Types of Executions

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Lethal Injection

A lethal injection gurney. The straps hold the prisoner down during the injection.
The Final Anaesthetic A lethal injection gurney. The straps hold the prisoner down during the injection. Photograph courtesy of the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Eight Different Ways to Kill a Human Being

Rulers have always devised gruesome ways to do away with prisoners: boiling them in oil, throwing them in snake pits, dragging them under boats, flaying them, poisoning them, burying them alive, drawing and quartering them, and on and on. Today, governments tend to be more civilized -- or at least less creative -- in the way they kill their citizens.

The eight execution methods discussed here are those most widely practiced in an official capacity in the modern world. But it's worth mentioning that governments (including, at times, the U.S. Government) have been known to kill prisoners through other, less "official" means--ranging from gunshots (no questions asked) to chemical weapons (as Saddam Hussein authorized against thousands of Iraqi Kurds during the Anfal Campaign of 1988) to starvation (the primary means by which the North Korean government manages to kill so many prisoners without handing out formal death sentences).

Lethal injection is the most prevalent form of capital punishment in the United States today, but this does not necessarily mean that it's the most civilized.


In 1982, the United States became the first country to perform executions by lethal injection. China became the second in 1997, and several other countries have since followed. Lethal injection has been by far the most common type of execution in the United States. All executions in 2005, and all but one execution each in 2004 and 2006, were by lethal injection. In following years, however, there has  been a growing movement against death by lethal injection on the grounds that it is far from the painless means of death its advocates propose. Further, corporations have become reluctant to provide the chemicals needed. There have been two quite different responses to this:

  • increasing objections to the death penalty in all circumstances
  • a revival of interest by death penalty proponents of executions by hanging or firing squad.  

Unsavory Overtones 

Nazi Germany used lethal injection as part of its T-4 Euthanasia Program as early as 1940, though it was later replaced by poison gas.

How It Works 

The executioner, usually a person injecting the drugs manually (lethal injection machines are no longer in widespread use due to the possibility of mechanical failure), injects three drugs in sequence:

  1. 5g Pentothol (sodium thiopental), which is intended to induce a coma.
  2. 100mg Pavulon (pancuronium bromide), which causes paralysis.
  3. 100 mEq potassium chloride, which stops the heart.


Pentothol does not always induce a coma, leaving the disturbing possibility that at least some prisoners killed by lethal injection may experience extreme pain due to the administration of potassium chloride--without any means of expressing that pain, thanks to the paralysis brought about by the Pavulon. For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hill v. Crosby (2006) that death row prisoners may challenge lethal injection procedures under the Eighth Amendment.

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Gas Chamber Executions

The infamous lime green gas chamber at San Quentin in California.
With Dying Breath The infamous lime green gas chamber at San Quentin, where all of California's death sentences are carried out. Today the room is used for lethal injections; California abolished execution by poison gas in 1995. Image courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Despite its history, the gas chamber was advertised as an efficient and humane form of execution. At least it seemed that way to the observers...


In 1921, lawmakers in the State of Nevada, horrified by the gruesome electric chair, sought a less violent form of execution. They decided to construct sealed chambers into which prisoners could be locked, chambers that would then be flooded with lethal cyanide gas. Nevada first used the procedure in 1924, and it remained popular for over 50 years, though it has since fallen out of favor due to some unexpected complications (see below). The last gas chamber execution took place in 1999, and only four states still allow it as an option.

Unsavory Overtones

Cyanide gas (Zyklon B) was Nazi Germany's primary means of mass murder during the Holocaust, as it could be used to kill as many as 2,500 people at once.

How It Works

The prisoner is strapped to a chair inside a sealed gas chamber. The executioner (standing outside the chamber, of course) pulls a lever dropping potassium cyanide pellets into a vat of sulfuric acid, flooding the chamber with lethal hydrogen cyanide gas.


