Classical Gas

Gee Jon, First prisoner to be executed with lethal gas

I recently took a trip back to classic mysteries and read short stories authored by Dashiell Hammett and published in “Black Mask” magazine in the 1920’s. Dashiell Hammett is credited with creating the “hard boiled” detective. He created Sam Spade the ultimate hard boiled detective. But the type was shaped and polished by Hammett’s character the “Continental Op.” The Continental Op was the main character in many stories, but was never named.

In one of the Continental Op stories, the character discusses the Nevada method of executing a condemned prisoner. Nevada was the first state to employ lethal gas. Prison officials didn’t plan on a gas chamber.

The original intention was the condemned inmate was not given a definite execution date. The plan was that once the execution was authorized it would be carried out, at some point during a week. The authorities would wait until the inmate was a sleep. They would then pump the lethal gas into his cell while he was unaware. No fuss, no muss, and no stress.

That description was offered in Hammett’s story.

I thought that the author had made it up. However, it was just screwy enough to be true. I did some research. Damned if that wasn’t the case. The first time they attempted to carry out the plan, it didn’t work. Unfortunately, the cell was too drafty and the attempt was unsuccessful. They converted a room in the butcher shop to a gas chamber and got it mostly right.

Meet Gee Jon. He secured the dubious honor of being the first person executed by lethal gas in the United States.

Gee Jon (c. 1895 – February 8, 1924) was a Chinese national who was the first person in the United States to be executed by lethal gas.[1] A member of the Hip Sing Tong criminal society from San Francisco, California, Gee was sentenced to death for the murder of an elderly member from another gang in Nevada.[2] An unsuccessful attempt to pump poison gas directly into his cell at Nevada State Prison led to the development of the gas chamber.[3]