Last words of the executed: a cultural history of dying words

The World

From telling a joke to talking to their families to denying their crimes, the last words of death row inmates tend to center on similar themes throughout history. Why are these words so compelling? And what do they say about humanity?

Author Robert K. Elder spent time with these unfamous last words. He compiled a chronicle of the final words of American men and women who were put to death for their crimes. His new book, “Last Words of the Executed,” tells the story of the death penalty in all its form in the U.S. He says the common thread in nearly all of the last testimonies is fear.

John Hockenberry on Robert Elder:

Robert Elder is a journalist. His new book is titled ?Last Words of the Executed.? It’s a curated chronological collection of the last words of prisoners just before they were put to death. The book is riveting for its disconnectedness. The individuals represented have their execution in common, but the words are different, some scripted, some thoughtful, some angry, some regretful, and some random and casual ? as though impending death was no more significant than picking up a pair of socks or buying a sandwich. Just look at these last words and in there somewhere is the measure of these lives. The book has a purity of mission about it that is astounding and seems to say as much about journalism as it does about what it’s like to be on death row.

Elder’s steadfast job of collecting these last words and his devotion to accuracy and respect for the individuals quoted without offering any judgment or volunteering his personal cleverness shows an amazing discipline. It is this core value of traditional journalism that makes this book so amazing in a time of polemics and cheap narratives overlaying facts and truth. Robert Elder teaches journalism at Northwestern University. We are all his students. He teaches like few others I’ve ever encountered the power of letting the facts, or in this case the words, speak for themselves.

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