Applications of the Death Penalty: The Gas Chamber

by JoHarrington

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of asphyxiation as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

Gas seeps into the sealed chamber. It finally replaces all of the oxygen in the air.

The condemned prisoner can only hold their breath for so long. Eventually they must gasp the poison into their lungs.

For several minutes, the victim slowly suffocates. Restrained in a chair, they cannot move. Their fingers flex in grasping pain.

Then they slump. Witnesses watch them slide into unconsciousness; and die.

Image: Gas Chamber at Sante Fe, New Mexico, USA
Image: Gas Chamber at Sante Fe, New Mexico, USA

Only the USA officially executes people in gas chambers. It remains an option in Arizona, California and Missouri. Maryland has this killing method on the books only for those sentenced to death before 1994.  Wyoming retains the right to use it in the event that lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional.

However, a North Korean Death Camp has used gas chambers recently to annihilate dissident families.

The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber

Buy this book to learn about the history and use of gas in executions in the USA. It was first introduced in 1924 and continues to be an option for five states.

How is Death by Gas Carried Out in North Korea?

It's not just the accused, but his or her whole family who are killed in the gas chambers.

The children fell first. Their parents died trying to force precious oxygen into their mouths, from their own lungs.

It was doomed to failure. Mum and Dad alike were vomiting. They were also suffocating on the gas being injected into the room. Their young son and daughter didn't stand a chance. Yet each of the parents' last breath was spent trying mouth to mouth resuscitation on them.

Watching from above, Head of Security Kwon Hyok was moved by the scene. "For the first time it hit me that even prisoners are capable of powerful human affection." 

Nevertheless, he made no move to save them. Even in his burgeoning sympathy, he still saw them as his enemies. They were responsible for the divisions and difficulties in his state. Even the children.

Condemned prisoners in North Korea have not received a trial. Most of the time, they have no idea what alleged crime placed them in the prison camps. No-one is incarcerated alone. The extended family of the accused is also rounded up under the Heredity Law. They will not be set free. This is a life-time incarceration, rife with torture, starvation, degradation and seemingly random executions.

For those not swept up under the Heredity Law, the crime could be perceived dissent against the state. This includes speaking out against President Kim Jong-un or his family.  Or it might be over-exposure to Japan, China or any other country outside North Korea (returning ex-pats have been directed straight there).

Simply being in the camps may incur a death sentence.  Those destined for the gas chambers will be subject to a Letter of Transfer. Guards will arrive at their hut and shepherd the whole family together. They will be transported to the laboratory complex.

It should be noted that, while executions are constant amongst the prisoners, those taken to the gas chambers double as subjects for experimentation. There is no standard type of gas. The state is testing out various compounds, in order to find the best one for use in chemical weapons.

All of the victims (the accused and his/her family, young and old) are stripped naked. They are then examined by doctors to ensure that they are free from disease. The family is then forced up a ladder onto a platform. Here is the first of two doors leading into the execution chamber. The doors will automatically close behind them, fixed with an air-tight seal.

The walls of the gas chambers are glass. There is nowhere to hide inside.  Officials line the perimeter, watching from above.  In the center of the ceiling is a pipe. Gas is pumped into the chamber from it.

It could be poison gas or suffocating gas or anything else that the military laboratories have just mixed up.  For the victims, it is likely to be a prolonged and painful death.

A Family Killed by Gas in North Korea

Kwon Hyok, a former Head of Security at one of North Korea's death camps, describes gas chamber executions (watch from 3.02).

Learn More About the Prison Camps in North Korea

Buy these books to educate yourself with first-hand testimonies about conditions and capital punishment in North Korea's concentration camps.

How is Death by Gas Carried Out in the USA?

The individual is strapped to a chair in an airtight compartment. Even done correctly, it takes ten agonizing minutes to die.

The gas chambers are located within American prison walls.

In Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri and Wyoming, they differ only in size. Some contain only one chair. Others have the capacity for three.

