was the first person in the United States to be executed by lethal gas.
He was executed at the Nevada State Prison on February 8, 1924 for the
crime of murder.
Gee, along with Hughie Sing were convicted for killing
Tom Quong Kee in Mina, Nevada on August 27, 1921. The murder was one of
many in 1921 because of tong warfare in the West. There were also
murders throughout California.
Gee Jon was convicted of being the
trigger man and Hughie Sing, because of his youth and the fact that Gee
did the actual shooting, had his death sentence commuted to life in
Gee Jon was twenty-nine when he died. He was born in China, but
had spent most of his life in San Francisco's Chinatown. He was a member
of the Hop Sing Tong.
1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas
It was the best of intentions. It was the worst
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the
forefathers’ standard means of dispatching an evildoer — a length of
rope or a shot of lead — were under re-examination by a technophilic
nation convinced its science could find a way to kill a man without
The first great American contribution — if you can
call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric
chair, and its debut did not impress everyone.
Out west, grossed out by electrocution and inspired
by the pestilent fogs that had lately enveloped World War I trenches,
the Nevada legislature cottoned to the brainchild of one Dr. Allen
McLean Hamilton to say it with cyanide.
Unfortunately, the logistics of billowing a plume of
lethal gas directly into the prisoner’s cell to take the condemned
asleep and unawares — another ostensible mercy that would have opened a
path towards a Japan-like system of perpetual apprehension followed by
sudden execution — proved insoluble; they had to build a little airtight
room and give the procedure all the familiar ceremonial trappings.
That little airtight room was used for the first time
ever on this date in 1924.
Its subject was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born resident of
San Francisco’s Chinatown who had gunned down a member of a rival
tong in the railroad town of Mina not far from the California border.
A minute or two after the sodium cyanide pellets hit
the sulphuric acid to release a toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas, Gee
Jon fell unconscious. He remained in the chamber, shrouded in gas, for
half an hour to make sure: later, the apparatus improved with the
addition of a stethoscope to enable a doctor to declare death from
outside the cell.
Good enough for government work.
The gas chamber would win a fair following in the
American South and West, notably California.
However, the gas chamber’s questionable “humaneness”
— including some stomach-churning dying panics by suffocating prisoners,
and the paranoia of prison staff that a leak in the seals could give
them a snort of HCN — never matched the dream of a zipless kill, and
the Zyklon-B associations Nazis later provided did not boost public
relations. With the onset of the (seemingly) more humane and (definitely)
much cheaper method of lethal injection, the gas chamber vanished from
the scene in the 1990’s.
Though it still remains a backup option in Arizona,
California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming, next month will mark a full
ten years since the most recent — and quite possibly last ever — gassing.