Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The American Gas Chamber by Scott Christianson

Until now there has not been a book or even a single major article exploring this dreadful history. This book tells the story of the American gas chamber from its early imaginings to the nightmarish last gasp of Walter LeGrand in Arizona on March 3, 1999. The investigation goes into several different arenas of modern science, war, industry, medicine, law, politics, and human relations, marshaling evidence from many quarters. Studying this subject has been a painful and demanding experience- much remains to be learned for those willing to probe for it – but criminal punishments and crimes against humanity, I have long believed, can reveal many things about a civilization, and the tragic saga of the rise and fall of the lethal chamber is full of the stuff philosophers and tragedians dwell upon – and fools ignore at their own peril.

Altogether, between 1924 and 1999, 594 individuals were executed by lethal gas in the United States, a majority before the legal revolution under the Warren Court in the 1960s when, for the first time, illegally obtained evidence was ruled inadmissible, prisoners could no longer be subjected to the “third degree”, not informed of their legal rights, questioned without a lawyer or denied access to counsel or appeals because they were poor.

In no case did the U.S. Supreme Court ever rule by majority opinion that execution by lethal gas constituted “cruel and unusual punishment incompatible with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society”, however contrary to the testimonies of witnesses to such executions and the affidavits presented to lower appeals courts such as that of Dr. Richard Traystman, director of the Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine Research Laboratories at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1983:

“Very simply, cyanide gas blocks the utilization of the oxygen in the body's cells...the person exposed to this gas remains conscious for a period of time, in some cases for several minutes. During this time, the person is unquestionably experiencing pain and extreme anxiety. The pain begins immediately, and is felt in the arms, shoulders, back and chest. The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart attack, where essentially, the heart is being deprived of oxygen... The agitation and anxiety a person experiences in the hypoxic state will stimulate the automatic nervous system, the person may begin to drool, urinate, defecate or vomit. There will be muscular contractions. These responses can occur both while the person is conscious or when he becomes unconscious.. the brain remains alive from two to five minutes. The heart will continue to beat for a period of time after that, perhaps five to seven minutes, or longer, though at a very low cardiac output. Death can occur ten to twelve minutes after the gas is released in the chamber.”

Dr Traystman further testified that the execution by lethal gas is sufficiently painful that it is disfavored in the scientific community as a method of putting animals to sleep.

Most readers will prefer not to read accounts of executions by lethal gas where all does not go as planned- they seldom did- such as the prolonged thrashings, clawings, screamings and convulsions of the victims and the unforgettable horrors visited upon the witnesses.

Though U.S. Supreme Court still could never bring itself to address the question the question whether such executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, the court of world opinion did - The International Court of Justice in the Hague in the Case Concerning the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Germany vs United States of America, General List No 104 (March 3, 1999), a matter to which President Bill Clinton and Governor Hull of Arizona turned a blind eye.

To the rest of the world 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, even by such luminaries as H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence and Bernard Shaw, 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 contributions 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 arrangements, legislative clauses, legal briefs, stopwatches, execution protocols, and public relations pronouncements, America's use of lethal gas as a method of capital punishment- despite all that was witnessed during the Holocaust- only ended with the close of the twentieth century. But its awful legacy will continue for a long time to come.

[It tells us something about ourselves as Americans that cannot be erased by mere forgetting]

The Last Gasp; The Rise and Fall of The American Gas Chamber by Scott Christianson; University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010

(comments to follow)


  1. In the fifth century B.C. Thucydides wrote that the Spartans used arsenic smoke during the Peloponnesian War. In the fifteenth century Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for smoke weapons formed of sulfur and arsenic dust. In the sixteenth century an Austrian chemist considered using 'stink bombs; against the Turks and other unbelievers. In an effort to put down a bloody Santo Domingo slave revolt in 1791, one of Napoleon's ruthless colonial commanders had packed Haitian rebel prisoners into ship holds and pumped in sulfur dioxide gas produced from burning oil, thereby intentionally killing as many as 100,000 slaves by asphyxiation, though this did not become widely known until 2005. Confederate General W.N. Pendleton considered manufacturing shells to “utilize the suffocating effect of certain offensive gases” but ultimately decided against it. International conventions of 1899 and 1907 banned the use “the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”

  2. However, German gas attack on allied soldiers in their trenches around the village of Langremark in Flanders on April 22, 1915 did not use shells but grounded cylinders which released a cloud of blue-white chlorine mist that inflicted 15,000 casualties, five thousand of them deaths. At any rate, Britain and America had not signed the treaty and found themselves in a headlong arms race to devise more and deadlier gases.