The gas chamber is metallic with a single, thick, airtight door. Windows allow observation from every side. Watching through them are the executioner, official witnesses, prison staff, a doctor and a spiritual representative, like a priest or rabbi.

Flanked by guards, the victim is led from his or her cell and walks into the death house. The chair has straps to restrain their arms, legs and torso.  The latter may be a single strap straddling the waist.

As a final touch, a stethoscope is fixed over the person's heart. It is attached via a tube to the outside. It will be used by a doctor to determine the moment of death.

Spiritual counsel may be given.  Last words are heard.  Then the door closes blocking out all further sounds and smells.  It will also act to contain the gas within for the protection of on-lookers. Now the victim may only be observed.

Beneath the chair is a well.  A pound of cyanide is attached to a bag, dangling just above it, on the day of an execution. (If there is more than one chair, then each is fitted with a pound of potassium cyanide. This occurs even if the extra chairs will be empty.) 

Alongside the gas chamber is a mixing room. Inside it, there is a one-gallon jar per chair. Each are filled with a mixture of distilled water and sulfuric acid. They are connected via tubes to the wells beneath the chairs.

Once the condemned man or woman has been secured, the executioner will double-check the door to the chamber. Satisfied that it is securely air-tight, (s)he will return to the mixing room.

A switch will be flicked to turn on the exhaust fan inside the gas chamber. It draws out some of the oxygen in the air there.

Next the contents of the jars are allowed to gush into the wells. This sound is clearly audible to the victim strapped in the chair. Beforehand, they will have been advised to start breathing deeply when they hear it. Such co-operation will speed up their death.

But before the killing dose is administered, the executioner pauses. The warden of the prison has to give the signal - a nod or a command or any other acknowledgement that this must legally go on.

Only when the executioner sees that signal does it happen. The lever is pulled and the cyanide bag crashes into the well below. The resulting chemical reaction creates hydrogen cyanide, which quickly fills the gas chamber.

Photographs of American Gas Chambers

Image:  Mississippi Gas Chamber
Image: Mississippi Gas Chamber
Image: Wyoming's Territorial Prison Gas Chamber
Image: Wyoming's Territorial Prison G...
Image: Colorado's Canon City Penitentiary Gas Chamber
Image: Colorado's Canon City Penitent...
Image: Arizona Gas Chamber
Image: Arizona Gas Chamber
Image: California's San Quentin Gas Chamber
Image: California's San Quentin Gas C...
Image: California's San Quentin Gas Chamber
Image: California's San Quentin Gas C...

Films Showing People Dying in the Gas Chambers

Susan Hayward won a Best Actress Oscar for playing Barbara Graham in the true story 'I Want to Live'. 'Fallen' depicts a fairly realistic scene of a US gas chamber execution.
I Want to Live!

Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland. This true story of a fast-living party girl whose murder conviction and death sentence sparked a nationwide controversy and earned Hayward a Best A...

View on Amazon

Fallen (Snap Case Packaging)

Homicide detective Denzel Washington must track down a serial killer he caught once before...and who was already put to death! Washington follows a trail of ancient evil as the ...

View on Amazon

What is Hydrogen Cyanide?

It had been used as early as the 1880s as a pesticide for oranges in California. The First World War opened up other possibilities.

Hydrogen cyanide is better known colloquially to scientists as Prussian Blue.  First World War historians call it Prussic Acid. 

It had already been widely used in both pesticides and mining operations. The practice began in California, but spread throughout the United States and Europe.

In 1892, the first patent for hydrogen cyanide production was placed by a Scot, Sir George Thomas Beilby. His method was used in gold mining.

But these seemingly innocuous uses were about to take a sinister twist during World War One.

On April 22nd 1915, a German army stationed near Langemarck, France, released a chemical cloud of chloride gas. It cast an odorless, yellow-green hue over No Man's Land and appeared harmless at first. It was anything but.

