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A gas chamber is an apparatus for killing, 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. During the Holocaust, large-scale gas chambers designed for mass killing were used by Nazi Germany as part of their genocide program, and also by the Independent State of Croatia at the Jasenovac camp.[1] The use of gas chambers has also been reported in North Korea.[2]

Gas chambers have also been used for animal euthanasia, using carbon monoxide as the lethal agent. Sometimes a box filled with anaesthetic gas is used to anaesthetize small animals for surgery or euthanasia.


United States

Gas chamber history and laws in the United States.     Secondary method only      Once used gas chamber, but does not today      Has never used gas chamber
Post-Furman uses by state and numbers

Gas chambers have been used for capital punishment in the United States to execute criminals, especially convicted murderers. The first person to be executed in the United States by gas chamber was Gee Jon, on February 8, 1924 in Nevada. In 1957, Burton Abbott was executed as the governor of California, Goodwin J. Knight, was on the telephone to stay the execution.[3] Since the restoration of the death penalty in the United States in 1976, only eleven executions by gas chamber have been conducted.[4] 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."[5]

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.[6] Following Harding's execution, Arizona voted that all persons condemned after November 1992 would be executed by lethal injection.[4]

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."[7] 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 2009, 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 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that he could not be executed by gas chamber, but the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.[4] The gas chamber was formerly used in Colorado, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Wyoming and California. Three states, Arizona, Maryland, and Missouri, retain the gas chamber as a secondary method of execution for inmates sentenced to death or having committed capital crimes before certain dates, though they have lethal injection as the primary method.[8]


Method of use

The former gas chamber in New Mexico State Penitentiary, Used only once, in 1960, subsequently replaced by lethal injection.
The former gas chamber in San Quentin State Prison, now an execution chamber for lethal injection.

When executions by gas chambers are conducted in the United States, the general protocol is as follows. First, the executioner will place a quantity of potassium cyanide (KCN) pellets into a compartment directly below the chair in the chamber. The condemned person is then brought into the chamber and strapped into the chair, and the airtight chamber is sealed. At this point the executioner will pour a quantity of concentrated sulfuric acid (H2SO4) down a tube that leads to a small holding tank directly below the compartment containing the cyanide pellets. The curtain is then opened, allowing the witnesses to observe the inside of the chamber. The prison warden will then ask the condemned individual if he or she wishes to make a final statement. Following this, the executioner(s) will throw a switch/lever to cause the cyanide pellets to drop into the sulfuric acid, initiating a chemical reaction that generates hydrogen cyanide (HCN) gas:

2KCN(s) + H2SO4(aq) → 2HCN(g) + K2SO4(aq)

The gas is visible to the condemned, and he/she is advised to take several deep breaths to speed unconsciousness in order to prevent unnecessary suffering. Accordingly, execution by gas chamber is especially unpleasant for the witnesses to the execution due to the physical responses exhibited by the condemned during the process of dying. These responses can be violent, and can include convulsions and excessive drooling. It is unknown whether or not the condemned actually experiences pain during the process.

Following the execution, the chamber is purged of the gas through special scrubbers, and must be neutralized with anhydrous ammonia (NH3) before it can be opened. Guards wearing oxygen masks remove the body from the chamber. Finally, the prison doctor examines the individual in order to officially declare that he or she is dead and release the body to the next of kin.

One of the problems with the gas chamber is the inherent danger of dealing with such a toxic gas. Anhydrous ammonia is used to cleanse the chamber after cyanide gas has been used:

HCN + NH3 → NH4+ + CN-

The anhydrous ammonia used to clean the chamber afterwards, and the contaminated acid that must be drained and disposed of, are both very poisonous.

Nitrogen gas or oxygen-depleted air has been considered for human execution, as it can induce nitrogen asphyxiation. It has not been used to date.

Nazi Germany

Interior of Majdanek gas chamber, showing Prussian blue residue

Gas chambers were used in the Third Reich as part of the "public euthanasia program" aimed at eliminating physically and intellectually disabled people and political undesirables in the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, the preferred gas was carbon monoxide, often provided by the exhaust gas of cars, trucks or army tanks.[9]

Gas chamber at the Stutthof concentration camp.

