Gas chamber

Missing image
Gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison

A gas chamber is a means of execution whereby a poisonous gas is introduced into a hermetically sealed chamber. When the condemned breathes this gas, death follows. Gas chambers have been used for animal euthanasia in the past (along with vacuum chambers), but most jurisdictions no longer permit this. Hydrogen cyanide, or more rarely carbon monoxide, are the typical agents.

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Execution chair inside gas chamber of Arizona State Prison

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. A federal court in California has 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. 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 but in some states such as California the gas chamber is still the default method of execution unless the condemned specifically asks for lethal injection. However, any future executions by this method are unlikely because of recent court decisions relating to Constitution of the State of California.

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

The punishment was instituted individually and publicly, behind the protective glass of a gas chamber, in full view of accredited journalists, legal and medical experts, and the prosecuting side. The gassed individual can see the poison, and is advised to take a deep breath after the gas is released, to speed unconsciousness rather than prolonging death. The gas used is hydrogen cyanide, and death from it is painful and unpleasant. When the victim inhales the poison the body responds by breathing faster causing him/her to gasp and spasm until dead.


Nazi Germany

A gas chamber at the  (reconstruction)
A gas chamber at the Auschwitz death camp (reconstruction)

More notoriously, gas chambers were used in the Nazi Third Reich during the 1930s a part of the so-called "public euthanasia program" aimed at eliminating physically and intellectually disabled people, and later the mentally ill. At that time, the preferred gas was carbon monoxide, often provided by the exhaust fumes of cars and trucks.

Later, during the Holocaust, gas chambers were modified and enhanced to accept even larger groups as part of the Nazi policy of genocide against Jews, Gypsies, and others. Through experimentation in September 1941 Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide absorbed into various solid substrates) was found to be most efficient. 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 of them could kill 2500 people at once. The gas chambers were dismantled when Red Army troops got close.

Other nations

Recent reports indicate that gas chambers are used by North Korea both as punishment and for testing of lethal agents on humans (see Guardian link below).

Other meanings

The word gas chamber has been used for:

  • A chamber filled with teargas, used to train men in use of gasmasks and in resisting the effects of teargas.
  • The float chambers in the shells of some cephalopods.

External links

fr:Chambre gaz he:תא גזים ja:ガス室 nl:Gaskamer pl:Komora gazowa sv:Gaskammare


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