Death can be extremely slow and painful, as demonstrated in several high-profile executions from the 1980s and 1990s. One of the more infamous was that of Jimmy Lee Gray in 1983, who frantically gasped, moaned, and slammed his head into a steel pipe for ten minutes as the cyanide slowly took effect. In 1996, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that execution by poison gas constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

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The Electric Chair

Riding the Lightning An African-American prisoner is prepared for execution in "Old Sparky," Sing-Sing Prison's infamous electric chair. Photograph taken circa 1900 by William M. Van der Weyde. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

No form of execution has captured the American popular imagination like the electric chair.


The electric chair is a quintessentially American invention. No less a figure than Thomas Edison petitioned for its first use, though his motives for doing so were less than pure. The world's first execution by electrocution took place in 1890, and it remained the most common form of execution until the 1980s. Death row inmates in ten states may still choose the electric chair (and in recent years, two prisoners have--in 2004 and 2006, respectively).

How It Works

The prisoner is shaved, strapped to a chair, and fitted with electrodes attached to conductive sponges--one on the head, one on the leg--creating a direct current. The prisoner is then hooded. The executioner pulls a switch, and 2,000 volts race through the prisoner's body as the internal body temperature approaches 140 degrees. If performed correctly, the procedure is supposed to cause immediate unconsciousness followed by near-instantaneous death.


The procedure is extremely gruesome to contemplate, and can burn conscious prisoners alive if performed incorrectly. Horrific accounts of botched electrocutions have essentially made the electric chair a relic of the past, an option only occasionally selected by prisoners who fear lethal injection or simply want a more distinctive exit.

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Execution by Firing Squad

Firing Squad
"Ready, aim..." In this photo from June 4th, 1913, a young man named Antonio Echazarreta is executed by Mexican revolutionaries for his role in defending a major outpost. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Typically associated with the military, the firing squad is one of the least expensive forms of execution--and, if performed correctly, one of the most humane.

History: Executions by firing squad date as far back as firearms themselves, but only two people have been executed by firing squad in the United States in recent years (in 1977 and 1996 respectively). It remains an option for death row prisoners in Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Overtones: Death by firing squad is often regarded as a soldier's death rather than a criminal's death, and therefore more noble. It is also the only modern form of execution that preserves most of the prisoner's organs, allowing for organ donation.

How It Works: Firing squad executions are so incredibly rare in the United States that it is difficult to speak of a standard operating procedure, but historically the victim is strapped to a chair, five sharpshooters aim at the victim's heart, and all five pull the trigger. One of the sharpshooters is secretly armed with a blank round, which means that each shooter can rest comfortably in the knowledge that there is a 20% chance that she never shot the prisoner.

Complications: Although both modern firing squad executions went smoothly, it was not unheard of in the past for all five rounds to penetrate the prisoner without killing him--requiring a sixth shooter to fire a round at close range to put the prisoner out of his misery.

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Death by Hanging

Hanging of Ketchum
The Dead Man's Rope Notorious train robber Tom "Black Jack" Ketchum is prepared for the gallows on April 26th, 1901. Due to human error, the rope would be too long--allowing his body to fall too quickly during the drop, decapitating him. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Although death by hanging is a very old form of punishment, it evokes cultural memories of Southern lynchings and Wild West "frontier justice."


Hanging is one of the most ancient forms of execution. The Book of Esther, for example, centers on the hanging of the genocidal traitor Haman, and British and U.S. law have always incorporated death by hanging. Although most states have abolished this practice, New Hampshire and Washington still allow prisoners to choose this option. The most recent legal U.S. hanging took place in 1996.

Unsavory Overtones

 Over the past century, hanging has become nearly synonymous with the lynchings of African Americans in the American South, and of Hispanics in the Midwest and California.

How It Works

 The prisoner stands on trapdoor, and a rope descends from a wooden beam overhead. The rope is fastened around the prisoner's neck in a "Hangman's noose," which tightens when pulled upon. The executioner pulls a lever opening the trapdoor and dropping the prisoner, who ideally dies quickly due to a broken neck.


 The length of the rope must be carefully calibrated in proportion to the prisoner's weight. If the rope is too short, insufficient velocity is generated to break the prisoner's neck and the prisoner is painfully strangled to death. If the rope is too long, excessive velocity is generated and decapitation may result. Even if the rope is of exactly the right length, a prisoner with an exceptionally large or strong neck may suffer strangulation rather than immediate death.

