Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sabotage: The Downing of Flight 629

Inside the Gas Chamber

Hanging was the official method of execution in Colorado up until 1933 when it was discarded in favor of the gas chamber. Gassing the condemned was considered a more modern and humane way of taking a life than hanging, whose origins reach back to medieval times. In Colorado, by January 1957, 25 men had met their deaths from the fumes produced by dropping cyanide tablets into a bucket of sulphuric acid. Graham's execution was set for 8:00 p.m. on January 12. There were 12 witnesses signed up for the event and dozens of photographers and reporters milled around Colorado State Prison in Canon City all day, anxious to report on Graham's final moments of life. Graham received virtually no sympathy from the press or the public.

Jack Graham smiles, enters the death cell
Jack Graham smiles,
enters the death cell

Warden Harry Tinsley later told reporters when he arrived at Graham's cell at 7:45 p.m., he found the prisoner in "a jovial mood." He was stripped naked and handed a pair of prison-made shorts. The condemned are only allowed to wear shorts since clothes will retain the poisonous cyanide fumes. Graham put on the shorts and, according to press reports, "walked quickly toward the chamber." Tinsley, three guards and a clergyman then escorted Graham into the gas chamber. Inside the cylinder-shaped room, Graham sat down in the metal chair while heavy leather straps were tied around each arm, leg and his chest. A black mask was placed over his head. The prison chaplain gave him his final blessing.

"I hope God will forgive you your sins," he said, "Take it like a man."

"Okay," Graham replied softly. "Thanks Warden!" he said to Tinsley. The men exited the chamber and sealed the door tightly using the large wheel. There was absolute quiet in the room. Within seconds, the cyanide pellets fell into the acid making an audible "plop." Soon, the deadly fumes seeped up into the barren chamber. Graham sat quietly and according to press reports, "continued to breathe normally." About a minute later, the room was filled with the gaseous fog and Graham had no choice but to breathe it in. He gagged and wheezed as his head shook from side to side. Suddenly, he let out an ear-piercing scream and his chest pounded against the leather straps. Within a moment, Graham fell into unconsciousness. Prison doctors, listening to his heartbeat through an attached stethoscope, announced that there was no pulse. He was pronounced dead at 8:08 p.m. Later, after the fumes had been vented out of the chamber, Graham's body was removed and cremated.

One of America's worst mass murderers, Graham remained an enigma to the end. He displayed no sorrow or remorse for his awful crime, nor did he ever explain his consuming hatred for his mother. Shortly before his execution, Graham had a brief conversation with Warden Tinsley. "As far as feeling remorse for these people, I don't," he said, "I can't help it. Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That's just the way it goes."

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