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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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.” 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 and first employed on February 8, 1924, with the legislatively sanctioned and court-ordered punishment of Gee Jon, a Chinese immigrant who had been convicted of murdering another Chinese immigrant, amid a wave of anti-immigrant and racist hysteria that gripped the country at that time.

America’s and the world’s 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. Embraced by both Democrats and Republicans, including many progressives, and touted by both the scientific and legal establishments as a “humane” improvement over hanging and electrocution, the gas chamber was also considered a matter of practical social reform. Its adherents claimed that the gas chamber would kill quickly and painlessly, without the horrors of the noose or the electric chair, and in a . . .

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