The Gas Chamber, 100 Years of Cruelty

Posted in: Criminal Law

One hundred years ago this month, the first gas chamber execution was carried out in the United States. On February 8, 1924, the state of Nevada used cyanide gas to put Gee Jon to death.

In a cruel twist of history, in January of this year the state of Alabama revived the use of gas when it put Kenneth Smith to death. Over the course of the hundred years that separated Jon’s and Smith’s executions, the history of the gas chamber, as I noted in Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, has been marked by claims that it would provide a painless death and a long series of failures to live up to that promise.

Like every other method of execution used in this country, execution by lethal gas has not been safe, reliable, or humane.

The road to the first use of the gas chamber began on August 28, 1921, at eight in the morning, when Tom Quong Kee was found dead from a single gunshot. Two days earlier Jon and Hughie Sing had traveled to the small town where Kee lived.

Soon after Kee’s death, the local sheriff received a tip about two strangers who had been seen walking around the town. The tip identified Jon and Sing as members of a Chinese gang who had been sent to carry out a hit on Kee.

Sing confessed and implicated Jon. Later they were both sentenced to death under Nevada’s death penalty law that authorized lethal gas as the state’s method of execution.

That law, known at the time it was adopted as the Humane Execution Bill, passed the state assembly almost unanimously before being sent on to the state senate where it was approved the very same day. Nevada’s governor, Emmet Boyle, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, nevertheless signed the bill into law.

The bill that Boyle signed originally called for executions to take place while the condemned slept in their cell. Death row inmates would be housed in airtight, leakproof cells, separate from other prisoners. On the day of the execution, valves would be open that would fill the cell with gas, killing the sleeping prisoner painlessly.

The idea of using gas to execute prisoners can be traced back to 1791 when one of the commanders in Napoleon Bonaparte’s military filled a ship full of rebel slaves with sulfur dioxide gas, killing them all. In the late 19th century, legislators and activists disillusioned with hanging as a method of execution began to consider whether gas would be a better alternative.

For example, members of the Pennsylvania medical society recommended that the state adopt carbonic acid for use in its executions. Dr. J. Chris Lange said that during an execution by lethal gas, “death will happen in from 3 to 8 minutes after the gas ascends to a level with the mouth and nose of the prisoner.”

He claimed that it would lead to death “without preliminaries” and “without the possibility of accidents” and would “leave the criminal little more to dread of the future in the common lot of all mankind.”

While Pennsylvania did not end up adopting the gas chamber, interest in this method grew in the late 1800s and the first two decades of the 1900s. It was spurred on by the experience of World War I, in which lethal gas was a new and cutting-edge weapon.

By the time Nevada got around to executing Gee Jon, it had abandoned the idea of gassing an inmate in his cell. Instead, a concrete building in the prison yard, previously the prison barbershop, was converted into the country’s first gas chamber.

As a report from the Death Penalty Information Center says, “The gas chamber, which was built by prisoners, was first tested on two kittens, who died within 15 seconds of the gas release.’

On the day of his execution, Jon was put to death by hydrocyanic acid. But his execution did not go smoothly.

Hydrocyanic acid only becomes gaseous and deadly at approximately 79°F. Nevada’s plan was to pump the gas, which had been brought to the prison in its more stable liquid form, into the chamber where a heating device was left to warm the liquid as it entered the chamber.

Unfortunately, the morning of February 8, 1924 was cold, and the heater inside the chamber malfunctioned. The gas spilled into the chamber in both liquid and gaseous form, pooling on the floor and spreading through the air.

Several minutes into the execution, Jon was still breathing. His head rolled back and fell forward a number of times before he ultimately succumbed.

Afterward, as The Washington Post notes, “No autopsy was performed out of fear that gas in Gee’s body would poison onlookers.”

Nevertheless, state officials insisted that the execution “was a success.” A headline in The Nevada State Journal read, “Nevada’s novel death law is upheld by the highest court — humanity.”

Over the course of the next few decades, other states followed Nevada’s example and adopted the gas chamber. Arizona became the first state to do so when it replaced hanging with this new technology of death, and Colorado soon did the same.

In 1935, North Carolina and Wyoming constructed their own gas chambers. Two years later, California, Missouri, and Oregon followed suit. During the 1950s, Mississippi, Maryland, and New Mexico all carried out executions by lethal gas.

In its 100-year history, the most famous gas chamber execution took place in California in 1960 when Caryl Chessman was killed at San Quentin State Prison. Chessman had been sentenced to death for a series of crimes he committed in January 1948 in the Los Angeles area.

While in prison, he wrote four books, including his memoirs Cell 2455, Death Row, which was made into a movie in 1955.

“From Oregon to North Carolina,” The Washington Post observes, “prisons developed unique protocols such as coating a gas chamber doorway with Vaseline to keep the gas in and patting down an inmate’s hair and clothes after executions to get the gas out so no one got sick while handling the body. Some prisoners were shaved and stripped to their underwear to lower the risk.”

But despite these efforts, lethal gas, which has been used more than 600 times over its 100-year history, has not lived up to its billing as a humane execution method. In fact, more than 5% of executions by gas have been botched, making it the second most problematic execution method after lethal injection, which has a botch rate of 8%.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of lethal gas, in 1996 a federal appeals court unanimously held that California’s statute authorizing lethal gas violated the Eighth Amendment. As the court said, “The district court’s findings of extreme pain, the length of time this extreme pain lasts, and the substantial risk that inmates will suffer this extreme pain for several minutes require the conclusion that execution by lethal gas is cruel and unusual.”

We learned that lesson all over again earlier this year during Alabama’s botched execution of Kenneth Smith.

In fact, whatever the particular kind of gas that has been used, as law professor Deborah Denno notes, “Every gas execution involved torture of some sort…. The inmate is conscious and aware of what’s going on, and the torment is obvious.” As its 100-year history shows, death by lethal gas, as Denno rightly concludes, is “the worst method of execution we’ve ever had and the most cruel.”

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