The Gruesome First Gas Chamber Execution

Ryan Fan\
“One hundred years from now Nevada will be referred to as a heathen commonwealth controlled by savages with only the outward symbols of civilization.” — the San Jose Mercury News.

In the early 1920s, the United States was looking for more humane and ethical forms death penalty executions. Nevada found its alternative in 1924: the gas chamber.

According to the YouTube channel, Jerry Explores History, Nevada officials thought the gas chamber was a more humane form of execution than traditional forms like hanging and death by firing squad. In particular, many were appalled by the horror of the electric chair. The notion of the gas chamber being a relatively more humane version of execution does not age well, especially since the Nazis killed millions using the gas chamber in the Holocaust.

The first person killed by gas chamber was Gee Jon, a Chinese national executed by lethal gas after murdering an older man from a rival gang. The first execution by gas chamber was not very humane — in fact, it was very gruesome. A botched execution led Gee to suffocate to death for 10 minutes with a crowd of 30 people watching.

This is the story of the first execution by gas chamber in history and the history of using the gas chamber in capital punishment since.

Gee Jon from the Nevada State Prison — Wikipedia Commons

According to Jeff Burbank at The Mob Museum, Nevada became the first state government to make lethal gas a death penalty punishment as part of a “Humane Death” bill, which passed through both chambers of the Nevada Legislature. One legislator said the gas would kill a prisoner “without warning and while asleep in a cell.” While the governor of Nevada didn’t support the death penalty, he signed the punishment into law.

Gee Jon was a Chinese immigrant born into the Qing Dynasty in China. As a man of Cantonese descent, Gee came to America when he was young, and grew up in San Francisco.

Once he was an adult, Gee became a member of the Hop Sing Tong, a Triad organized crime group in San Francisco. At the time, the Hip Sing Tong had a feud with a rival organization, and Gee traveled to a mining town in Nevada called Mina to kill a man in a rival organization.

According to Scott Christianson in The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, Gee killed another Chinese immigrant, and he became an ideal target for experimentation for the gas chamber because the early 1920s included “a wave of anti-immigrant and racist hysteria.” At the time, Tong warfare across all of the West led to many murders, especially in California.

A 1921 account in the Nevada State Journal states Gee and his apprentice, Hughie Sing, killed a laundryman named Tom Quong Kee in Mina’s Chinatown. Gee and Sing were represented by attorneys J.M. Frame and W.H. Chang. It’s also important to note that Gee was a Chinese immigrant and Sing was white, making an appearance of racial disparity in the unequal treatment between the two.

Apparently, during the trial, Chang brought his bodyguard, and the sheriff confiscated a revolver from Chang’s bodyguard, an incident the news account calls “quite a little diversion.”

It was a popular trial — the courtroom was packed with spectators. Gee pleaded not guilty. However, multiple witnesses testified against him and Sing. The Greek taxi driver who drove both men to kill Kee said he drove them from Reno to Mina and then Mina to Reno. Taking I-95N today, this would have been an approximately 160-mile drive taking at least three hours, and we can imagine it took longer than six hours round trip for the driver to go back and forth from Reno to Mina in 1921. The driver, Pappas, denied any knowledge of what Gee and Sing were doing on their visit to Mina. While they were performing the hit, Pappas went to get dinner, and he said he was completely unaware there was a murder in the first place.

A sheriff and doctor who performed the autopsy on Kee also testified. Sing was young and had just exited public schools in Carson City, while Gee was much older — the news account said Gee was believed to have actually shot Kee.

After Gee was indicted for murder, he was soon convicted and sentenced to death on August 27th, 1921. Sing had his sentence commuted to life in prison.

The execution

“Compressed gas was shipped from Los Angeles to Carson in tanks. The procedure cost approximately one thousand dollars and was regarded as extremely hazardous,” the Reno Evening Gazette said.

According to Clifford Bryant in The Handbook of Death and Dying, the governor of Nevada didn’t think the “Humane Death Bill” would make it through the state’s Supreme Court since death by legal gas should have constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, the Nevada Supreme Court approved of the use of gas chambers in State v. Gee Jon. It called said the legislature did a good job of “inflicting the death penalty in the most humane manner known to modern science.”

Gee’s attorneys also tried to appeal the execution by gas chamber on the basis that it was cruel and unusual punishment, but their appeals were denied. Gee would be incarcerated in Carson City as he awaited his execution.

