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Execution By Gas has a Brutal 100-Year History. Now it’s Back.

An Alabama man faces execution by nitrogen gas—the first U.S. execution by gas in a quarter-century, 100 years after the practice began.

On a chilly morning in Carson City in February 1924, Nevada State Prison officials fired up an electric heater in a stone barbershop building and escorted an inmate inside. But the prisoner’s comfort wasn’t the priority. The heat was supposed to warm up cyanide acid so it would vaporize and execute Gee Jon, a young Chinese immigrant accused of murdering a laundryman.

The heater malfunctioned, and most of the acid fell as liquid to the floor of the makeshift gas chamber. But there was enough gas to kill Gee, strapped to a plain pine chair, in about six minutes as horrified witnesses watched his head lurch and his eyes roll upward. Some observers jumped back from an outside window when they thought they smelled almonds — the scent of cyanide. No autopsy was performed out of fear that gas in Gee’s body would poison onlookers.

Still, officials and journalists deemed the world’s first gas-chamber execution to be a success. “Nevada’s novel death law is upheld by the highest court — humanity,” proclaimed a Reno newspaper.

Nearly 600 inmates would die in American gas chambers over the next 75 years. Now, an Alabama man faces execution by nitrogen hypoxia on Thursday. If the execution goes forward as scheduled, he will be the first person in the United States to be killed by gas in a quarter-century.

Things are different this time. Instead of sitting in a sealed chamber full of cyanide gas, convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, is slated to breathe nitrogen gas through an industrial, full-face mask. But one thing hasn’t changed since that Carson City morning almost exactly a century ago: There’s plenty of room for error, and death may not come instantly or easily.

“Every gas execution involved torture of some sort. It’s the worst method of execution we’ve ever had and the most cruel,” said death penalty historian Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York. “The inmate is conscious and aware of what’s going on, and the torment is obvious.”

This wasn’t the plan. Execution by gas was supposed to be a humane advance for a progressive era. “Unlike most countries which chose one method and stuck with it, for more than 150 years the U.S. has been on a search for an ever-better method of execution,” said death penalty historian Austin D. Sarat, chair of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts.