1924 and 1999, 589 men and seven women were put to death in the gas chambers of
various American states. At its peak, 11 states had adopted this method, these being,
Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, New Mexico,
North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming.Eleven men have been gassed in five states since the resumption of
executions in 1977, these being in Arizona
(1), North Carolina
(2) and Mississippi
(4). The last lethal gas execution was that of Walter Le Grand in Arizona in 1999 (see
Of the states with capital punishment, only Arizona,
still, at least in theory, allow for the use of the gas chamber and all offer
lethal injection as an optional method. The introduction of lethal gas
executions ended the practice of hangings carried out by individual counties and execution facilities and death rows became
concentrated at State Penitentiaries. Gassing has never been used by any other
country as a means of judicial execution.
State by state analysis in chronological order of introduction.
No of chairs in chamber
Carolina and New
Mexico used both the gas chamber and the electric
chair at different times.
was originally proposed by toxicologist Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton who suggested
it as an execution method that would be more humane than hanging or shooting,
which were the choices offered to condemned men in Nevada in the early part of the 20th
century. Electrocution was seen as gruesome by the Nevada legislature and so the new method was
adopted, coming into law in 1921 in that state. The original idea was to
surprise the prisoner by gassing him in his cell as he slept without prior
warning.This proved impracticable and
thus the gas chamber, as such, was designed by Major Delos A
Turner, an army medical corps officer.
The first person to die in Nevada's
new gas chamber was Chinese born Gee Jon, on February 8th, 1924, for the murder
of Tom QuongKee, a member
of a rival gang. His lawyers had fought a long battle in the courts to show
that gassing was "cruel and unusual punishment" and as such was
illegal under the 8th Amendment to the American Constitution. This execution
did not take place in a conventional gas chamber, but rather in an overly large
room in a building in the prison grounds that had previously been the barber
shop.The gas was produced by vaporizing
hydrocyanic acid using a mobile fumigating sprayer manufactured by the
California Cyanide Company. Click here to see a
photo of the room and sprayer. The execution commenced at 9.30 a.m. when Gee
Jon was led from a holding cell and secured to one of the two rough wooden
chairs within the room. In the cold February temperatures the hydrocyanic acid
was reluctant to vaporize and so it took some time for the concentration of gas
to reach a lethal level.Jon appeared to
struggle a little after the gas was pumped in and then lapse into
unconsciousness, but as no external stethoscope had been provided, he was left
in the chamber for 30 minutes to ensure death. The Nevada State Journal ran a
banner headline the following morning, stating “Nevada Gas Death Law Held
Success.”Later a conventional gas
chamber was constructed.
Most of America's gas chambers were built by Eaton Metal
Products in Denver, Colorado.Their first was constructed in 1933 for Colorado
and the last in 1955 for Maryland.This cost $25,000 at the time.Colorado
replaced its 1933 chamber with a new one in 1955.Gas chambers are of welded and riveted steel
construction, including the floor.There
is an adjoining Chemical Room where the chemicals are mixed prior to use and a
Control Room. Some chambers were built with a single chair as in Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon and Wyoming and some with
two chairs as in Arizona,
(the latter was not constructed by Eaton).Both types were of otherwise similar pattern.To prevent the cyanide gas condensing the
execution area has to be kept heat to at least 80 degrees F and any electrical
fittings, e.g. lights have to be explosion proof, as hydrogen cyanide gas is
The gassing of Bony Brown Heady and Carl Hall on December 18th, 1953 was unique
in that it was the only time that a man and a woman have been executed side by
side by lethal gas.The couple had
abducted and murdered of six year old Bobby Greenlease in Kansas City.
executions by lethal gas were carried out at San Quentin prison. The first
gassings there took place at on Friday December 2nd, 1938 when Robert Lee Cannon and Albert
Kessell were put to death simultaneously for the
murder of prison warden Clarence Larkin, a guard and two other inmates during
an uprising at Folsom prison. The cost to the state of this for the cyanide and
acid was $1.80. The following Friday (12/9/1938) a further two inmates involved in this uprising
were gassed, these being Wesley Eudy and Frederick
Barnes.A fifth defendant, Edward Davis
was executed on December 16th.Kessell seemed to die hard, it was reported that he
“appeared to be trying to hold his breath. He was rigid and his hands gripped
the arms of his chair as the gas hit him. He gasped: ‘It’s bad!’” Cannon seems
to have died easier.Several witnesses
complained about the proximity to the dying men over a lengthy period and that
they had no mask or blindfold to hide their sufferings.
