Facing Controversy: Struggling with Capital Punishment in North Carolina

Dr. Charles Peterson and Allen Foster

Circa 1935: Dr. Charles Peterson
Circa 1935: Dr. Charles Peterson
(Photograph from the Raleigh News & Observer, May 1935)

The lives of Dr. Charles Peterson and Allen Foster will forever be linked by the intersecting roles that they played in the history of capital punishment methods in North Carolina.

Dr. Charles Augustus Peterson (b. 1882) was a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives and later state senator in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Little is known about his life prior to coming to Raleigh to serve as a lawmaker, save for the fact that he was previously a physician from Spruce Pine (Mitchell County), N.C. Dr. Peterson served his first term in the House of Representatives from 1923-1924. A decade later, in 1935, he returned, this time with "the announced intention of attempting to substitute lethal gas for the electric chair." He did just that. Within months of his 1935 election, Peterson introduced a bill to change the state's official execution method to lethal gas. The Raleigh News and Observer characterized the bill as "his pet project." In her article "The Killing Chair: North Carolina's Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster," historian Trina Seitz states, "Although Dr. Peterson's motive for advocating lethal gas is largely speculative, his medical background may have greatly influenced his dedication to this issue...the News and Observer noted that Peterson had apparently been corresponding with the wardens of two western penitentiaries, inquiring as to their success in using lethal gas and whether the wardens believed the method was 'effective'."

In March 1935, the Joint Committee on Penal Institutions reviewed Dr. Peterson's lethal gas bill. The committee heard testimony from other physicians and dentists who had "considerable experience with anesthetics." The speakers all testified that lethal gas was a more humane method of execution than electrocution. Following the hearing, the committee concluded that the bill should be sent to the floor of the House for a formal vote. The bill was passed by the House and sent to the Senate. The North Carolina Senate voted unanimously on 1 May 1935 to replace electrocution with lethal gas. By December 1935, a lethal gas chamber had been erected inside the walls of Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. The installation was seen as a technological innovation, an advance that was met with great optimism by state officials and citizens alike. However, all did not go as planned. Mistakes were made in the gas chamber's first use, the execution of Allen Foster, which forced North Carolinians to face the sometimes gruesome business of capital punishment.

In the summer of 1935, a nineteen-year-old inmate named Allen Foster was transferred from a correctional institution in Birmingham, Ala., to the Hoke County Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in North Carolina. Foster's transfer appears to have been a result of Foster's own urging to have Alabama prison officials move him to North Carolina in order to start a new life away from the legal troubles that had plagued him throughout his young life. Allen Foster was sent to work on a prison road gang. According to official North Carolina prison records, Allen Foster escaped from the work camp on 28 September 1935. After his escape he assaulted a young white woman in a nearby farmhouse. Foster struck the woman over the head with a glass bottle and then demanded money from the woman. The woman complied by giving Foster five dollars, yet a struggle ensued. What happened next is unclear. In a sworn statement Foster's victim stated that Foster raped her at knifepoint. Foster denied "completion" of the act. A medical examination performed later found evidence that the woman was sexually assaulted. Allen Foster was arrested, tried in November 1935, and convicted of the capital felony of rape.

Circa 1935: Allen Foster
Circa 1935: Allen Foster

Foster's execution date was initially set for 27 December 1935. Foster's mother immediately began writing to North Carolina Governor J. C. B. Ehringhaus asking for clemency for her son. Ehringhaus briefly stayed Foster's execution so that he could study the matter. However, Foster's reprieve was short-lived. On 24 January 1936, Allen Foster was executed, becoming the first capital criminal in North Carolina to die by lethal gas.

Despite the optimism for the new official method of state executions as promoted by Dr. Charles Peterson and others, mistakes made during his execution caused Foster to suffer a prolonged death. Due to the near freezing temperature in the gas chamber, the gas failed to work effectively. It took nearly three minutes for Foster to lose consciousness. Even after that, Foster's body continued to convulse wildly for several more minutes before doctors pronounced him dead. The procedure lasted a total of eleven minutes. For a detailed account of Foster's execution, please read Trina Seitz's article "The Killing Chair: North Carolina's Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster."


Selected Bibliography

For a full account of North Carolina's switch from electrocution to lethal gas, and more information on the lives of Dr. Charles Peterson and Allen Foster, please click on the following sources (redirects to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library's catalog record for each item.):

Kotch, Seth. "Capital punishment in North Carolina, 1910-1936." Master's thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2005.

Seitz, Trina. "The Killing Chair: North Carolina's Experiment in Civility and the Execution of Allen Foster." North Carolina Historical Review 81, no. 1 (January 2004): 38-72.

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