This week in Nevada: Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, centennial of world’s first gas-chamber execution

first gas-chamber execution

Gee Jon (courtesy Nevada Historical Society) Quarterly)

Most of the U.S. and even much of the world will be fixated this weekend on Las Vegas when Super Bowl LVIII (58 for those not fluent in Roman) is played in Allegiant Stadium between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. It will be a first for Nevada, which until not too long ago was on the National Football League’s boycott list for moral reasons due to legalized sports betting in the state. Then team owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell realized widespread gambling would greatly increased the value of their franchises and decided they could live with some immorality.

As it happens, this first for Nevada coincides with the 100th anniversary of another big Nevada first raising questions of morality. For it was on February 8, 1924–a century ago tomorrow–that Nevada carried out the world’s very first capital punishment execution by lethal gas. Touted at the time as a humane alternative to electrocution, hanging, firing squad, guillotining, stoning, burning at the stake or whatever, the execution of Gee Jon didn’t go well. A huge story at the time, the botched process brought ridicule and contempt to the Silver State and helped trigger wide debate for decades about how to properly carry out capital punishment.

Gas chambers, in Nevada and some other U.S. jurisdictions, eventual gave way to lethal injections–until some executioners started having problems legally getting the drugs necessary to carry out death sentences. Earlier this month, Alabama carried out the first execution in years using gas, in this case pure nitrogen, depriving condemned killer Kenneth Smith of oxygen and thus life. Witnesses were split on whether it prevented undue suffering to the condemned. Some states are even authorizing firing squads again.

And, amazingly, a still-undecided case that was argued nearly a year ago before the Nevada Supreme Court–the very same panel that greenlighted a different kind of gas a century ago–concerns whether Nevada, which has more than 60 persons on Death Row, can carry out an execution using yet another untested procedure used nowhere else in the world. In this case it would be lethal injection, but employing a mixture of chemicals never before used but which are easier to get. Nevada hasn’t executed anyone since 2006. In December 2022, a court on procedural grounds blocked lame duck Democratic governor Steve Sisolak’s effort to commute all death sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

There are lessons to be learned here, especially whether a thinly populated desert state devoted to minimal government can pull off such a feat. Much of the following account repurposes material previously posted from time to time on this blog since I became New To Las Vegas.

Born in China in 1895, Gee Jon had emigrated in his teens to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he eventually became a member of the Hip Sing Tong gang, whose product line was narcotics and bootleg liquor. Its principal competitor was the Bing Kong Tong gang. Both outfits sought to spread their influence across the country. Murdering rivals was one way to do that.

That is apparently what brought Gee and Hughie Sing, a 19-year-old accomplice born and raised in Carson City, to Mina, a now ex-railroad town on what is now U.S. 95 some 280 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The victim was immigrant Tom Quong Kee, a 74-year-old laundry operator and a Bing Kong Tong member. Gee spoke little English, and Sing seemed to function partly as Gee’s interpreter.

On the night of August 27, 1921, Gee and Sing went to Tom’s cabin. Sing, who previously had lived in Tom’s home, knocked on the rear door. Tom, holding a candle, answered in his pajamas, whereupon Gee shot him twice through the heart with a .38 Colt revolver. Gee and Sing were arrested a few days later 160 miles away in Reno. Sing quickly confessed and implicated Gee. (I am drawing much of this section from a 1975 article in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, “Example for the Nation: Nevada’s Execution of Gee Jon,” by Loren B. Chan, as well as court records and opinions.)

Barely three months later, a jury in nearby Hawthorne convicted the pair of first degree murder after a week-long trial. District Judge J. Emmett Walsh sentenced them to death. But owing to his age and the fact he wasn’t the trigger man, Sing eventually saw his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by the Nevada Board of Pardons. (After serving 17 years, he was released on parole in 1938 and left Nevada for California.) It may or may not be significant that the trial and sentencing took place amid what one scholar called “a wave of anti-immigrant and racist hysteria that gripped the country at that time.”

