A History of Execution Methods in the United States

Trina N Seitz. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1: The Presence of Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

It certainly seems strange that a nation so advanced in science and engineering… should not be able to invent something better than the crude electric chair. Perhaps it is that every country chooses the method of execution most suitable to the temperament of its people.

— Charles Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, 1928

The penalty of death as a formal sanction for certain crimes has been applied in the United States throughout much of the nation’s history. Although the death penalty is employed by half of the countries in the world, the United States is unique in that over time and across the country, the methods used to mete out this punishment have undergone continual change. In no other country have the formal methods of execution been more frequently redesigned, improved upon, and modified.

In this chapter, I provide a historical review of how methods of state-sanctioned death have developed over time in the United States, beginning with a brief discussion of modes of execution during the colonial and preindustrial periods and then turning to extralegal modes of execution, such as lynching. I then present an overview of the electrification of America and the nation’s subsequent adoption of the electric chair as primary mode of execution. The focus then shifts to the adoption of lethal gas as an execution method in some states. The final method discussed is also the latest method of execution, lethal injection.

Execution Methods in the Colonial and Preindustrial Periods

Given that the United States was founded by British colonists, it is not surprising that the execution methods used in the colonies in the 17th century and in preindustrial America in the 18th century closely paralleled those found in England and Western Europe in those times (Bedau 1997; Johnson 1998; Masur 1989). Western European methods of execution prior to the mid-1800s included drawing and quartering (a process by which the condemned was half hanged, disemboweled, and then cut into quarters), burning alive, beheading (by axe, guillotine, or Halifax gibbet), pressing, disembowelment, and breaking on the wheel (a process in which the accused was tethered to a wooden wheel and struck repeatedly with a club) (Abbott 1994; Engel 1996; Johnson 1998). Although hanging was the traditional and preferred method of execution during the early colonial era, instances of executions by less traditional methods did occur.

The North Carolina General Assembly of 1715 mandated “that the laws of England are the laws of this Government, so far as they are compatible with our way of living and trade” (N.C. Laws 1715, c. 31, §5, quoted in Coates 1937:204). These laws included types of punishment and, within those, the sanction of death by mutilation, dismemberment, or various other deeds. In 1771, the English king’s chief justice for the province of Carolina issued the following order concerning a condemned man: that the offender be “drawn…to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down while yet alive, that your bowels be taken out and burnt before your face, that your head be cut off, your body be divided into four quarters, and this to be at His Majesty’s disposal” (quoted in Coates 1937:206). Engel (1996) relates the only known instance of “pressing to death” ever recorded in early America: In 1692, Giles Cory suffered death by pressing in Massachusetts when he refused to enter a plea in court to the charges he was a wizard. Pressing, or peine forte et dure, was a punishment in which the condemned lay on his or her back and a wooden slab was then placed on the body. Weights or stones were placed on the slab, and more were added until the condemned either suffocated or was crushed under the increasing pressure (Abbott 1994). In cases of pressing it was not uncommon for sharp stones or pieces of wood to be placed underneath the prisoner’s body to provide further torture (Abbott 1994).

On April 11, 1712, three slaves (recorded as “Negro Robin,” “Negro Claus,” and “Negro Quaco”) were put to death in what is now New York City for allegedly murdering the owner of one of the three (Hearn 1997). Each man was executed in a different manner—Robin was gibbeted alive (i.e., suspended in an iron cage to die of starvation or exposure to the elements; Abbott 1994), Claus was broken on the wheel, and Quaco was burned at the stake (Hearn 1997).1 Accounts from New York also tell of blacks’ being roasted alive, usually for the alleged murder or rape of a white victim (Hearn 1997; see also Dray 2002). These accounts are consistent with those from Virginia and Massachusetts, where black slave women were regularly burned alive for any number of offenses, such as murder or attempting to flee from servitude (Harries and Cheatwood 1997).

By the late 18th century, hanging was by far the preferred method of execution in the United States. Hangings were public events, rife with religious speeches (Johnson 1998). Those who delivered these sermons spoke with a blend of civil and religious authority, demanding repentance from the condemned and righteousness from those in attendance (Masur 1989). Hanging was, and still is, a rather simple procedure. In early America, the condemned prisoner was merely transported to a selected execution site and hanged from a noose suspended from a tree or other fixture. More often than not, a wooden scaffold was constructed in the town square, providing easy access for those wishing to attend the event. The scaffolds built for hangings also frequently had religious overtones. Biblical passages (in the Book of Deuteronomy, for example) speak of a hanging tree from which condemned persons were exposed to the public after execution, and early American scaffolds (as well as a scarce few still in operation today) were often built to emulate the tree referred to in Scripture (Grossman 1998; Johnson 1998).

Modern scaffolds are tall wooden structures. When a hanging takes place, the condemned prisoner stands on a trapdoor on the scaffold platform, below a horizontal beam to which a rope is affixed. The rope is secured around the prisoner’s neck, and, on cue, the executioner pulls a lever that opens the trapdoor. The condemned falls a predetermined distance below the platform until the rope is taut; this sudden deceleration, ideally, breaks the neck of the condemned quickly and cleanly. British executioner William Marwood refined the modern process of hanging in 1874 (Abbott 1991, 1994; Duff [1928] 1974). As Abbott (1994) explains:

He [Marwood] pointed out that by adjusting the length of rope to the weight of the body, the neck would be dislocated and the death almost instantaneous…. the most important innovation was his use of the long drop: “Weigh carefully and give as long a drop as possible,” was his maxim, a principal now employed by hangmen all over the civilised world, and, if for nothing else, thousands of condemned men owe their ease of dispatch to Marwood. (P. 261)

On the surface, the adoption and use of the “hanging drop” in early U.S. history may seem unremarkable, but on closer examination, we can see that this was most likely the first early American attempt at refining death by hanging. Conventional hanging, which consisted of merely securing a noose around the neck of the prisoner and then dangling him or her from a short rope, resulted in a slow and agonizing death. At times, the condemned would literally strangle to death for upward of half an hour, understandably creating quite a spectacle for those in attendance.

