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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Thornton P. Knowles On Death By Gas Chamber

On February 8, 1924, a Chinese immigrant named Gee Jon became the first person in America to be executed by cyanide gas. He died in the gas chamber inside the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. Over time, eleven states adopted the cyanide chamber as the official method of execution. From 1924 to 1999, 594 persons died in these gas chambers. In 1960, asphyxiation executioners in California killed a man named Caryl Chessman. He perished in the cyanide room for the crimes of kidnapping and rape. He is the only person in U.S. history to be executed for a crime other than murder. (There are better ways to make history.) The gas chamber, compared to the rope, the firing squad, the electric chair, and lethal drugs, is the cruelest way to dispatch murderers. (That, of course, might be of no concern to proponents of the death sentence.) Death by cyanide took between six and eighteen agonizing minutes, and for those witnessing the execution, it produced  a gruesome tableau. It was the only form of capital punishment that required the condemned man to contribute to his death by breathing within a chamber filled with cyanide gas. I find the concept that the government can, with malice and premeditation, legally kill a human being, fascinating. I imagine it takes a special kind of person to open the trap door, throw the switch, insert the deadly needle, or release cyanide into a chamber occupied by a breathing human. I'm not the nicest guy in the world, and I hate criminals, but I couldn't do it.

Thornton P. Knowles


  1. I know there were others in the U.S. who were executed for other crimes. What about the Rosenbergs in 1953? (I don't remember if they were executed in a gas chamber.)

  2. You're right about that. The Rosenbergs, I believe, were electrocuted.

  3. Caryl Chessman was executed in 1960, not 1990.