The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber
by Scott Christianson
University of California Press, 336 pp (July 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0520255623 ISBN-13: 978-0520255623
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The Last Gasp takes us to the dark side of human history in the first full chronicle of the gas chamber in the United States. In page-turning detail, award-winning writer Scott Christianson tells a dreadful story that is full of surprising and provocative new findings. First constructed in Nevada in 1924, the gas chamber, a method of killing sealed off and removed from the sight and hearing of witnesses, was originally touted as a "humane" method of execution. Delving into science, war, industry, medicine, law, and politics, Christianson overturns this mythology for good. He exposes the sinister links between corporations looking for profit, the military, and the first uses of the gas chamber after World War I. He explores little-known connections between the gas chamber and the eugenics movement. Perhaps most controversially, he has unearthed new evidence about American and German collaboration in the production and lethal use of hydrogen cyanide and about Hitler's adoption of gas chamber technology developed in the United States. More than a book about the death penalty, this compelling history ultimately reveals much about America's values and power structures in the twentieth century.
From the Inside Flap
"Scott Christianson has masterfully chronicled the history of the use of gas to kill human beings. In doing so, he has shown that the Nazi regime drew strength and comfort from the United States' use of the gas chamber beginning nine years before Hitler took power, as well as from the substantial number of gas chamber executions thereafter. While Christianson doesn't claim that the use of the gas chamber here led to the Holocaust, he does highlight ties between the chemical companies who were involved in both gas chambers in the United States and extermination chambers using gas in the Holocaust. This is a truly thought-provoking and eye-opening book."--Ronald J. Tabak, President, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty
"The Last Gasp" Can you take the pain out of executions?
Salon.com August 1, 2010
“Christianson charts the 75-year history of gas chamber execution as well as its intersection with eugenics, the Holocaust, and America’s ongoing capital punishment debate. . . . Despite being developed as a swifter and more painless alternative to death than hanging or electrocution, Christianson describes in graphic detail the numerous botched executions during which death took over 10 agonizing minutes. Though the gas chamber hasn’t been used in America since 1999, Christianson makes a chilling argument for its—and the death penalty’s—abolition.”
STARRED REVIEW—Publishers Weekly
“Scott Christianson has masterfully chronicled the history of the use of gas to kill human beings. In doing so, he has shown that the Nazi regime drew strength and comfort from the United States' use of the gas chamber beginning nine years before Hitler took power, as well as from the substantial number of gas chamber executions thereafter. While Christianson doesn't claim that the use of the gas chamber here led to the Holocaust, he does highlight ties between the chemical companies who were involved in both gas chambers in the United States and extermination chambers using gas in the Holocaust. This is a truly thought-provoking and eye-opening book.”
—Ronald J. Tabak, President, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty
“By tracing the links between American capital punishment, weapons of mass destruction and Nazi gas chambers, The Last Gasp gives an added dimension to our thinking about the American death penalty. The author has done a great deal of original research and has produced a very thorough history of an interesting and hitherto little known subject.”
—David Garland, author of The Culture of Control and Punishment and Modern Society
"Christianson has done for lethal gas what others have done for hanging, electrocution, and lethal injection: told its history in a compelling manner. He provides an authoritative story of the way lethal gas was appropriated for use as a technology of execution.”
—Austin Sarat, author of When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition
"In an astonishing, deeply probing and relentless search of the history of the gas chamber, Scott Christianson has made a vital contribution to the understanding that the quest for a 'humane' method of execution must ultimately be fruitless."
—Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman, Founding Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles and Member, Board of Directors, Death Penalty Focus
This sobering work is recommended to all readers interested in exploring the topic.
—Library Journal, August 2010
“First full-scale history of gas chamber connects murky (and sure-to-be controversial) dots, including Hitler’s adoption of American technology and joint American-German research and development.”
— Gene Santoro, American History, October 2010
In The Last Gasp, Scott Christianson has written the definitive (actually, the only) history of the gas chamber. It is a history so complicated and convoluted that it reads almost like something out of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. That history includes IG Farben, the German company that produced the insecticide Zyklon-B used by the Nazis, along with American companies Cyanamid and DuPont; lawyer and U.S. High Commissioner (for Germany) John J. McCloy; and "execution consultant" Fred A. Leuchter Jr., who turned out to be (surprise!) a Holocaust denier. In addition, the notion of using poison gas in furtherance of eugenics attracted such interesting and varied supporters as H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, Margaret Sanger, and Clarence Darrow.
—Ben Pesta, California Lawyer, Oct. 2010
The Washington Post "Death penalty contradictions"
“From San Quentin to Auschwitz,” Death Penalty Focus, June 8, 2010:
“Killing Machine: Did Nevada’s Innovative Gas Chamber Inspire Hitler?” Playboy (July 2010): 120-21.
“California’s Embrace of Lethal Gas Chambers,” Los Angeles Daily Journal, June 22, 2010: 6.
“North Carolina’s Gas Chamber Years,” Raleigh News & Observer, July 2, 2010: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/07/02/561324/north-carolinas-gas-chamber-years.html
“Colorado’s Place in ‘Humane Death’ History,” Boulder Daily Camera, Aug. 8, 2010:
“A Notorious Nevada First,” Nevada Magazine, November/December 2010, http://www.nevadamagazine.com/issues/read/a_notorious_nevada_first/
Texas Execution Watch: Texas.executionwatch_100602_180000.mp3
KNews Conversations in Palm Springs, Calif