As it happened, earlier that year the Nevada legislature, at the urging of state Deputy Attorney General Frank Kern, had passed what was officially called the “Humane Execution Bill.” It replaced hanging or firing squad (the choice was up to the inmate) with execution by lethal gas. Gas had been of interest as a means of capital punishment thanks to the writings of New York City psychiatrist Allan McLean Hamilton (a grandson, by the way, of Alexander Hamilton), who argued it would be a more humane process.

The bill cleared each legislative chamber with only one dissenting vote. Although opposed to capital punishment, Gov. Emmet Boyle, a liberal Democrat and mining engineer, signed the bill into law, perhaps figuring the courts would strike it down. But in January 1923 the three-member Nevada Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law in State v. Gee Jon over the defendant’s objection the manner of death amounted to cruel and unusual punishment prohibiting by the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Here was some of the court’s reasoning a century ago in the opinion, authored by Virginia-born Chief Justice Benjamin Wilson Coleman:

For the state to take the life of one who perpetrates a fiendish murder has from time immemorial been recognized as proper, and as being neither cruel nor unusual. The act in question authorizes the taking of the life of a murderer as a penalty for the crime which he commits. It is the same penalty which has been exacted for ages— sanctioned in the old biblical law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It is true that the penalty has been inflicted in different ways; for instance, by hanging, by shooting, and by electrocution; but in each case the method used has been to accomplish the same end — the death of the guilty party. Our statute inflicts no new punishment; it is the same old punishment, inflicted in a different manner, and we think it safe to say that in whatever way the death penalty is inflicted it must of necessity be more or less cruel …

For many years animals have been put to death painlessly by the administration of poisonous gas. Gas has been used for years by dental surgeons for the purpose of extracting teeth painlessly. No doubt gas may be administered so as to produce intense suffering. It is also true that one may be executed by hanging, shooting, or electrocution in such a bungling fashion as to produce the same result. But this is no argument against execution by either method

The revulsion on the part of many to the idea of execution by the administration of gas is due to an erroneous impression. The average person looks upon the use of gas with horror, because of the experiences incident to the late war [World War I, when lethal gas was used as a weapon, mainly by Germany]. They forget that there are many kinds of gas, ranging from the harmless nonpoisonous tear gas, which may be used for the quelling of a mob, and the ordinary illuminating gas, which may produce painless death, to the highly poisonous gas which sears and destroys everything with which it comes in contact. It may be said to be a scientific fact that a painless death may be caused by the administration of lethal gas. That suffering and torture may be inflicted by its administration is no argument against it.

The ruling complimented the Legislature for “inflicting the death penalty in the most humane manner known to modern science.”

Nevada’s new procedure drew wide notice, much of it unfavorable. Editorialized The New York Times, “The electric chair is not modern enough for the Nevadans, apparently, or else it displeases them in some way, and their law calls for the use of putting condemned murderers to death in what is called in euphemistic terms a ‘lethal chamber’–a room that can be made airtight and into which at will can be introduced through hidden conduits a suffocating gas.”

Hamilton suggested that a gas such as carbon monoxide could be pumped into a prisoner’s airtight cell while he slept, leading to a painless death. Nevada prison authorities instead chose hydrocyanic gas (cyanide gas), which was used to kill pests in California citrus groves. The warden of the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, Denver S. Dickerson (a former Nevada governor), sent an aide to California to buy and haul back over icy mountain roads to Nevada tanks of liquid cyanide, which would be turned into gas by an “autofumer” the state purchased for $700 (about $10,000 in 2018 dollars).

But Dickerson realized that gassing Gee in his cell while asleep without warning, while maybe more humane, was not practical. So according to Fatal Airs: The Deadly History and Apocalyptic Future of Lethal Gases That Threaten Our World, by Scott Christianson, the state converted an tiny old stand-alone granite prison barber shop into a gas chamber at the Nevada State Prison. Four prison guards quit, fearful of leaking gas. Tests were conducted on animals, including what one Chinese-language press account described as a “stray white large cat.” Federal authorities in Washington, D.C. asked for an after-action report.