The numbers in attendance at an execution could easily grow into the thousands, and by the mid-1800s, the presence of many rowdy, intoxicated spectators had begun to overshadow the political intent of public hangings. Following English practice, many U.S. states began conducting hangings within the confines of prison walls. This served two purposes. First, it provided a controlled environment in which to put a prisoner to death. The numbers of official witnesses were reduced to a few dozen, minimizing the likelihood of riots, drunken brawls, and cheering as the condemned strangled to death. Second, it accommodated changing standards of decency regarding the spectacle of overt violence; public hangings had begun to be viewed as repulsive. As middle-class sensibilities evolved, many people espoused more humanistic views toward prisoners and punishment, and attendance at public hangings was no longer considered socially acceptable. Thus the removal of hangings from public view paralleled changes in the social climate (Johnson 1998; Masur 1989).

Firing squads were used intermittently along with hanging for executions in the preindustrial United States. The first documented use of this method is the 1608 execution of George Kendall, “a councillor of Virginia” (Grossman 1998). The traditional protocol for death by firing squad was rather uncomplicated: The condemned prisoner was tethered to a post or other fixture, blindfolded, and then shot to death by an assemblage of marksmen (Bohm 1999; Grossman 1998). The firing squad is an all-but-obsolete mode of execution in the modern United States, but two states (Utah and Idaho) still offer the method as an option (Bohm 1999).

The contemporary protocol for execution by firing squad in Utah includes a five-man rifle team, of which all members are volunteers. The condemned is seated in a chair, secured, and fitted with a black hood over the head and face. A small white target is then pinned to the prisoner’s chest, indicating the position of the heart. The rifle squad is positioned behind a curtain approximately 23 feet from the prisoner; the curtain is outfitted with small portals that allow the members of the rifle team to aim their weapons—deer rifles of their choosing—all but one of which contain live rounds (Gill 1996; Bohm 1999). The team members do not know which rifle is not armed with a live round. In theory, this technique provides a psychological buffer—as Bohm (1999) notes, “The rifle with blanks maintains the fiction that none of the shooters will know who fired the fatal shot” (p. 73). This strategy is questionable, however, because firing a blank or dummy round results in little or no recoil of the weapon (Bohm 1999).

The 1977 firing squad execution of Utah prisoner Gary Gilmore stands as one of the most memorable in American history for several reasons. First, Gilmore’s execution was the first to be conducted after the U.S. Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Second, Gilmore adamantly resisted what could have been a lengthy appeals process and strenuously urged the state of Utah to execute him. Some later likened his execution to a state-sanctioned suicide (Eadie and Trombley 1995). The state of Utah also executed another prisoner, John Taylor, by the same method in 1996 (Rick Halperin, personal communication, March 15, 2001; Harries and Cheatwood 1997). Taylor opted for death by firing squad over lethal injection, fearing he would die “flipping around like a fish out of water” if he chose the latter procedure (Gill 1996). Shortly after Taylor’s execution, Utah legislator Sheryl Allen introduced a bill in the state legislature that would mandate that all executions be carried out by lethal injection, eliminating the use of the firing squad altogether. Allen introduced the bill largely because of her desire to help Utah maintain its image as a “progressive” state, but many other legislators believed that eliminating the firing squad would contradict traditional Mormon beliefs regarding blood atonement for sins (Gill 1996). To this day, Utah continues to allow condemned inmates the choice between execution by firing squad and by lethal injection. (Information on the methods of execution used across the United States is available on the Death Penalty Information Center’s Web site at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.)

Lynching As a Mode of Extralegal Justice

Lynching, or “the execution of a person without authority or process of law,” was a salient component of early American justice (Peretti and Singletary 1981:227). This is especially true of the years immediately following the Civil War and continuing into the first three decades of the 20th century (Dray 2002; Johnson 1998; Lane 1997). Although evidence exists that some lynchings have involved whites suspected of crimes, this form of vigilante violence was usually rooted in racism and was typically reserved for African Americans and other minorities (Lane 1997). Between 1885 and 1930, a period some have described as the “lynching era,” at least one African American was lynched per week in the United States by violent, “hate-driven” white mobs (Cutler 1969; Dray 2002; Johnson 1998:37; Lane 1997). In 1892, some 230 lynchings were reported; in more than 160 of these, the victims were African Americans. Although lynching occurred in nearly every state in the Union, the southern states accounted for nearly 80% of all incidents (Lane 1997). Some scholars have estimated that nearly 3,700 African American men, women, and children were lynched over the course of the era.

Lynching was a violent and dehumanizing process, often including excessive mutilation and desecration of victims’ bodies. African Americans were lynched for any number of reasons, ranging from suspicion of murder or rape of a white victim to vaguer offenses, such as “acting like a white man” and other “violations of racial etiquette” (Cutler [1905] 1969; Dray 2002; Johnson 1998:34). Lynchings were usually carried out by armed mobs seeking instant “justice” for what they perceived as breaches of the white establishment. As Lane (1997) notes:

Mass lynchings of this kind followed certain communal rituals: a prominent site was selected close to the alleged crime, the victim was given time to pray, hanged, and then shot up or burned after death—more rarely before—with the first match, or shot, ceremonially awarded to the injured person or family. (P. 151)

In 1911, a lynching victim was tied to a stake on the stage of a Livermore, Kentucky, opera house. Those who purchased tickets were afforded the “privilege of shooting at him from the seats” (Lane 1997:151). Other accounts make reference to special “excursion trains” that transported large crowds to the sites of lynchings (Dray 2002; Johnson 1998:35; Lane 1997:151). In 1893, thousands traveled by train to Paris, Texas, to witness the killing of a retarded African American man. The victim was tortured for over an hour with hot irons, some of which were “thrust down his throat” (Lane 1997:151). In approximately onefourth of all lynching cases, the victims were castrated, dismembered, or burned to ashes—body parts were often sold as souvenirs, and whatever remained of the victim was left at the scene as a warning to other African Americans in the community (Lane 1997:151).

Riding the Lightning: The Electrical Age of Execution

By the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of legal executions in the United States were conducted by hanging within prison walls. Aside from a smattering of small-town public hangings (the last two being in 1936 and 1937), execution as a form of punishment was largely a private practice (Bessler 1997; Masur 1989). The advent of the harnessing of electricity at the end of the 19th century, however, dramatically changed execution methodology.

In 1886, New York Governor David Hill, who was disturbed by an unusual number of bungled hangings, appointed a three-member panel of upstanding citizens to look into more humane and expeditious execution methods (Bernstein 1973; Denno 1994). This commission, which came to be known as the “New York Commission,” was convened a year after Hill had delivered this message to the state legislature:

The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages, and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner. (Quoted in Denno 1994:566; see also In re Kemmler 1890:444)

At the same time, a fierce rivalry was in progress between George Westinghouse and Thomas A. Edison, two major figures who had much to gain by being responsible for “electrifying American cities” (Bohm 1999:74; see also Denno 1994). One member of Hill’s commission, Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, had recently witnessed an incident in which an elderly drunkard had been killed instantly when he accidentally touched the terminals of a live electrical generator (Penrose 1994). Southwick solicited Edison, already considered an American icon, to advise the commission on whether electrocution could be a viable, humane method of execution. Although Edison was a staunch opponent of capital punishment, he agreed to assist the commission.

On June 4, 1888, following a favorable recommendation by the New York Commission, the New York State Legislature passed the Electrical Execution Act. The state would execute any criminal condemned to death after January 1, 1889, “by causing to pass through the body of the convict a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death” (New York Electrical Execution Act of 1888, cited in Denno 1994:573). By mid-1889, electrocution had not yet been deemed the official term for the procedure. In fact, New York attorney Eugene Lewis suggested several alternative names, including “electricide” (Bernstein 1973:55). Edison also suggested names for the electric chair itself, including “dynamort,” “electromort,” and “ampermort” (Bernstein 1973:55).

On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler, a convicted murderer who had bludgeoned a female acquaintance to death, was the first condemned prisoner to die by electrocution in the United States. Prior to his execution, the New York State Court of Appeals concluded that death by electrocution does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as Kemmler’s counsel had argued (Denno 1994; Driggs 1993). Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that “punishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death; but the punishment of death is not cruel….It implies there is something inhumane and barbarous, something more than the mere extinguishment of life” (In re Kemmler 1890:447; cited in Driggs 1993:1177). In short, execution by electrocution did not violate the U.S. judicial position on cruel and unusual punishment, and Kemmler was executed in New York’s electric chair at Auburn Prison.

Reaction to the country’s first execution by electrocution was divided. One witness, George Westinghouse, reported the following day that “the job could have been done better with an axe” (quoted in Driggs 1993:1178; see also Bohm 1999; Metzger 1996). Newspaper headlines following the execution read “Far Worse Than Hanging” and “It Was Cruel” (quoted in Driggs 1993:1178), and some newspaper editorials called for the immediate abolition of capital punishment. Not all responses were negative, however. An article in Illustrated America urged, “Let us give the system a fair trial. In spite of what the correspondents have told us, the first experiment in electrocution was not so horrible as many hangings have been” (quoted in Driggs 1993: 1178-79). Southwick, who later acquired the nickname “Old Electricity” for his role in championing the electric chair, made the following statement:

There is nothing against the system at all and the fact is there has been a great deal of senseless, sensational talk about the execution … In fact, a party of ladies could sit in a room where an execution of this kind was going on and not see anything repulsive whatsoever. No sir, I do not consider that this will be the last execution by electricity….There will be lots more of them. It has been proven that the idea was correct and I think the law is the best one. The execution was a success. (Quoted in Neustadter 1989:84)

On a national level, the electric chair enjoyed a large degree of popularity as an efficient method of execution. As Driggs (1993) notes, “Within a generation the electric chair had ceased to be controversial” (p. 1179). By 1949, 26 states were using electric chairs, and between 1930 and 1972 electrocution became the most common method of putting criminals to death in the United States (Bohm 1999; Denno 1994; Price 1998). From 1900 to the present, more than 4,000 men and women have been put to death in electric chairs (Bedau 1997). As Penrose (1994) states, “In its heyday, [the electric chair] was by far the most popular means of execution” (p. 35).

The electric chair is an intriguing piece of technology designed to put condemned persons to death quickly and efficiently. Johnson (1998) quotes one warden’s remark about the electric chair, made in an interview just prior to a 1990s execution: “It’s the biggest chair you’ll ever see” (p. 169). Johnson adds, “The electric chair is larger than life, a paradox that no doubt derives from its sole purpose as an instrument of death” (p. 169). Usually made of oak or other hard, durable wood, the chair itself is merely a thick piece of furniture. The condemned inmate is placed in the chair and his or her arms and ankles are secured with thick leather straps that buckle much like a belt. The inmate’s head, which has been shaved to provide for smooth conductivity of electrical current, is also secured with a strap. The calf of one of the inmate’s legs has also been shaved, and an electrode is placed on the smooth surface of the skin of the leg. A leather skullcap is placed on the top of the head, with a sponge soaked in a saline solution (or brine) placed between the scalp and the skullcap to serve as a conductor and to prevent excessive burning of the scalp during the process (Notley 1993). Johnson (1998) describes the procedure as it took place in one particular execution; the steps taken are fairly uniform from state to state:

The execution team worked with machine precision. Like a disciplined swarm, they enveloped Jones, strapping and then buckling down his forearms, elbows, ankles, waist, and chest in a manner of seconds. Once his body was secured, with the electrode connected to Jones’s exposed right leg, the two officers stationed behind the chair went to work. One of them attached the cap to the man’s head, then connected the cap to an electrode located above the chair. The other secured the face mask. This was buckled behind the chair, so that Jones’s head, like the rest of his body, was rendered immobile. …The cap and mask dominated his face. The cap was nothing more than a sponge encased in a leather shell, topped with a metal receptacle for an electrode….it resembled a cheap, ill-fitting toupee. (Pp. 176-77)

Theoretically, the voltage sent through the condemned’s body by the electric chair causes immediate unconsciousness and death. In most cases, execution protocols call for two bursts of electricity, the first at 1,700 to 2,500 volts at 5-7 amperes for a period of 60 seconds (Abbott 1994; Bennett 1897; Johnson 1998). If the inmate has not expired from this first burst of current, the executioner is instructed to repeat the process at a lower voltage for a short period of time. Then, after allowing the body to cool for 3 minutes, the attending physician checks for cardiac activity or other obvious signs of life (Johnson 1998; see also Trombley 1992).

Almost from the inception of electrocution as an execution method, there have been reports of botched or otherwise unsuccessful executions. The Kemmler execution in 1890 was reported to have sent witnesses “running out of the room in horror,” with others “losing control of their stomachs and fainting” as Kemmler roasted to death in the chair (Neustadter 1989:85). Penrose (1994) reports that Kemmler’s electrocution was complete with “heaving chest, gurgles, foaming mouth, bloody sweat, burning hair and skin, and the smell of feces” (p. 42). Although depictions of executions in Hollywood motion pictures are often overly dramatic or factually inaccurate, the film The Green Mile (based on the novel by Stephen King) contains a scene similar to that just described. In the film, the acts of a malicious, overzealous correctional officer cause the agonizing and protracted death of an inmate condemned to die by electrocution. As the inmate writhes in pain, witnesses leave the execution chamber in horror, some becoming ill and obviously panicked at the sight of the horribly disfigured prisoner.

In 1893, the New York execution of William Taylor was similar, as reported by prison staff and other witnesses. Taylor stiffened so violently against the straps of the electric chair that “the front legs of the chair collapsed” (Abbott 1994:114-15). Taylor was then removed from the chair until a failed generator could be repaired. Drugs were administered to the unconscious prisoner to alleviate his suffering until the execution could be completed, but he died before the repairmen could complete their work. Later that day, the generator was fixed, and the dead inmate was strapped into the electric chair and administered a 30-second jolt of electricity to “comply with the death sentence” handed down by the courts (Abbott 1994:115; Hearn 1997).

In a 1992 lawsuit filed on behalf of condemned inmates in the state of Virginia, lawyers for the plaintiffs raised several possibilities as to the causes of disfigurement of the body during electrocution. Notley (1993) summarizes the key points addressed in the lawsuit, one being that “the human skull is a very poor conductor of electricity. Human skin is also a poor conductor, but sweat on the outside of the skin is an excellent conductor” (p. 66). Given that most prisoners are nervous prior to execution, there is a high probability that they perspire excessively. As Notley continues, “Electrical current seeks the path of least resistance. Therefore, a greater portion of electrical current passes along the prisoner’s skin than through his skull, body, and brain as it travels to the electrode on his leg” (p. 66). The end effect is the severe burning of the prisoner’s skin “at extreme temperatures while he is awake and conscious for an indeterminate period” (p. 66). Because perspiration appears to amplify the burning effects of electrocution, the execution protocols in several states include references to preventing the condemned inmate from engaging in excessive exercise prior to the procedure.

Execution by electrocution received both favorable and unfavorable responses throughout the 20th century. Some argued that it was a hideous display of torture, whereas others asserted that it was the most civilized means available by which to dispatch the condemned. Sometimes relying on inexperienced personnel and resorting to the use of defective or inadequate apparatuses, states muddled through decades of executions by electricity, learning by trial and error (Madow 1995; Penrose 1994). Some early-20th-century pundits viewed electrical executions as barbaric, and observers have speculated that some early uses of the electric chair may have been purposefully sabotaged to create disfavor for this mode of execution among the general public. Homer Bennett, a 19th-century physician, wrote in 1897:

But the law stood as it was, and after a time the feeling died out, and there was the usual revulsion, and with more complete understanding of the subject and with the perfected machinery and appliances at their command, there was nothing more heard of the frightful tortures and the burning of flesh, and time, science, and common sense finally triumphed in the Empire State…. Such, in substance, is the history of the introduction and establishment of electrocution up to the present time, and its practical demonstration so far as shown by actual use, where this method has been once used, has doomed any older method into oblivion. (P. 129)

The electric chair used to execute William Kemmler in 1890 was destroyed by inmates during a 1929 riot at Auburn Prison (Penrose 1994).

