The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber [NOOK Book]

Overview

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

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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Investigative journalist Christianson, author of the award-winning With Liberty for Some, charts the 75-year history of gas chamber execution as well as its intersection with eugenics, the Holocaust, and America’s ongoing capital punishment debate. Christianson is clear that his focus is the United States, underscoring that the chamber’s “operation can hardly be described as painless or kind.” After the Germans launched the first gas attack during WWI, American scientists and chemical companies—particularly DuPont, which had ties to the German manufacturers that later supplied concentration camps—scrambled to produce their own lethal concoctions. From their earliest incarnations, gas chambers employed various forms of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) pumped into a sealed room where the condemned was strapped to a chair. Despite being developed as a swifter and more painless alternative to death than hanging or electrocution, Christianson describes in graphic detail the numerous botched executions during which death took over 10 agonizing minutes. Though the gas chamber hasn’t been used in America since 1999, Christianson makes a chilling argument for its—and the death penalty’s—abolition. 8 b&w photos. (July)
Maclean's - Brian Bethune

“An excellent history.”
California Lawyer - Ben Pesta

“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.”
American History - Gene Santoro

“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.”
Choice - R. D. McCrie

“Scholarly, original, and readable . . . Recommended.”
Library Journal
Christianson (Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House) examines one aspect of humanity's dark side. The use of poison gas for the execution of "undesirables" originated in the eugenics movement of the late 19th century and gained the support of many respectable intellectuals in Europe and the United States. World War I later introduced gas to modern warfare in Europe, and Nevada constructed and used the first gas chamber in 1924. Collaboration of American and German industrialists brought the use of hydrogen cyanide and Hitler's adoption of U.S. gas-chamber technology to carry out the Holocaust. Executions as a whole declined in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s but returned in frequency as the political climate changed during the 1970s. Death by lethal injection has replaced gas for executions, with the gas chamber being used for the last time in 1999. Christianson uses government documents, newspapers, and secondary sources to present this tale and includes a list of people executed by gas in this country from 1924 to 1999. VERDICT This sobering work is recommended to all readers interested in exploring the topic.—Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ., Parkersburg
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520945616
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 7/12/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 1,177,344
  • File size: 6 MB

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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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction
PART ONE
THE RISE OF THE LETHAL CHAMBER
1. Envisioning the Lethal Chamber
2. Fashioning a Frightful Weapon of War
3. Devising "Constructive Peacetime Uses"
4. Staging the World’s First Gas Execution
5. "Like Watering Flowers"
6. Pillar of Respectability
7. The Rising Storm
8. Adapted for Genocide
PART TWO
THE FALL OF THE GAS CHAMBER
9. Clouds of Abolition
10. The Battle over Capital Punishment
11 "Cruel and Unusual Punishment"?
12. The Last Gasp
Appendix 1: Earl C. Liston's Patent Application
Appendix 2: Persons Executed by Lethal Gas in the United States, by State, 1924–1999
Notes
Select Bibliography
Index
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    The secret history behind the gas chamber

    "The earliest gas chamber for execution purposes was constructed in the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City and first employed on February 8, 1924 . . . the first execution by gas arose as a byproduct of chemical warfare research conducted by the U. S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service and the chemical industry during the First World War . . ."

    From the advantage of current access to court cases and other documents, Scott Christianson has compiled a weighty tome devoted to the history of the Gas Chamber. The book is heavily referenced and authoritative. Christiansons' background as an investigative reporter and historian uniquely qualifies him to take on this subject. Personal and political ties influenced many decisions in regard to the development and use of deadly chemicals. In his detailed account, names are named and you will recognize them.

    In the early 1900s, racism was pervasive. Immigrants were viewed with suspicion. Many prominent persons believed the defective and unfit did not deserve to live and certainly not to reproduce.

    "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 a weary thanks."
    ---D. H. Lawrence.

    German troops introduced chemical warfare in 1915. It had the advantage of rendering a battlefield uninhabitable, but the greatest impact was psychological. Before WWI the use of gases was considered dishonorable under the rules of warfare, but after the German's use of it the Allies decided that "there was no choice on their part and that they had to retaliate in like manner." In secret, America's chemists rushed to catch up to Germany's chemical development. They tested more than 1600 compounds on mice, rats, dogs, and other animals, as well as on American soldiers.

    After the war, the powerful chemical lobby wanted to keep the gas technology they had developed, but turn it into "constructive peacetime uses." Scientists were testing poisons to fight fires, make dyes, exterminate insects and animals, make fertilizers, to fumigate ships in all of America's ports, and to fumigate fruits and other foods. It was used in the miningindustry to separate silver, gold, copper, lead, and other ores. Claims were even made that poison gases could rid the world of cancer and other dreaded diseases. In 1921 Nevada enacted the Humane Execution Law and became the first state in the world to require the administration of lethal gas to legally end human life. The news of the first two executions flashed around the world. Other states followed Nevada's lead. But in harmony with the eugenics of the time, it was often the poor, the mentally handicapped, and minorities who were killed.

    "Hitler's concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed, so he claims, to his studies or English and United States history."

    I was amazed at the degree that American financiers bankrolled fascist regimes in WWII, as well as the secret alliances of prominent men that were hidden through a web of trade agreements. They are named in this book and referenced, and I congratulate Christianson for his thoroughness in following the paper trail.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2010

    A first-rate history

    This is the first authoritative history of one of America's most hideous inventions, the execution gas chamber that proved to be the twentieth century's most deadly and efficient means of mass murder. And what a surprising, fascinating and disturbing story it is, when told by this ace investigative historian! Eugenics, chemical warfare, pesticides and industrial empires, spies and diplomats, genocide, "humane killing," the battle over capital punishment... Much more than a scholarly study of one means of execution or another treatise about the death penalty, this masterful book bursts with new revelations about German-American corporate complicity in the Holocaust and offers a cautionary tale about Utopian ideas that don't exactly turn out as intended or advertised. General Amos Fries, John J. McCloy, Fritz Haber, Dr. Alan Hamilton, Robert Conant, and a host of other memorable characters are depicted along with scores of reformers, wardens, executioners, and condemned prisoners. The author is a skilled storyteller and a fine historian who is also a dogged investigator and a recognized expert on criminal punishment. Once again, his research is prodigious and path-breaking. The treatment is fair, balanced, compassionate and insightful. The result is shocking and haunting. It opens new pathways for thought. This notable book will shake up several fields and generate some controversy here and in Europe.

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