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Mr. Death and his Killing Machines

Miffi Maxmillion, July 2000

The electrocution of an elephant, in silent black and white early newsreel, the footage part of a home movie of Thomas Edison, was an image that eerily put into perspective the life of Fred A. Leuchter.

This mousey, simple man, who happens to make electrocution machines, juxtaposed next to a rare portrayal of the most loved American hero, really called into question our assumed concepts of good and bad.

This doco, made by Errol Morris, was effective precisely because of the confronting nature of the subject matter. It is easy enough to think that if we are going to eat chicken, we should at least support free range farms and not battery hens. But when it comes to execution technology, to killing with compassion or with torture, the issue becomes alarmingly challenging.

Leuchter comes from a prison background (his dad was a warden) an area not known for its caring. And yet he is a compassionate man, who's most sophisticated characteristic is his belief that all men have a right to die with dignity. The fact that he also believes in capital punishment makes his concern all the more unusual.

His care extends to the guards that live and work with the inmates for up to twenty years, and then one day are required to kill them. Leuchter modified the equipment so that the guards don't have to clean up the mess of the excretions of the executed man.

Leuchter is passionately disgusted by the inept technology used in most prisons today that succeed in torturing the inmates before finally killing them. It is shockingly gruesome to hear how often an execution doesn't work; how long it takes a man to die (a man crying in agony up for up to 40 minutes until the chair is fixed and they try again); with eyeballs flying across the room and flesh melting off the body.

Leuchter fixed and designed humane electric chairs. He became so well known for this that he was asked to re-design a gas chamber and then a gallows for prisons throughout the US.

His gas chamber, from a Buddhist point of view, seemed the most beneficial. Instead of lying on a trolley for 1/2 an hour looking at the concrete ceiling and waiting to die, he designed a lay-back chair like a dentists chair, put pictures on the wall and music and a telly in the room. To be able to chose your own images, say of Buddha, Christ or a serene landscape would do wonders for the next rebirth.

Tragically, this quiet, simple man became in his own words a "reluctant re-visionist". He was asked by David Irvine, who obviously played him subtly and skilfully, to go to Auschwitz and take wall samples to prove there was no residue from cyanide gas, and thus prove that the exterminations never happened. But he was selected for his experience with gas chambers, not his engineering or forensic skills.

What he found there, or rather didn't find, changed the course of his life. He looked in the wrong places, in the wrong way, and found nothing. Very telling was his words after visiting Aushwitz, repeated several times that "it just didn't make sense".

When Leuchter, a man who admittedly comes from a rather unorthodox angle of making sense when it comes to execution, was faced with the scale and horror of Auschwitz, rather than accept that it could not make sense, concluded that since the Nazi extermination camps made no sense, it couldn't have happened.

Wooed by revisionist publishers and various neo-Nazi groups, he suddenly found himself a somebody, with new friends and giving learned papers. At the same time he was polarised by an emotive knee-jerk reaction from the general public. This combination destroyed his life. He lost his house, his wife, and perhaps most sadly, he is now unable to do what he does best -design humane methods of execution. His denial of the irrational and his need to see Auschwitz make the same kind of sense that he himself does, blinded him to the truth, and the world, ironically, also suffered a great loss.

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