Disfigurement and the Advent of Lethal Gas

In the history of execution in the United States, clear-cut boundaries separating the use of one method of execution from widespread change to another are rare. At times, several methods have been in use within given eras, as was the case with the firing squad and hanging, and then with hanging and the electric chair. There is similar overlap in the use of electrocution and the use of lethal gas. Although the electric chair was invented during the late 19th century, only 20 years passed before yet another method of execution was introduced.

Until the 1930s, the electric chair was used primarily in eastern and southern U.S. states (Harries and Cheatwood 1997). Most western states held fast to their traditional methods of execution—death by hanging and by firing squad. In 1921, the Nevada State Legislature passed that state’s “Humane Death Bill,” which was championed by Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton, a toxicologist (Farrell 1994; Kruckman 1921). The new law allowed condemned prisoners to choose the manner in which they died—a development that at times appeared to cause confusion and last-minute changes of heart (Kruckman 1921). The law also introduced a new choice of execution method—death by lethal gas. Although witnesses claimed that death by firing squad and hanging appeared instantaneous, the idea of gas had a humane appeal, given the medical profession’s use of gases during surgery and other procedures (Kruckman 1921).

The idea of using cyanide gas for executions reminded many war-weary Americans of the consequences of the use of mustard and chlorine gases during the recently ended World War I (Bohm 1999). In the years immediately following World War I, Major D. A. Turner of the U.S. Army Medical Corps studied reports of the effects of lethal gas on army personnel. He concluded that death by gas was agonizing, including the onset of panic as the heart and lungs seized, as well as the protrusion and swelling of the tongue (Abbott 1994). As one Nevada newspaper reported, “As is well known in connection with the lethal gases used during the war, the slightest diffusion of these elements caused widespread havoc” (Kruckman 1921). Nevada Governor Emmet Boyle opposed capital punishment, but he signed the “Humane Death Bill” because he was confident that it would be struck down by the courts as allowing cruel and unusual punishment (Bohm 1999). This, of course, proved to be an unfortunate miscalculation. Lethal gas was first employed in an execution on February 8, 1924, when Gee Jon was put to death.

The initial theory behind the use of lethal gas as an execution method predates the 20th century. In fact, several 19th-century antigallows activists debated whether chloroform or other gas should be administered to condemned inmates prior to hanging, to anesthetize them (see Peck 1848). This was suggested as a “courteous” solution to the suffering often experienced by those who died by the noose. As Peck wrote in 1848, “Manners, then, are necessary to man because of his possessing a conscious soul” (p. 283). Some observers believed that gas represented a method by which the condemned could be put to sleep humanely, without disfigurement to the body by burns from electrocution or decapitation caused by a bungled hanging.

During the initial discussions of the use of lethal gas in Nevada, several suggestions were made as to how the element could be introduced to the condemned inmate. Some advocates proposed administering “a sleeping potion” in the food of the condemned prior to the execution, and then, during the subsequent slumber, the gas could be administered unbeknown to the inmate (Kruckman 1921). One newspaper writer presented an interesting juxtaposition of medicine and justice:

It is anticipated the gas will be administered much as gas is administered to a patient in a dental chair or to a person preparing for a surgical operation. In other words, it will be a form of anesthesia, and the administrator will probably be an expert anesthetician chosen from among physicians or male nurses. Those who favor this method of dealing death declare it is absolutely painless. (Kruckman 1921)

Perhaps the most perplexing obstacle to be overcome if this new method of execution was to be employed successfully was the containment of the gas. As Major Turner and the press had noted, lethal gas has horrific consequences when dispersed throughout an uncontrolled environment, such as a battlefield. In wartime uses, lethal gases were not highly concentrated in specific areas, and so the soldiers exposed to it usually died protracted, agonizing deaths. Those who proposed using gas for executions, however, posited that if the gas were contained and administered in a highly concentrated dose, the condemned would succumb quickly and without suffering (Abbott 1994).

Prior to the first execution by gas in 1924, the state of Nevada conducted tests on vermin, cats, and pigs, which were placed in crates and locked in an airtight compartment to which the gas was introduced. As a result of the tests, authorities agreed that these conditions were favorable to a successful execution by lethal gas, and Gee Jon was executed in the modified butcher shop of the Carson City State Prison (Farrell 1994; Noel and Rucker 1997; Eddy 1924). Doctors witnessing the execution claimed that Jon “died apparently painlessly, death being confirmed six or so minutes after the gas had been pumped into the chamber” (Noel and Rucker 1997:161; see also Farrell 1994).