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Death by Stoning

Stoning of St. Emerenziana
Death by Stoning as Communal Punishment A detail from Ercole Ferrata's "Martirio di Santa Emerenziana" (1660), a marble engraving carved to adorn the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone of Rome, Italy. The engraving depicts the stoning St. Emerenziana, martyred at the grave of St. Agnes. Public domain. Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.

Stoning stands apart from other forms of capital punishment in that the entire community participates in the killing.


Stoning is arguably the world's oldest form of execution. It is as old as written literature, and the most common death penalty described in the Bible (prompting Jesus' famous anti-death penalty statement in John 8.7: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"). Although it has never been a legal form of execution in the United States, it is practiced elsewhere in the world, primarily in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Unsavory Overtones

Stoning is primarily enforced by Islamic fundamentalist sharia law, often for bizarre reasons. In 2004, 13-year-old Zhila Izadyar was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for the "crime" of being raped by her older brother. Although the sentence was later overturned after international outcry, equally horrific stoning sentences are often carried out throughout the developing world.

How It Works 

The prisoner is buried either up to his waist (if male) or up to her shoulders (if female) and then pelted with stones by a crowd of volunteers until obviously battered to death. Under the terms of most fundamentalist courts, the stones must be small enough that death cannot reasonably be expected to result from only one or two blows, but large enough to cause physical harm. The average execution by stoning is extremely painful, lasting at least 10 to 20 minutes.

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Death by Beheading

Execution of King Louis XVI
The Death of Kings A print depicting the execution of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. The guillotine, a sophisticated instrument designed to automate death by beheading, has fallen out of fashion. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Execution by beheading, whether it is carried out by sword or guillotine, is one of the most gruesome forms of capital punishment. At least it's usually quick.


Beheading was probably the most humane form of punishment available in the ancient world, with the possible exception of the administration of poison. Although it has never been a legal form of execution in the United States, it is practiced elsewhere. Most notably, it remains the preferred method of execution in Saudi Arabia.


One "benefit" of beheading is that it allows the executioners to display the victim's head as a warning. This practice dates back to ancient times, but one particularly striking more recent example took place in the aftermath of Nat Turner's rebellion, as posses searching for Turner allegedly killed nearby slaves nearly at random and mounted their heads on fenceposts as a warning.

How It Works 

The victim is restrained, usually forced to kneel, and the executioner cuts off the head with a sword or knife. In renaissance-era Europe (most famously in the aftermath of the French Revolution), the process was automated by way of a device called a guillotine, which dropped a heavy blade through the prisoner's neck--allowing for a clean, instant decapitation.


Beheading can be a relatively humane form of punishment -- at least when compared with the other methods still in use in the United States -- provided that the executioner is strong and reasonably competent. When the executioner is not, death can be slow and excruciatingly painful.

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Death by Crucifixion

An Overview and History of Death by Crucifixion Detail from Pieter Brueghel the Younger's "The Crucifixion" (1617), depicting the execution of Jesus Christ as well as others hanging on nearby crosses. Public domain. Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.

Whether performed by Romans at Golgotha or by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib, crucifixion is one of the slowest, most torturous forms of execution ever devised.

History: Crucifixion was most common in ancient Rome. Although it has never been legal in the United States, it is worth noting that a CIA interrogator killed Manadel al-Jamadi in Abu Ghraib Prison in 2003 by crucifixion. The only country to practice crucifixion as an official form of capital punishment is the Sudan.

Death on Display: The ancient Romans would sometimes crucify rebels by the dozens, then leave their corpses hanging for as long as they would continue to hang. In the eyes of the Romans, crucifixion's deterrent effects probably justified what was otherwise a highly inefficient form of execution.

How It Works: The prisoner is hoisted off the ground, arms restrained to the sides or behind the back, and simply left alone. Over time, the prisoner will grow tired and fall forward--constricting the lungs and causing asphyxiation. Death by crucifixion can take hours or even days.