The French and Algerian troops in its path had the linings stripped from their lungs. They effectively drowned in their own internal bodily fluids.

This was the beginning of whole-sale and industrial scale chemical warfare. Every side participated, causing an estimated 1.3m deaths by gas or gas-related injuries alone. 

In July 1917, the French experimented with Prussic Acid on the Western Front. Grenades filled with hydrogen cyanide were hurled into the German front lines. In battle terms, it was a bit of a damp squib. The open air dissipated the gas before too much of it could be inhaled.

However, this was the first time that the blood agent was introduced with intent to kill. It would eventually become the most notorious gas of all.

After World War One, the possibilities inherent in chemical warfare had become all too apparent. Yet hydrogen cyanide remained under-estimated as anything more than a pesticide. It was only in the laboratories that had sprung up in America and Europe that more was suspected.

The French had failed only because the contents of the grenades had been mixed with too much air.  What if the 'pesticide' was used in an enclosed space?

After experimenting with animals, the Americans had the chance to find out with a human subject. Convicted murderer Gee Jon was placed in a Nevada gas chamber. He was exposed to Prussic Acid and killed.

The method of death had been accomplished only after a long, hard fight by General Amos Fries. He had been in charge of the US's Chemical Warfare Service during the war. He wanted to continue his work now.

Fries's constant lobbying was the reason that America did not sign the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.  Instead, the US Senate passed a law, which stated that all of their ports and borders had to be fumigated with Prussic Acid. It killed insects and rodents.

In January 1929, a consignment of hydrogen cyanide was sent to El Paso.  This border crossing was one of the most popular for Mexican immigrants into the USA.  Now there was a special 'delousing' house built.  All Mexicans were sent into it, where they were sprayed with the gas.

It was not in a concentrated enough form to kill them, but nevertheless the results were unpleasant. Even more worrying, from the American viewpoint, was the brand name on the cannisters. It was made by a German firm based in the USA; and it was called Zyklon B.

A decade later, these would be the precise pellets used to exterminate millions of people in the Nazi death camps. The rooms, in which they died, had been built after architects adapted the blueprint from the US gas chamber in Nevada.

Scott Christianson's Talk on the American Gas Chamber

He is the author of 'The Last Gasp'; and he delivered a lecture about it in New York City on November 5th 2010.

US Gas Chambers Built by a Holocaust Revisionist

Read the section on Fred A Leuchter in the first article below. He used his 'expertize' in gassing humans to deny that the Holocaust had ever happened.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of electrocution as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
For the majority of Holocaust deniers, it's to ensure that genocide can one day happen again. But that isn't the only reason for such willful misinterpretations.
What do you do about a Holocaust denier in your midst? Is this a time for confrontation or not feeding the troll? A Holocaust historian informs the debate.
Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister Miriam survived the Holocaust, because Dr Mengele needed them for medical experiments. Today she is speaking with Wizzley.

Books about the Use of Zyklon B to Kill Human Beings

Millions died in the gas chambers of the Holocaust, while many nations are prepared for its use in chemical warfare. Zyklon B was used against Mexicans by the USA at El Paso.

How Hydrogen Cyanide Kills its Victims

There's a fallacy that this is the 'big sleep'. It doesn't happen like that at all.

"At first there is evidence of extreme horror, pain, and strangling. The eyes pop. The skin turns purple and the victim begins to drool."

Clinton Duffy, Warden at San Quentin State Penitentiary, California, between 1940-1952.

It was his stint as San Quentin's warden which turned Clinton Duffy against the death penalty. People died violently upon his signal. He bore witness to it all.

The victims ultimately die from hypoxia. This is the result of the heart, then the brain, becoming starved of oxygen. Cyanide attacks the respiratory enzymes which transfer oxygen to the victim's blood cells. Dr. Richard Traystman, of the John Hopkins University School of Medicine, likened it to suffering a prolonged heart attack.