The geographic dispersion of the use of the lethal gas chamber for executions is interesting. After Nevada’s first seemingly successful use of this method in 1924, several western states that had not adopted the electric chair selected lethal gas as their preferred execution method. The reasoning appears fairly clear—several prison officials, especially in Colorado and Arizona, found the reported disfigurement from electrocution distasteful; they preferred a method that left the body intact for the family to view. As Noel and Rucker (1997) note, “Neither the state nor prison officials wanted to turn over to the relatives of the deceased a mutilated corpse” (p. 26). After a few western states adopted lethal gas, use of the method curiously jumped to the East Coast when North Carolina adopted it in 1935 (Harries and Cheatwood 1997). In the period from 1910 to 1935, North Carolina had sent 172 condemned prisoners to the electric chair (North Carolina Department of Correction 1998). Although surrounded by “electrocution states,” officials in North Carolina espoused a more reformist, progressive social ideology than was typically found in other parts of the South. The state’s relatively liberal political and social climate, coupled with the public’s growing distaste for the graphic accounts that accompanied electrocutions, likely contributed to the shift to lethal gas.

From 1937 through 1939, Wyoming, Missouri, Oregon, and California adopted the method; each of these states later contracted with Eaton Metal Products in Denver, Colorado, to design their gas chambers (Harries and Cheatwood 1997; Noel and Rucker 1997). Gas chambers could be ordered with one, two, or three seats, and usually cost around $3,500 to build and install (Noel and Rucker 1997). Eaton Metal Products designed and constructed all of the lethal gas chambers used in the United States except the one utilized in the state of North Carolina. In that case, North Carolina borrowed blueprints from Eaton, which eventually received a patent for its gas chamber design in 1957 (Noel and Rucker 1997).

In states that use lethal gas, the design of the equipment is fairly uniform. The condemned sits in a chair contained in an airtight compartment with windows through which witnesses may view the procedure. A metal container located beneath the seat of the chair contains a pound of cyanide pellets. At the warden’s directive, execution team personnel turn keys on a control panel outside the chamber to release the pellets into a solution of sulfuric acid and water. The resulting mixture forms hydrocyanic gas, also known as prussic acid. The fumes from the gas, which resemble wisps of smoke, rise upward, and the inmate breathes the fumes. Death results ultimately dies from hypoxia, or the inability of the body’s cells to process oxygen (Leuchter 1988; North Carolina Department of Correction 1998). Once death has been pronounced, ammonia is introduced to the chamber to neutralize the hydrocyanic gas. Prison staff don protective clothing and then enter the chamber to remove the body of the deceased. Prior to removal, the body is washed down with water to further assure that no cyanide residue remains (North Carolina Department of Correction 1998).

The safety of prison staff during gas executions posed serious concerns during the years the chambers were heavily used. Because the gas is dispersed in such a concentrated manner, staff had to take precautions to assure that they and any witnesses were not exposed to the fumes or the elements used. Most gas chambers are equipped with gas detectors, emergency-breathing apparatuses, warning alarms, exhaust fans, and resuscitators for personnel working near the area. As Fred A. Leuchter (1988), a designer of execution equipment, has remarked: “Execution gas chamber design requires the consideration of many complicated problems. A mistake in any area may, and probably will, cause death or injury to witnesses or technicians” (p. 9). On January 30, 1998, Ricky Lee Sanderson was executed in North Carolina’s gas chamber. Sanderson had elected to die by lethal gas even though the state had also offered him the choice of lethal injection. During the removal of Sanderson’s body from the gas chamber, one staff member tripped and dislodged the air tank of another. As one reporter noted, “The worker wasn’t injured, but the incident gave prison officials a scare” (Price 1998:2).

By 1973, 13 states were using lethal gas, but this method never quite gained the popularity of electrocution (Price 1998). Although gas chambers had been developed and adopted with the expectation that they would provide a relatively humane method of execution, reports abounded across the country concerning the unnecessary suffering of condemned prisoners who died by lethal gas. Death in a gas chamber does not occur immediately, as originally had been expected—in fact, several executions by lethal gas have taken 15 to 20 minutes (Radelet 1998).

The Age of Lethal Injection

Through the latter decades of the 20th century, U.S. states continued to use the electric chair, hanging, the firing squad, and the gas chamber. By the mid-1950s, there was a sharp decline in the number of executions conducted in the United States. Public support for capital punishment waned, with national approval rates dropping as low as 40% in some polls by the early to mid-1960s (Harries and Cheatwood 1997). These developments were related primarily to changes in political and social focus stemming from discord over the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. In addition, the country was in turmoil over racial tensions, and the disproportionate numbers of blacks being executed called the integrity of the justice system into question. By 1967, the Legal Defense Fund had called for an unofficial national moratorium on executions until the racial disparities in the system could be corrected (Johnson 1998; Welsh 1998b). In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional in its current form because of the arbitrary way in which it was applied (Furman v. Georgia 1972). Several states revised their death penalty procedures, and capital punishment was constitutionally reinstated in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia 1976). Shortly after capital punishment was reinstated, a new method of execution made its debut.

Lethal injection is not an idea unique to the United States. In fact, Great Britain’s Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1953) considered the idea several decades ago in its search for an alternative to hanging. The commission states in its report:

We have pursued our inquiry into the question whether there is any other method, as yet untried, that could be relied on to inflict death as painlessly and certainly as hanging but with greater decency, and without the degrading and barbarous associations with which hanging is tainted. Only two suggestions were made to us deserving serious consideration. One is the use of lethal gas in a way that does not need a gas-chamber. The other is execution by means of a hypodermic injection of a lethal drug. (P. 256, sec. 735)

In the end, the Royal Commission was dissuaded from supporting the use of lethal injections, in large part because of stern objections voiced by the British Medical Association. That group’s steadfast position on lethal injections reads, in part:

No medical practitioner should be asked to take part in bringing about the death of a convicted murderer. The Association would be most strongly opposed to any proposal to introduce, in place of hanging, a method of execution which would require the services of a medical practitioner, either in carrying out the actual process of killing or in instructing others in the technique of the process. (Quoted in Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1953:258, sec. 743)

Hanging remained the primary method of execution in Great Britain until 1965, when capital punishment in that country was abolished for all crimes except “extraordinary civil offenses” such as treason (Grossman 1998:1).