A professor picked out hydrocyanic acid gas as the poison gas to kill Gee because it would be “instantly fatal” and because “it is the deadliest poison known.” To make hydrocyanic acid, you needed cyanide, particularly cyanide in its liquid form (cyanogen). But the state of Nevada had no cyanogen, according to Christianson. Apparently, the only supplier of cyanide in the West was the California Cyanide Company, which produced it as a pesticide for killing parasites in citrus groves.

Transporting the gas, however, would lead to major liability concerns for the California Cyanide Company. It had to be transported from California to Nevada in heavy steel cylinders at low temperatures and heavy pressure. However, hydrogen cyanide is very vulnerable to changes in temperature. so the California Cyanide Company refused to deliver any cyanide to Carson City. Also, no railroad service would carry the cyanide either, so the state of Nevada organized its own transportation, according to Christianson.

The assistant of the prison warden went to go pick up tanks of hydrocyanic acid gas, almost $1000 worth, by himself. He had to travel to Los Angeles and then back to Carson City, driving through mountainous roads in the snow. Christianson says it “must have been a harrowing ride,” but fortunately, none of the deadly gas leaked or exploded.

Once the gas was brought back to the prison, officials wanted to test it. They used it in a lethal chamber, and then four Nevada prison guards quit their jobs, stating they “didn’t want to take a chance on being mixed up in it.”

The execution ended up being a failure in many ways. Gee Jon was set to be executed on February 8, 1924, but the weather interfered with the execution. The temperature was far below the boiling point of hydrocyanic acid outside the execution chamber, which is around 78 degrees Fahrenheit. That meant the lethal gas wasn’t actually a gas yet, and a heater within the gas chamber did not work.

Most of the hydrocyanic acid was then in its liquid state, and it accumulated in a pool at the feet of Gee Jon. Christianson notes the “lethal power was greatly reduced” and instead of the gas chamber killing him quickly, he died slowly and painfully. He threw his head back violently as the gas started to seep into his lungs, and the 30 witnesses in the prison heard his breathing grow more shallow as he began to suffocate to death.

His chin would drop to his chest, and then his head would pull back as Gee Jon kept suffocating to death, and reporters recorded his every move. Some spectators said they started to smell the deadly gas themselves — the smell of almond blossoms. However, it was only a minority of the audience. The rest of the crowd stayed to watch Gee die. After two minutes, someone said “he’s unconscious,” but Gee’s head kept pulling back and his mouth kept opening as he continued to suffocate. After one pause in movements, a physician said Gee died.

Gee, however, was not actually dead. He kept raising his head and extending it back, making witnesses terrified. Gas started to leak out from the gas chamber and into the prison yard, but at 9:46 a.m., Gee was finally motionless — 10 minutes after the execution started.

Warden Dickerson cleared the prison yard and had a ventilator gate opened and a suction fan turned on. They closed the chamber for two hours and wouldn’t remove the body until about two and a half hours after Gee died. Physicians also refused to perform the autopsy — they worried his body would release toxic gas.

Legacy and takeaways

The press would be very divided on the use of the gas chamber in executions. The Nevada State Journal heralded the “humanity” of the execution and said those who witnessed the execution were unanimous in saying they would prefer to die the same way if they were given the death penalty. However, the San Jose Mercury Herald said the state of Nevada would be remembered as a “heathen commonwealth controlled by savages” after their use of the gas chamber. The New Haven Journal-Courier hoped it would be the first and last life taken by gas chamber.

The New York Times looked at the racial aspect of the case — Sing was only given life in prison, while Gee, a Chinese immigrant, was the first person in history to be killed by gas chamber.

“The new method was tested on a Chinaman…That will need a good deal of explaining,” the Times said.

It’s a good question and topic — why was the gas chamber first used on a Chinese immigrant?

Warden Dickerson, who presided over the execution, called the death “painless” but not “practicable.” I don’t know how Dickerson could call the execution painless given what Gee experienced. But he said the gas chamber had too many logistical problems like needing an expert to handle the gas as well as keeping the gas at a low enough temperature to prevent an explosion. The transporting of the gas was also incredibly dangerous for anyone who undertook the task.

Apparently, Christianson notes the gas chamber was also intended to make the execution easier on the executioner’s conscience. Pouring acid down a tube for a gas chamber tended to be easier than pulling a lever to kill a person or shooting them, according to a gas chamber designer.

The gas chamber is forever cemented in history as a symbol of the Holocaust and Nazi extermination camps. But it’s important to note the use of gas chambers started in America and would continue as a form of execution until the 1990s.

Almost 100 years later, we can look back and say the gas chamber was not a humane method of execution. We can look back and ask what the Nevada legislature was possibly thinking — but is any form of execution or death penalty humane in the first place?

Originally published on CrimeBeat on March 19, 2021.

Cover Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

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