The Last Gasp:
The Rise and Fall
of the American
by Scott Christianson
University of California Press, 344 pages, $27.50, hardcover
Only two countries in the world have ever employed the gas chamber as a means of execution: Nazi Germany, and our own. The Nazis gassed millions, to our total of 594. On the other hand, Germany's gas chambers were in use only from 1939 until 1945. In the United States, our use persisted for 75 years.
In The Last Gasp,
Scott Christianson has written the definitive (actually, the only) history of the gas chamber. It is a history so complicated and convoluted that it reads almost like something out of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
That history includes IG Farben, the German company that produced the insecticide Zyklon-B used by the Nazis, along with American companies Cyanamid and DuPont; lawyer and U.S. High Commissioner (for Germany) John J. McCloy; and "execution consultant" Fred A. Leuchter Jr., who turned out to be (surprise!) a Holocaust denier. In addition, the notion of using poison gas in furtherance of eugenics attracted such interesting and varied supporters as H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, Margaret Sanger, and Clarence Darrow.
Lethal gas was first used as an execution modality in 1791, when French colonial commanders under Napoleon (who was, of course, much admired by Hitler) sealed rebellious Haitian prisoners into the holds of ships, then pumped in sulfur dioxide gas made from burning oil. The French may have asphyxiated as many as 100,000 rebellious slaves this way.
The world's first gas chamber was set up in Nevada and claimed its first victim, Gee Jon, a Chinese tong murderer, in 1924. Gee didn't stop moving until six minutes after the lethal hydrogen cyanide (HCN) was released. (The California Cyanide Company of Los Angeles manufactured the gas.) Eventually, eleven states used the gas chamber. Seven of them were western states. Westerners sometimes regarded the device as a form of lynching prevention.
Gas was the preferred method of execution in California from 1938 to 1992, the year Robert Alton Harris was executed. The following year, when David Mason became the San Quentin gas chamber's last victim, inmates had a choice between lethal injection and lethal gas. After he was put to death, a series of court decisions found that lethal gas violated the Eighth Amendment, and that method of execution was abandoned in California. During the span from 1924 to 1993 our state gassed 196 people, putting us second in the nation (behind North Carolina).
The paradox of execution by asphyxiation is that it was simultaneously thought to be both humane and a form of torture.
Nevada's gas chamber?enabling legislation was called the Humane Execution Bill. Even Hitler (despite being a World War I gas victim himself) first thought of gas as a means of "mercy killing" for incurably sick hospital patients and the mentally ill. Poison gas was intended to be "more humane than the rope," which failed about as often as it worked. "Lethal gas is certainly painless," a fatuous 1954 criminology text stated. "It is a physically pleasant form of meeting death. ..."
But it wasn't. In a 1936 North Carolina execution, Allen Foster took eleven minutes to die, and he was fully conscious for three of them. He is said to have cried, "Save me, Joe Louis!" Wrote one newsman, "It was the most barbarous thing I've ever seen." The coroner said, "Never again for me. It's slow torture - that's what it is." In 1992, after Donald Harding took eleven minutes to die in Arizona, a reporter said, "We put animals to death more humanely than this guy."
The U.S. Supreme Court never declared execution by lethal gas to be cruel and unusual punishment. But the national debate over its cruelty eventually brought the practice into disrepute. (Those Third Reich associations probably didn't help either.) Arizona carried out the last such execution (of a German citizen, ironically) in 1999, to a chorus of international disapproval. "Resistance to the gas chamber ultimately unmasked hegemonic notions of state-sponsored killing as being naturally just and humane," Christianson writes, "and finally destroyed its legitimacy as a means of execution."
Ben Pesta is a white-collar and criminal defense attorney in Century City.