Books for the News

The First Word on Last Words

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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. This month, the Press will publish Robert K. Elder’s Last Words of the Executed, a compendium of utterances from convicted criminals put to death under the American justice system. The Economist recently reviewed Edler’s book, and noted that “America’s diverse heritage is stamped even onto its killers’ final moments.”

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.

A staunchly apolitical book, Last Words of the Executed asks readers to listen closely to these voices that echo history. The result of seven years of extensive research, 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.
A riveting, moving testament from the darkest corners of society, Last Words of the Executed will have a lasting impact. Read the foreword by Studs Turkel here.