    In June 1918 President Wilson signed Executive Order 2894 establishing the Chemical Warfare Service. A research project was established at American University on the outskirts of D.C. In 600 days it grew from a single building to 153 facilities employing more than 1,7000 chemists and 700 service assistants, the largest federal scientific research project yet undertaken and the prototype for the later project that would build the atom bomb a generation later. It's director was Captain James B. Conant, a young organic chemist from Harvard University (who would later become its president and play a key role in organizing the Manhattan project, which built the atom bomb).

  3. For a reference to James B. Conant in relation to American sympathies for the Nazi regime in the lead-up to W.W.W. II see “The Last Gasp” can be considered a companion to “The Third Reich in America's Ivory Towers” covering the industrial, military and political side of the same story.

  4. At the turn of the century German scientist were well advanced in their researches into the property of gases for various medical and industrial uses and had established ties to many American commercial firms with connections to the Duponts and Rockefellers for marketing purposes. When America entered W.W.I many of the German firms assets and patents were seized, though to what extent is still unclear because German and American companies had become so intertwined that clear distinctions were often quite difficult to make and involved years of legal maneuvering and political back-slapping. After the war ties were quickly re-established-large American loans provided to get German Chemical companies back on their feet and close relations persisted for a time even after Hitler began his roll across Europe. German chemical companies carefully destroyed most of their records as the Allies marched across the Rhine so only a few executives ended up being convicted at Nuremberg for their role in the gassing of Jews and other “undesirables” . American participation in the rise of Hitler,and provision of poison gases was never brought up during the trials.

  5. Powerful German and American industrialists, financiers, politicians and academics shared a common interest in the rising “science” of eugenics and envisioned the use of poison gas as an humanely covert, efficient and painless way to dispose of, euthanize burdensome members of society who threatened to overwhelm the natural energies of the superior race- (Anglo-Saxons.) with their various congenital defects and inferior racial characteristics. While they could only dream about using lethal gases on people on a mass scale, they were keen to use it in a variety of other context like fumigating the holds of ships, delousing army barracks, eliminating vermin in urban slums, decontaminating immigrants crossing the borders (especially Hispanics from Mexico) , as insecticides in agriculture, killing stray animals in places like new York , crowd control and , of course, in the administration of capital punishment. (that being seen as a useful alternative to public executions and extra-legal lynchings.)

  6. It is perhaps not surprising that early experiments along these lines often had fatal consequences for those involved and no system of long-term follow-up for experimental subjects or any concern for lingering residues and their possible side effects in agriculture were considered.

    In fact, the army Chemical Warfare Service recorded 925 casualties at its experimental station in Edgewood Maryland from June to December 1918-:769 from August through October alone: 679 from mustard gas, 50 by stannic chloride, 50 by phosgene, 44 from chloropicrin, 44 by bleach chlorine, 18 by liquid chlorine, 15 by phosporous, 10 caustic soda, 9 by sulfur chloride, 8 by sulfuric acid, 2 by picric acid and 1 by carbon monoxide.

    In France sports celebrities including Ty Cobb and Christy Matheweson (baseball's all -time greatest hitter) were recruited to train G.I.'s to protect themselves from gas attack. In one training session a mishap killed eight soldiers outright and Matheweson got a lung-full of gas. He died seven years later, diagnosis with “tuberculosis” in both lungs.

  7. At any rate, by the Chemical Warfare Service eventually got its secret G-34 weapon ready to go. It was to be loaded into large barrels which were to be dropped from an airplane and exploded over Berlin, in the expectation of wiping out the entire population of that city- in the spring offensive of 1919. All the technical details had been worked out, the planes and their crews were ready to go but the Armistice was signed and the war ended.

    Although 27.3 percent of America's battlefield casualties ( 74,779 of 274,217) were officially attributed to gas, the real numbers were probably much higher, as the government didn't acknowledge the thousands of delayed but premature deaths, such as Mathewson's, which should have been attributed to gas.

  8. The armistice left tons of deadly lewisite gas in anxious American hands. “What was to be done with it, now that there was no longer any occasion for exterminating Germans?”, one commentator asked. Cleveland didn't want the deadly stuff dumped into Lake Erie, and there was no practical way to neutralize it. Scientists estimated there was almost enough of the poison left to kill every man, woman, and child in the United States if properly administered. The ocean seemed the only option. After a hair-raising transport by rail, 364 fifty-five gallons of the lethal cargo were loaded onto ships and taken fifty miles out into the Atlantic. Dumped into the sea at a depth of three miles in an undisclosed and unmarked location, it was left to await its inevitable leakage.

  9. That's 1,700 chemists employed in the Chemical Warfare Service.