In the article, we tell you about a very interesting book, Last Words of the Executed. The book documents the final words of people killed in America following crimes they committed. We also pick up some last words and stories from the book.
“I killed the president because he was an enemy of the good people — of the working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”
Leon Frank Czolgosz (aka Leon Frans Czolgosz), convicted of murder, electrocution, New York, October 29, 1901.
Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley after waiting in line to shake his hand in Buffalo. Czolgosz’s reasons for doing so were not entirely clear, though he did express grievances against the U.S. and claim that the American dream was a lie. Eight weeks after the murder, Czolgosz was electrocuted and his body was dissolved in acid as it was buried.
This book is a fascinating read that I stumbled upon recently. The Last Words of the Executed by Robert K Elder is a great historical document that pulls together the last words of those people who were killed by the state for their crimes in America from the 17th century onwards. It starts by discussing why we would want to know the last words of those who have committed the most heinous crimes possible in society, and briefly looks at the history of the death penalty. For example:
“The ritual recording of last words exists in a largely Christian framework. In early Christian history, the last words were taken as a show of spiritual mercy, a last chance to repent and save one’s soul. From the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth centuries, speeches from the scaffold were mass-produced in pamphlets and prayer books that served as guides to dignified religious dying. The ritual also performed a legal function. In many countries, a “dying declaration” enjoyed a legal precedent as evidence.”
The book then moves on to look at each major way that people have been killed in America, and records their final words. First up is the noose. Below are the words and the story of the last words of one person who was hung:
“No, I am ready at any time; but do not keep me needlessly waiting.”
John Brown, convicted of treason, hanging, Virginia, December 2, 1859.
Brown, a controversial figure in American history, has been called both a mass murderer and “the man who killed slavery.” Brown, a stalwart abolitionist, was brought to trial for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, a town in what is now West Virginia, then a federal arsenal. His attack resulted in the deaths of five pro-slavery men.
A popular marching tune of the time was set to lyrics, which included the line “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!” This song became “John Brown’s Body” and was later adapted into the “Glory, glory Hallelujah” of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Though these are Brown’s last words (another variation is record as: “No, but don’t keep me waiting longer than necessary.”), he is better remembered for his final speech to the court which sentenced him. Though it contradicts Brown’s own tactics and his advocating of violent insurrection to bring an end to slavery, Ralph Waldo Emerson paired it with the Gettysburg Address and named them the two greatest American speeches. Brown said:
“I have, may it please the court, a few words to say.
In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted: of a design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moving through the country, and finally leaving them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
I have another objection, and that it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved—for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case—had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, whether father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right. Every man in this Court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
This Court acknowledges, too, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even to them. It teaches me, further, to remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, in behalf of his despised poor, I did no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”
The Firing Squad
The second method of execution considered is the firing squad. It has most recently been associated with the state of Utah, but that state too recently ended it. Here are a very few more last words:
“So long, fellows.”
Frank Rose, convicted of murder, firing squad, Utah, April 22, 1904
The bravado of Frank Rose was well documented in Utah publications during his trial. On the day of his execution Rose walked with “almost a swagger to the death chair.” Rose shot his wife on Christmas day and left his 2-year-old son in the room with the dead mother for two days without food or water. Rose refused to enter a plea to the court, and when a “not guilty” plea was entered for him, he refused to offer any evidence on his behalf. In a statement released the day before his death, Rose confessed to many murders and burglaries throughout the West. Officials doubted whether he was speaking truthfully.
Electrocution and the Gas Chamber
After the second method of execution is looked at, electrocution and the gas chamber are considered. There were hopes that both would result in more humane deaths, although neither method is used much anymore. One slightly more comical selection of last words comes from this prisoner:
“You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper.”
Robert Alton Harris, convicted of murder, gas chamber, California, April 21, 1992.
Harris was the first person to receive the death penalty after the state of California reinstated it in 1976. Harris went to the gas chamber for two 1978 murders when he and his brother abducted two 16-year-old boys from a fast food establishment, drove them to a remote location, shot, and killed them. Harris’ brother testified against him, received a six-year sentence and was discharged in 1983. Harris’ last words are paraphrased from the comedic portrayal of the character Death in the 1991 film Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
The final method of execution considered is lethal injection, the dominant method of execution today. What is interesting is that over time there have been more calls for those on death row to end the death penalty. The book itself tries to steer away from the politics of the death penalty, but the quotes from prisoners inevitably mean that it is briefly discussed in the book. One notable example is this:
“I have news for you—there is not going to be an execution. This is premeditated murder by the state of Texas. I hope in my death I’m that little bitty snowball that starts to bury the death penalty.
I have committed lots of sin in my life but I am not guilty of this crime. I would like to tell my son, daughter and wife that I love them—Eden, if they want proof, give it to them. Thanks for being my friend.”
Jesse DeWayne Jacobs, convicted of murder, lethal injection, Texas, January 4, 1995
Jacobs and his sister, Bobbie Jean Hogan, were convicted of the shooting death of Etta Ann Urdiales, ex-wife of Hogan’s boyfriend. Jacobs confessed that his sister offered him $500 and a room if he would kill Urdiales, who allegedly was pestering Hogan’s boyfriend about child support and custody. Jacobs later recanted and said Hogan actually pulled the trigger. Hogan was convicted of manslaughter then released.
Just knowing that you are going to die at an appointed hour, something that the vast majority of us are of course unaware of, must lead you to think about what your final words would be and really reflect on life. And that same logic seems to apply to some terrible criminals too. This book provides an insightful collection of such last words.