North Carolina's gas chamber years

July 2, 2010 

— The recent gruesome legal execution by firing squad in Utah has revived debate about "humane" methods of capital punishment and the wisdom of the death penalty in general. Every state always has claimed that the method it uses is "humane," and no state has ever acknowledged that it has executed an innocent person.

Today North Carolina has 176 persons on death row. (Since 1973 an additional seven convicts who were scheduled to die have been exonerated.)

Over the past 50 years, North Carolina has put to death 44 persons, some of whom might have been wrongfully convicted. Forty-one of those were killed by lethal injection; forensic evidence in at least eight of those cases later suggested that the condemned might have remained conscious throughout the procedure.

Moreover, three more of those executed persons, and 190 others dating back to 1936, were killed by another method, which the state had also said was "humane." That method was lethal gas (asphyxiation by hydrogen cyanide, also known as Prussic acid) in a prison gas chamber.

In fact, North Carolina finished the 20th century as the nation's second-leading user of gas execution - only one execution behind the much larger state of California.

More significantly, perhaps, prior to World War II, the Tar Heel State ranked No. 1 in the world in its use of the gas chamber.

Notions of the gas chamber as a painless and "humane" death device were forever tarnished by disclosures that Nazi Germany had used massive gas chambers and crematoria to murder millions of innocent men, women and children in horrific death camps during World War II. The primary victims were Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and mentally and physically disabled persons.

As proof of the Holocaust grew, lethal gas and capital punishment in general increasingly fell into disrepute throughout the world, including in North Carolina and other states.

In 1994 a federal District Court in San Francisco held that California's execution by lethal gas violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 1999 the world's final gas-chamber execution was carried out in Arizona, leaving most states to rely on lethal injection - a method pioneered by Nazi doctors.

Today, most states prohibit the gas chamber method even for animal euthanasia.

The rise and fall of the American gas chamber offers a cautionary tale about what can happen when an attempted "reform" is initiated without sufficient scrutiny and later adopted on a massive scale, with hideous and genocidal consequences.

North Carolinians might do well to remember that deadly history.

The world's first official execution by lethal gas was carried out by Nevada on Feb. 8, 1924, when a Chinese-American immigrant was put to death at Carson City.

In North Carolina, prior to the mid-1930s criminals were hanged, often by lynching, or they were killed in the electric chair at Central Prison.

Dr. Charles A. Peterson of Spruce Pine in Mitchell County, a physician and popular Republican member of the state House of Representatives, cited his medical background to argue that lethal gas was a more humane method of execution than electrocution and a preferred alternative.

Peterson persuaded a legislative committee to hold public hearings so that he and two other physicians, two dentists and a newspaper reporter could attest to the advantages of lethal gas over hanging and electrocution. His model legislation passed unanimously, making North Carolina the first state east of the Mississippi and the first in the South to authorize the use of the gas chamber.

At the time, many observers viewed North Carolina's switch to lethal gas as further proof of the state's progressive leadership in the South. Some liberal reformers actually hailed the move as a step forward.

But from the start, the method didn't live up to its advance reviews.

The first gassing was carried out Jan. 24, 1936. Allen Foster, a 19-year-old mentally impaired black youth from Alabama, had absconded from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Hoke County and been convicted by an all-white jury of raping a young white woman. Foster was sentenced to die in the state's shiny new gas chamber.

His execution turned out to be much grislier than promised. There was a long period of convulsions, and it took a full 11 minutes before doctors finally pronounced Foster dead.

North Carolina's reliance on gas was unmatched among the states in the 1930s. Notwithstanding official statements about the procedures going well, gruesome eyewitness accounts of the gassings in Central Prison continued for years. By the end of 1941, the gas chamber had claimed 82 people, at least 68 of whom were African-American, a sizeable number of them doomed for crimes other than murder. Persons of "defective" intelligence were also disproportionately targeted.

But the shock of Auschwitz and other atrocities helped make North Carolinians and other Americans increasingly uncomfortable about the use of the gas chamber and other forms of capital punishment. From Oct. 28, 1961, to March 15, 1984, the state didn't carry out a single execution.

Eventually, the old gas chamber was dismantled. The former execution chair ended up in the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. Some day the lethal injection gurney will go the same route.

Investigative historian Scott Christianson is the author of "The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber."

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