During the Holocaust, gas chambers were designed to accept large groups as part of the Nazi policy of genocide against the Jews. Nazis also targeted the Romani people, homosexuals, physically and mentally disabled, and intellectuals. In early 1940, the use of hydrogen cyanide produced as Zyklon B was tested on 250 Roma children from Brno at the Buchenwald concentration camp.[10] According to Nizkor Project (Hebrew: נִזְכּוֹר‎), on September 3, 1941, 600 Soviet POWs were gassed with Zyklon B at Auschwitz camp I; this was the first experiment with the gas at Auschwitz.[11]

One of the destroyed crematoria at Auschwitz concentration camp

According to a website running by Jürgen Langowski, an anti-Nazi German activist, Carbon monoxide was also used in large purpose-built gas chambers. The gas was in exhaust gas from internal combustion engines (detailed in the Gerstein Report).[12]

Gas chambers in vans, 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.[13] The use of gas chambers during the Holocaust was attested to by several sources including the Vrba-Wetzler report and testimony from Rudolf Höss, Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and other German soldiers.[14][15][16]

The gas chambers were dismantled or destroyed when Soviet troops got close, except at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Majdanek. The gas chamber at Auschwitz I was reconstructed after the war as a memorial, but without a door in its doorway and without the wall that originally separated the gas chamber from a washroom. The door that had been added when the gas chamber was converted into an air raid shelter was left intact.[17]


Execution by exhaust gas was performed in specially modified vans, known as gaswagen (variously translated as "gas wagon", "gas van", or "gas car").[18]

Napoleonic France

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) was used to execute up to 100,000 rebellious slaves. These claims remain controversial.[19]


  1. ^ Many sources including
  2. ^ Barnett, Antony (February 1, 2004), "Revealed: the gas chamber horror of North Korea's gulag", The Guardian,,2763,1136483,00.html .
  3. ^ "Race in the Death House". Time (magazine). March 25 1957.,9171,809259,00.html. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  4. ^ a b c "German executed in Arizona, legal challenge fails". CNN. March 4, 1999. 
  5. ^ "Some examples of post-Furman botched executions". Death Penalty Information Center. May 24, 2007. 
  6. ^ Weil, Elizabeth (February 11, 2007), "The needle and the damage done", The New York Times, .
  7. ^ Fierro, Ruiz, Harris v. Gomez, 94-16775 (U.S. 9th Circuit 1996).
  8. ^ "Methods of execution". Death Penalty Information Center. 
  9. ^ See:
  10. ^ Emil Proester, Vraždeni čs. cikanu v Buchenwaldu (The murder of Czech Gypsies in Buchenwald). Document No. UV CSPB K-135 on deposit in the Archives of the Museum of the Fighters Against Nazism, Prague. 1940. (Quoted in: Miriam Novitch, Le génocide des Tziganes sous le régime nazi (Genocide of Gypsies by the Nazi Regime), Paris, AMIF, 1968 OCLC 463032460)
  11. ^ The Nizkor Project, Auschwitz: Krema I
  12. ^ Kurt Gerstein, Der Gerstein-Bericht(The Gerstein Report)
  13. ^ Niewyk, Donald (2000). The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 22. ISBN 9780231112000. 
  14. ^ The Vrba-Wetzler report, Rudolf Vrba & Alfred Wetzler,
  15. ^ Modern History Sourcebook: Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz: Testimony at Nuremberg, 1946
  16. ^ J.C Pressac (1989,), "Testimony of SS private Boeck", Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas chambers (NY: Beate Klarsfeld Foundation,): p. 181, 
  17. ^ The Nizkor Project, Auschwitz: Krema I
  18. ^ "Gas Wagons: The Holocaust's mobile gas chambers", an article of Nizkor Project
  19. ^ Randall, Colin (November 26, 2005), "Napoleon's genocide 'on a par with Hitler'", Daily Telegraph, , retrieved on 2009-11-25.


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