Ethel Leta Juanita Spinelli became the
first woman to be executed in California
and the first woman to die in a gas chamber when she was put to death for
murder on November 21st, 1941.
The San Quentin gas chamber was constructed in a basement room and is a pale
green painted octagonal metal box, 6 feet across and 8 feet high. There is a 30
feet high chimney outside to take the gas away.The entrance is through a rubber sealed steel door closed by a large
locking wheel and there are windows in 5 of the sides for the witnesses to view
Inside the California chamber are two identical metal
chairs with perforated seats, marked "A" and "B." (The twin chairs were last used in a double execution in 1962).
Two guards strap the prisoner into chair A, attaching straps across his upper
and lower legs, arms, thighs and chest. They affix a Bowles stethoscope to the
person's chest so that a doctor on the outside can monitor the heartbeat and
pronounce death. Beneath the chair is a bowl filled with sulphuric acid mixed
with distilled water to give a concentration of approximately 37%, with a pound
of sodium cyanide pellets suspended in a gauze bag just above. After the door
is sealed, and when the warden gives the signal, the executioner in a separate
room operates a lever that releases the cyanide into the liquid. This causes a
chemical reaction that releases hydrogen cyanide gas, which rises through the
holes in the chair.(2 NaCn + H2SO4 = 2 HCN + Na2SO4).When the reaction has finished the gas reaches
a concentration of around 7,500 ppm.
are advised to take deep breaths after the gas is released as this will
considerably shorten their suffering. Easy for the Warden to say, no doubt, but
much harder for the prisoner to intentionally inhale the gas designed to kill
them even if they accept the logic of the advice they are given.
witnesses view of gassing is as follows "At first
there is evidence of extreme horror, pain, and suffocation. The eyes pop, the skin
turns purple and the victim begins to drool".
In medical terms, victims of cyanide gas die from hypoxia, which means the cut
off of oxygen to the brain. The initial result of this is spasms, as in an
epileptic seizure. Because of the straps, however, involuntary body movements
are restrained. Seconds after the prisoner first inhales, he/she will feel
himself unable to breathe, but will not lose consciousness immediately. "The person is unquestionably experiencing pain and extreme
anxiety," according to Dr. Richard Traystman of JohnsHopkinsUniversity.
"The pain begins immediately and is felt in the arms, shoulders, back, and
chest. The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart
attack, where essentially the heart is being deprived of oxygen." Traystman added: "We would not use asphyxiation, by
cyanide gas or by any other substance, in our laboratory to kill animals that
have been used in experiments."
of the execution records of 113 prisoners executed at San Quentin showed that
the average time taken to kill them was 9.3 minutes. The prisoner will usually
lose consciousness between one and three minutes after the gas hits their face
and the doctor will pronounce them dead in around 10 to 12 minutes. An exhaust
fan then sucks the gas out of the chamber. Next, the corpse is sprayed with
ammonia, which neutralises traces of the cyanide that may remain. After about
half an hour, staff enter the chamber, wearing gas
masks and rubber gloves. Their training manual advises them to ruffle the
victim's hair to release and trapped cyanide gas before removing him.
