A gas chamber is an apparatus for killing humans or other animals with gas, consisting of a sealed chamber into which a poisonous or asphyxiant gas is introduced. The most commonly used poisonous agent is hydrogen cyanide; carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide have also been used. Gas chambers were used as a method of execution for condemned prisoners in the United States beginning in the 1920s and continue to be a legal execution method in three states. During the Holocaust, large-scale gas chambers designed for mass killing were used by Nazi Germany as part of their genocide program. The use of gas chambers in North Korea has also been reported.
In his book, Le Crime de Napoléon, French historian Claude Ribbe has claimed that in the early 19th century, Napoleon used poison gas to put down slave rebellions in Haiti and Guadeloupe. Based on accounts left by French officers, he alleges that enclosed spaces including the holds of ships were used as makeshift gas chambers where sulfur dioxide gas (probably generated by burning sulfur, which would have been readily available from volcanoes in the area) was used to execute up to 100,000 rebellious slaves. These claims remain controversial.
Gas chambers were used in the 1930s and 1940s by the Third Reich initially as part of the "public euthanasia program" aimed at eliminating physically and intellectually disabled people and political undesirables. In June 1942 many hundreds of prisoners of the Neuengamme concentration camp, including 45 Dutch communists, were gassed in Bernburg Euthanasia Centre. At these locations, the preferred gas was carbon monoxide delivered in metal cylinders followed by the development of less expensive methods of mass murder during the Holocaust with the exhaust gas of gasoline-powered cars, trucks and army tanks used at designated death camps.
The Nazi concentration and extermination camps, including Auschwitz and Majdanek, used hydrogen cyanide in the form of Zyklon B. The first experimental gassing with Zyklon B took place at Auschwitz I on September 3, 1941, in the cellar of Block 11 using 600 Soviet POWs and 250 other prisoners who were sick and no longer able to work. The gas chosen by the command of Operation Reinhard was exhaust gas from internal combustion engines (detailed in the Gerstein Report among others). In order to process the hundreds of victims delivered in Holocaust trains each day, the killing centres at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor, during the most deadly phase of the Holocaust in Poland, used the cheapest available killing agent for use in the gas chambers of these extermination camps. In accordance with the Nazi cross-European policy of genocide against the Jews, the SS "processed" thousands of Romani people, (male) homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, intellectuals and the clergy from all occupied territories.
In the eastern territories, the mass executions by exhaust gas were performed by the Einsatzgruppen in modified vans, known as Gaswagen (variously translated as "gas wagon", "gas van", or "gas car") delivered from Berlin.
Gas vans, such as those in Kulmhof, and the purpose-built brick and mortar gas chambers constructed at numerous concentration camps and extermination camps, were used to kill several million people between 1941 and 1945. Some stationary gas chambers could kill 2,000 people at once. The use of gas chambers during the Holocaust was attested to by camp survivors as well as staff members, drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of the SS. Detailed information was also provided by the Vrba-Wetzler report, more commonly known as the "Auschwitz Protocols", and the testimony of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, not to mention other German staff members and soldiers.
Most gas chambers were dismantled or destroyed as the Soviet troops approached, except for those at Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Majdanek. The gas chamber at Auschwitz I was amongst those blown up. It was reconstructed after the war to stand as a memorial, albeit with the entry door and the wall that originally separated the gas chamber from a washroom removed. The door that had been added when the gas chamber was converted into an air raid shelter was left intact.
In 1937–1940, Lithuania operated a gas chamber in Aleksotas within the First Fort of the Kaunas Fortress. Before, the executions were carried out by hanging or by shooting. However, these methods were viewed as brutal and in January 1937, the criminal code was amended to provide execution by gas which at the time was viewed as more civilized and humane. Lithuania considered and rejected execution by poison. The first execution was carried on July 27, 1937: Bronius Pogužinskas, age 37, convicted of murder of five people from a Jewish family. Historian Sigita Černevičiūtė counted at least nine executions in the gas chamber, though records are incomplete and fragmentary. Of the nine, eight were convicted of murder. One, Aleksandras Maurušaitis, was in addition convicted of anti-government actions during the 1935 Suvalkija strike. The last known execution took place on May 19, 1940 for robbery. The fate of the gas chamber after the occupation by the Soviet Union in June 1940 is unclear.
