S. Evyn Rubin: The world’s first execution of a human being by lethal gas

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ms. Rubin is a writer and holds a B.A. in History from the University of Southern California. She is the recipient of a Puffin Foundation grant.]

The world’s first execution of a human being by lethal gas took place on February 8, 1924, at the Nevada State Prison, Carson City, Nevada. The name of the first person so executed was Gee Jon, a Chinese immigrant. Gee Jon had been convicted of the murder of Tom Quong Kee.

The new “lethal chamber,” as it was called, replaced a choice between hanging and shooting. The shooting had been done with a set up of mounted rifles triggered by the pulling of strings on a signal from a distance. The desire to technologize executions was nationwide and international. Originally, the Nevada legislators conceived a plan in which a convicted prisoner would be gassed at an unspecified time, while asleep, by a guard who would sneak up, or by fumes subtly pumped into the cell. This kind of fantasy of an undisturbed victim was typical of the mental process that ushered in lethal gassing technology.

But practicality compromised their fantasy and their lethal chamber was built as a separate structure, into which the prisoner was marched, seated, strapped, and in the case of Gee Jon, gassed for six minutes before he was still.

The Nevada Supreme Court overruled Gee Jon’s appeal and declared lethal gassing to be neither cruel nor unusual, but “scientific” and “most humane.” Although the Court acknowledged the horrors of gas warfare in the trenches of the recent First World War, it maintained that gassing should not be judged by that experience. “For many years,” the Court said, “animals have been put to death painlessly by the administration of poison gas. Gas has been used for years by dental surgeons for the purpose of extracting teeth painlessly. . . .” The United States Supreme Court declined twice to review the case.

Not everyone was dazzled by the prospect of gassing, however. More than five hundred Nevadans signed a petition to the governor to halt the gassings of Gee Jon and his co-defendant. The sentence of the co-defendant was in fact commuted to life. The newspaper in the town of Mina, where the murder had taken place, objected to the gassing, which it called a “freak method.” Its editorial was headlined “Race Prejudice or Justice. Which?” Four guards at the Nevada State Prison turned in their resignations the day before the execution. Protests came from other parts of the country, too, including a telegram from the Women’s Peace Union of New York City.

At the time of Gee Jon’s execution, Germany still used the guillotine to administer its death penalty, a method which modern “scientific criminologists”

considered barbaric. Eight states in the U.S. had adopted lethal gassing for execution prior to the Nazis’ first use of gas in 1939. In addition to Nevada, these states were California, Arizona, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, Missouri, and North Carolina.

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