Execution by Gas Chamber

by RupertTaylor

In an effort to make the business of killing convicts more humane the gas chamber was introduced in the United States; experience suggests it is not humane at all.

The earliest historical records contain evidence of capital punishment. It was mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BCE). The Bible says that death is an appropriate penalty for more than 30 different crimes. The Draconian Code of ancient Greece imposed capital punishment for every offence.
Humans devised all manner of gruesome methods for killing the condemned and many were put on show for the public; the idea was that citizens witnessing a blood-filled execution would decide to behave themselves. There’s little proof this goal was achieved, as there is little evidence the death penalty has reduced murders in modern times.

Execution as a Cure for Crime

English law in the 15th century recognized seven major crimes for which the sentence might be death - murder, treason, burglary, larceny, rape, and arson.

By the start of the 19th century this had grown to where more than 220 crimes could get a person hanged.

In the Canada of 1859, the state claimed the right to execute criminals for committing any one of 230 offences; stealing turnips and being found disguised in a forest were a couple of the heinous activities that could lead to a trip to the gallows. In Montreal, in 1803, a 13-year-old boy was hanged for stealing a cow.

Despite keeping the hangman busy, the masses of executions did not stop crime.

U.S. Experiments with Gas Chambers

Hanging was the common method of execution in the English-speaking world for a couple of centuries, but it didn’t always go smoothly. Untutored executioners sometimes botched the affair with anything from decapitation to a slow death by strangulation being the result.

Officials in the United   States started to look for a way of avoiding these gruesome outcomes and one of the strategies they tried was lethal gas.

The Death Penalty Information Center notes that “In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was introduced as Nevada sought a more humane way of executing its inmates. Gee Jon, convicted of murdering a member of a rival Chinese gang, was the first person executed by lethal gas. The state tried to pump cyanide gas into Gee’s cell “while he slept.”

First Nevada gas chamberBut, the cell wasn’t sealed and the gas leaked out presenting an extreme hazard to the executioners and failing to kill Gee. So, officials patched together a makeshift gas chamber (left) in a room that served as the prison’s butcher shop (some sources say it was the barber shop). The set up was crude but efficient enough to bump off Gee Jon, although leakage pointed to the need for purpose-built, and more robust, sealed execution chambers.

In his 2010 book “Fatal Airs” Scott Christianson quotes two conflicting reports of the execution of Gee Jon. The Nevada State Journal recorded that the state’s “novel death law is upheld by the highest court - humanity.” But, The San Jose Mercury News was highly critical: “One hundred years from now Nevada will be referred to as a heathen commonwealth controlled by savages with only the outward symbols of civilization.”

The Execution of Barbara Graham

Barbara Graham was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber on June 3, 1955. She was involved in the bludgeoning and suffocation of an elderly widow; a crime that earned her the nickname “Bloody Babs.”

Joe Ferretti was in charge of arrangements on the day of her execution. It was his job to strap Graham into a chair and apply the blindfold she had requested so she didn’t have to see the witnesses. Having completed his tasks Ferretti told her “Now take a deep breath and it won’t bother you.” Barbara Graham’s response was short and caustic: “How in the hell would you know?”

When the hydrogen cyanide gas was released she strained against the straps that held her and then threw her head back as far it would go. It’s said her death was relatively easy. Two films, both entitled “I Want to Live,” dramatized Barbara Graham’s life.

Re-enactment of the Execution of Barbara Graham from the 1983 Movie “I Want to Live.”

She was allowed to wear a stylish suite, ear rings, and lipstick into the death chamber.
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Gas Chamber Execution is not Painless

People who have witnessed a gas chamber execution say it’s an unpleasant way to go; they describe it as distressing and probably very painful for the condemned person, causing a choking death.

Clifton Duffy used to be the warden at San Quentin, California. The Death Penalty Information Center quotes his description of gas chamber executions, “At first there is evidence of extreme horror, pain, and strangling. The eyes pop. The skin turns purple and the victim begins to drool.”

Missouri gas chamberJimmy Lee Grey’s execution in the Mississippi gas chamber on the night of September 2, 1983 took more than eight minutes to complete. Witnesses said his face turned purple as he suffocated and repeatedly slammed his head into a steel pole behind the chair he was strapped into.

The man who put Jimmy Lee Grey to death that night was T. Berry Bruce, and he was drunk at the time. In an interview with CBC journalist Neil Macdonald Bruce said “Y’all know what Jimmy Lee done?

