Late last month, Americans learned of the latest twist in the efforts of death penalty states to keep their execution machinery running when the Guardian revealed Arizona’s plan to revive the gas chamber. This news followed on the heels of continuing moves by the state’s Republican officeholders to resume putting inmates to death after a seven-year hiatus.
Arizona stopped executions after the botched lethal injection of Joseph Wood in 2014. Wood died after two hours during which time he was injected with a total of 750 mg of midazolam and hydromorphone, 15 times the amount specified in the state’s execution protocol. His death was just one of many such gruesome spectacles that have marked lethal injection’s recent history.
The plan to add death by hydrogen cyanide, the same gas (also known as Zyklon B) used by the Nazis at Auschwitz, reveals the lengths to which proponents of capital punishment will go to keep the machinery of death running. And adding the gas chamber to lethal injection as an approved method of execution ignores the ugly truth of the gas chamber’s own gruesome history.
It is ironic that Arizona, of all states, would take this step, since in 1999 it carried out the last, and one of the most horrifying, executions by lethal gas. Eye witnesses to the killing of Walter LaGrand, who had been sentenced to die for a 1982 robbery and murder, reported that LaGrand suffered greatly as he choked and gagged for more than 18 minutes before he died.
Like many of this country’s now discredited methods of execution, the gas chamber was introduced with great fanfare as an alternative to the grisly business of hanging. At the start of the 20th century, supporters of capital punishment said that it would produce quick and painless death.
Typical was the testimony of Dr. J. Chris Lange, who told the Pennsylvania Medical Society, which was reviewing the state’s execution methods, that death by lethal gas would insure that “[d]eath will happen quickly after the gas ascends to a level with the mouth and nose of the prisoner. It will leave the criminal little more to dread of the future than the common lot of all mankind.” While Pennsylvania did not end up adopting the gas chamber, 11 other states did so.
In 1921, Nevada became the first state to authorize the gas chamber. The Nevada law—in line with the most advanced thinking of the time—called for executions to take place while the condemned was asleep. Death row inmates were to be housed in air-tight, leak-proof cells, separate from other prisoners. On the day of execution, valves would be opened that would fill the chamber with gas, killing the prisoner “painlessly.”
By the time Nevada carried out its first execution by lethal gas in 1924, the original idea of gassing an inmate in his cell while he slept had been abandoned. Instead, an old stone and concrete building in the prison yard—previously the prison barbershop—was converted into a specially designed gas chamber. It was fitted with pipes, an exhaust fan, and glass windows on the front and back walls for witness viewing. Perhaps most importantly, the room where the gas would be used was insulated in order to be “leak-proof.”
Though Nevada’s early uses of lethal gas were not unproblematic, favorable news coverage, along with concerted efforts by opponents of hanging, led other states to adopt lethal gas over the next two decades. After the hanging of Eva Dugan in 1930 resulted in a beheading, Arizona became the first state to follow Nevada’s lead by replacing the gallows with the gas chamber. Colorado soon did the same. In 1935, North Carolina and Wyoming constructed their own gas chambers. The year 1937 saw three more states—California, Missouri, and Oregon—adopt lethal gas as their sole method of execution. During the 1950s, Mississippi, Maryland, and New Mexico all began using lethal gas.
From 1890 to 2010 a total of 593 of America’s 8,776 executions were carried out by using the gas chamber. My examination of those executions reveals that 32 of those, or 5.4 percent, were botched, making the gas chamber the second most unreliable execution method (exceeded only by lethal injection) used in that period.
Like LaGrand’s execution, death in the gas chamber often came only after a prolonged period in which the condemned struggled to breathe, convulsed, turned blue, and jerked their heads around desperately searching for fresh air.
The gas chamber received renewed scrutiny in the aftermath of World War II. The recognition of the role played by lethal gas in the Holocaust led many nations to reconsider the death penalty and the gas chamber. But in the United States, gassings continued, with 211 of them carried out between 1950 and 1979.
Nonetheless, executions by gas continued to encounter problems.
After the war, California’s gas chamber became known worldwide after a series of botched executions and highly publicized legal battles. In 1953, Leandress Riley’s execution garnered a great deal of attention when he went to his death fighting. After attempting suicide, he was finally subdued, handcuffed, and dragged into the gas chamber. Riley somehow managed to get free from the chair’s straps. When the gas finally entered the chamber, Riley held his breath for many minutes before allowing himself to begin to die.
Only a few years later, Caryl Chessman garnered public and celebrity support in his efforts to escape California’s gas chamber. Chessman wrote a bestselling memoir about his time on death row and managed his own legal proceedings from prison. When his 1960 execution was botched, anti–death penalty campaigns around the world erupted in anger.
The eventual demise of the gas chamber came as death penalty proponents, propelled in part by its frequent problems, sought new alternatives. Although lethal gas had once been touted as a progressive, humane, and painless method of execution, the gas chamber had a relatively short life. It was used as the sole method of execution in several states only, from 1924 to 1977.
By the time of LaGrand’s 1999 execution, the gas chamber had become a relic of the past, in large part because of its inability to deliver on its promise to offer a safe, reliable, and humane method of execution that would “leave the criminal little more to dread of the future than the common lot of all mankind.”
The lessons of history suggest that the gas chamber is not the solution to the continuing problems plaguing America’s death penalty. Arizona should learn from that history rather than risk repeating it.