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The United States' first gas-chamber execution occurred in Carson City on February 8, 1924.
Photo: ©Bettmann/CORBIS (Gas Death House of Nevada, 1926)
Early one chilly Friday morning, February 8, 1924, national attention briefly focused on the hard-rock state prison at Carson City.
In the institution’s former barbershop, guards nervously strapped a frightened Chinese convict into a crude wooden chair and exited the chamber. Outside the building, dozens of curious witnesses peered through the fogged windows in order to catch a glimpse of what was about to happen.
Although the state’s population numbered less than 80,000, Nevada’s reputation as a social laboratory was not limited to quickie divorce and gambling.
Gee Jon, 29, was slated to become the first convicted murderer to be put to death under Nevada’s newly enacted Humane Execution Law and the first person in the world to be legally executed by lethal gas.
Implemented as an alternative to grisly hanging, gassing was supposed to end life quickly and painlessly. Its advocates included leaders of the chemical industry, the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, proponents of eugenics (the pseudo-science of racial purification), and progressive reformers.
The initiation of gas chamber executions began in the wake of the First World War. In early 1921, Frank Curran, a former district attorney and aide to Senator Key Pittman (D-Tonopah), suggested that lethal gas should be substituted as the “most humane” way to end life. After two assemblymen, J.J. Hart of Lovelock (R-Pershing County) and Harry L. Bartlett (D-Elko), introduced a bill that made it through the legislature, the measure was promptly signed by Governor Emmet D. Boyle (D-Virginia City).
The first prosecution under the new law occurred in Mina, a tiny copper mining boomtown gone bust, located in Mineral County. On the evening of August 21, 1921, Tom Quong Kee, a 74-year-old Chinese laundryman, was shot to death at his home by a person or persons unknown.
Deputy Sheriff W.J. “Jack” Hammill quickly apprehended two suspects in Reno. Gee Jon of San Francisco and another Chinese man, Hughie Sing, a 19-year-old from Carson City, were accused of the killing as part of a tong dispute.
Following a brief trial, the two were convicted of first-degree murder, and Judge J. Emmett Walsh sentenced them to death. The new governor, James G. Scrugham (D-Reno), assigned Warden Denver S. Dickerson to make the necessary arrangements for carrying out the sentence.
A Mexican-American prisoner who was convicted of another murder was initially condemned to die with them in the gas chamber. But he and Sing were pardoned at the last minute, leaving Jon to face the music alone.
The ravages of chemical warfare in World War I had made the use of poisonous gas very unpopular, however, and five convicts and four guards had to be disciplined for refusing to participate in the scheduled execution. Some anti-war groups claimed that poisonous gas would violate international human rights protocols.
Nevada’s food and drug commissioner, Professor Sanford C. Dinsmore of Reno, advised the state as to which specific type of chemicals and apparatus should be used. Dinsmore said he selected hydrocyanic acid (HCN) because it was the deadliest and fastest-acting known poison.
But the closest available commercial source for liquid cyanide was in Los Angeles, and no railroad would agree to transport the hazardous substance to Nevada. Dickerson, Dinsmore, and the powers that were would have to improvise.
The warden dispatched a trusted prison aide, Tom Pickett, to bring back a sufficient amount of the volatile liquid in his truck. Pickett took his wife along on the dangerous ride.
The California Cyanide Company also provided a mobile fumigating sprayer to dispense the poison. And a professional cyanide consultant from the private sector, E.B. Walker, was hired to supervise the gassing.
Using the prison’s small barbershop as their makeshift lethal chamber, the execution team tested their procedure on a cat and several kittens, with apparent success: The animals seemed to have died in 15 seconds.
The next day, more than a dozen physicians, news reporters, and government representatives were assembled to watch the history-making execution.
But weather conditions did not cooperate. The air temperature proved so cold that much of the liquid failed to vaporize. As a result, effects of the gas were hindered, and Jon kept showing signs of life for more than two long minutes.
An eternity of more than two hours passed before the chamber was finally considered safe enough to enter so the body could at last be removed and examined.
The reaction to the experiment was mixed. On the one hand, the Nevada State Journal pronounced: “Nevada’s novel death law is upheld by the highest court—humanity.” Likewise, a representative of the U.S. Army pronounced it “a wonderful and humane way of execution.”
But critics complained that the new execution method “robs capital punishment of its horror,” or they said Nevada had “stumbled into new refinements and depths of cruelty.” Dickerson warned the governor that the method posed many risks unless numerous refinements were adopted.
As a result, state officials spent two years improving their gas-chamber technology before they conducted another execution. The changes seemed to satisfy many critics, at least for a while. Within a few years, seven other states followed Nevada’s lead and built their own chambers.
However, after disclosures about the horrors of World War II death camps, continued executions by lethal gas became more problematic in the United States.
In 1994, a federal district court found that lethal-gas execution violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling was upheld.
The gas chambers at Carson City and other American prisons were eventually converted to lethal injection chambers or shut down altogether. What had originally been intended as a humane and progressive reform was abandoned 75 years after it was introduced.
Today, Jon’s unmarked grave lies behind the prison wall among the rocky dirt and sagebrush–a reminder of one of Nevada’s thornier milestones in 20th-century history.
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