Are Missouri Gas Chambers Being Revived?

Decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary gas chamber in Jefferson City, Missouri
Decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary gas chamber in Jefferson City, Missouri

Missouri has two legalized methods of executing prisoners on death row—one is by lethal injection and the other is the gas chamber. Twenty-one inmates awaiting execution have sued the Department of Corrections over the state’s proposed single injection of propofol, stating that it “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.” As a result, the Missouri Supreme Court has stopped all executions by lethal injection until this lawsuit is settled.

The propofol issue came up because companies that make the drugs used previously in lethal injections did not want their products used for that purpose. According to ABC News, Richard Dieter, who is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that as European manufacturers stop exporting drugs that are used to implement the death penalty, states will have “to scramble to find other drugs they could use.” Meanwhile, the U. S. division of the German-based manufacturer, Fresenius Kabi, is not fulfilling orders for propofol from any corrections department because the drug was not approved by the FDA for lethal injections.

With the current dispute surrounding lethal injections, Missouri attorney general Chris Koster has said the state may have to consider “alternative methods of execution.” The gas chamber is the state’s only other legalized method. The last time Missouri executed a prisoner by lethal gas was in 1965. A moratorium was issued in 1968 and the gas chambers have been closed since then. Whether or not gas chambers will be revived will be up to the courts to decide.

Prior to the implementation of gas chambers, prisoners were executed by public hanging. According to written descriptions at the time, hangings were treated as events similar to carnivals. People, including children, gathered in the town square to watch. In September, 1937, Governor Lloyd Crow Stark signed the bill to execute prisoners by lethal gas instead of hanging.

The Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, built in 1836, was the first penitentiary west of the Mississippi. This prison was known as “the Walls” because a high stone wall enclosed the grounds. It was about a mile from the state capitol building and sat on a steep bluff above the Missouri River. By the time it was nearing its 100th year in operation, it had the largest prison population in the United States of 5,100 inmates.

Stone walkway to the old gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, MO
Stone walkway to the old gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, MO

The location for the gas chamber was at the back of the property, down the hill away from the buildings that contained cell blocks. It was small and made of rock, cost $3,570, and constructed entirely by inmates. In addition to the chamber itself, a rock walkway leading to the doors was also added, containing a horizontal cross surrounded by a names of prisoners engraved in the stones. The chamber housed two cells–one where the prisoner spent his last few hours, and the other was the actual gas chamber. It was first used in March, 1938.

The Missouri State Penitentiary was decommissioned in 2004 following 168 years of continuous use. Viewing is available by guided tour and includes the prisoners’ final walk before execution.

Cynthia Collins

Missouri State Penitentiary

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