Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The lethal history of the gas chamber

It is difficult to find a way to deliberately put a human being to death that modern Americans can agree is “humane.” Perhaps for this reason, methods of execution have repeatedly been invented that were touted as humane only to later be criticized as inhumane.

In 1924, Nevada hoped gassing would be more humane than either the ancient method of hanging or the electric chair introduced in the 1880s.

The Nevada state prison gas chamber.

The first candidate for execution by gas in Nevada was Gee Jon. An immigrant from China, Jon had murdered a member of a rival Chinese immigrant gang. Nevada authorities decided they would mercifully take Jon unaware by pumping lethal cyanide gas into his cell while he slept. The gas leaked so a special room called a “gas chamber” was constructed. Sodium cyanide pellets were released so they hit sulfuric acid. The combination released hydrogen cyanide gas. Jon fell unconscious and died. Authorities left him enshrouded in gas for a half hour.

The typical procedure that soon developed for gas executions is to have the condemned strapped into a chair in an airtight room. A pail containing sulfuric acid lies below the chair. A long stethoscope is attached to the condemned so a physician outside the chamber can pronounce the person dead. When prison personnel leave the chamber, it is sealed. The warden gives a signal to an executioner who pulls a switch, releasing sodium cyanide into the pail, triggering a chemical reaction creating lethal hydrogen cyanide gas. The person dies from hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain.) After death, a fan sucks the poison out of the chamber. Then prison personnel spray the chamber with ammonia to neutralize cyanide. A half hour later, personnel wearing gas masks and rubber gloves enter the chamber to remove the corpse. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Their training manual advises them to ruffle the victim’s hair to release any trapped cyanide gas before removing the deceased.”

Gee Jon. Nevada state prison photo.

While the gas chamber was developed in the hope that it would provide a death both quick and painless, observers have said such deaths are neither. California’s Warden Clifton Duffy, who presided over many gassings at San Quentin Prison, said, “At first there is evidence of extreme horror, pain, and strangling. The eyes pop. The skin turns purple and the victim begins to drool.”

California’s March 15, 1957 gassing of Burton Abbott, convicted of murdering 14-year-old Stephanie Bryan, triggered concern because California Governor Goodwin J. Knight issued a stay of execution at 11:12 a.m.  At 11:15 a.m., Abbott was strapped into the gas chamber chair. The executioner pulled the switch at 11:18 a.m. As the sodium cyanide fell into the pail with sulfuric acid, Governor Knight told his secretary to prevent the execution. The secretary, named Joseph Babich,  called Warden Harley O. Teets on a direct line.

Babich asked, “Has the execution started?”

“Yes, sir, it has,” Teets replied.

“Can you stop it?” Babich asked.

“No, sir, it’s too late,” Teets answered.

Knight granted the stay not because he believed Abbott innocent but because he believed Abbott’s attorneys had raised issues constituting grounds for a new trial. However, in 1995, former newspaper reporter Keith Walker published a book entitled A Trail of Corn in which he argues that Abbott was innocent.

One famous criminal executed in California’s gas chamber was Caryl Chessman. Convicted of rape and kidnapping as the notorious “Red Light Bandit,” he became a cause célèbre because he was condemned for crimes that did not include murder. Prior to his 1960 execution, he told reporters he would nod his head if he was in pain. Witnesses said he nodded his head several times.

In the 1980s, increased concerns over suffering by people executed by gas led to demands that it be dropped as an execution method.

The Mississippi gas chamber. Photo: Mississippi Dept of Corrections.

Murderer Jimmy Lee Gray was executed in a Mississippi gas chamber on September 2, 1983. His desperate gasps for air upset several witnesses, leading authorities to clear the witness room. Gray’s lawyer, Dennis Balske, criticized Mississippi authorities for clearing out witnesses. Attorney David Bruck commented, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the reporters counted his moans.” Professor Michael L. Radelet wrote for the Death Penalty Information Center that the execution may have been botched because the executioner was drunk.

