A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who makes electric chairs and other equipment for executions?

October 13, 1995

Dear Cecil:

It pains me to see that my adopted state of Wisconsin is about to turn its back on 150 years of sanity and bring back the death penalty. My question is, supposing we elect not to go the wimpy route of killing off our capital offenders via lethal injection but instead fry 'em or gas 'em in a more manly manner, where would we get the equipment? Is there an "Old Sparky Electric Chair Manufacturing Co." or a "Green Glow Gas Chamber Company"?

Cecil replies:

Interesting question, bizarre answer — and one that shows you the kind of people you deal with when you get back into the execution business.

The electric chairs and such of generations past were largely homemade affairs, and it showed — often you could obtain equally humane results by setting the guy on fire. After a few grisly incidents following the resumption of executions, prison wardens began looking around for somebody who knew what he was doing. They found what they wanted (they thought) in Boston engineer Fred Leuchter. As revealed in a 1990 story in the Atlantic, Fred A. Leuchter Associates had become Death 'R Us, the U.S.'s only commercial supplier of execution equipment. A prison guard's son who had become fascinated by the machinery of death, Leuchter would rehab your old electric chair, make you a new one, or if you preferred sell you a lethal injection system ($30,000), gallows ($85,000), or gas chamber ($200,000).

Unmentioned in this and similar media accounts was the fact that Leuchter was also one of the scientific mainstays of Holocaust denial. In 1988, on the strength of his supposed expertise in gas chambers, Leuchter had been hired by neo-Nazi Ernst Zündel to examine the gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camps. Zündel, a German national living in Canada, was then in the process of being retried under Canada's "false news" law for claiming that the Holocaust was a myth. (His first conviction had been overturned on appeal.) Zündel wanted Leuchter to find evidence that the Auschwitz gas chambers could not have been used to kill Jews. Leuchter obliged, producing what is now known as the Leuchter Report and testifying at the trial. Among other things he claimed that only minimal traces of lethal gas could be found in what was left of the Auschwitz execution chambers.

Little credence was given to Leuchter's testimony at the trial. Nonetheless his report was widely disseminated among Holocaust deniers and was (and I suppose still is) commonly cited by them as proof that the Holocaust was a Zionist fabrication.

The Leuchter Report proved to be its author's undoing. During the trial it came out that Leuchter had had little technical training, did not have a degree in engineering, and had no formal credentials as an engineer. The state of Massachusetts accused him of practicing engineering without a license and in 1991 he agreed to cease and desist. His execution consulting business, already in trouble once his efforts on behalf of the Holocaust deniers became known, evaporated completely. He blames Jewish antidefamation groups and it's safe to say they hastened his demise.

Leuchter's strange story was the subject of a 1999 documentary by filmmaker Errol Morris called Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. The film consists mostly of interviews with Leuchter, in which he comes across as an oddball who got sucked into the Holocaust denial movement and was ultimately destroyed by it.

While no one would claim that death-penalty advocates overlap to any significant degree with the neo-Nazis, the Leuchter business can't help but increase one's queasiness at the spectacle of state-sponsored executions. For a detailed analysis and refutation of the Leuchter Report, see veritas.nizkor.org/faqs/leuchter/.   For more on Morris's controversial film, see the L.A. New Times article at www.newtimesla.com/issues/1999-12-23/feature2.html.

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