Last Words of the Executed
Last Words of the Executed
Some beg for forgiveness. Others claim innocence. At least three cheer for their favorite football teams.
Death waits for us all, but only those sentenced to death know the day and the hour—and only they can be sure that their last words will be recorded for posterity. Last Words of the Executed presents an oral history of American capital punishment, as heard from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney.
The product of seven years of extensive research by journalist Robert K. Elder, the book explores the cultural value of these final statements and asks what we can learn from them. We hear from both the famous—such as Nathan Hale, Joe Hill, Ted Bundy, and John Brown—and the forgotten, and their words give us unprecedented glimpses into their lives, their crimes, and the world they inhabited. Organized by era and method of execution, these final statements range from heartfelt to horrific. Some are calls for peace or cries against injustice; others are accepting, confessional, or consoling; still others are venomous, rage-fueled diatribes. Even the chills evoked by some of these last words are brought on in part by the shared humanity we can’t ignore, their reminder that we all come to the same end, regardless of how we arrive there.
Last Words of the Executed is not a political book. Rather, Elder simply asks readers to listen closely to these voices that echo history. The result is a riveting, moving testament from the darkest corners of society.
“This is a dangerous book. Who knows how we will emerge from the encounter? It makes me want to live, use my energies in soul-sized pursuits like justice, like love. One of the psalms says that God collects our tears in a flask—so too does this collection of last words from human beings before they were killed.”
Sister Helen Prejean
“This is a powerful, haunting book. Whether you favor or oppose the death penalty, you won’t think about it the same way after reading the last words of the condemned—some remorseful, some spiteful, some humorous, all tragic. Most horrifying is the realization that some of those who claimed innocence until the end probably were telling the truth.”
Rob Warden, executive director, Center on Wrongful Convictions
"Enthralling. . . . Often more interesting than the final thoughts of some of these men and women are the short descriptions Elder provides of their backgrounds and the crimes they committed. . . . Whatever side in the argument one habitually takes, this book is recommended reading, so that in addition to learning how we put people to death, one can also test the firmness of one’s convictions."
Charles Simic | New York Review of Books
"Even though the topic is polemical, Elder’s book is dispassionate. . . . Whatever terrible crimes they committed (or, as many insist to the very end, did not commit), these are, for the most part, regular people being killed, and in their last moments they ask for forgiveness, protest their innocence, say goodbye, remember their parents and lovers and children."
Benjamin Moser | Harper's
"Knowing something of the deficiencies of the American justice system is useful for leafing through Last Words of the Executed, the final statements of hundreds of Americans who have been condemned through the centuries. . . . The last words are remarkable for their remorse, humour, hatred, resignation, fear and bravado. ’I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner,’ a 19th-century Wyoming murderer told his hangman. Some rambled; others were concise. Several blamed the drink; others reasserted innocence, or (especially in recent years) railed against the death penalty. Some accepted their fate. ’If I was y’all, I would have killed me. You know?’ said a Texan, who had murdered his son’s former girlfriend and her sister, as he readied himself for lethal injection. America’s diverse heritage is stamped even onto its killers’ final moments."
"By compiling the last words of people put to death by the state in America, juxtaposed against details of their crimes and victims, Robert K. Elder has created an extraordinary book. No matter which side of the capital punishment divide you find yourself, Last Words of the Executed is a must-read. Because this is not a political book, but a human journey. You may find your beliefs challenged, changed, or reaffirmed, but you will not come away unaffected."
Sean Chercover, author of Trigger City
"Last Words draws no straightforward conclusions about capital punishment. Instead, the book tells a harrowing and bewildering tale of aggression and redemption, pride and humility, strength and weakness."
Chronicle of Higher Education
"The quotes are often poignant or funny (one man before the firing squad requests a bulletproof vest) and often don’t register as much more than interesting historical documents from centuries past. But read in aggregate, all that pain piles up. Essentially, Elder has amassed a collection of what people say when they know they are going to die, the final product of what could be seen as psychological torture."
Jonathan Messinger | Time Out Chicago
“If the book is intellectually engaging as a historical document, then it is emotionally immersive as a series of psychological snapshots.”
"This extraordinary book gathers the last words of victims of capital punishment in the United States, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present."
Ruth Franklin | New Republic
Table of Contents
Foreword by Studs Terkel
1 The Noose
2 The Firing Squad
3 The Electric Chair
4 The Gas Chamber
5 Lethal Injection
A Note on Accuracy and Sources
Timeline of Capital Punishment in the United States