The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamberby Scott Christianson
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The Last Gasp takes 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.
“An excellent history.”
“Christianson has written the definitive (actually, the only) history of the gas chamber. It is a history so complicated and convoluted that it reads almost like something out of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.”
“First full-scale history of gas chamber connects murky (and sure-to-be controversial) dots, including Hitler’s adoption of American technology and joint American-German research and development.”
“Scholarly, original, and readable . . . Recommended.”
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The Last Gasp
The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber
By Scott Christianson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ENVISIONING THE LETHAL CHAMBER
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 the mechanism of its poisoning. Bernard therefore set out to explore its mysterious lethality by means of scientific experiment.
Bernard forced a dog to breathe carbon monoxide until it was dead, and immediately afterward opened the creature's body to examine the result. The Frenchman observed the blood of the lifeless canine spilling onto the table. As he examined the state of the organs and the fluids, what instantly attracted his attention was that all of the blood appeared crimson. Bernard later repeated this experiment on rabbits, birds, and frogs, always finding the same general crimson coloration of the blood.
A decade later Bernard conducted additional experiments with the gas in his laboratory-turned-killing chamber, carefully recording each of his actions as he proceeded. In one instance he passed a stream of hydrogen through the crimson venous blood taken from an animal poisoned by carbon monoxide, but he could not displace the oxygen in the dead creature's venous blood. What could have happened to the oxygen in the blood, he wondered?
Bernard continued with other experiments designed to determine the manner in which the carbon monoxide could have made the oxygen disappear. Since gases displace one another, he naturally thought that the carbon monoxide could have displaced the oxygen and driven it from the blood. In order to confirm this, he tried to place the blood in controlled conditions, which would permit him to recover the displaced oxygen. He then studied the action of carbon monoxide on the blood by artificial poisoning. To do this he took a quantity of arterial blood from a healthy animal and placed it under mercury in a test tube containing carbon monoxide. He then agitated the entire setup in order to poison the blood while protecting it from contact with the outside air. After a period of time he looked to see if the air in the test tube that was in contact with the poisoned blood had been modified, and he determined that it was notably enriched with oxygen, at the same time that the proportion of carbon monoxide was diminished. It appeared to Bernard after repeating these experiments under the same conditions that there had been a simple exchange, volume for volume, between the carbon monoxide and the oxygen in the blood. But the carbon monoxide that had displaced the oxygen in the blood remained fixed in the blood corpuscles and could no longer be displaced by oxygen or any other gas, so that death occurred by the death of the blood corpuscles, or, to put it another way, by the cessation of the exercise of their physiological property that is essential to life. 1 Not long after performing one of these experiments, Bernard's health suddenly deteriorated, perhaps, in part, as a consequence of the poison carbon monoxide gas to which he was exposed during his morbid experiments.
Bernard's fate was all too common among early research chemists, who often made a practice of smelling, tasting, and otherwise coming into close contact with the gases they were studying. Such a premature death had also befallen another great explorer of deadly gases, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the Swedish chemist and pharmacist who had perished after tasting too much of his hydrogen cyanide in mercury. 2
Both Scheele and Bernard had focused their attention on the effect of gases on the blood—work that later would become central to understanding the lethal power of the gas chamber. Following in their footsteps, other scientists explored the effects of still more gases, conducting various experiments on small animals to test each gas's peculiar lethality.
By the mid-nineteenth century, several scientists were seriously exploring the lethal effects of all kinds of substances. As Bernard was conducting his initial experiments with carbon monoxide, others were discovering the properties of carbon dioxide—CO2—a heavy, odorless, colorless gas formed during respiration and during the decomposition of organic substances. In 1874 CO2 was pumped into a chamber in the London pound to asphyxiate dogs, though not with very neat results, until the method was improved by inserting the animal into a chamber that had already been filled with the gas, at which time the killing was achieved with commendable humanity, according to the newspapers.
