In May 1968, in front of photographers and television cameras, Sheriff Joseph Woods wiped a tear from his eye. As an unyielding ex-Marine who hadn't hesitated using force against protestors in Chicago and its suburbs, Woods wasn't really the crying type. He was tearing up because he had just been shot by mace—which, he argued, "is a very humane weapon." The television cameras were broadcasting his attempt to try and prove his point.
Mace was only four years old at this point, and hadn't even reached the consumer market yet—but in its short lifespan, it had already been transformed from a tool of private protection to a front-line weapon of riot control. Strangely enough, it began as the household invention of a young Pittsburgh couple who kept an alligator in the basement. Over time, from Los Angeles to D.C. to Ferguson, it became a ubiquitous and potent symbol of both justice and injustice.
Half a century ago, Alan and Doris Litman lived in Pittsburgh. Doris was a science teacher and Alan, 29 years old, was an inventor, which presumably meant he was waiting for a big break from one of his many pending patents. Journalist Garry Wills portrayed Litman as an enthusiastic and idiosyncratic graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where among other things he'd done experiments on animal intelligence. This explained why, to the bewilderment of visitors, he and Doris kept an alligator in the basement. It was named Ernst.
Litman's early creations sound like they came off a shelf at Sears. In 1961, he submitted a patent application for an "Infrared nursing bottle heater," a device that warmed milk for infants, and in 1963 he sketched a "waterless egg cooker" and a "bacon cooker." All three inventions seem to have slipped into the netherworld of products that never saw profits. One year later, however, his focus underwent an unexpected shift. He submitted a 1964 application for an "Assailant Incapacitator" and another for an "Aerosol Safety Device," the two of which combined into a little bottle for spraying harsh chemicals. Litman had gone from designing home goods to designing devices for "pocket-sized personal protection." Eventually he'd even patent an "Anti-personnel grenade."
This raises an obvious question. How in the world did Alan Litman go from a builder of bacon cookers to the designer of anti-personnel grenades?
It all started when one of Doris Litman's colleagues, a young female teacher, was mugged on the streets of Pittsburgh. According to several newspaper accounts, when she brought the story home to Alan, the pair started discussing the tools a woman might use in self-defense. Pocket-sized pepper sprays existed, but they often unintentionally afflicted the sprayer, or took so long to sink in that they simply failed to deter attackers.
So the Litmans started running experiments in their home. They toyed with aerosol spray cans, figuring out how to better direct liquids. They mixed chemicals like kerosene, Freon, and sulfuric acid to dissolve and propel harsh irritants. After trying a dizzying array of chemicals that seared the eyes and face, they settled on chloroacetophenone, a chemical the U.S. military had highlighted as a potent tear gas during World War II. At first they called it TGASI, for "Tear Gas Aerosol Spray Instrument," but soon they came up with the catchier name of "Chemical Mace." According to newspaper reports, the name implied that chemicals could produce the same incapacitating effect as a medieval mace—a chilling design of spiked club—but without causing the same brutal injuries. Alan sent off patent applications for a spray can, nozzle, and their chemical mixture.
"Chemical Mace" joined a growing list of technologies designed to disarm without killing. Just a handful of chemicals are considered incapacitating but non-lethal, but they're harnessed in weapons from grenades to sprays to artillery shells. Pepper sprays all harness a single chemical, capsaicin, which is the active ingredient of chili peppers and immediately produces an intense burning sensation all across the face. The remaining chemicals, including the active ingredient in Chemical Mace, fall into the category of tear gases. These take effect more slowly than pepper sprays and cause particular pain in the mucous membranes of the eyes and mouth. All these chemicals—pepper spray and the handful of "non-lethal" tear gases—produce the same basic effect: they attach to sensory receptors on our nerve endings and produce the sensation of burning pain.
Mace wasn't innovative because of its active ingredient, which had already been synthesized in laboratories and discussed for its military applications. It was innovative because it repackaged a chemical weapon as a civilian product. Because it wasn't considered deadly, it didn't violate federal laws; because of its spray bottle design, it could fit in your pocket. And in this form, mace was almost immediately a success. The prototype spray bottle became the foundation of Alan Litman's new business, the General Ordnance Equipment Corporation.
Just two years later, with patent applications still pending, Litman accepted a $100,000 offer for the company from Smith & Wesson—the famed manufacturer of guns and ammunition. His new employer, which made him director of nonlethal weaponry research, bridged the two key markets for weapons that don't kill: private consumers and law enforcement. Mace was in the midst of a transformation.
