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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Criminal Justice Quote: History of the Gas Chamber

     The earliest gas chamber for execution purposes was constructed in the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City and first employed on February 8, 1924, with the legislatively sanctioned and court-ordered punishment of Gee Jon, a Chinese immigrant, amid a wave of anti-immigrant and racist hysteria that gripped the country at that time.

     America's and the world's first execution by gas arose as a byproduct to chemical warfare research conducted by the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service and a chemical industry during the First World War. Embraced by both Democrats and Republicans, including many progressives, and touted by both the scientific and legal establishments as a "humane" improvement over hanging and electrocution, the gas chamber was also considered a matter of practical social reform Its adherents claimed that the gas chamber would kill quickly and painlessly, without the horrors of the noose or the electric chair, and in a much more orderly and peaceful fashion. But they were quickly proven wrong. Technocrats nevertheless kept tinkering with its workings for seventy-five years in a vain attempt to overcome the imperfections of lethal gas.

     Eventually adopted by eleven states as the official method of execution, lethal gas claimed 594 lives in the United States from 1924 to 1999 until it was gradually replaced by another supposedly more humane method of capital punishment, lethal injection.

Scott Christianson, The Last Gasp, 2010

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