On January 16, the state of Ohio will become the first state to use a combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone when it executes condemned killer Dennis McGuire. Some experts claim the deadly combo could result in seizures, vomiting, spasms, and suffocation. These changes represent the most recent technological advances in the long history of the death penalty. But how far have we really come?
How the drugs are manufactured and what drugs are used does not alter the fact that, as a state, we are using our innovation, our intelligence, our energy, and, quite frankly, our resources to kill a human being.
In the early 19th century, governments throughout Europe and across the United States began adjusting execution protocols to placate critics of the death penalty. To keep people from becoming desensitized to violence, hangings were moved behind prison walls and away from crowds. Ohio followed suit in 1885, and moved hangings behind the walls of the state penitentiary.
In the second half of the 19th century, enlightened hangmen worked on engineering a swifter death. In 1866, an Irish doctor named Samuel Haughton noted that death from hanging comes in three possible ways: from apoplexy, asphyxia or a fractured “vertebral column.” He suggested that a longer, more precise drop would dislocate the hanged person’s neck, a possibly more humane treatment.
Haughton wrote, “It seems to me unworthy to the present state of science to continue a mode of execution which … is extremely clumsy and also painful to the criminal.” His solution took into account the condemned person’s height and weight when determining how far he should drop from the gallows. Haughton claimed this would ensure a hangman’s fracture and thus a swift death.
Perhaps influenced by Haughton’s essay, English hangman William Marwood devised a measuring table in the 1870s that accounted for the height and weight of the condemned when determining the length of rope for an execution. The “Table of Drops” eventually made its way to the United States.
And yet, no matter how precise the drop became, no matter how much the process was perfected, hangmen could never account for the many ways the human body reacts to violence, to trauma, to pain. Necks stretched. Faces contorted. Bowels evacuated. Ropes snapped and the half-dead had to be re-hanged. Drops were too long and people were decapitated.
In 1885, New York Governor David B. Hill remarked that hanging executions were a carryover from the “dark ages” and wondered if modern science could offer a “less barbarous manner” for killing condemned criminals.
Hanging had become fully shameful to the citizen spectator. For many, execution by hanging brought to mind ghastly public spectacles or lynching. It was seen as an archaic punishment, out of step with modern sensibilities. People couldn’t escape the fact that a real, live person was at the end of that rope.
It didn’t take long for the electric chair and the gas chamber to supplant the noose in the United States. In 1889, William Kemmler became the first person to be put to death by electrocution in Auburn, N.Y. Ohio introduced the electric chair eight years later. And in 1924, Gee Jon became the first American to be executed by lethal gas in Carson City, Nev. Not only were these new technologies modern marvels, but gas and electricity were widely believed to kill more quickly, more humanely.
However, both led to horrific deaths — through burning and asphyxiation — that must have traumatized the viewers and tortured the condemned. There was a real, live person sitting on that electric chair; a real, live person inside that gas chamber.
Today, the private, bureaucratic and antiseptic process of lethal injection is a far cry from the ugly spectacle of a public hanging. It is the end result of an apparently progressive history. But is it any better?
We can continue to tinker with the machinery of death, to borrow Justice Harry A. Blackmun’s phrase. We can fool ourselves that we are humanizing this process, that we are executing the worst of the worse. But as with all other manners of executing, the problem with lethal injection is that a real, live person is strapped to that gurney. How far have we really come?
- Op-Ed by Jack Shuler, January 7, 2014 This article was originally published on Cleveland.com. Mr. Shuler is an author, John and Christine Warner Professor and assistant professor of English at Denison University. His forthcoming book is titled “The Noose: A History,” a study of the history of hanging from the Iron Age to today. Also by Jack Shuler on this website: The Other Iranian Execution Stories, October 29, 2013, and The questions Ohio should be asking about the death penalty, November 8, 2013.