Patenting "Chemical Mace" proved far more difficult than Litman anticipated. Because the chemical had already been identified by scientists, he never managed to patent a chemical mixture for his devices. His early sprayer design wasn't granted a patent either, and only after years of tweaking, in 1969, did he arrive at a patentable sprayer design that we'd still recognize today.
Which brings us back to Sheriff Joseph Woods of Cook County, Illinois—one of many powerful members of law enforcement eying new technologies to revolutionize the battle for civil order.
As Woods well knew, the late 1960s were a violent time for American cities. Protests against race inequality and the Vietnam War were flaring up across the country, and police forces were militarizing in response. In the wake of the Watts riots, Los Angeles police were considering the purchase of a 20-ton bulletproof vehicle, capable of carrying a machine gun and crushing a barricade of cars. Detroit police had supplemented standard-issue pistols with 500 rifles, 300 shotguns, and 1200 tear gas grenades. Sheriff Woods' approach was to defy an order from his state's Circuit Court and build a riot control squad from civilian volunteers. His Chicago-area police officers were equipped with the latest in law enforcement technology, namely the mace spray that immediately sparked controversy.
By 1967, mace was being tested on unruly crowds across the nation. Norman Mailer mentioned mace in reporting from antiwar rallies in Washington. As a November story in the Pittsburgh Reading Eagle suggested the concept of a spray weapon was still something of a surprise: "Police from Scituate, R.I. To Chula Vista, Calif., have added a new weapon to their arsenals—an aerosol can of gas." But even though mace was experimental, it was quickly becoming a weapon of the front lines.
The Reading Eagle continued: "It was used recently on a gang that turned a Pittsburgh school hallway into an alley of violence, on antiwar demonstrators who battled Police at an Oakland, Calif., induction center, on a prisoner who went beserk in his New Orleans cell, and on a frightened opossum who took over a W. Va., police car."
"It failed to control one of the disturbances—the opossum," the article concluded lightheartedly, as if the use of mace on prisoners and students wasn't worth comment.
It was, of course, and criticism proved fierce. Several 1968 medical studies flagged potential long-term health risks like eye damage, allergic reactions, and asthma attacks. These fears still seem reasonable: the CDC states that exposure to chloroacetophenone can constrict airways and cause fluid build-up in the lungs, both of which can exacerbate existing respiratory conditions. Severe exposure in the eyes can cause corneal opacity and, if sprayed particles are traveling quickly enough, even blindness. Other critiques objected on principle: Since chemical weapons are outlawed in international warfare, should law enforcement deploy a harsh chemical spray against America's own citizens? Since police brutality is already a concern with conventional weapons—and since protest is a part of healthy democracy—does it make sense to arm officers with another class of weapon?
In Chicago, Sheriff Woods responded with his televised stunt. He asked to be shot with mace from around 15 inches away, with nurses standing by to monitor his vital signs. Though police officers often aim for the eyes, the stream hit him in the neck. He reported that the spray was cool but quickly vaporized and prompted a sharp burning in the chest and eyes. "It took an effort to keep my eyes open," Woods told a United Press International reporter. But he said the effects were temporary and minor.
The story made national news alongside slightly more rigorous arguments in favor of police uses of mace. In the mid-1960s, over 100 police were shot in riots across the country, and officers justifiably clamored for better methods of self-defense. The strongest and most persistent claim was that mace allowed police officers to incapacitate a suspect without needing to risk firing a gun. In other words, you can see mace as a part of the militarization of police, but you can also argue that it helped halt the domestic arms race. It gave police a reliable alternative to harsher weapons.
In such a turbulent moment, the original inspiration for Litman's modest spray slipped quietly into the background. A product that had started as a tool to empower individuals, like the teacher mugged in Pittsburgh, was now being accused of disempowering American citizens of their right to protest. According to Garry Wills, Litman gradually stopped discussing the product as controversy grew. Even 50 years after the invention of mace, these criticisms remain relevant. If they've largely faded off the map, that's only because by the 1970s, thousands of police departments had made mace mainstream.
Mace earned its twin identity in American culture, as a tool for both private protection and law enforcement, only in the past few decades. Amazingly, mace wasn't widely sold for private use until 1981—by which time members of law enforcement were arguing against it. Private use of mace, they worried, might put police officers at risk.
In a society that embraces firearms while fighting gun violence, safety and self-defense can become puzzlingly relative concepts. One man's definition of self-defense is another man's definition of brutality. And with this in mind, perhaps it's no wonder the uses of mace were disputed from the very beginning. Sometimes the very same technology that makes us safe can put us at risk.