Biography

Interview with Robert K. Elder, author of Last Words of the Executed

August 5, 2010
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Interview with Robert K. Elder, author of Last Words of the Executed

Earlier today the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog posted an interview with Robert K. Elder, author of Last Words of the Executed. In the interview Elder discusses how he came across the idea for his book and some of the fascinating historical and cultural insights it offers, including an interesting, albeit morbid, discussion of how various methods of execution—from the firing squad, to the gas chamber, to the electric chair, “a.k.a. Old Sparky”—influenced the final expressions of the prisoners. Read it online at the Book Bench blog. Read excerpts from the book. . . .

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Robert K. Elder’s Last Words of the Executed on WGN

July 27, 2010
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Robert K. Elder’s Last Words of the Executed on WGN

Robert K. Elder author of Last Words of the Executed discussed his book earlier this morning on WGN’s noontime news program. Check out the archived video below. The product of seven years of extensive research by journalist Robert K. Elder, Last Words of the Executed presents an oral history of American capital punishment, as heard from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney. 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. Read excerpts from the book. . . .

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Last Words of the Executed in the Huffington Post

July 23, 2010
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Last Words of the Executed in the Huffington Post

The Huffington Post ran a short piece by Robert K. Elder, author of Last Words of the Executed talking about his new book and offering up a selection of some of the provocative “last words” from its pages. Check the Huffington Post website to read and post a comment, as well as check other reader’s reactions to the controversial issues Elder’s book raises. Also see Elder’s website for the book or read another selection of excerpts . . . .

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The emergence of a very different Twain

July 13, 2010
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The emergence of a very different Twain

One hundred years after his passing Mark Twain is about to reinvent himself. Though published in redacted form several times already, Twain’s autobiography will finally be released later this year by the University of California Press in an unexpurgated edition that includes all the controversial material left out of earlier editions. Seeming radically different from the personality that penned his classic and beloved depictions of nineteenth-century American life, a recent article in the New York Times notes that in the Autobiography of Mark Twain the author “emerges more pointedly political and willing to play the role of the angry prophet” than ever before. From the NYT: Twain’s opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, for example, were well known even in his own time. But the uncensored autobiography makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers. In a passage removed by Paine, Twain excoriates “the iniquitous Cuban-Spanish War” and Gen. Leonard Wood’s “mephitic record” as governor general in Havana. In writing about . . .

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Duke Ellington’s America reviewed in the Telegraph

July 12, 2010
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Duke Ellington’s America reviewed in the Telegraph

The Telegraph recently ran a review of two new books on two of the greatest names in twentieth century jazz. In his review Ian Thomson sets Harvey G. Cohen’s Duke Ellington’s America alongside a new book on Thelonious Monk, both of which, Thomson argues, eloquently demonstrate how these “two giants of jazz … reinvented black American music.” The review begins: At a funeral in New Orleans in 1901, Joe “King” Oliver played a blues-drenched dirge on the trumpet. This was the new music they would soon call jazz. A century on, from the hothouse stomps of Duke Ellington to the angular doodlings of Thelonious Monk, jazz survives as an important musical voice of America. Ellington was the first jazz composer of real distinction. No other bandleader so consistently redefined the sound and scope of jazz. As a classically trained pianist he fused the hot, syncopated sounds of Jazz Age Harlem with an element of dissonance to produce something unique: a dance music of trance-inducing charm, originality and attack. Continue reading at the telegraph.co.uk and read this excerpt from Cohen’s book. . . .

