cover image Last Words of the Executed

Last Words of the Executed

Robert K. Elder, , foreword by Studs Terkel. . Univ. of Chicago, $20 (301pp) ISBN 978-0-226-20268-6

From colonial era public hangings to the last moments before a lethal injection, Northwestern journalism teacher Elder revisits the final words of the condemned, both famous and forgotten. They expressed contrition or angry denial, often accompanied by an argument against capital punishment. Elder calls his book “an oral history of the overlooked, the infamous and the forgotten,” who “speak to a common humanity with their last act on earth.” Some considered their words carefully: William Robinson, a Quaker executed in 1659 for protesting Massachusetts's banishment of his co-religionists, said, “I suffer not as an evil doer.... I suffer for Christ, in whom I live and in whom I die.” Others offer bizarre non sequiturs: in 2002, serial killer Aileen Wuornos proclaimed, “I'm sailing with the Rock and I'll be back like 'Independence Day'... big mother ship and all.” Elder culled his material from newspaper accounts, prison archives, and religious counselors who transcribed for posterity the final utterances of the roughly 16,000 men and women who've been executed in the United States. The late Studs Terkel contributed an eloquent foreword. (May)