Last Words of the Executed: Haunting Final Statements From The Condemned
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Having spent the past seven years on Last Words of the Executed, it’s fair to say I’m haunted by them.
Since pre-colonial times, we’ve executed more than 16,000 people on these shores. Most of their final thoughts are lost to history. They were either denied a final statement or, if it was documented, it’s since been lost. That still left me with thousands to choose from for the book. The goal of the book was not to take a position on the death penalty debate, but instead simply ask: “If these are the most reviled, outcast members of society, why does it remain a cultural value to record what they say? And what can we learn from these last words?”
It’s been said that last words matter for one simple reason: They cannot be taken back. Their messages range from awe-inspiring to horrific; there are calls for peace and cries against injustice. Just as often, these final words are accepting, confessional and consoling. Still others can be venomous, rage-fueled diatribes. Almost all statements fit into at least one of the well-known stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
AlterNet asked that I share the words that left the biggest impression on me.
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The first one that comes to mind is August Johnson. He faced the gallows in 1878 for the murder of a “colored man,” according to newspaper accounts. More than 10,000 flocked to Rome, Georgia, to witness his execution and listen to him say:
“Ladies and gentlemen: This is Gus Johnson, who you have heard of as a bad man. Some think I am a monster. My father was a colonel in the rebel army and bore a good name. I am to die for killing a negro 14 miles down the Coosa River. I am sorry I killed him. Deputy Sheriff Sharp has been with me a good deal. I think a heap of him. He has his duty to perform, and I do not think less of him for it. Jim Jinkins, Sheriff of the county, is a good man. His wife is a good woman and has been a friend of mine.
“I have always been a bad boy. I have killed four men in my life. I can swear to two. I have friends in the crowd who would rescue me, but I want them to let me hang. Cicero Echols, John Beard and Bob Milliean killed Squire Foster, a colored man. They would have been hanged, but they bribed the solicitor with $25, and the case was not pressed."
Here’s another one:
“I am sorry for what I did to your mom. It isn’t because I’m going to die. All my life I have been locked up. I could never forgive what I done. I am sorry for all of you. I love you all. Thank you for supporting me. I thank you for being kind to me when I was small. Thank you, God. All right.”
— Joseph Cannon, convicted of murder, Texas. Executed April 22, 1998
During his teenage years, Cannon faced burglary charges but found kindness in the legal system. Out of concern for his wellbeing following the burglary conviction, Anne Walsh, sister of his court-appointed attorney, took him in. During his stay, Cannon shot Walsh seven times with a .22-caliber pistol. He was convicted of capital murder at age nineteen and was executed nineteen years later.
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
— Nathan Hale, convicted of espionage, colonial New York. Executed September 22, 1776