Like William Kemmler, Chinese Tong member Gee Jon holds a singular, if unwilling, place in criminal history. Also like Kemmler, while his crime was unexceptional, his punishment was a felonious first. Gee Jon was the world’s first inmate to die by lethal gas.
Almost entirely discarded by all but a tiny handful of American States and seemingly North Korea, when the gas chamber was at its inception it was seen as a modern marvel. So was the electric chair when it was introduced at New York’s Auburn Prison in the early 1890’s. Hanging was seen by many Americans as cruel and barbaric, a view ably promoted by American hangmen who, by British standards, were a careless crew indeed. Vastly-experienced British hangman Albert Pierrepoint derided American hangmen for their clumsiness and also their equipment, sneering at the traditional hangman’s knot as being merely a “Cowboy’s coil.” With no end to executions in sight, new methods were sought out and the gas chamber was one of them.
Jon himself was an unexceptional man and an average criminal. Born in China in 1895, he immigrated to America as a young boy, spending most of his life in San Francisco’s legendary Chinatown district. Like many young Chinese-Americans, he soon encountered the various Tong gangs operating within Chinatown and he soon joined the Hop Sings, a Tong whose main rackets involved distribution of alcohol and drugs.
A principle problem of joining a Tong, of which there were and still are many, is one of inter-Tong rivalries and blood feuds. The Hop Sings entered into a turf war with the rival Bing Kong Tong in 1921 and violence erupted almost immediately. Gee Jon soon found himself faced with orders to commit a murder on behalf of his Tong. Orders were orders, refusal being punishable by death, so Jon went to Mina, Nevada with a younger gang member named Hughie Sing. It was Sing’s job to point out Jon’s target and then Jon would do the rest.
On August 27, 1921, Gee Jon went to work, simultaneously booking himself a place in criminal history. Hughie Sing had pointed out a Bing Kong member, a 74-year old laundryman named Tom Quong Kee. After spending some hours watching Kee’s apartment Jon made his move. It was a simple one. He simply walked up to Kee’s front door, knocked, waited and when Kee answered the door Jon shot him dead with an ordinary .38 revolver. Quick, clean and simple.
Unusually for a Tong murder (and very unfortunately for Gee Jon) Nevada police found their job quick, clean, and simple as well. It wasn’t long before both Hughie Sing and Gee Jon were arrested, questioned and charged. The charge was one of first-degree murder. The punishment, if found guilty, was a sentence of death or life imprisonment. In 1922 both Sing and Jon were quickly tried and convicted. Sing, being only nineteen years old and not having fired the fatal shot, drew life imprisonment. Jon, who was both the older of the two and the triggerman, received no such mercy. He was condemned to die and shipped to the notorious Nevada State Prison at Carson City to await execution. The clock was ticking towards the world’s first-ever execution by lethal gas.
Nevada didn’t execute too many inmates at the time and previously offered its condemned a choice between the gallows and the firing squad. However, seeking to abandon the old ways, the Nevada State Legislature voted in 1921 to adopt the method proposed by Army medical officer Major D. A. Turner and toxicologist Doctor Allen McLean Hamilton, that of poison gas. Bear in mind that the First World War had only ceased in November, 1918 and memories of wartime gas attacks were fresh in the minds of Turner, Hamilton and many others. Turner and Hamilton, being well aware of the effect of massive gas clouds in open spaces, theorized that a dose of concentrated gas delivered within a confined space would kill quickly and, hopefully, painlessly. The Nevada State Legislature, sickened by too many lingering firing squads and bungled hangings, decided Turner’s idea was worth testing in reality. Gee Jon would be their first human guinea pig.
Jon’s lawyers immediately filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of Nevada. They bitterly attacked the new method on the grounds that it broke their client’s rights under the 8th Amendment outlawing cruel and unusual punishment. That hadn’t worked for William Kemmler when his lawyers appealed against the electric chair on similar grounds and it didn’t work for Gee Jon, either. The Supreme Court of Nevada not only denied his appeal, it ruled against him while congratulating the Nevada State Legislature on choosing the most modern and, therefore, humane execution method it could have chosen. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was less congratulatory, but no more helpful when lawyers appealed for a writ of certiorari staying Jon’s impending execution. Appeal denied, this time without a fanfare. Gee Jon was now effectively doomed, provided staff at the Nevada State Prison could actually transform Turner and Hamilton’s new idea into something resembling a practical reality.
