2/8/1924 - Cantonese born Gee Jon, a member of the Hip Sing Tong criminal organization of San Francisco, receives the very dubious honor of being the first person in the United States to be executed by means of lethal gas.
Romantic postcard of San Francisco's Chinatown area in the 1920s
Becoming a hitman for his Tong when a territorial dispute breaks out over control of the narcotics and liquor trade for Asians in the southwest portion of the nation, Jon travels to Nevada to take out an easy target ... Bing Kong Tong member Tom Quong Kee, a seventy-four-year-old laundry proprietor living in the small town of Mina. Fingered by his apprentice of two years (is it really that difficult to learn how to clean clothes and what did he do to piss off the dude?), Hughie Sing, on the night of August 27, 1921, Jon knocks on Kee's front door, and when the businessman answers in his pajamas, fatally shoots the codger with a Colt .38 revolver. Unlike many Tong killings however, authorities rapidly figure out the crime and scoop up both Jon and Sing.
Mugshot of Jon
Defended by attorneys James M. Frame and Fiore Raffetto, both men are found guilty of murder and sentenced to death ... but because he is only nineteen and didn't fire the lethal bullet, Sing has his sentence commuted to life behind bars. No such luck for Jon, since Nevada has just passed a law authorizing a new "humane" way of getting rid of killers, the Tong thug gets ticketed to be the first to die by gas (no chili jokes please!) at the Nevada State Prison located in Carson City. Appealing the sentence, the case will get all the way up to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals before it is rejected ... and then the fun begins!
Nevada State Prison
When the California Cyanide Company of Los Angeles, California, the only distributor of the toxic liquid necessary to create the gas, balks at making a shipment of their product to Nevada, used to eliminate citrus grove pests, over liability concerns, Warden Denver S. Dickerson (a former governor of the "Silver State") is forced to send his assistant, Tom Pickett, to the company to personally pick up twenty pounds of the poison contained in a mobile fumigating kit. The state of Nevada is charged $700 for the deadly substance. Poison ready, murderer in custody, the execution seems a go until the prison staff butchers their first effort by trying to dose Jon while he sleeps in his cell ... an exceptionally dumb idea that only results in Jon, several prison guards, and convicts in neighboring cages coming down with severe headaches.
Warden Denver S. Dickerson
Flaw in their methodology identified, the prison creates a makeshift gas chamber in the butcher shop of the prison, a death room eleven feet long, ten feet wide, and eight feet high with a small single window allowing an execution to be witnessed that is tested on a stray cat that has the misfortune to fall into the hands of the guards. Dead kitty green light, it is Jon's turn next! Strapped to a chair in the center of the room, the Tong killer weeps until four pounds worth of hydrocyanic acid is pumped into the room at 9:40 in the morning. Deep breath death, it only takes Jon about five seconds to lose consciousness, but his head nods back forth for the six minutes, before all motion stops ten minutes into the procedure ... just to make sure though that his elimination has been successful, the chamber isn't opened until 10:00, and to be certain that the room is properly vented, the corpse is not removed until 12:20 in the afternoon. Taken to the prison hospital, Jon will be declared dead by a group of seven doctors ... he is only twenty-nine-years-old when he dies.
Gas Chamber Building
In the aftermath of the execution, happy to be on the cutting edge of authorized endings, the state immediately puts in motion the building of a permanent structure to do away with prisoners ... a site where thirty-one more convicts in the years to come will follow Gee Jon into eternity.