The idea of using lethal injection as a method of execution surfaced from time to time in the United States prior to the actual adoption of this method. In 1973, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, posed an interesting analogy between execution by lethal injection and the euthanasia of farm animals:

Being a former horse farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try and eliminate an injured horse by shooting him. Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot [injection] and the horse goes to sleep—that’s it. I myself have wondered if maybe this isn’t part of our problem [with capital punishment], if maybe we should review and see if there aren’t even more humane methods now—the simple shot or tranquilizer. (Quoted in Welsh 1998a:76)

In 1977, shortly after the reinstatement of capital punishment in the United States, Utah death row inmate Gary Gilmore waived all appeals and was voluntarily executed by firing squad. Soon afterward, Florida electrocuted John Spenkelink for the rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl. The pace of executions accelerated, and the constitutionality of existing methods was called into question. Debate arose concerning the design and implementation of an execution method using lethal injection, with a focus on the chemicals that such a method should employ. Several suggestions were proffered. Nearly 100 years earlier, the New York Commission of 1886, in debating alternative methods to hanging, had briefly considered injections of cyanide. This idea was quickly rejected due to medical ethics, and the possibility of cyanide injections was never seriously considered again (Welsh 1996).

Shortly after the Gilmore execution in Utah, Oklahoma Senator Bill Dawson initiated a bill geared toward implementing executions by lethal injection. In consultation with Dr. Stanley Deutsch, head of Oklahoma University School of Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology, the legislator helped to develop a protocol for the new procedure. The process entailed the administration of a quickacting barbiturate, then the introduction of a paralytic agent to stop cardiac function. Oklahoma adopted the new method into law on May 11, 1977. In an unrelated move, Texas also passed lethal injection legislation the following day (Welsh 1996). Texas legislators made clear their reasoning in voting for the change—as one representative noted, “Electrocution is a very scary thing to see … I voted for a more humane treatment because death is pretty final. That’s enough of a penalty” (quoted in Welsh 1996:78). Another asserted that the death penalty should be “swift and sure punishment, not something that takes away the dignity of the state” (quoted in Welsh 1996:78).

Although two states had adopted lethal injection as a method of execution, no one was executed using the new procedure in the 1970s. By 1981, five states had legislation permitting the use of lethal injection, despite the fact that medical ethicists voiced strong aversion to the use of medical technology in exacting the ultimate punishment. Oklahoma inmate Thomas “Sonny” Hayes was scheduled to be the first to die by the new method on September 9, 1981, but the World Medical Association and Amnesty International intervened by issuing scathing statements regarding the imminent participation of medical professionals in executions, and Hayes’s execution was eventually delayed. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison (Welsh 1996:79). In December 1982, Charles Brooks, Jr., became the first inmate to die by lethal intravenous injection at Huntsville Prison in Texas. Since that time, more than 600 inmates have been put to death by lethal injection. Of the 38 states with death penalty statutes, 37 have since adopted the method, as has the federal government (see the Death Penalty Information Center Web site, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org).

The increase in the number of states adopting lethal injection during the 1980s and 1990s was related in part to several botched executions by gas and electrocution. Perhaps the most widely publicized of these was the gas chamber death of Jimmy Lee Gray on September 3, 1983, at Parchman, Mississippi. Eight minutes into the process, prison officials had to clear the viewing room because “Gray’s desperate gasps for air repulsed witnesses” (Radelet 1998:1). Gray’s attorney later remarked, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans” (quoted in Radelet 1998:1). On April 22, 1983, Alabama executed John Evans in the electric chair. Sparks and flames erupted from the electrode on his leg, and smoke was seen pouring from underneath the face hood. On May 4, 1990, Florida executed Jesse Tafero in that state’s notorious electric chair, dubbed “Old Sparky.” A synthetic sponge was used under the skullcap rather than the standard natural sponge, and this miscalculation resulted in 6-inch flames erupting from Tafero’s head during the first moments of the execution. After three jolts of electricity were required to stop Tafero’s heart, witnesses were reported to have been repulsed (Radelet 1998:1). Finally, Virginia’s 1990 electrocution of Wilbert Lee Evans caused concern in that state about the use of the electric chair. During the first moments of the procedure, “blood spewed from the right side of the mask on Evans’ face, drenching his shirt with blood” (Radelet 1998:2). The autopsy concluded that the loss of blood was caused by Evans’s extremely high blood pressure during the execution.

Lethal injection in no way resembles the traditional methods of execution in this country. Most lethal injection execution chambers are equipped with a gurney, complete with sheets and padded headrest. Although some correctional facilities use programmed, automated machines to carry out lethal injections, others still retain intravenous poles and manual injection systems. By design, the process of death by lethal injection is quick and efficient. The inmate is usually administered a sedative an hour prior to the execution. At the time of the execution, correctional officers and execution team staff escort the inmate into the death chamber. The condemned is laid supine on a gurney and is secured with leather straps to prevent movement. Trained prison staff or medical personnel then secure intravenous lines in both of the prisoner’s arms—this standard procedure is used to ensure that the drugs are administered in the event one line becomes obstructed or unusable (Amnesty International 1998).

