A 'neater' way to kill

Baltimore Glimpses

November 02, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

IF AND WHEN John Thanos dies in the gas chamber of the Maryland Penitentiary, A. Bennett Brown, wherever he is, may smile. Forty years ago, Brown was a draftsman with the architectural firm that designed the new prison hospital and death house section, where Thanos will die if efforts to save his life fail.

It was May 1956. In a photograph that appeared in this newspaper, Brown, who looked like 1993's John Waters, was shown strapped in the chair at the chamber. The unit had just arrived from the manufacturer in Denver. We can only guess that, having a professional and even an emotional investment in the new contraption, Brown felt a need to convey to the community his personal testimony that this form of execution was an improvement over Maryland's previous method -- hanging.

Only the previous year, Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin had signed into law a bill that substituted lethal gas for hanging (after June 1, 1956) as Maryland's method of execution. The gas chamber was said to be "neater, quicker and more humane" than the gallows, although The Evening Sun had editorialized the year before that an execution was an execution, the "end was the same," and the means of execution made a difference only to the people carrying it out.

The cost of the new chamber was $15,000, no small change in 1956 dollars. The unit consisted of a six-sided steel and glass chamber with five windows and a door, the chair, straps, chemicals and a device to get rid of the gas harmlessly. The chamber was hoisted over the wall of the Madison Street side of the penitentiary and set in place on the second floor.

But there was something less than citizen comfort when, on June 29, 1957, convicted murderer Eddie Lee Daniels, the first criminal to die in Maryland's gas chamber, walked 20 steps from his cell to the chamber. Observers reported that Daniels sat in the chair as preparations were made. At 10:10 p.m., after cyanide pellets were dropped into acid, "white smoke reached his nose and he choked and started to cough." At 10:17, doctors reported his last movements. Six minutes later, Daniels was dead.

It took 13 minutes to kill Eddie Lee Daniels.

Brown's earlier testimonial to the efficiency of the chamber had left the impression that death would come quicker. But Daniels, in his 13 minutes of torture, appeared to recover "five times," according to one observer. Warden Vernon L. Pepersack explained that away by saying that the prisoner "was unconscious one minute after the execution started, though his coughing continued considerably longer." The warden insisted that the "execution went off as scheduled."

A schedule that, 32 years after the last execution in Maryland in 1961, awaits John Frederick Thanos.

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