In 1884 Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, a British pioneer in anesthesiology, delivered a lecture to London's Society of Arts entitled "On the Painless Extinction of Life in the Lower Animals," in which he traced the history of gases and vapors that could be used to carry out the humane slaughter of dogs and cats. Richardson designed a wood-and-glass container, large enough to hold a Saint Bernard or several smaller animals, which was connected to a slender tank full of carbonic acid gas and a heating apparatus. At the time, unwanted horses, dogs, and other animals were a pressing social problem, seen as contributing to disease and other maladies, and animal euthanasia seemed to offer many benefits. Gases were already on everyone's mind, particularly in London, the world's largest city at the time and known for its filthy fog and foul vapors that belched forth from hundreds of thousands of coal-burning chimneys and steam engines. In one four-month stretch alone, the winter of 1879 to 1880, an estimated three thousand people perished from aggravated lung conditions, as the daytime air became so dark that pedestrians stumbled to their death in the Thames. Residents coughed and choked in a sulfurous haze. It was precisely then and there, amid such foul pollution, that notions of a lethal gas chamber assumed greater currency, and "humane societies" throughout Europe adopted Richardson's lethal chamber to remove unwanted animals. Scientists tested carbon dioxide as a possible cure to the animal overpopulation problem, oblivious to the fact that its use would only make the air worse for everyone.
At first such use was reserved for small animals, who were "put to sleep" behind closed doors, away from inquiring eyes, but soon many prominent eugenicists openly remarked about what others had only privately imagined: why not try it out on humans? Writing at the dawn of the twentieth century, H. G. Wells often mentioned "lethal chambers for the insane" and mused that the "swarms of black, brown, and dirty white, and yellow people ... have to go." Another British eugenicist of that time, Robert Rentoul, called for "degenerates" convicted of murder to be executed in a "lethal chamber." The novelist D. H. Lawrence gave "three cheers for the inventors of poison gas," saying, "If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly, and then I'd go out in back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick ... the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks." The dramatist George Bernard Shaw also favored mass use of the lethal chamber. Such talk became so prevalent that some commentators even began using the noun as a verb, saying so-and-so ought to be "lethal chambered."
Yet although eugenics ("good birth") and euthanasia ("good death") were closely interrelated in language and thought, not all eugenics advocates supported euthanasia. Debates about the morality of eliminating mental defectives and other types of the "unfit" widened some major schisms within the eugenics movement. In the meantime, however, notions of using a lethal chamber for large-scale euthanasia nevertheless had become part of the public discourse.
Another significant development in the discussion that would turn into the eugenics movement was set in motion in July 1874, when a frail and chronically ill gentleman from New York City, Richard Louis Dugdale, visited a dingy local jail in New York's Hudson Valley as a volunteer inspector for the New York Prison Association. Dugdale was shocked to learn that six persons under four family names, all of them blood relatives to some degree, were incarcerated in the same Ulster County institution, and that of twenty-nine males who were their "immediate blood relations," seventeen had been arrested and fifteen were convicted of various crimes. He decided to examine the family in order to determine how they had come to be so criminal. The sheriff directed Dugdale to two longtime residents of the area, one of them an eighty-four-year-old former town physician who obligingly provided detailed personal information about the prisoners' kin, most of whom were his former patients. The researcher also culled data from local poorhouse records, court and prison files, and interviews with local residents, which he wrote up in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal and in a little book on the subject, The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity, which was published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1877.
In his book he claimed that the six prisoners "belonged to a long lineage, reaching back to the early colonists, and had intermarried so slightly with the emigrant population of the old world that they may be called a strictly American family. They had lived in the same locality for generations, and were so despised by the reputable community that their family name had come to be used genetically as a term of reproach." Dugdale said he had traced the family's Hudson Valley roots back seven generations to a colonial frontiersman named Max, a descendant of the early Dutch settlers who lived in the backwoods as a "hunter and fisher, a hard drinker, jolly and companionable, averse to steady toil." His genealogical research indicated that different branches of the family had experienced characteristic types of failure. One branch that appeared to have produced an inordinate number of criminals was traced back to a woman "founder," Margaret, whom Dugdale called the "Mother of Criminals," who had married one of Max's sons. Presenting large genealogical charts and descriptions of each family member, each listed only by first name or code, Dugdale concluded that of 709 Jukes or persons married to Jukes, more than 200 had been on relief and 64 ended up in the poorhouse, indicating a tendency that was several times greater than that of other New Yorkers. Eighteen had kept brothels, 128 had been prostitutes, and more than 76 were convicted criminals. The author estimated their social problems had cost the public, through relief, medical care, police arrests, and imprisonment, a total of $1,308,000 (about $20.9 million in today's dollars)—a figure that astounded and appalled many taxpayers.
