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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Gas Chamber

     Even after the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States still would not bring itself to address the question whether execution in the gas chamber amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution. No amount of evidence could convince it otherwise.

     But in the court of world opinion, the gas chamber represented one of modernity's worst crimes; it was an instrument of torture that first had been disguised as a humane alternative to pain and suffering. What originally had seemed to be such a noble and practical idea turned out to be something else entirely.

     Dreamers, scientists, soldiers, merchants, lawmakers, lawyers, physicians, governors, journalists, wardens, keepers--and, of course the condemned prisoners--all made their unique contribution to the rise and fall of the gas chamber. But the creation of a "painless and humane" method of killing proved elusive. Despite all of their utopian schemes, laboratory experiments and mathematical formulas, blind obedience, commercial arrangement, legislative clauses, legal briefs, stopwatches, stethoscopes, death warrants, witnesses peering into peepholes, execution protocols, and public relations pronouncements, America's use of lethal gas as a method of capital punishment ended with the close of the twentieth century. But its awful legacy will continue for a long time to come.

Scott Christianson, The Last Gasp, 2010

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