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The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, by Scott Christianson (University of California Press, 2011).

The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, by Scott Christianson
(University of California Press, 2011).

344 pages, $18.95 paperback

Book review by Julie Etter

Scott Christianson’s new book, released in paperback in July 2011, continues the author’s prolific examination of the history of the U.S. criminal injustice system. The Last Gasp looks at the American gas chamber by juxtaposing the gruesome specifics of this form of capital punishment against the social and political influences surrounding the chamber’s popularity and eventual decline as a means of execution.

Christianson’s research illustrates how the development of chemical warfare in World War I encouraged the “chemical-wartime-industrial-education complex” to lobby for the creation of peacetime uses for lethal gas after the war. Commercial uses included fumigation of immigrants at Ellis Island, and pesticides for agriculture as an efficient way to kill off pests and reduce threats of disease. Unfortunately, the concurrent popularity in the belief of eugenics and euthanasia led policy-makers to reason that lethal gas could also be used as a form of capital punishment. Pseudo-scientific support helped influence the public to romanticize the use of hydrogen cyanide as a “painless” way to carry out executions.

The American gas chamber was first used in Nevada in February 1924, when murderer Gee Jon was executed. During the time the chamber was in use, 594 men and women met their deaths within it. North Carolina used the gas chamber most often, with 197 executions. As professional reports and eyewitness accounts collected over the decades revealed the agonized, brutal deaths of its victims, the public began to doubt the gas chamber’s purported humanity. Also, the early instability of the chamber’s structure put the safety of observers in question. In one infamous incident, all observers to an execution were ordered out of the adjoining rooms due to fears that the gas had leaked out of the chamber. While the Supreme Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of lethal gas, intense international pressure made the 1999 gassing of Walter LeGrand in Arizona the last such execution in the United States to date.

The idea of eugenics is pervasive in Christianson’s examination of the gas chamber. He shows how the advent of lethal gas executions in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s had a troubling parallel: American inventors and lawmakers championed the humanity of the gas chamber for condemned prisoners, while the Nazis used gas chambers as a form of mass murder in their pursuit of a pure Ayran nation through eugenics.

The Last Gasp offers evidence of American and German chemical patent exchange during the rise of the Nazi Party, which resulted in little to no criminal prosecution of the American business executives involved. While sometimes Christianson’s connection between the U.S and Nazi use of lethal gas is tenuous, the implication is shocking and begs a long-overdue examination of U.S. racism and anti-Semitism, and how the atrocity of the Holocaust might be more familiar to American penology than most people care to acknowledge.

Advocacy for eugenics among prominent U.S. citizens and the implied link to the Nazis’ use of eugenics in the Final Solution puts into perspective what it means to give a government unchecked power to kill off its own citizens – even those who have committed heinous crimes. Today, even a rudimentary examination of the U.S. justice system demonstrates the prevailing influence of eugenics: those deemed unfit for society are disproportionately poor, people of color and mentally disabled, as evidenced by the sprawling mass of our nation’s prison system.

Despite its topical focus, The Last Gasp’s analysis of eugenics raises arguments that could apply to the increasingly questionable use of lethal injection. The book also summarizes and discusses some of the landmark Supreme Court cases dealing with the concept of cruel and unusual punishment, and supplies great insights for the amateur legal reader seeking historical and social analysis of some of the best-known landmark cases regarding the 8th Amendment. The Last Gasp provides a new angle to argue against the death penalty; the book is filled with facts that you’ll want to read out loud to anyone willing to listen, and offers compelling insights and original research detailing the rise and fall of the American gas chamber.

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