Dugdale's strange study was hailed as a landmark work in social science, in part because he had conducted extensive field research to attempt to address the question of whether hereditary or environmental factors were more responsible for pauperism, crime, and other social maladies. Although the author did not definitively ascribe the Jukes' social pathology solely to heredity, and had left open the possibility that what they had actually inherited was a common environment, subsequent writers used Dugdale's book to buttress their claims about biological or innate inferiority. The study made the Jukes the most notorious and despised clan in the world, but few persons outside Ulster County knew their true identity because Dugdale had used a pseudonymous surname. Although he had explained the name that he had chosen—it was derived from the slang "to juke," which referred to the erratic nesting behavior of chickens, which deposited their eggs wherever it was convenient—some readers may have also thought the name sounded like "Jews."
Forty years after Dugdale's study first appeared, a field worker employed by the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, Arthur H. Estabrook, conducted a follow-up study using Dugdale's original records and code sheet. In it, Estabrook claimed to have traced 1,402 additional members of the Jukes clan and found that they were as "unredeemed" and as plagued by "feeblemindedness, indolence, licentiousness, and dishonesty" as their predecessors. Dugdale's report, the Estabrook update, and other related works all helped to build an empirical foundation for views about "degenerate" classes and what needed to be done about them. It would not be for many more decades that people would begin to expose the studies' methodological flaws.
Eugenics rapidly caught on all over the Western world, including the United States. America had only recently ended its practice of slavery, and it continued to treat blacks as second-class citizens. It was also still cleaning up from its policies of genocide, relocation, imprisonment, and ethnic cleansing directed against the Native Americans. Eugenics dovetailed readily with other already established American notions such as manifest destiny, racial segregation, and a reliance on capital punishment.
Max Weber characterized the modern state as monopolizing the means of legitimate physical violence in the enforcement of its order. Coincidentally, discussions in the United States regarding eugenics, euthanasia, and the lethal chamber occurred just as the modern state was taking over the execution process from local powers that heretofore had entrusted their hangings to lynch mobs or the local sheriff. Prior to 1900, lynching was more common than official execution as the predominant mode of the death penalty in the United States, claiming more lives over the course of American history than legal capital punishment. Of 3,224 Americans lynched between 1889 and 1918, 702 were white and 2,522 were black; many of those killed were strung up for such crimes as talking boldly to a white man or eyeing a white girl, and all of them were killed without the benefit of due process. During the same period, 1,080 convicted defendants were officially put to death under state authority, of which slightly fewer than half were white.
In New York, one way that the consolidation of state power was manifested involved a sweeping change in the entire manner of official executions. In 1885 a new governor, David B. Hill, rode into office, saying, "The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark age and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner." Determined to find a better method of execution, he appointed to study the matter a blue-ribbon commission consisting of a prominent lawyer, a physician, and a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who was counsel to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The commission circulated a questionnaire asking respondents if they favored a substitute to hanging, and added that the following options had been proposed: 1) electricity; 2) Prussic acid (also known as hydrogen cyanide, hydrocyanic acid, or HCN) or other poison; 3) the guillotine; 4) the garrote. For further assistance the commission called on the New York Medico-Legal Society, an influential body of medical and legal experts involved in shaping medical jurisprudence. In 1878 the society had hosted a lecture by Professor J. H. Packard of Philadelphia, who recommended that hanging be replaced by the most painless method available, which he claimed was sulfuric oxide gas, administered by means of the lethal chamber. (Sulfuric dioxide was the gas Napoleon's army allegedly used to murder captive slaves in Haiti.)
Excerpted from The Last Gasp by Scott Christianson. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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What People are saying about this
"An excellent history."Maclean's
"Christianson has written the definitive (actually, the only) history of the gas chamber. It is a history so complicated and convoluted that it reads almost like something out of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow."California Lawyer
"First full-scale history of gas chamber connects murky (and sure-to-be controversial) dots, including Hitler's adoption of American technology and joint American-German research and development."American History
"This sobering work is recommended to all readers interested in exploring the topic."Library Journal
Meet the Author
Scott Christianson is a writer, investigative reporter, and historian. He is the author of several acclaimed books, including With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America, winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award Distinguished Honors and a Choice Outstanding Book Award. His book Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House was the subject of feature stories in the Village Voice, the New York Times, The Nation, and on the History Channel.
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