Prison Facts: A Lethal First

Recently, at the Left Coast Crime convention in Reno, I held a round of Nevada-centered prison trivia. Prison lore and operation play a role in my books, particularly in the most recent, Bury The Past. Folks seem to enjoy finding out if they have what it takes to survive behind the walls.


From the end of C Section in 1 Building image from the folsom prison museum

One of the trivia questions focused on the Nevada State Prison’s claim to a “lethal first.”  The question was:

The Nevada state prison is famous for this deadly first: A) the first electric chair, B) the first warden killed during an escape attempt, C) first gas chamber execution, or D) the first deadly cell block riot.

The correct answer is C, the first gas chamber execution in 1924.

In 1921, the Nevada legislature voted on a new method of execution, offering a “more humane” method of death than the gallows and or the firing squad. Army medical officer Major D. A. Turner and toxicologist Doctor Allen McLean Hamilton were the lead supporters of the new method. It’s important to note that in 1921, the nation was only a few months distant from the 1918 armistice that ended the First World War and the memory of poison gas attacks unleashed on the field of battle were fresh in many minds. The experts believed that a concentrated gas within a confined space would kill the condemned quickly and, efficiently.

Gee Jon was the first condemned inmate to be put to death under this new statute. Jon was a Chinese Tong gang member and was found guilty of assassinating an elderly man in a rival Tong.

To carry out the punishment, the Nevada State Prison Warden, Denver Dickerson, personally went to California to purchase four pounds of liquid cyanide in the form of hydrocyanic acid and a mobile fumigating unit. The chemical company wouldn’t sell it to him. He eventually found a seller in Los Angeles. The chemical and the sprayer were the type used in the California citrus fields for pest eradication. They were about to get a test in a different environment–a prison.

As Jon slept, prison staff pumped the cyanide into the inmate’s cell. But they soon learned that the cell did’t provide the airtight enclosure that a lethal gas execution required. The following day, the staff manufactured a gas chamber in part of the prison’s butcher shop, allowing for a more airtight application of the lethal gas. On February 20, 1924, Gee Jon became the first murderer executed by lethal gas.

So there you have it. A piece of prison trivia history.

I was locked in California’s gas camber at San Quentin once. Here’s a link to a post about that strange experience.  My Gas Chamber Time

gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison

it’s only a matter of time

If you’re interested in catching some prison trivia, try and catch up with me at a book event, or convention. I’m speaking at the Sacramento Suburban Writer’s Club on June 11th at 7:00 pm (check here for details) and I’ll be getting another round of prison trivia questions ready. Are you most likely to become a felon? Maybe…




  1. Wow! The black and white photos are so creepy…

    1. They were a bit creepy, were’t they? I worked in the section of Folsom Prison where they’d hang prisoners back in the 1800’s. Some people swore they saw and heard things that weren’t supposed to be there… Makes you wonder.

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