Gas Chamber in Use at Central Prison After 1935

On May 1, 1935, the state Senate approved a bill making lethal gas the method of execution in North Carolina. It replaced electrocution, which was used until that time.

Dr. Charles Peterson, a Spruce Pine physician who served as a member of the General Assembly during the first half of the 20th century, was the primary advocate for the change. The Raleigh News & Observer described bringing about the change as his “pet project.”

Doctors and dentists testified before the legislature’s Joint Committee on Penal Institutions that lethal gas was a more humane method of execution than electrocution, and a bill Peterson authorized was quickly sent to and approved by both houses of the General Assembly.

A lethal gas chamber was constructed at Raleigh’s Central Prison by December 1935, with many across the state seeing the change as a positive technological innovation.

Allen Foster, who had been convicted of rape in Hoke County, was the first to be executed by lethal gas. His January 1936 execution demonstrated that the change in method was not necessarily a positive one. Because prison officials kept the temperature in the gas chamber near freezing, the gas failed to work effectively and Foster didn’t die for 11 minutes and convulsed violently in the process.

Death row inmates could choose between lethal gas and lethal injection until 1998, when the General Assembly made lethal injection the only method of execution in the state.

This Day in North Carolina History is a production of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. For more about North Carolina’s history, arts, nature and culture, visit DNCR online at www.ncdcr.gov.