Zyklon B on the US Border

Zyklon B on the US Border

A grim history lesson of what happened in the 1920s when fears of alien infection inflamed American eugenicists.


Zyklon B arrived in El Paso in the 1920s courtesy of the US government. In 1929, for example, a Public Health Service officer, J.R. Hurley, ordered $25 worth of the material–hydrocyanic acid in pellet form–as a fumigating agent for use at the El Paso delousing station, where Mexicans crossed the border from Juárez. Zyklon, developed by Degesch (short for the German vermin-combating corporation), was made in varying strengths, with Zyklon C, D and E representing gradations in potency and price. As Raul Hilberg describes it in The Destruction of the European Jews, “strength E was required for the eradication of specially resistant vermin, such as cockroaches, or for gassings in wooden barracks. The ‘normal’ preparation, D, was used to exterminate lice, mice, or rats in large, well-built structures containing furniture. Human organisms in gas chambers were killed with Zyklon B.” In 1929 Degesch divided the Zyklon market with an American corporation, Cyanamid, so Hurley likely got his shipment from the latter.

As David Dorado Romo describes it in his marvelous Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923 (Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso), Zyklon B became available in the United States when, in the early 1920s, fears of alien infection were being inflamed by the alarums of the eugenicists, most of them political “progressives.” In 1917 Congress passed, and President Wilson–an ardent eugenicist and pro-sterilizer–signed, the Immigration Act. The Public Health Service simultaneously published its Manual for the Physical Inspection of Aliens.

The manual had its list of excludables from the US of A, a ripe representation of the obsessions of the eugenicists: “imbeciles, idiots, feeble-minded persons, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority [homosexuals], vagrants, physical defectives…anarchists, persons afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases…all aliens over 16 who cannot read.” In that same year Public Health Service agents “bathed and deloused” 127,123 Mexicans at the bridge between Juárez and El Paso.

The mayor of El Paso at the time, Tom Lea Sr., represented, in Romo’s words, “the new type of Anglo politician in the ‘Progressive Era.'” For Lea, “progressive” meant a Giuliani-style cleanup of the city. He had a visceral fear of contamination and, so his son later disclosed, wore silk underwear because his friend, one Doc Kluttz, had told him typhus lice don’t stick to silk. His loins thus protected, Lea battered the US government with demands for a quarantine camp on the border where the Feds could protect El Paso from typhus by holding all immigrants for fourteen days. Health officer B.J. Lloyd thought this outlandish, telling the surgeon general that typhus fever “is not now and probably never will be, a serious menace to our civilian population.”

Lea sent his health cops into the city’s Mexican quarter, forcing inhabitants suspected of harboring lice to take kerosene and vinegar baths and have their heads shaved and clothes incinerated. After barging into 5,000 rooms, inspectors found only two cases of typhus, one of rheumatism, one of TB and one of chicken pox.

Though Lloyd opposed a quarantine, he did urge delousing for “all the dirty, lousy people coming into this country from Mexico.” His facility was ready for business just as the Immigration Act became law. Soon Mexicans were being stripped and daubed with kerosene, their clothes fumigated with gasoline, kerosene, sodium cyanide, cyanogens, sulfuric acid and Zyklon B. The El Paso Herald wrote respectfully in 1920, “Hydrocyanic acid gas, the most poisonous known, more deadly even than that used on the battlefields of Europe, is employed in the fumigation process.”

The delousing operations provoked fury and resistance among Mexicans still boiling with indignation after a lethal gasoline blaze in the city jail some months earlier. As part of Mayor Lea’s citywide disinfection campaign, prisoners’ clothes were dumped in a bath filled with a mixture of gasoline, creosote and formaldehyde. Then the prisoners were forced, naked, into a second bath filled with “a bucket of gasoline, a bucket of coal oil and a bucket of vinegar.” On the afternoon of March 5, 1916, someone struck a match. The jail went up like a torch. The Herald reported that about fifty “naked prisoners from whose bodies the fumes of gasoline were arising” caught fire. Twenty-seven died. In late January 1917, 200 Mexican women rebelled at the border, prompting a riot and putting to flight police and troops on both sides.

Now, Zyklon B is fatal when absorbed through the skin in concentrations of more than fifty parts per million. How many Mexicans, many crossing daily, suffered agonies or died after putting on those poisoned garments? Through oral histories, Romo has documented cancers, birth defects and deaths that he estimates could go into the tens of thousands and yet, as he told a reporter, “This is a huge black hole in history.”

The use of Zyklon B on the US-Mexico border was a matter of interest to the firm of Degesch. In 1938 Dr. Gerhard Peters wrote an article in a German pest science journal, Anzeiger für Schädlingskunde, which called for its use in German Desinfektionskammern and featured photos of El Paso’s delousing chambers. Peters went on to become the managing director of Degesch, which supplied Zyklon B to the Nazi death camps. He was tried and convicted at Nuremberg. (In 1955, he was retried and found not guilty.)

In the United States, the eugenicists rolled on to their great triumph, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, much admired by Hitler, which would doom millions in Europe to their final rendezvous with Zyklon B twenty years later. By the late 1940s, the eugenicists were mostly discredited, but the Restriction Act, that monument to racism, bad science and do-gooders, stayed on the books unchanged for forty years.

In 1918 disease did leap across the El Paso border. Romo quotes a letter from Dr. John Tappan, who had disinfected thousands of Mexicans. “10,000 cases in El Paso and the Mexicans died like sheep. Whole families were exterminated.” This was “Spanish” flu, which originated in Haskell County, Kansas.

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