There were, of course, some fairly serious problems to resolve. Nobody had any idea of exactly how to make this new theory into a practical, workable reality. The modern-day gas chambers used and then discarded by States like California were still some years in the future. No purpose-built gas chamber then even existed. Another problem was of safety. How, the prison staff thought, are we going to manage to deliver the gas without risking the witnesses and execution team? What should an airtight gas chamber look like? How will the witnesses see inside? How much gas is needed and how will we get it into the chamber? How will the gas kill the prisoner? Will it be any more humane and quicker than the rope or the rifle? Or will it even work at all? And where are we going to obtain several pounds of liquid hydrocyanic acid anyway?
Prison staff were right to be worried. Their first problem was obtaining four pounds of liquid hydrogen cyanide. Unfortunately, the only company in the US producing liquid cyanide was the California Cyanide Company based in Los Angeles. They refused to supply the poison, not wanting to be liable for any potential legal problems from its use in an execution. Warden Dickerson, himself by no means convinced of lethal gas as a method, had to drive to California in person. Once in Los Angeles, he bought a $700 fumigation device with four pounds of liquid hydrocyanic acid before toting the equipment back to the Nevada State Prison at Carson City. The fumigation kit was normally used by Californian citrus farmers to clear pests from their trees. Now the Nevada State Prison was to test whether the same kit would dispose of larger problems.
The first attempt was a predictable shambles. They tried pumping the solution into Jon’s cell while he was sleeping only to realize that his cell wasn’t sufficiently airtight to create a lethal concentration of cyanide gas. Something different and rather less improvised was clearly called for and their ingenuity saw it duly supplied. Part of the prison’s butcher’s building (appropriately enough) was converted into an airtight chamber some eleven feet long by ten feet wide with an eight foot ceiling. A single viewing window and a pair of roughly-constructed wooden chairs adorned with leather restraining straps completed the world’s first judicial gas chamber. Unlike more modern gas chambers where a mechanism mixes dilute sulfuric acid with sodium cyanide pellets, the idea of pumping liquid cyanide into the chamber to evaporate into lethal cyanide gas was retained.
Eventually, with his appeals exhausted and four guards having resigned over the switch to lethal gas, Gee Jon took his place in criminal history. At 9:30 on the morning of February 8, 1921 he was taken from Death Row and escorted to the butcher’s building under heavy guard. He was tearful and sobbed as he was placed in one of the wooden chairs. His tears stopped when the Captain of the guards told him abruptly:
The official witnesses were already assembled. Members of the prison staff, journalists, representatives of public health organisations and the US Army itself were there to see how the new method worked. Or, in fact, whether it actually would. At 9:40 they found out, though not without a hitch. At a signal from Warden Dickerson the pump was started and hydrogen cyanide flowed into the small chamber. The optimum temperature for a gas chamber to operate is 70 degrees Fahrenheit but, being February, the room temperature was only around 58 degrees, delaying the formation of the gas cloud. Some of the liquid cyanide simply formed a puddle on the chamber floor, but enough evaporated to produce a lethal concentration in such a confined space.
Jon was, apparently, unconscious within a few seconds of the cloud forming, although his head nodded back and forth for another six minutes until he was considered to be dead. He sat motionless, steeping in the lethal cloud while Warden Dickerson and the witnesses looked on.
Just before 10am, one of the witnesses made a frightening announcement. He could smell almond blossom, a sign that some of the cyanide gas had leaked from inside the chamber. Warden Dickerson’s immediate reaction was to clear the small building instantly, fearing a leak large enough to wipe out the execution team and witnesses as well as the prisoner himself. Shortly afterward he ordered the chamber vent opened and the extractor fan switched on, removing most of the gas through a smokestack at a safe distance from ground level. Jon’s body was left sitting in the chamber until 12:20, when Warden Dickerson ordered his removal. Gee Jon was dead. Doctors refused to perform an autopsy, fearing that opening his body might still release a lethal dose of gas from inside Jon’s body.
