, with no readable sign that he was headed for catastrophe, or no sign that did not also appear to a million others who remained secure in their happiness and self-regard. But we knew about a type of man, or supposed we knew. He was dragged up in filth and vice. He was vicious. But by the lights of Father’s Christianity he was not worthless. That was too great a presumption. Only God knew a man’s heart. There was pride in Father’s humility. The whole world could bow down before science and utilitarian efficiency, before the vain lie that we are capable of weighing up a soul – so much good, so much evil – but not him!

I left him on New Year’s Day, and as the train rocked away I continued to hear his voice. I continued to see his face, gaunt and ascetic, rough-shaven with a wiry flourish of hair at the brows. Of course he faded with the miles, and gradually I felt less assailed and burdened, and the things he had talked about lost their urgency. They became smooth and cerebral, like a yacht race on a lake made tranquil by distance, a race in which I favoured a vessel with a particular coloured spinnaker signifying humanity, or brotherhood.

I had a weakness for abstractions.