1794: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry

7 comments May 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, French scientist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was guillotined in Paris for “adding water to the people’s tobacco.”

Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, by Jacques-Louis David (1788) Marie assisted Lavoisier in the laboratory; she also studied art under David the better to illustrate the resulting publications.

Tobacco-watering was the least of Lavoisier’s pastimes.

The man’s resume* of 50 busy years in chemical and biological experimentation included

  • Proving the law of conservation of mass
  • Naming oxygen and hydrogen
  • Demonstrating oxygen’s role in combustion and respiration
  • Writing the first chemistry textbook, with the first list of elements

Unfortunately, Lavoisier funded these eggheaded avocations with an investment in the Ferme générale, the hated tax-farming syndicate to which the crown outsourced its revenue-squeezing operations.

This is just the sort of operation one would expect to find in the crosshairs of the French Revolution’s Terror: hence, watering the people’s tobacco.

(Allegedly, Jean-Paul Marat also had it in for Lavoisier personally, on account of the latter’s having blown off Marat’s pre-Revolution scientific efforts.)

The company was shut down in 1790.

But at the height of the Terror, Lavoisier and 27 fellow tax-farmers of the Ferme were rounded up and quickly condemned.

Lavoisier’s appeal for a stay of execution to complete some experiments met a brusque refusal from the people’s tribunal: “The Republic has no need for scientists.”

Mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, whom Lavoisier had helped escape the Revolution’s proscription, left the chemist his epigrammatic epitaph:

It took only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it.

* And yet,

[i]n spite of his great services it is impossible to overlook the sins of Lavoisier in appropriating to himself discoveries made by chemists who were his contemporaries or predecessors. Oxygen was first discovered by Hales in 1727, and had already been prepared from mercuric oxide by Priestley in 1774, by Bayen in the same year, and still earlier by Scheele in 1771. It was at a dinner at Lavoisier’s house that Priestley confidentially communicated his discovery to Lavoisier, in 1774; in 1778 Lavoisier then claimed for himself the discovery of the composition of water, whilst, as is now known, Blagden, a friend of Cavendish, when visiting Paris in 1781, told Lavoisier that Cavendish had discovered the composition of water in a very simple manner by burning inflammable air (hydrogen), as water alone was formed during this combustion.

Lavoisier and Laplace immediately repeated the experiment and then communicated the discovery to the French Academy in 1783.

These facts certainly do not obscure the fame of the great scientist when we remember his eminent services, but in the interests of historic accuracy and justice it is impossible to pass them over in silence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Nobility,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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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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