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Gas chambers were used during the holocaust.


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Gas chambers are an apparatus for killing and execution. Gas chambers consist 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. Their use has also been reported in North Korea. Gas chambers have also been used for animal euthanasia, using carbon dioxide as the lethal agent.

During the Holocaust, large-scale gas chambers designed for mass killing were used by Nazi Germany as part of their Genocide program.

Sometimes a box filled with anaesthetic gas is used to anaesthetize small animals for surgery or euthanasia.

Gas chambers method, when using cyanide.

Generally speaking, in the United States the execution protocol is as follows: First, the execution technician 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 execution technician 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

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. Most prisoners, however, try to hold their breath. Death from hydrogen cyanide is usually painful and unpleasant, although theoretically the condemned individual should lose consciousness before dying. The chamber is then 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.

Gas chambers United States of America.

gas chamber.
Gas chamber history and laws in the United States.
Color key:     Secondary method only     Once used gas chamber, but does not today     Has never used gas chamber

Gas chambers have been used for capital punishment in the United States in the past to execute criminals, especially convicted murderers. Five states (Wyoming, California, Maryland, Missouri, and Arizona) technically retain this method, but all allow lethal injection as an alternative. Following the videotaped execution of Robert Alton Harris a federal court in California declared this method of execution as "cruel and unusual punishment". In fact, it is highly unlikely that any of these states will ever again utilize the gas chamber, unless an inmate specifically requests to die by this method. In Arizona and Maryland, there are some inmates who were convicted before the gas chamber was replaced by lethal injection. In those states, it is possible for a gas chamber execution, but when those inmates are "removed" from death row (one way or another), the gas chamber will no longer have the realistic possibility of being used again. The use of the gas chamber was also controversial because of the use of large chambers to kill millions in Nazi concentration camps. Most states have now switched to methods considered more humane by officials, such as lethal injection.

The first person to be executed in the United States via gas chamber was Gee Jon, on February 8, 1924 in Nevada. As of 2006, the last person to be executed in the gas chamber was German national Walter LaGrand, whom Arizona executed on March 3, 1999.

As with all judicially mandated executions in the United States, witnesses are present during the procedure. These include members of the media, citizen witnesses, prison/legal/spiritual staff, and certain family members.

The gas chamber that San Quentin State Prison in California used for capital punishment, has since been converted to an execution chamber for execution by lethal injection. There were two chairs where the restraining table is now.

Gas chambers controversy. Reports of gas chamber executions include:

  • September 2, 1983: Jimmy Lee Gray, Mississippi. Officials had to clear the room eight minutes after the gas was released when Gray’s desperate gasps for air repulsed witnesses. His attorney criticized state officials for clearing the room when the inmate was still alive. Says David Bruck, an attorney specializing in death penalty cases, "Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.".
  • April 6, 1992: Donald Eugene Harding, Arizona Gas Chamber. At 12:18 a.m. one pound of sodium cyanide pellets dropped into a vat beneath Harding’s chair containing six quarts of distilled water and six pints of sulfuric acid. Cameron Harper, a reporter for KTVK-TV, said, "I watched Harding go into violent spasms for 57 seconds." Harper continued, "Then he began to convulse less frequently. His back muscles rippled. The spasms grew less violent. I timed them as ending 6 minutes and 37 seconds after they began. His head went down in little jerking motions. Obviously the gentleman was suffering. This was a violent death, make no mistake about it. [...] It was an ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely. This was not a clean and simple death." Carla McClain, another witness and a reporter for the Tucson Citizen, said, "Harding’s death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple.".
  • As gas chambers were used by the Nazi Party in Germany during World War II, having them in the United States is quite controversial.

Gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

Gas chambers.
A Soviet soldier posed at Majdanek holding the cover of the vents through which Zyklon B was inserted in the Gas chambers. The picture was published in the London press in October 1944.

Gas chambers were used in the German Third Reich during the 1930s and 1940s as part of the so-called "public euthanasia program" aimed at eliminating physically and intellectually disabled people and later political undesirables in the 1930s-40s. At that time, the preferred gas was carbon monoxide, often provided by the exhaust gas of cars or trucks or army tanks.

Later, during the Holocaust, gas chambers were modified and enhanced to accept even larger groups as part of the German policy of Genocide against Jews, and others. In January or February, 1940, 250 Roma children from Brno in the Buchenwald concentration camp were used for testing the Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide absorbed into various solid substrates). 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.

gas chamber.
The wreckage of gas chamber #1 at Birkenau. It was destroyed by German troops with dynamite, hours before the Russians arrived.

Carbon monoxide was also used in large purpose-built gas chambers. The gas was provided by internal combustion engines (detailed in the Gerstein Report). Nazi gas chambers in mobile vans and at least eight concentration camps (see also extermination camp) were used to kill several million people between 1941 and 1945. Some stationary gas chambers could kill 2,500 people at once. Numerous sources record the use of gas chambers in the Holocaust, including the direct testimony of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The gas chambers were dismantled 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.

Gas chambers 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 sulphur dioxide gas (probably generated by burning sulphur) was used to execute up to 100,000 rebellious slaves. These claims remain controversial.

Gas chambers: Other nations.

Recent reports indicate that gas chambers are used by North Korea both as punishment and for testing of lethal agents on humans: from Guardian newspaper (UK): "Revealed: the gas chamber horror of North Korea's gulag " (Feb. 1, 2004).


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