Murderer Donald Harding was executed in Arizona’s gas chamber on April 6, 1992. A witness wrote: “When the fumes enveloped Don’s head he took a quick breath. . . . His face was red and contorted as if he were attempting to fight through tremendous pain. His mouth was pursed shut and his jaw was clenched tight. Don then took several more quick gulps of the fumes. At this point Don’s body started convulsing violently . . . His face and body turned a deep red and the veins in his temple and neck began to bulge until I thought they might explode. After about a minute Don’s face leaned partially forward but he was still conscious. Every few seconds he continued to gulp. He was shuddering uncontrollably and his body was racked with spasms. His head continued to snap back. His hands were clenched. After several more minutes, the most violent of the convulsions subsided. At this time the muscles along Don’s left arm and back began twitching in a wave-like motion under his skin.” Despite having his hands strapped down, Harding extended a middle finger at least twice during his convulsions in a classically obscene gesture.

He was dead after ten minutes and thirty-one seconds.

Harding’s gruesome death led the Arizona House of Representatives to vote to change the state’s execution method from gas to lethal injection. Arizona State Attorney General Grant Woods, who had witnessed Harding’s execution and acknowledged being disturbed by it, supported the change.

Arizona’s execution method had been hanging until 1930 when a condemned woman was accidentally decapitated. That incident led Arizona to adopt the gas chamber in 1933 because proponents argued it was more humane.

Robert Alton Harris. Police photo.

On April 21, 1992, Robert Alton Harris, who had brutally murdered two teenaged boys, became the first person executed in California since 1976. The execution was postponed while courts considered appeals claiming the gas chamber constituted a cruel and unusual punishment execution method. A federal judge ordered Harris’s execution filmed to provide evidence for future rulings on this issue. A camera was mounted on a tripod outside the gas chamber and it filmed Harris’s death.

Asked for his last words, Harris quoted from the movie Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, saying, “You can be a king or a street sweeper but everyone dances with the grim reaper.”

When the door was closed and room sealed, he appeared to mouth the words, “It’s all right” and “I’m sorry.” The executioner pulled the switch that dropped sodium cyanide into the pail of sulfuric acid to create the fatal hydrocyanic gas. Harris seemed to take several deep breaths. He gasped and twitched convulsively. His head snapped back and then dropped. He strained against the straps. His face flushed and then turned blue. Three minutes later he coughed and again twitched. Eleven minutes after the start, Warden Daniel Vasquez declared Harris dead.

Shortly after Harris’s execution, the California Legislature amended the death penalty statute to add lethal injection as a means of execution in the state. When Harris was executed, the gas chamber was the only method California authorized. Also shortly after Harris’s execution, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that execution by lethal gas is an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. That court stated, “inmates who are put to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin do not become immediately unconscious upon the first breath of lethal gas. . . an inmate probably remains conscious anywhere from 15 seconds to one minute, and . . . there is a substantial likelihood that consciousness, or a waxing and waning of consciousness, persists for several additional minutes. . . . inmates suffer intense, visceral pain, primarily as a result of lack of oxygen to the cells. The experience of ‘air hunger’ is akin to the experience of a major heart attack, or to being held under water.”

"I Want to Live!" movie poster.

California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court ruling. Although not currently allowed by the state’s courts, California still has death by gassing on the books as an execution method. Three other states–Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming–also have the gas chamber as a possible method of execution. Lethal injection is another possible method of execution in all four states.

The gas chamber was dramatically depicted in the movie I Want To Live! Directed by Robert Wise, the film stars Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham who, along with Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo, was executed in the gas chamber for murdering Mabel Monahan. The film won an Academy Award for Hayward. The final segment of the film shows Graham executed in the gas chamber.

I Want To Live! is heavily fictionalized. It never re-creates the crime but strongly suggests Graham was innocent which many observers consider unlikely. However, it is factual in depicting the advice a prison officer gives the doomed inmate and her astute retort to it.

“Take a deep breath,” the officer advised. “It’s easier that way.”

“How would you know?” Graham asked.

It is a good question.



Sources on following page. 

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