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  • Last Words of the Executed May 27, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing will not deny it: he’s been in a real Last Words mood recently. So when a friendly book dealer sent him Robert K. Elder’s Last Words of the Executed he was hardly going to complain: even if, by a bizarre error of the printer’s art, the index had ended up being bound in the middle of the book.

    So what is it that explains Beachcombing’ obsession with Last Words and other dead things: after all, tags on this site include Capital Punishment, Human Sacrifice, Archaeological Horrors, Hanging and Decapitation

    Well, Beachcombing likes to think that it is not sadism or a morbid fascination over death: rather it is that such climactic events bring us to the very edge of what we are. And it follows that those about to see their head removed, their central nervous system fried, their breathing choked off feel something that most of us will only ever experience on our death beds, if at all. They have insight that might be the real reason – instead of crappy ideas of fair-play – that penal systems allow them to speak before the button is pressed, the needle injected or the trap door sprung.

    So what do men and women facing imminent death actually say? This volume of three hundred pages is the perfect place to look for an answer: it picks dozens of cases from American history organizing ‘last words’ into chapters according to the means of death – the five traditional means employed by the American states – then chronologically, spending a paragraph, or more, providing background to each death.

    Perhaps the most numerous category – at least here –  is that of ‘collusion’. The prisoner expresses his gratitude to the warden, the executioner, the chaplain… This echoes the experience of many nurses that dying patients often give their last words to thank the people who have cared for them. Or is this rather something that medieval priests called ‘the good execution’, with the subject playing his or her part fully in their own orderly disintegration? Partly perhaps because it will go easier for them, partly in a last desperate attempt to belong to a community – even if only of those paid to kill them. Gary Coleman’s ‘Let’s do it’ sums this up – we are doing it together.

    As far as bad executions go a rare act of successful sabotage is Joe Hill in 1915 screaming ‘Fire’ as the order is given to shoot. Whereas the most horrible are those among the death rowers who are clearly terrified of the fate awaiting them. Harvey Edwards broke his own glasses and tried to bleed himself out to avoid the electric chair: a decision that the suicide-averse but electrophobic Beachchombing completely seconds. ‘I can’t stand the thought of going to the chair. Don’t – please don’t – try to save me for that…’ Edwards was, of course, given a blood transfusion and then rode the lightning anyway. Or there is poor Mary Surratt, whose real crime was to have had dangerous Confederate friends, shouting ‘Please, don’t let me fall’ on the gallows.

    Next to these blasphemous and violent prisoners are fairly every day and unremarkable.

    Another major category is the ‘I’m innocent’ ploy. Beachcombing is your average soppy European liberal over capital punishment: a favourite film is Morris’ extraordinary The Thin Blue Line. But he suspects that many of those protesting their innocence are – no surprises here – anything but. The criminal class generally – and particularly today’s criminal class brought up on welfare and counselling – are past masters at making themselves into victims. And shouting out your innocence to the world, even when that innocence is illusory, you come close to revenging yourself on the death professionals, who might have a few more nightmares as a result. Certainly, It is difficult to understand the last words of a man like Roger ‘An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight’ Coleman in any another way: Coleman was confirmed, after his death, as a rapist and a murderer by DNA testing.

    There are the shots at humour too. ‘Rather be fishing’, ‘a bullet proof vest please! ‘do you have a gas mask?’ The most effective of these make fun of the process of death itself with wonderful insouciance – ‘Here we go pals, round and round’ on being hung or, also facing the noose, ‘make it snappy!’

    The more sententious quotes: ‘You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of my manhood’ are in comparison forgettable. Perhaps because so many of these  criminals celebrate their own irrelevant egotism: take that chief tonto Tim McVeigh reading out the poem Invictus!

    On the other hand, ‘I regret only having one life to give for my country’ is memorable because at least Nathan Hale is dying for something. Even ‘viva l’anarchia!’ or the Reich-mad spouting of German spies caught on American soil are more effective than poetry-quoting murderers boasting of their own excellence.

    A particularly interesting category are those who have recreated an identity – Islamic, Christian, ‘Scottish’… – in prison and go out defiant, wearing their new uniform of beliefs. ‘I am an African warrior born to breathe and born to die’, or from the lips of Frank Macfarland: ‘I call upon the spirit of my ancestors and all of my people, the land and the sea and the skies and I swear to them and now I am coming home. Loch Sloy!’ [war cry of the Macfarland Clan].

    There are also the strange, desperate if understandable last attempts to communicate with your own family and the family of the victims, often facing the condemned in the ‘viewing gallery’. Some of these are incredibly moving. Most turn into bad Oscar speeches ‘I’d like to thank Mom and Dad and the dog and also to say to Mrs Carruthers that I didn’t mean to rape and kill Julie…’

    OK Beachcombing made the last one up, but there are many like it in this excellent work.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for unusual books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    27 May 2011: Slame writes in with a couple of other Last Word books: Guthke, Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History (1992); Le Comte, Dictionary of Last Words (1995); Robinson, Famous Last Words (2003). Any other gratefully received. Thanks Slame!!!

    29 May 2017: Ricardo with a French book