More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.
The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…”
It is heartbreaking enough to ponder the last words of any person dying by force. It is even more poignant to contemplate the words of this boy because they reveal the helplessness, the loneliness and the profound despair of Negroes in that period. The condemned young Negro, groping for someone who might care for him, and had power enough to rescue him, found only the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Joe Louis would care because he was a Negro. Joe Louis could do something because he was a fighter. In a few words the dying man had written a social commentary. Not God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope.
-Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait
This story isn’t precisely accurate as Dr. King told it, but the factual basis for this empathetic legend is Allen Foster.
On this date in 1936, Foster was the first man executed by lethal gas in North Carolina — and en route to this minor distinction he punched his ticket for commemoration in civil rights literature when he flourished a flamboyant uppercut to witnesses as he was led to the gas chamber and cried out, “I fought Joe Louis!” It was an allusion to having matched with the world champ when both were youngsters in Alabama.
This coincidental brush with celebrity was about as strange as the fact that it occurred in a gas chamber at all.
After the arrival of the electric chair, the South adopted it virtually across the board; North Carolina had switched from hanging to electrocution in 1910.
But the Tarheel State was also generally more progressive than its neighbors;* V.O. Key would write of North Carolina, “It has been the vogue to be progressive. Willingness to accept new ideas, sense of community responsibility toward the Negro, feeling of common purpose, and relative prosperity have given North Carolina a more sophisticated politics than exists in most southern states.”
Part of that “sophisticated politics” was, in the 1930s, a growing debate about the application — indeed, the mere existence — of capital punishment.
According to Trina Seitz’s “The Kiling Chair: North Carolina’s Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster” (North Carolina Historical Review, Jan. 2004):
North Carolinians were beginning to doubt the effectiveness of the sanction and the method used to enforce it. Furthermore, private citizens, humanitarians, and state institutions alike were increasingly scrutinizing the demographics of those being put to death.
Though this scrutiny did not lead so far as actual abolition, it provided the receptively reformist environment for Mitchell County Dr. Charles Peterson’s “pet project” of switching the execution protocol to lethal gas.
The reason for his fascination with gas seems to be obscure; the method had never been employed east of the Mississippi. Maybe it had something to do with 1932’s remarkably smooth gassing of a North Carolinian from nearby Burke County in Nevada, the nation’s gas chamber pioneer.
Whatever the reason, Peterson took a seat in the legislature in 1935 and won adoption for his idea in this very first session.
Unfortunately for Peterson — and doubly so for Foster — North Carolina didn’t have quite the same facility with hydrogen cyanide, and Foster’s execution was a notorious botch that immediately got people back on the electrocution bandwagon.
Foster was doomed for raping a white woman — this may be progressive North Carolina, but it’s still the South — and according to Seitz’s rendering of the News and Observer‘s first-hand report:
“Good-bye.” The Negro’s lips framed the words so clearly that no man in the witness room could doubt what he had said. As he said it, he winked and then forced a smile at the faces peering in at him. Then he began to suffer. No man could look squarely into his eyes and fail to perceive that they were registering pain. The Negro fought for breath, knowing he was going to die and fighting to get it over with as quickly as possible …
he sucked the gas desperately until his head rolled back three minutes later, indicating to physicians that the man finally had lost consciousness. But after a period of quiescence, his small, but powerfully built torso began to retch and jerk, throwing his head forward on his chest, where witnesses could see his eyes slowly glaze … The torturous, convulsive retching continued spasmodically for a full four minutes.
Officially, it took about 11 minutes for Foster to die, and as those agonizing minutes dragged by a physician broke the witness room’s mortified silence by exclaiming, “We’ve got to shorten [the execution method] or get rid of it entirely.” Um, yeah? The prison warden was quoted the next day as saying that even hanging was preferable to this.
The ensuing political controversy, however, did not succeed in reverting the method to electrocution.
Like the original electric chair, North Carolina’s gas chamber was the beneficiary of some hasty technical fixes: heating the gas chamber (it was at the freezing point when Foster died; Colorado executioners advised North Carolina that this would impede the gassing); tweaking the chemical formula.
The very next week, a white murderer named Ed Jenkins followed Foster into the toxic plume, this time to rave reviews: he “died painlessly and the method of execution was humane”. These advances were enough to keep the gas chamber in place, although the state legislature considered several bills to return to electrocution from 1937 to 1943.
During one such debate, North Carolina playwright Paul Green testified to the assembly (per Seitz),
Some day the electric chair and the gas chamber will be set up in the State Museum as symbols of an age of horror and ignorance. School children will look at them and feel superior to us as they look back upon an era of ignorance
* This is still true of North Carolina: it has employed the allegedly more humane method of lethal injection since 1984, when no other Southern state save Texas used the needle until the 1990s; that use has been sparing enough that its per-capita execution rate remains markedly lower than most other former Confederate states; and in 2009, North Carolina implemented a still–controversial Racial Justice Act empowering condemned prisoners to challenge their sentence with statistical evidence of racial disparity even though courts don’t require this at all.