Kwon Hyok, a former head of security at Camp 22, described laboratories equipped with gas chambers for suffocation gas experiments, in which three or four people, normally a family, are the experimental subjects. After undergoing medical checks, the chambers are sealed and poison is injected through a tube, while scientists observe from above through glass. In a report reminiscent of an earlier account of a family of seven, Kwon claims to have watched one family of two parents, a son and a daughter die from suffocating gas, with the parents trying to save the children using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for as long as they had the strength. Kwon's testimony was supported by documents from Camp 22 describing the transfer of prisoners designated for the experiments. The documents were identified as genuine by Kim Sang Hun, a London-based expert on Korea and human rights activist. A press conference in Pyongyang, organized by North Korean authorities, denounced this.
The original invention of mobile gas chambers based on adapted vans with the storage compartment sealed and exhaust redirected inside are attributed to Soviet NKVD commander Isay Berg. These vans were used by NKVD from 1936 under disguise of bread vans (Russian: душегубка).
Gas chambers have been used for capital punishment in the United States to execute death row inmates. The first person to be executed in the United States by lethal gas was Gee Jon, on February 8, 1924. An unsuccessful attempt to pump poison gas directly into his cell at Nevada State Prison led to the development of the first makeshift gas chamber to carry out Gee's death sentence.
In 1957, Burton Abbott was executed as the governor of California, Goodwin J. Knight, was on the telephone to stay the execution. Since the restoration of the death penalty in the United States in 1976, eleven executions by gas chamber have been conducted. By the 1980s, reports of suffering during gas chamber executions had led to controversy over the use of this method.
At the September 2, 1983, execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the viewing room after eight minutes while Gray was still alive and gasping for air. The decision to clear the room while he was still alive was criticized by his attorney. David Bruck, an attorney specializing in death penalty cases, said, "Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans."
During the April 6, 1992, execution of Donald Harding in Arizona, it took 11 minutes for death to occur. The prison warden stated that he would quit if required to conduct another gas chamber execution. Following Harding's execution, Arizona voted that all persons condemned after November 1992 would be executed by lethal injection.
Following the execution of Robert Alton Harris, a federal court declared that "execution by lethal gas under the California protocol is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual." By the late 20th century, most states had switched to methods considered to be more humane, such as lethal injection. California's gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison was converted to an execution chamber for lethal injection.
As of 2010, the last person to be executed in the gas chamber was German national Walter LaGrand, sentenced to death before 1992, who was executed in Arizona on March 3, 1999. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ruled that he could not be executed by gas chamber, but the decision was overturned by the United States Supreme Court. The gas chamber was formerly used in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Oregon. Six states, Arizona, California, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri and Wyoming, authorize lethal gas if lethal injection cannot be administered, the condemned committed their crime before a certain date, or the condemned chooses to die in the gas chamber. In October 2010, New York governor David Paterson signed a bill rendering gas chambers illegal for use by humane societies and other animal shelters.
Method of use
Using hydrogen cyanide
As implemented in the United States, the gas chamber is considered to be the most dangerous, most complicated, and most expensive method of administering the death penalty. The condemned person is strapped into a chair within an airtight chamber, which is then sealed. The executioner activates a mechanism which drops potassium cyanide (or sodium cyanide) pellets into a bath of sulfuric acid beneath the chair; the ensuing chemical reaction generates lethal hydrogen cyanide gas. Because hydrogen cyanide gas condenses at approximately 78 °F (26 °C), the temperature in the chamber (when it is in use) is maintained at at least 80 °F (27 °C).
The gas is visible to the condemned, who is advised to take several deep breaths to speed unconsciousness. Nonetheless, there are often convulsions and excessive drooling. There may also be urinating, defecating, and vomiting.
Following the execution the chamber is purged with air, and any remnant gas is neutralized with anhydrous ammonia, after which the body can be removed (with great caution, as pockets of gas can be trapped in the victim's clothing). Sometimes, as a safety precaution, the clothing worn by the executed person is destroyed by incineration. The undertaker who handles the body wears rubber gloves for protection against any trace amounts of cyanide that might still be present on or in the body.
Excluding all oxygen
Nitrogen gas or oxygen-depleted air has been considered for human execution, as it can induce nitrogen asphyxiation. In April 2015, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin approved a bill allowing nitrogen asphyxiation as an execution method.
Gas chambers have also been used for animal euthanasia, using carbon monoxide as the lethal agent. Sometimes a box filled with anesthetic gas is used to anesthetize small animals for surgery or euthanasia.
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