1913: Andriza Mircovich, by a shooting-machine

Add comment May 14th, 2014 Headsman

101 years ago today, a Serbian immigrant was shot for murder in Carson City, Nevada.

It was an ordinary murder, by an ordinary man: his cousin died in a mining fire in 1911, and Andriza (or Andrija) Mircovich, feeling he got stiffed on the resulting inheritance, stabbed to death the probate attorney (a fellow South Slav named Gregorovich).

The execution, however, was extraordinary — and has never in history been repeated.

The march of science had lately made possible whole new methods of execution heretofore uncontemplated — like electricity and poison gas. At the same time, mechanical engineering had improved old standbys like beheading and hanging from slipshod, error-prone affairs to efficient operations worthy of an age of industry.

Somewhere between those categories lies the firing squad. Firearms, of course, were new technology relative to the noose and a big ol’ axe, but we do find executions by shooting back to the 17th century at least.

Though the guns themselves had been updated, Nevada was forced by circumstances to do for firing squads what Dr. Guillotin had done for headsmen.

Nevada law at the time allowed inmates to choose between hanging and shooting. The state had all the accoutrement for the former, but it hadn’t ever conducted one of the latter. When Mircovich insisted on being shot, and prison officials couldn’t find people willing to pull the trigger, Nevada actually built a “shooting gallery of steel” — an entire contraption to automate the lethal fusillade.


Image from this history of Nevada capital punishment.

The 1,000-pound gallery of steel, whose arrival caused the prison warden George Cowing to resign in horror,* consisted of a shed with three protruding mounted rifles, which would be individually sighted on the heart of the restrained prisoner and fired when guards cut a string to release a spring mechanism.

In a macabre Rube Goldberg parody, it was improved for the consciences of the guards by having three strings that would be simultaneously cut, only one of which actually triggered the gallery. A redundant layer of plausible deniability was added, since each of the three guards had aimed only one of the three rifles, by loading only two of the three guns with live ammunition.

Mircovich went to his death still fulminating profanely against the judge who condemned him and the injustice of it all. The scene, it must be said, was not exactly the finest hour in penal history.

But the device itself? It worked perfectly, killing Mircovich nigh-instantly with two balls straight to his heart.


From the Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1913.

Nevada got rid of this inconvenient execution option not long after, and Mircovich remains the only human being put to death by shooting (whether by human hands or mechanical ones) in the Silver State’s history. The guns from this weird artifact currently reside at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City; the scaffolding that once surrounded them is in some aircraft carrier or tank, having been donated as scrap metal during World War II.

* Cowing was replaced by former governor Denver Dickerson, who would later oversee Nevada’s pathbreaking gas chamber debut. Digression: Dickerson’s turn as governor had been notable for his arranging a boxing match in Reno between the black champion Jack Johnson and the “great white hope” James Jeffries, which resulted in a legendary Johnson victory and — another sign of the era’s dismal condition of race relations — a nationwide wave of racial violence.

According to Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Dickerson was the kind of guy who could see past skin color well enough to make bank wagering on Johnson.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Murder,Nevada,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,USA

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1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber

11 comments February 8th, 2009 Headsman

It was the best of intentions. It was the worst of intentions.

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 inconveniencing him.

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; so, 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 occupant 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 HCNnever matched the dream of the 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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Organized Crime,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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