Missouri used the gas
chamber from 1938 to 1965 and the procedure was described as under in a
newspaper report in December 1953 relating how Bonnie Brown Heady and Carl
Austin Hall would die. “According to medical authorities, the doomed pair will
feel a slight burning sensation around the nose then in less than a minute they
will be unconscious.Actual death will
follow in about ten minutes.”In fact it
took 1 ¼ minutes for unconsciousness to set in and 9 minutes for them to
die.“After the lever releasing the
cyanide is operated a puff of white vapour starts to rise. An
involuntary stiffening occurs when the hydrogen cyanide gas hits the
face and then in less than a minute the head falls forward – a signal of
alternately stiffen and relax, the head moving back and forth, (typical
symptoms of asphyxia) Four minutes after unconsciousness, respiration usually stops
and in another two to three minutes muscular action is halted. At this point
they are unofficially pronounced dead.”Cause if death is given as cerebral anoxia – lack of oxygen to the
brain. Hydrogen cyanide cuts off oxygen to the lower nerve centres.
Modern era (post Furman) lethal gas executions. Five states carried out eleven executions by lethal
gas after the resumption of the death penalty in 1977.These being Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada
and North Carolina.
Arizona (2 executions). Arizona moved from hanging to the gas chamber
at the State Penitentiary in Florence
for the execution of brothers 19 year old Fred and 18
year old Manuel Hernandez at
on July 6th 1934.A further 33 men would follow them to this
fate up to 1963 when Manuel Silva became the last pre Furman execution on March
14th of that year.Arizona’s next execution occurred some 29
years later when Donald Eugene Harding was gassed on April 6th, 1992. At , the sodium cyanide pellets dropped
into the vat beneath Harding's chair containing 6 quarts of distilled water and
6 pints of sulphuric acid. Cameron Harper, a reporter for KTVK-TV said, "I
watched Harding go into violent spasms for 57 seconds. Then he began to
convulse less frequently. His back muscles rippled. The spasms grew less violent.
I timed them as ending six minutes and 37 seconds after they began. His head
went down in little jerking motions. Obviously, the man was suffering. This was
a violent death, make no mistake about it."; Harper went on, "It was
an ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely. This was not a clean and
simple death". Another witness, Carla McClain, a reporter for the Tucson Citizen said,
"Harding's death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him
gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple." This execution
prompted the introduction of lethal injection in late 1992, although prisoners
sentenced before November
15th 1992 can still choose lethal gas.
On March 4th, 1999,
Walter Le Grand was executed in Arizona's
gas chamber at his request, apparently as a protest against the death penalty.
(A week previously, his brother Karl had chosen lethal injection.) Le Grand
took 18 minutes to die after his executioners dropped the cyanide pellets into
the acid, enveloping him in a cloud of white, steam-like fumes.According to reporters present, as the
cyanide fumes rose, he let out a loud groan, coughed, shook his head and gagged
for a minute before his head slumped forward.
California (2 executions).
On Tuesday, April 21st, 1992,
39 year old Robert Alton Harris was put to death in the gas chamber at San
Quentin Prison in California's
first execution for 25 years.
At , a prison
official operated the lever, slowly lowering the pellets of cheesecloth wrapped
sodium cyanide into the vat of sulphuric acid beneath the chair to create the
lethal hydrocyanic gas. Harris took a number of deep breaths and for several
minutes appeared to gasp and twitch convulsively. His head snapped back and
then dropped as he strained against the straps. After a minute, his hands
seemed to relax. His mouth was open and his face flushed and turning blue.
Three minutes later there was a cough and a convulsion.
At 6.21 a.m. (eleven minutes after the start), Warden Daniel Vasquez declared
Harris dead and announced the words Harris had chosen to be remembered by.
Taken from the film “Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure”, they were: "You
can be a king or a street sweeper. But everybody dances with the grim reaper."
Edwin Mason became the last person to suffer death by lethal gas in California. He was
executed in accordance with Procedure No. 762 at San Quentin on of August 24th, 1994 for the
murders of four elderly women in 1980 and of a fellow inmate in 1982.He chose this method as he felt he deserved
to suffer for his crimes.He was
pronounced dead at ,
about 14 minutes after the cyanide pellets were dropped into the acid.
chamber has now been outlawed, unless he prisoner specifically requests it,
after the American Civil Liberties Union took the California Department of
Corrections to court in San Francisco in 1994 on behalf of 375 condemned
inmates on San Quentin's death row, saying that the gas chamber violates the
U.S. Constitution's ban against cruel and unusual punishment because it
inflicts needless pain and suffering.