On average, it takes between eight and ten minutes to die.

In 1960, Caryl Chessman volunteered to help raise awareness of the pain felt. He agreed to keep nodding his head for as long as his execution hurt. He started nodding soon after the pellets dropped; and was still doing so eight minutes later.

Those condemned to the gas chambers in America are warned that they should simply breathe deeply. This will hurry unconsciousness, allowing them to stop feeling the pain.  In reality, this rarely happens.

Victims panic and try to hold their breath. Eventually they can't do that any more and have to inhale the toxins.  Death takes several minutes more.

Books About People Killed in America's Gas Chambers

Read these testimonies to really understand what it's like to be involved in a US gas chamber execution.

The Execution of Henry Ford McCracken

The only time that psychiatrists acted was when he had to be made sane enough to die.

Nobody likes a child killer.  It is one of the crimes practically guaranteed to cause outrage and indignation.

When it happens in small town America, it's also likely to bring out a mob mentality.

Henry Ford McCracken was found guilty and lampooned in the press, before he had even stepped foot in a courtroom. Everyone knew that he'd done it. His name was on the television and in the newspaper.

The McCracken case was one of the first where live cameras relayed the drama. Anchor men and women joined reporters in endless speculation. Whenever the courtroom doors opened, cameramen jostled to catch a glimpse of proceedings inside.

The murdered girl's mother found herself hounded. She was filmed hiding her tearful face, trying to escape the attention. Viewers back home lapped it up. 

A member of the jury became so incensed by the intrusive nature of the reporters, that he lashed out. The camera was smashed into the face of the man holding it. The cameraman retaliated with a sharp right hook. Suddenly there was a brawl between a group of jurors and newsmen. The deputy sheriff had to intervene.

When the jury returned a hung verdict, they must have feared being lynched. District Attorney Davis went on live television berating them for their cowardly decision. Everyone was feeling the severe pressure to perform.

Meanwhile, the thirty-four year old man at the center of the furor was chanting in the dock. "I knew I wasn't guilty!  I knew I wasn't guilty!" Henry Ford McCracken chanted it like a child sings a skipping song. "I knew I wasn't guilty!"

He had actually been found guilty of child stealing, but not kidnapping little Patty Hill. The jury had been divided on the final charge of murder. The judge ordered a retrial.

But where would they find a jury, which hadn't been swayed by the antagonistic, blanket press coverage? 

Henry's lawyers, George H. Chula, James C. Monroe and Kal W. Lines, immediately appealed for a change of venue. He could not get a fair trial in Orange County, California, now.  The court refused; then refused again when a second appeal asked for the same thing.

On October 26, 1951, five months after the murder of ten year old Patty Hill, a second trial saw a unanimous verdict returned by the jury.  Henry Ford McCracken was guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to die in San Quentin's gas chamber.

There was another slight problem.  Henry wasn't sane. Five years previously, his own mother had taken him to a psychiatrist's clinic. She had become afraid of his out of control schizophrenia. She'd begged the doctor to have him sectioned. The doctor declined. In his opinion, Henry could function safely in society.

Events weren't quite going to support that conclusion. The facts of the matter had never been whether Henry killed the child, but if he'd been sane at the time. He personally thought it might have been a dream.

His lawyers had attempted to convince both juries that Henry was a sexual psychopath. His plea had been 'not guilty by reason of insanity'. However, the prosecution had objected to the filing of affidavits confirming this diagnosis by doctors. The judge had sustained the objection. The defense couldn't prove that Henry was insane without them.

Once on Death Row, that fact was never in doubt.  During three years of appeals and counter-appeals, Henry's mental health deteriorated to the point where he couldn't be legally executed. US law states that he has to understand what is happening to him, and why. (For this reason, all narcotics, alcohol and sedatives are also banned on execution day. The condemned may have a small glass of whiskey, but only administered in the presence of a doctor.)

