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
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