District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled on October 5th, 1994 that the gas chamber is an
inhumane method of punishment.
On February 21st, 1996,
a three judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld
the ruling that gas chamber executions in California violated the 8th Amendment to the
Constitution because there was a risk that an inmate could suffer
"horrible pain" for up to several minutes.
"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," Judge Harry Pregerson
wrote. "This decision is the death knell for the gas chamber in the United States,"
predicted Michael Laurence, an attorney who fought to stop the use of the gas
Mississippi (4 executions). Mississippi’s
first execution after the death penalty was re-instated was that of Jimmy Lee
Gray on September 2nd, 1983
at the State Prison at Parchman.
Eight minutes after the gas had been released, officials cleared the witnesses
from the viewing area as Gray continued to convulse. He is reported to have
gasped 11 times during this period and to have repeatedly banged his head
against the steel pole behind the chair.
Earl Johnson was the next to be gassed in Mississippi on May 20th, 1987.Connie Ray Evans followed on July 8th, 1987 and finally Leo Edwards Jr. on June 21st, 1989. Evans was
pronounced dead 17 minutes after the cyanide pellets were dropped into the acid
and Edwards around 15 minutes.Mississippi has since
made lethal injection its sole method.
Nevada (1 execution).
The only person to die by lethal gas in Nevada
was Jesse Bishop who was executed on October 22nd, 1979.He took nine minutes to die and was described as “like an iceman” and
“as tough as nails to the end” by prison director Charles Wolff. Lethal
injection is now the sole method of execution in Nevada.
Carolina (2 executions). North Carolina’s
first modern era gas execution was carried out on June 16th, 1994 when David Lawson was put to
death.On of January 30th, 1998, Ricky Sanderson was
executed by lethal gas at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina,
for stabbing a 16 year old girl to death in 1985. Having been on death row for
nearly 13 years, 38 year old Sanderson waived his right to further appeals. His
last words were, "I'm dying for a deed I did and I deserve death for it
and I'm glad Christ forgave me." The execution commenced at 2.01 a.m. EST
and he was pronounced dead at 2:19 a.m., 18 minutes later. He died in just a
pair of white boxer shorts, which is standard procedure, according to prison
officials. He was seated in a wooden chair and wearing a leather mask to hide
facial contortions.Lethal injection is
now the sole method of execution in North
the cruellest modern method, execution by lethal gas requires considerable time
for the preparations. The inmate is expected to contribute to his (or her) own
death by actively inhaling the lethal fumes and typically takes several minutes
to lapse into unconsciousness, generally showing signs of great suffering
during this period.It should be noted
that none of the eleven modern era gassings described above could be in anyway
said to have been botched.
cruelty of gassing is well illustrated by the two films based upon the case of Barbara Graham who went to the San Quentin gas chamber on June 3rd, 1955. Lindsey
Wagner played Barbara Graham in the later version of "I want to live"
and gave a very moving performance. Her portrayal showed clearly the time it
takes to prepare the prisoner, get them into the gas chamber and for them to
pass into unconsciousness when the gas is finally released.
America's gas chambers
are all getting very old having been mostly constructed in the 1930’s. The
window and door seals are prone to harden and are thus liable to leak, which
could have fatal consequences to staff and witnesses. It was the practice, at
least in some states to loosen the bolts on the window surrounds to prevent the
seals hardening and then re-tighten them prior to an execution.
It is estimated that to build a new gas chamber would cost at least $300,000 at
year 2000 prices and this cannot be justified when set against the cost of the
equipment required for lethal injection.
Wyoming has the old gas
chamber from its Rawlins Prison on display and the public are invited to sit in
it and even be strapped in and have the door closed on them!
Only time will tell whether the gas chamber will be used in the 21st
century. It may, because there are still a number of prisoners on death row who
have the legal right to insist upon being gassed (as Walter Le Grand did in
other users of lethal gas were the Nazis during World War II when they killed
several million people using carbon monoxide or cyanide gas.