Bartlett’s quotations, this is not. Neither is it an exhaustive data set, a polemic on capital punishment or a true crime thriller. In his forward to the text, Studs Terkel likens it to poetry; the book jacket calls it a “moving testament from the darkest corners of society.” What Robert K. Elder’s “Last Words of the Executed” is, for sure, is fascinating. True to its title, the book is a collection of final statements by death row prisoners. After each quotation, Elder, a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, presents a lean brief of the crime, along with any essential details of the trial and the ultimate execution. 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.
First subdivided by method of execution (noose, firing squad, electric chair, gas chamber and lethal injection), and then sequenced chronologically, the anecdotes span from colonial America to the present, covering cases made famous by history textbooks and Hollywood, and cases long faded from collective memory. Taken together, writes Elder, “this is the history of capital punishment in America told from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney.” It is, but it’s an impressionistic history. The book isn’t set up for us to draw definitive conclusions about the way the death penalty functions, now or then, and indeed Elder is less interested in argument than in the evidence itself.
Certainly there are trends that emerge, both expected—it’s no surprise that justice seems especially harsh toward minorities—and more curious. Warning the crowd against whisky and women is particularly en vogue during the second half of the nineteenth century; apologizing to one’s mother is timeless.
If the book is intellectually engaging as a historical document, then it is emotionally immersive as a series of psychological snapshots. False though it may be, it’s hard not to feel a kind of uneasy intimacy with the speakers; we’re privy, after all, to a private moment made public by state ritual. Some of them are eloquently repentant, some read like high-school yearbook shout-outs. A few attempt levity and, very occasionally, one is genuinely funny. Many speak out against the death penalty, some more persuasively than others. (Edward Brislane’s 1921 statement, “I would rather be standing here for a crime that…I never remember committing, than to be sitting down there eagerly waiting to see a man die,” might be the winner.) And yet even the ones that are vitriolic, defiantly unremorseful, nonsensical, or nauseating are nonetheless disturbingly human. While Elder nobly dodges the pitfalls of advocacy in his commentary, the project—to present the convicted in their own words—is a political statement in itself. (Rachel Sugar)
“Last Words of the Executed”
By Robert K. Elder
University of Chicago Press, 340 pages, $22.50