Last Words of the Executed: Haunting Final Statements From The Condemned

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.

* * * 

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

An American spy during the Revolutionary War, Hale pretended to be a British loyalist but was captured after his true identity was revealed. The standards of the time dictated that spies be hanged as illegal combatants. While these are reported to be Hale’s last words, they bear significant resemblance to a line from Cato, a play by George Addison that was popular at the time: “What a pity it is / That we can die but once to serve our country.”

“I am so sorry for what all of you had to go through. I can’t imagine losing two children. If I was y’all, I would have killed me. You know? I am really so sorry about it, I really am. I got to go sister, I love you. Y’all take care and God bless you. Gracie was beautiful and Tiffany was beautiful. You had some lovely girls and I am sorry. I don’t know what to say. All right, Warden, let’s do it.”

— Dennis Dowthitt, convicted of murder, Texas. Executed March 7, 2001

Auto salesman Dowthitt received a lethal injection for the murders of his son’s 16-year-old former girlfriend, Grace Purnhagen, and her sister, 9-year-old Tiffany Purnhagen. Dowthitt’s 16-year-old son, Delton, first admitted to the gruesome killings before recanting and revealing that his father had slashed Grace’s throat and sexually assaulted her with a beer bottle and had strangled Tiffany with a rope. Delton led police to the evidence; he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 45 years behind bars.

“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 mothership and all. I’ll be back.”

— Aileen Wuornos, convicted of murder, Florida. Executed October 9, 2002

Wuornos was labeled a serial killer for murdering seven men in less than twelve months. The life of Wuornos, from her abusive childhood to her life as a teenage prostitute, became the focus of the 2003 film Monster and two documentaries by Nick Broomfield. On the day of her execution, she told Broomfield that the police framed her and used sonic waves to control her. State psychiatrists decided that she was mentally competent for execution. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her portrayal of Wuornos in Monster.

Next come the last words of William Jackson Marion. Marion was tried twice in the 1880s for the murder of John Cameron, a good friend. Both times, juries in Nebraska convicted him. On March 25, 1887, a crowd gathered to watch Marion hang and hear any last words.

He said, “Well, gentlemen, I suppose you are all waiting to hear what I have to say. You are waiting patiently to hear me make some confession. You have been waiting some time, some years, some months, some weeks, thinking to get a full confession out of me. No man has anything to show where I have confessed that I have committed any crime. I confess that I am a sinner, the same as any other law-abiding citizen or church member. I’ve made no confession to nobody, and I’ve got no confession to make.”

More than four years later, one man proved Marion’s innocence -- John Cameron himself, who reappeared alive and well. He was astonished: “I didn’t even know Marion was in trouble. I never dreamed of such a thing. There was never any ill feeling between us.”

It still took the state of Nebraska exactly one hundred years to pardon Marion posthumously.

* * *

Here is a sampling of other last words:

“You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper."

— Robert Alton Harris, convicted of murder, California. Executed April 21, 1992

Harris was the first person to receive the death penalty after the state of California reinstated it in 1976. He went to the gas chamber for two 1978 murders: he and his brother abducted two 16 year-old boys from a fast food establishment, drove them to a remote location, and shot and killed them. Harris’s brother testified against him, received a six- year sentence, and was discharged in 1983. Harris’s last words are paraphrased from the comedic portrayal of the character Death in the 1991 film Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

“I deserve to die, and the sooner they put an end to my troubles the better. I’ve got an uncontrollable temper, and if released would only commit more violent crimes. I’d kill a man for 5 cents as quick as for anything else.”

— Frank Henry Burness, convicted of murder, New York. Executed June 27, 1904

Burness smiled in the execution chamber while awaiting electrocution for killing the captain of a schooner. He boasted that he had killed no fewer than nine people and vowed he’d do it again if given the chance. “Burness” was assumed to be just another alias; his true name was never discovered.

“Please don’t let me fall.”

— Mary Surratt, convicted of conspiracy to murder. Executed July 7, 1865

Surratt was convicted as a conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, along with three others. The prisoners received their death sentences only the day before they were set to hang. Surratt was the first woman executed by the federal government. She was never allowed to testify at her own trial, in which she was accused of using her tavern as a meeting place for the conspirators. President Andrew Johnson signed her death warrant and was reputed to have said, “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.” In some accounts of the execution, one of men hanged with her said from the gallows, “Mrs. Surratt is innocent. She doesn’t deserve to die with the rest of us.”

 “Gentlemen, I have very few words to say. In fact, I would make no remarks at this time except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in my execution. I only wish to say that the extent of my wrong- doing in taking human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations. I wish to also state here, so that there can be no chance of misunderstanding hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family—the three children and Benjamin, the father—of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am to-day to be hanged. That is all I have to say.”

— Herman Webster Mudgett, best known by his alias H. H. Holmes, convicted of murder, Pennsylvania. Executed May 7, 1896

Holmes killed more than twenty people in his hotel on Chicago’s South Side and sold some of their remains to medical schools, according authorities. Perhaps it’s understandable that Holmes instructed that his body be cemented into his coffin to fend off grave robbers after his execution. He had built his hotel to prepare for Chicago’s World Fair, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and many of his guests were his victims. Holmes was the “devil” in Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City.

“Go Raiders.”

— Robert Comer, convicted of murder, Arizona. Executed May 22, 2007

Comer killed Larry Pritchard at a campground after inviting the man to dinner and drinks with his girlfriend, Juneva Willis. After the murder, Comer and Willis stole from the dead man, then kidnapped and assaulted another camping couple. During his execution, Comer lay on the gurney holding a picture of his daughter as the lethal drugs took effect.

“I am innocent of this crime. Let us hope and pray they will never do this thing to another man, innocent or guilty.”

— Richard “Rickey” Harrison, convicted of murder, New York. Executed May 13, 1920

As Harrison and four other gunmen robbed a private Manhattan social club, police arrived, and the ensuing gun battle left one patron dead. Prosecutors contended, in a reconstruction of the incident, that Harrison fired the fatal shot. His fellow accomplices received jail sentences, but Harrison, age 26, faced capital punishment. As he left death row, fellow condemned inmates shouted, “Goodbye Rickey, we know you are innocent!” He replied: “It is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The following came as a response to whether he would want to make a final statement: "For what? You motherfuckers haven’t paid any attention to anything I’ve said in the last 22½ years, why would anyone pay any attention to anything I’ve had to say now?"

— Richard Cooey II, convicted of murder, Ohio. Executed October 14, 2008

Cooey entered death row at age nineteen after his conviction for killing two college students with an accomplice in 1986. Before his death, his lawyers unsuccessfully argued that Cooey, by then age 41, was morbidly obese and medically unfit for execution.


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