Henry was placed into the care of a psychiatrist specializing in criminal insanity. The remit was clear - make him sane enough that he might be taken to the gas chamber.

It took grueling, pain-staking weeks of treatment, including electroshock therapy. A panel of court appointed psychiatrists declared him legally sane. Henry was then rushed to the gas chamber before he could slip into insanity again.

He was gassed to death on February 19th 1954.

Did Henry Ford McCracken deserve to die like this?

Please also include your views on the use of the gas chamber per se in capital punishment.
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No, because...
James on 10/13/2017

We need to be better than the killers, if we are not as good as them then how can we justify killing them.

Bernie Hurford on 11/29/2016

killing the insane puts the United States in the dubious company of North Korea and the Nazis

Kate on 07/15/2012

The guy was Ill and needed treatment

Botched Gas Chamber Executions

Too many people think that the condemned has a tiny whiff of rotten eggs, then immediately goes to sleep, never to wake up.

So little information escapes North Korea, that I couldn't find any examples of botched executions to include here.  Unfortunately, that means that all on my list have come from the United States of America.

  • December 2nd 1938: Robert Lee Cannon (California, USA). This was a double execution, but his partner Albert Kessell seemed to lose consciousness almost immediately. Not so Robert. His whole body froze, before he jerked backwards and forwards. "It's bad!" Witnesses lip-read, followed by, "It's terrible!"  Father George O'Meara, who watched the execution, later reported, "The muscles of (Robert's) neck bulged and fought, his eyes bulged, his mouth opened! It was terrible indeed."
  • April 18th 1956: Robert Pierce (California, USA). Robert had smuggled a piece of glass into his holding cell. His chaplain visited to give him the Last Rites. As soon as he finished, Robert reached up and slashed his own throat. The chaplain ran for help and a doctor came to staunch the blood. The injury was too severe. Robert would bleed to death, if he wasn't rushed to hospital. The warden was having none of it. He co-opted five large guards to drag Robert into the gas chamber.  The cyanide was dropped quickly, before he could die by any other means.
  • May 2nd 1960: Caryl Chessman (California, USA). There was a stay of execution! Unfortunately for all concerned, the cyanide pellet had dropped 15 seconds before the call came through. The judicial secretary with the news had misdialed the first time she'd tried to call. In the gas chamber, Caryl trusted his lawyer. He was holding his breath, certain that the last minute reprieve would come. Warden Dickson received the news, but refused to open the door. Despite the extractor fan and a doctor present, the warden declared it too late to stop now. Inside the gas chamber, Caryl was nodding furiously. It was a pre-arranged signal that this was hurting him. He carried on nodding for over six minutes. Then he died, never knowing that Judge Goodman had actually ordered Caryl's execution stopped.
  • September 2nd 1983:  Jimmy Lee Gray (Mississippi, USA). It was discovered later that the executioner, Barry Bruce, was drunk. This was possibly why it took Jimmy so long to die. His death throes so distressed witnesses that the room was cleared after eight minutes. Jimmy was still moaning loudly, banging his head violently against the pole behind his chair. He was patently trying to knock himself out to end the agony. Nevertheless, Jimmy was not released from the gas chamber. He eventually asphyxiated in the chair.
  • April 6th 1992: Donald Eugene Harding (Arizona, USA). It took Donald over ten minutes to die. The sight of him doing so traumatized witnesses so much, that some had to receive counseling. Reporter Carla McClain was amongst them. She later wrote, 'Harding's death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple.' For at least six and a half minutes, Donald had jerked desperately against his straps, screaming in pain.

Do you support the use of the gas chamber in executions?

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Animals Gassed to Death in the USA

Incidentally, it's not just humans at risk in US gas chambers...
Miracle Dog: How Quentin Survived the Gas Chamber to Speak for Animals on Death Row

The day Randy Grim got a phone call from a St. Louis animal shelter worker pleading with him to take yet another unwanted dog to his no-kill shelter, he had no idea that the dog...

