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The Last Gasp

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

Scott Christianson
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 344
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppkh0
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  • Book Info
    The Last Gasp
    Book Description:

    The Last Gasptakes us to the dark side of human history in the first full chronicle of the gas chamber in the United States. In page-turning detail, award-winning writer Scott Christianson tells a dreadful story that is full of surprising and provocative new findings. First constructed in Nevada in 1924, the gas chamber, a method of killing sealed off and removed from the sight and hearing of witnesses, was originally touted as a "humane" method of execution. Delving into science, war, industry, medicine, law, and politics, Christianson overturns this mythology for good. He exposes the sinister links between corporations looking for profit, the military, and the first uses of the gas chamber after World War I. He explores little-known connections between the gas chamber and the eugenics movement. Perhaps most controversially, he has unearthed new evidence about American and German collaboration in the production and lethal use of hydrogen cyanide and about Hitler's adoption of gas chamber technology developed in the United States. More than a book about the death penalty, this compelling history ultimately reveals much about America's values and power structures in the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94561-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-20)

    The huge literature about the Holocaust has assumed that, in the words of one leading historian, “The creation of the gas chamber was a unique invention of Nazi Germany.”¹ In fact, however, the lethal chamber, later called the execution gas chamber or homicidal gas chamber, was originally envisioned before Adolf Hitler was born, and the first such apparatus claimed its initial human victim nine years before the Nazis rose to power and more than sixteen years before they executed anyone by lethal gas.

    The earliest gas chamber for execution purposes was constructed in the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City...

  6. PART ONE THE RISE OF THE LETHAL CHAMBER

    • CHAPTER 1 ENVISIONING THE LETHAL CHAMBER
      (pp. 23-33)

      The history of the gas chamber is a story of the twentieth century.

      But an earlier event that would subsequently figure into its evolution occurred one day in 1846, when a French physiologist, Claude Bernard, was in his laboratory studying the properties of carbon monoxide (CO), a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that would eventually be recognized as the product of the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing compounds. By that time the substance was already suspected of somehow being responsible for many accidental deaths, but nothing was known about themechanismof its poisoning. Bernard therefore set out to explore its...

    • CHAPTER 2 FASHIONING A FRIGHTFUL WEAPON OF WAR
      (pp. 34-52)

      The Great War that began in August 1914 ushered in deadly new weapons, including modern artillery, tanks, airplanes, and machine guns. It was the moment when Franz Kafka in Prague wrote his prescient short story “In the Penal Colony,” in which he describes the unveiling of a terrifying new execution apparatus.

      Eight months into the fighting, the nature of warfare took yet another horrific turn. On April 22, 1915, Allied soldiers—French Algerians and territorial division troops—were dug into their trenches around the village of Langemarck, in Flanders, facing four German divisions that were hunkered down a few hundred...

    • CHAPTER 3 DEVISING “CONSTRUCTIVE PEACETIME USES”
      (pp. 53-68)

      When the war ended, America shut down its poison gas plants for a time.¹ Most soldiers and chemists went home, and the military-industrial gas complex was largely disbanded. Army chief of staff General Peyton C. Marsh said he remained haunted by witnessing children who had been gassed to death. The secretary of war said he favored ending all chemical warfare activities. Amid the war’s tumultuous wake in March 1919—the time when some commanders had expected to launch their most poisonous campaign and annihilate Berlin and other cities—the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) was set to be dissolved and General...

    • CHAPTER 4 STAGING THE WORLD’S FIRST GAS EXECUTION
      (pp. 69-89)

      In order to serve as a deterrent and to demonstrate its humane killing power, Nevada’s new weapon against crime would have to be proven effective, and that meant someone had to be executed. The opportunity arose five months after the enactment of the state’s Humane Execution Law, when prosecutors identified a crime with all the makings of a readymade test case.

      It occurred in Mina, a tiny copper mining boomtown gone bust, located about 175 miles south of Reno in Mineral County, not far from Toponah Junction. There on the evening of August 21, 1921, Tom Quong Kee, a seventy-four-year-old...

    • CHAPTER 5 “LIKE WATERING FLOWERS”
      (pp. 90-124)

      In the few years following Gee’s and Jukich’s executions, Nevada officials were in no hurry to gas another prisoner. Doing it right would require extensive improvements.