“Sumbitch took a little three-year-old girl out into the bush and he raped her.” In graphic detail, T. Berry Bruce described the further indignities suffered by Deressa Jean Seales as she was being killed. “So yeah, I feel real sorry for Jimmy Lee.”

Macdonald obviously found the execution of Gray barbaric, a conclusion not shared by T. Berry Bruce. “Besides,” wrote Macdonald, “there was a certain symmetry to the executioner’s logic: The state had decided Jimmy Lee Gray should die. Killing folks is messy. So what if he suffered? He sure didn’t suffer any more than his victim.”

Edward Earl Johnson

Capital Punishment U.K. says that “Between 1924 and 1999, 587 men and 7 women were put to death in the gas chambers of various American states.”

One of those people was Edward Earl Johnson. His story is detailed in a 1987 BBC documentary, “Fourteen Days in May.”

Throughout his eight-year incarceration, Johnson professed his innocence. No matter, Johnson was executed in the gas chamber at Parchman   Prison, Mississippi, at midnight on May 20, 1987.

His attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, put forward a convincing claim that Johnson was framed and was innocent of the crime for which he was put to death.

Fourteen Days in May

The last two weeks in the short life of Edward Earl Johnson

Gas Chamber Called Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Descriptions of the death agonies of inmates in the gas chamber have been used by advocates for abolition of the death penalty to halt capital punishment.

The last person to die in one of America’s gas chambers was Walter LaGrand. He and his brother killed a bank employee during a robbery.

LaGrand’s execution took place even though a federal judge in 1994 had ruled that gas chamber executions violated the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that people may not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Shortly before Walter LaGrand’s scheduled execution,” wrote Matthias Lehmphul on the website Executed Today, “the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay whose logic would have banned lethal gas forever. This was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving it as it remains today.”

Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri, and Wyoming are the only states that still retain gas chamber execution as an option for capital crimes. However, given the court rulings mentioned it seems unlikely this method of execution will ever be used again.


“History of the Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center, undated.

“Fatal Airs.” Scott Christianson, Praeger Publishers, July 2010.

“Barbara Graham - California1955.” Capitalpunishment.org, undated.

“Might we Make Executions more Civilized, Please?” Neil Macdonald, CBC News, November 7, 2007.

“1999: Walter LaGrand, a German Gassed in America.” Matthias Lehmphul, Executed Today, March 3, 2008.

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Updated: on 05/28/2013, RupertTaylor
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joost on 08/14/2013

The first question should be : Should there be a death penalty in the first place.
The death penalty is only used by police states like China, Iraq, USA, Iran, Saudi Arabia.
You will never erase the problem of why the person "deserved" to die by killing the person.
And to be frank, if you have enough money and your skin color is white, you will not get the same punishment as a black person who is poor in the US.
And what about the family of the person who is gassed. The parents, you kill a part of there lives too.
The death penalty is a far to simplistic and sadly very popular way of thinking.
Just kill the guy - revenge.revenge.
There must be a better way to speak justice.

frankbeswick on 05/29/2013

While we might accept that some people deserve to die, I reject the death penalty because of the possibility of error. To prevent the execution of one innocent person it is better to execute no person.

RupertTaylor on 05/28/2013

The 18th century English jurist William Blackstone said "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."
On the other hand, 19th century Prussian politician Otto von Bismark said "It is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape."
I know where I stand, and it`s with Blackstone.
There are some dreadful animals who commit unspeakable crimes. They must never be allowed out of custody, but to kill them in a premeditated way reduces society to their level.

Guest on 05/28/2013

Lethal injection is now supposed to be the most "humane" method of execution, but it can also lead to what is effectively torture.

katiem2 on 05/28/2013

Oh my a 13 year old hung for stealing a cow, how sad and yet I can empathize with Berry Bruce and his feelings on the business of putting someone to death be it by brutal attack on a innocent child or carrying out the legal sentence to death. It all makes one go back and forth, if we were to be honest about it. Even still there's the case of Edward Earl Johnson who was never actually proven to be guilty and in fact probable innocents loomed. The back and forth of varying cases hits home to so many in diverse ways and yet it all leaves me to wonder what would occur if the death penalty was abolished? Was it not due to public outcry the death penalty was originated? Or to eliminate the vigilante mobs taking matters into their own hands. How to do it, whether to do it, seems mute when we come to remember what happened before. It seems the harden criminals, those who can't control the thing in them driving them to do anything other than kill and horribly at time torture seem to think they are invincible and will not be caught or proven guilty so the threat of death is lost on them, the very ones no doubt to one day face it. Great thought provoking article.

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