Gee Jon’s historic demise met with mixed feelings from the press. According to the Nevada State Journal:
‘Nevada’s novel death law is upheld by the highest court – Humanity.’
Others, perhaps of a more sensitive disposition and less inclined to regard Nevada’s previous history of bungled hangings and firing squads as a reasonable baseline, saw it differently. According to the San Jose Mercury:
‘One hundred years from now Nevada will be referred to as a heathen commonwealth controlled by savages with only the outward signs of Civilization.’
Whatever the opinions then and now, the gas chamber was here to stay. It was adopted by a number of other States including Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, Mississippi and California among others. California’s apple green-painted two-seat chamber, located at the notorious San Quentin Prison, is probably the best-known. During its tenure it acquired several gruesome nicknames. ‘The Big Sleep,’ ‘The Time Machine.’ ‘The Little Green Room’ and, nastiest of all, ‘The Coughing Box.’ It hosted the final moments of such notorious felons as ‘Red Light Bandit’ Caryl Chessman, inmates Miran Thompson and Sam Shockley (executed in 1948 for their role in the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’), Barbara ‘Bloody Babs’ Graham died there with her accomplices Jack Santo and Emmet Perkins. Graham was later immortalized in the 1958 movie ‘I Want To Live!’ which won Susan Hayward an Academy Award while taking considerable liberties with the actual facts of her case.
Gas chamber technology also evolved. From its inception, the ramshackle butcher’s building at Carson City with its leaking windows and liquid cyanide pumped in by hand to the modern chamber used at San Quentin, delivering lethal gas while preserving the safety of those witnessing executions became a scientific process. From the dilution of the sulfuric acid to the amount of cyanide pellets needed and the replacement of the hand pump with a single lever to mix the acid and pellets, all was improved.
There was another scientific innovation to ensure a prisoner was actually dead, a specially-extended stethoscope was devised. It could be connected from the prisoner’s chest to a set of headphones outside the chamber by a tube running through an airtight seal. It allowed a doctor to stand at a chamber window, watching the prisoner die while taking notes and listening for the prisoner’s heartbeat. Death was certified only when the doctor could hear nothing.
Cleaning the chamber and removing the body also became a scientifically-defined process. San Quentin evolved ‘Procedure 769.’ It involved prison staff wearing heavy rubber gloves, rubber aprons and gas masks first unstrapping the prisoner’s body, ruffling their hair and removing their clothes to clear any remaining wisps of gas. The clothes are then burned. The entire inside of the chamber was then washed thoroughly with an ammonia solution to neutralize the cyanide left as condensation on the walls, floor, chairs and ceiling. The prisoner’s body is also washed in the same solution to protect the undertake preparing them for burial or cremation, or the medical student using them during dissection classes.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the gas chamber has seen those who used it be pilloried as savages, but its history has been marred with botched executions and technical problems. Gerald Gallego was Mississippi’s first ‘gassee’ and the executioner incorrectly mixed the chemicals and acid. Gallego slowly expired after nearly an hour in the chamber at Parchman, Mississippi. It was also at Parchman that child-killer Jimmy Lee Gray suffered a similarly botched execution in the early 1980’s. At San Quentin in 1954, Leanderess Riley twice freed himself from the straps at the last second, having to be very forcibly re-strapped after running round inside the chamber moaning and screaming while beating his hands on the windows and begging not to die, all to the horror of those present. Witnesses were appalled as Riley was dragged from the ‘Ready Room’ to the chamber, restrained and re-strapped twice and finally died with his arms free and about to free his legs a third time. The spectacle was so gruesome that many of the prison staff never volunteered to perform another execution.
With the advent of lethal injection, yet another way of giving a gruesome, ugly business the appearance of being less gruesome and ugly, the gas chamber fell into decline and disuse like the electric chair. Today, very few States consider it as even a back-up option should lethal injection be declared unconstitutional. It never achieved the same popularity or wide use as the electric chair but, with spectacles like Leanderess Riley in California, Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi and Donald Harding in Arizona, perhaps that’s probably just as well.