      In 1929 prison officials tore down the original death house and built a more elaborate structure using convict labor. The new stone and cement death house contained two cells, each facing a nine-foot corridor and meant to hold a condemned prisoner who was awaiting execution. Each cell was equipped with a toilet, washstand, and steel bed. The building also had a space for guards. The building was steamheated and equipped with a shower and...

    • CHAPTER 6 PILLAR OF RESPECTABILITY
      (pp. 125-138)

      An indication of how powerful and respectable the German-dominated cyanide cartel had become in the 1930s can be found by examining the career of John J. McCloy, a pillar of the East Coast establishment who is considered by many to be one of the most influential yet overlooked American figures of the twentieth century.

      A top U.S. assistant secretary of war during World War II, McCloy was a key player behind the internment of the Japanese, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the strategic victories over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. He later served as the first high commissioner...

    • CHAPTER 7 THE RISING STORM
      (pp. 139-148)

      In 1940 and ’41 Americans remained mired in the Great Depression and deeply worried about their future. The country was about to become entangled in another world war, this one waged on an even broader scale and under more desperate conditions than the last. Freedom, democracy, and prosperity were very much in peril. In addition to fearing they might become dominated by foreign powers, many Americans wondered if some sinister inner forces would engulf their society and change their way of life, as had happened abroad. The Lindberghs were not alone in regarding fascism as the wave of the future....

    • CHAPTER 8 ADAPTED FOR GENOCIDE
      (pp. 149-172)

      As Hitler prepared his plans for world conquest, his henchmen explored options for chemical warfare. A major program was initiated to develop all kinds of lethal gases. Some advisors expressed interest in Prussic acid, which IG Farben manufactured in large quantities as a pesticide.¹ Hitler did not favor using gas on the battlefield. But as he invaded Poland, he used the press of war to secretly authorize a euthanasia program that at first was ostensibly limited to eliminating an incurably sick patient who could be killed “by medical measures of which he remains unaware.”² In fact, it was just a...

  7. PART TWO THE FALL OF THE GAS CHAMBER

    • CHAPTER 9 CLOUDS OF ABOLITION
      (pp. 175-193)

      In the wake of two world wars that had occurred in the span of less than thirty years and cost more than ninety million lives (more than a million of those by the gassing of innocent civilians in prison camps), and with growing fears of annihilation from nuclear bombs or other mass destruction, not to mention rising concerns about the “enemy within,” Americans had much to reflect upon. Among other things, the traumas of World War II had sensitized many nations to the need for international standards of human rights and treatment of prisoners. Millions of POWs and civilians had...

    • CHAPTER 10 THE BATTLE OVER CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
      (pp. 194-205)

      By the early 1960s American capital punishment was being attacked on several fronts. The stream of books, movies, and news reports against the death penalty continued, and some churches and other religious organizations also voiced their opposition. Numerous Western nations continued to pressure the United States to end its executions, and America’s cold war adversaries and their proxies had a field day harping on inequities and excesses in American criminal justice. These factors contributed to changing public attitudes. After 1953, Gallup polls began to show a continuing decline in public support for capital punishment, from 70 percent in 1953 to...

    • CHAPTER 11 “CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT”?
      (pp. 206-226)

      By the late 1970s American public opinion was swinging ever more strongly in favor of the death penalty. Although the public’s appetite for gas chambers had diminished, eleven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico (until 1978), North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Wyoming—still clung to that method of capital punishment. But the legal battle over the constitutionality of lethal gas executions, and the rise of the new method of lethal injection, were just beginning to take hold.

      Henry Schwarzschild, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project—and a German émigré who had...

    • CHAPTER 12 THE LAST GASP
      (pp. 227-230)

      The last gasp of the American gas chamber came in 1999 in Florence, Arizona. Ironically, and fittingly some might think, the case involved the United States and Germany.

      Two brothers, Walter LaGrand, born in 1962, and Karl LaGrand, born in 1963, were German nationals who had moved to the United States with their mother in 1965. In 1982 both were sentenced for stabbing to death a bank manager during a botched robbery.¹ After the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied review, the LaGrands filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus. Arizona law gave the...

  8. APPENDIX 1: EARL C. LISTON’S PATENT APPLICATION
    (pp. 231-236)
  9. APPENDIX 2: PERSONS EXECUTED BY LETHAL GAS IN THE UNITED STATES, BY STATE, 1924–1999
    (pp. 237-252)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 253-300)
  11. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 301-310)
  12. Index
    (pp. 311-325)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 326-326)