Zyklon B on the United States border

Zyklon B arrived in El Paso, Texas, in the 1920s courtesy of the U.S. 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 Ju&

225;rez. 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 Ju&

225;rez: 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 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 U.S. government with demands for a quarantine camp on the border where the Feds could protect El Paso from typhus by holding all immigrants for 14 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 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 50 "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 50 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."

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at .

Share This Story