Local excitement was even higher. On February 8, 1924, the day of the execution, “Chinese Killer Must Die Today,” Reno’s Nevada State Journal, then the state’s largest daily newspaper, said in a headline stripped across the top of the front page, continuing, “Tong assassin alone to face end in vapors … Nevada to carry out strange execution of Gee Jon …”

On that cloudy, humid morning in Carson City, the 5-foot-5, 129-pound Gee was strapped into the newly built chamber’s chair. He wept, but stopped after a prison guard shouted at him, “Brace up!” All but Gee departed, and the chamber was sealed. With 30 witnesses including reporters watching through windows, the gassing started. Predictions were that Gee would die within two minutes.

But he didn’t! Thanks to a malfunctioning heater, the temperature inside the chamber was a cool 52 degrees, causing the deadly liquid to collect on the floor rather than immediately turn into deadly gas, reducing the killing power. Reporters with watches noted that it was a good 10 minutes before Gee finally was motionless.

It took two hours of venting before authorities could open the chamber, remove Gee’s body and take it to the prison hospital. Doctors confirmed he was dead but, fearful of releasing toxic gas, declined to conduct an autopsy. Gee was buried in the prison cemetery on a nearby hill.

Public opinion varied widely. Nevada media generally thought the process was humane enough. Out-of-state press was not nearly so kind. “One hundred years from now Nevada will be referred to as a heathen commonwealth controlled by savages with only the outward symbols of civilization,” declared the San Jose Mercury Herald in California.

Warden Dickerson later wrote that the gas chamber execution was painless to Gee but not efficient, due to expense and the considerable potential for problems. Still, Nevada conducted another 32 gas-chamber executions until the state officially switched to lethal injection in 1983. Nine other states, including California, also used gas chambers. No states do now. The Nevada State Prison was closed in 2012; any execution would be at Ely State Prison, 240 miles north of Las Vegas.

The current case before the Nevada Supreme Court involves Zane Floyd, now 48. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection more than two decades ago for killing four persons in a Las Vegas supermarket in 1999. It took jurors barely two hours to convict him of all counts, which included a prior sexual assault. The quick decision was attributable to Floyd’s recorded confession played in open court along with store video of the killings.

Way back in 2002 the same court upheld Floyd’s conviction and death sentence. But subsequent lawsuits and appeals on the state and federal level have blocked imposition of the sentence. The current Nevada Supreme Court is bound by that 2002 ruling but is considered more liberal and some think might be looking for a procedural way to spare the convicted the ultimate penalty.

Zane’s lawyers now seek to bar the lethal injection of a precise mixture of chemicals never before used in a execution anywhere. According to court records, the formula includes the anesthetic ketamine, the painkiller fentanyl or the similar drug alfentanil, and potassium chloride or potassium acetate. The proposed protocol could also use cisatracurium, a paralytic drug.

As did lawyers for Gee Jon a century ago, Floyd’s lawyers claim the process will create prolonged suffering that violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The lawyers instead have suggested a firing squad, saying death would be instantaneous.

The technical point before the court is whether the Nevada legislature properly delegated to the head of the prison system complete authority to determine the lethal injection execution protocol, including what kind of drugs to use. As elsewhere, prison officials have had to scramble developing their deadly brew because of difficulty in legally obtaining a supply of all the needed drugs before their expiration dates.

All stuff to think about this weekend, as Super Bowl TV cameras focus on just-jetted-in-from Asia Taylor Swift. A Nevada week mixing immortality with immoralty.

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This week in Nevada: Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, centennial of world’s first gas-chamber execution — 2 Comments

  1. I don’t know if you received this comment yesterday, but isn’t it “owing to his age,” and not “owning to his age.” Sorry, I have a son who was in the National Spelling Bee, was a copy editor for a time, and teaches English. It’s in the genes.

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