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Examining the murky history and gruesome use of the firing squad or gunman as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the religiously motivated and gruesome use of stoning as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Updated: 03/15/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 08/11/2013

Thank you very much. I've made those corrections. The Mississippi one came from my misreading a badly crafted sentence in a book.

It referred to the portable electric chair, which the gas chamber replaced, but made it sound like the latter was portable too. Particularly since the local population had objected to something static. They were afraid that it would make their area become known as 'the Death County'.

These same objections are what led to the portable electric chair in the first place there.

Al on 08/10/2013

Errors abound. Mississippi never had a "portable gas chamber". It was always an object fixed at Parchman Prison since installation in 1954. Jimmy Gray was executed in 1983, not 1987. Delaware has never had a gas chamber. The identity of the chamber in your caption labeled as Delaware is actually Arizona.

JoHarrington on 08/28/2012

Thank you very much, Nick. This one was particularly hard to write, because my research led to some dodgy internet searches. There are some REALLY messed up minds out there.

nickupton on 08/28/2012

Great article Jo. Justice systems in all countries are so badly flawed that it is hard not to agree with your stance on death penalties.

JoHarrington on 07/20/2012

Unfortunately you could be right. I also think there's a huge element of a) revenge and b) placate the mob with finding someone, anyone, to punish for the crimes. As long as justice is seen to be done, it is; whatever the reality.

BrendaReeves on 07/20/2012

The problem with our justice system is that the goal isn't to find the truth. The goal is let's see what outrageous lies a defense attorney can get 12 stupid people to believe. I give you the O.J. trial and Casey Anthony. The evidence in those cases was so overwhelming it could hit you on the head.

JoHarrington on 07/20/2012

It comes down to humanization. It's easy to make sweeping statements, when you're talking about statistics. Friends aren't statistics, they're real people.

Since 1970, 140 people have been exonerated while on Death Row in the USA. That's 140 individuals who were originally sentenced to death, but turned out to be innocent. And those are the ones that we know about.

Ember on 07/20/2012

I saw. One of my best friends, unfortunately says pretty much the same thing to me, in all seriousness. She told me that she is all for making the death penalty illegal in other countries because their justice systems aren't fair like it is in the US, but says that we do it right in America. I argued her point that we're not as perfect as she believes and she replied that innocent people dying 'can't be helped' and it is 'just the way it has to be', and 'no system is perfect all the time,' and 'you gotta weigh the pros and cons', and the pro of giving a murderer 'true justice' outweighs the cons of when we make mistakes, because, according to her, it happens so rarely. I asked what if it were her being unfairly judged, and with all seriousness she replied it would never happen to her. All this from the same friend who made the flippant off-hand comment that should any of her friends ever murder someone, she knows exactly how she'd cover it up and she'd help them get away with it... So apparently, if you are her friend, you're not deserving of the death penalty for being a murderer, but everyone else, they sooo deserve it. The logic is strong with that one. I know that she hasn't taken the time to think about it, she just thinks it's something that America has always done, and that it works really well, because that's what we get taught when we are young. But I can't even get her to feel sympathy for anyone whose been innocent and killed by our justice system, it'd take a miracle to get her to feel sympathy for someone she sees only as a guilty murderer, with no humanity left. She's all too happy being a lemming anyways, she hates all politics in general, or so she says.

JoHarrington on 07/20/2012

Thank you very much. I'm right at this moment in a Twitter conversation with someone who wants North Korea-esque gas chambers in the USA.

I hope that he's trolling, but he's not backing down, if he is.

Ember on 07/20/2012

What an article to open my day with, but I can't say I wasn't fairly warned :( This was heart-breaking. I was crying before I was even half-way through.

Its such a shocking reality that I was when it comes down to it, I completely unaware of. I mentioned before, I didn't know the gas chamber had ever been used in the US, and then on top of that to read just how terrible it really is... :(

But, excellent writing as always <3

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