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Alex Kotlowitz reviews The Wagon

July 9, 2010
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Alex Kotlowitz reviews The Wagon

A recent review of Martin Preib’s The Wagon and Other Stories from the City for barnesandnoblereview.com begins by citing the some of the recent media coverage involving the Chicago Police Department—from the conviction of former commander Jon Burge “for lying about having tortured scores of suspects over a twenty-year period in the 1970s and ’80s,” to the recent death of officer Thomas Wortham IV, shot as a gang of thugs tried to steal his motorcycle, and, of course, the re-escalation of homicides in the city. The review continues: Martin Preib’s The Wagon and Other Stories from the City is a welcome, albeit at times maddening, effort to fashion a narrative that reflects the reality of this messy, yet vital American city. Preib has been a Chicago cop for eight years, but he’s not defined by his police work. He greatly admires Walt Whitman and William Kennedy, writers who despite having seen the worst in mankind were (in the case of Kennedy, still is) capable of maintaining a faith—admittedly quivering at times—in the human spirit. Before his police work, Preib worked as a doorman at a downtown hotel, and there witnessed the grueling and often humiliating labor of those in the . . .

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An interview with Rob Elder, author of Last Words of the Executed

June 10, 2010
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An interview with Rob Elder, author of Last Words of the Executed

I’m innocent! I’m innocent! I’m innocent! As guards dragged him into the gas chamber: Don’t let me go like this, God! —Robert Otis Pierce, convicted of murder, California. Executed April 6, 1956 I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the Rock and I’ll be back like ‘Independence Day’ with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mother ship and all. I’ll be back. —Aileen Wuornos, convicted of murder, Florida. Executed October 9, 2002 Some claim innocence. Others beg for forgiveness. At least three cheer for their favorite football teams. Through final utterances like these, author Rob Elder constructs a compelling oral history of American capital punishment ranging from women put to death during the Salem witch trials, to some of the most infamous criminal figures of the twentieth century like Ted Bundy and Illinois’ own John Wayne Gacy. And though there’s been a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois for some time now, in an interview for The Onion A.V. Club, Elder discusses more of the famous last words of local convicts not lucky enough to escape the chair, the chamber, or the noose. From the interview: AVC: Any other Illinois big shots? RE: A gentleman who was . . .

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Two local papers review Last Words of the Executed

June 3, 2010
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Two local papers review Last Words of the Executed

Two reviews of Robert K. Elder’s new book Last Words of the Executed have appeared recently—one in the Chicago Tribune and the other in Chicago’s Newcity magazine. Both reviews praise the book’s author for his neutrality—Elder is a former staff writer for the Tribune—noting the book’s broad appeal regardless of one’s stance towards capital punishment. From the Tribune: Those with no interest in using the book to make the case against capital punishment (or, for that matter, to justify the death penalty) should still find it worthwhile reading. I hesitate to use the word “entertaining” to describe the text. “Compelling” is more appropriate. And from Newcity: He’s committed to neutrality here—just the facts, ma’am—to avoid “rubbernecking,” and successfully keeps the spotlight on the last words of the convicted without erring into self-righteous coyness. Read the reviews and see these excerpts from the book. . . .

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Robert K. Elder’s oral history of death row in Time Out Chicago

May 26, 2010
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Robert K. Elder’s oral history of death row in Time Out Chicago

This week’s edition of Time Out Chicago is running a review of Robert K. Elder’s new book Last Words of the Executed—a collection of the final words of inmates executed by the state. Some beg for forgiveness. Others claim innocence. At least three cheer for their favorite football teams. Documenting executions that range from 17th century women accused of witchcraft to some of the twentieth’s most infamous serial killers, as the Time Out article notes, Elder’s account remains surprisingly disinterested, asking only that readers listen closely to these voices that echo history. The result is a riveting, moving testament from the darkest corners of society. Read the review. Also see the author’s webiste for the book. . . .

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Harvey Cohen on BBC’s Nightwaves

May 18, 2010
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Harvey Cohen on BBC’s Nightwaves

Harvey G. Cohen, author of Duke Ellington’s America was recently interviewed by Philip Dodd on the BBC Radio 3 program Nightwaves. In the program Cohen discusses the profound influence Ellington and his music had on American culture and the complex role he played in America’s civil rights movement. You can find the archived audio from the interview on their site. (You’ll want to fast forward to about 17.10 for the beginning of Cohen’s interview.) Read an excerpt. . . .

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