At the signal of the warden, medical personnel begin the introduction of sodium thiopental, a barbiturate that induces sleep almost immediately. Following this first injection, Pavulon (pancuronium bromide) or a similar paralytic agent is introduced. This agent stops the inmate’s respiratory function and collapses the lungs. A final injection of potassium chloride is then introduced; this ceases cardiac activity and ultimately causes cardiac arrest. The “ideal” lethal injection execution takes no more than 7 minutes; however, initiation of some executions has been delayed by up to 45 minutes due to problems locating suitable veins (Finks 1983; Radelet 1998). In some respects, lethal injection is the quintessential execution method. The process is no longer overtly violent, and there is no disfigurement of the inmate’s body during the procedure. Johnson (1998) remarks on the process:

Lethal injection, then, offers a paradoxical execution scene. A supine inmate, seemingly at rest, appears to drift off into a sleep that merges imperceptibly with death. This is, in its essentials, the ideal modern death—a death that occurs in one’s sleep, painlessly. The reality may well be completely different. The interval on the gurney, reminiscent of rest but actually a case of forced restraint, can certainly be considered a kind of torture of its own; and once the drugs are introduced, what follows may well be a death by slow suffocation—likewise, a kind of torture. All of this unfolds before us as we congratulate ourselves on our humaneness and, more macabre still, as the immobilized offender comes to realize the deception of execution by lethal injection and, unable to struggle, recognizes his inability to communicate his distress to the world. (Pp. 46-47)

Johnson’s perspective here sheds light on the sociological import of death rituals within the institution of punishment. Although the result of any execution is always death, the medicalized dramaturgics employed during lethal injection procedures sets up a psychological barrier between those dispensing the punishment and the act itself (Haney 1997; Lofland 1975). These techniques also function to allow participants and witnesses to maintain an impression of order and control over the event (Haines 1992; Lofland 1975).


Across the United States, five methods of execution are still employed: hanging, firing squad, lethal gas, electrocution, and lethal injection. Although almost all of the 38 states with death penalty statutes have adopted lethal injection (either as an alternate method or as their sole method), some states hold fast to their traditional electric chairs, gallows, and gas chambers. The exact numbers of legal executions carried out by these and other methods in the United States remain debatable. Bedau (1997) and Johnson (1998) both estimate that since 1608, some 20,000 individuals have been legally put to death in America.

The act of execution has always been laden with social meaning, and the method of execution itself has generally been the focal point of the procedure. In colonial America and the preindustrial United States, executions were public spectacles. The methods of execution used were inherently violent and brutal; human pain and suffering were considered necessary components of these events, which symbolized the absolute power of the state (Johnson 1998). By the mid-1800s, reformists and members of the middle class began to espouse more humanistic ideologies regarding cruel and violent forms of punishment (Masur 1989). This shift in social perceptions of how statesanctioned death should appear culminated in more mechanically efficient execution methods, such as the electric chair and the gas chamber. In essence, methods of execution are symbolic of societal values and, more important, of how American society maintains its desired image as civilized.

Lethal injection has now become what Johnson (1998) refers to as the quintessential execution method. Nearly all evidence of the prisoner’s humanity is muted by the sterile nature of the procedure. This modernized method of execution virtually eliminates any indications of pain, discomfort, and violence, and reduces the execution process to what Lynch (2000) labels “a sterile and efficient waste disposal process” (p. 23). Unlike more unpredictable methods of execution, such as the gas chamber, the lethal injection process is designed in such a way as to buffer the psychological and emotional components of meting out state-sanctioned death.

Some have mused that in the future, society may employ more Socratic means of execution—that is, the condemned would be wholly responsible for the onset of his or her death, without explicit supervision or participation from penal personnel. The division of labor in the processes of modern executions alleviates the degree or amount of responsibility of any one individual for taking a life, but “self-induced” executions would all but eliminate the psychological and emotional trauma experienced by those charged with carrying out such tasks. This idea brings to mind the euthanasia procedures associated with Jack Kevorkian, whereby terminally ill patients are given ultimate dominion over the time and place of their deaths. The physician merely inserts the intravenous line—it is the patient’s actions that begin the introduction of the lethal cocktail (see Kevorkian 1985).

Given the trend toward social distancing in regard to executions, others have speculated that the future of executions lies in the total obliteration of the condemned by way of dematerialization. This idea, although somewhat difficult to fathom, suggests a complete eradication of the criminal body that leaves no trace of evidence that a life was terminated. Although the future of execution methods is open for debate, the continued adoption, retention, and use of lethal injection provide evidence that this method has become the preferred standard in applying death as punishment in the United States.


In the context of the above discussion, it is important to mention two recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding capital punishment, although these decisions are not related directly to specific methods of execution. On June 20, 2002, the Court reversed a Virginia Supreme Court decision and held that the execution of mentally retarded inmates violates the Eighth Amendment clause prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment (Atkins v. Virginia 2002; see Death Penalty Information Center 2002). Prior to this most recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court had only once before heard arguments regarding execution of the mentally retarded, and at that time the Court held that putting mentally impaired prisoners to death did not “categorically” violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment (Grossman 1998:204; see also Penry v. Lynaugh 1989).

On June 24, 2002, the Court held that in a capital case the jury, not the presiding judge, must decide critical sentencing issues, such as the weight to give aggravating circumstances (Ring v. Arizona 2002). The Court held (in a seven-to-two decision) that a defendant’s right to a trial by jury is violated if the judge alone determines what issues may increase the maximum penalty for a crime (see Liptak 2002).