Last Words of the Executed

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Overview

Some beg for forgiveness. Others claim innocence. At least three cheer for their favorite football teams.

Death waits for us all, but only those sentenced to death know the day and the hour—and only they can be sure that their last words will be recorded for posterity. Last Words of the Executed presents an oral history of American capital punishment, as heard from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney.

The product of seven years of extensive ...

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Overview

Some beg for forgiveness. Others claim innocence. At least three cheer for their favorite football teams.

Death waits for us all, but only those sentenced to death know the day and the hour—and only they can be sure that their last words will be recorded for posterity. Last Words of the Executed presents an oral history of American capital punishment, as heard from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney.

The product of seven years of extensive research by journalist Robert K. Elder, the book explores the cultural value of these final statements and asks what we can learn from them. We hear from both the famous—such as Nathan Hale, Joe Hill, Ted Bundy, and John Brown—and the forgotten, and their words give us unprecedented glimpses into their lives, their crimes, and the world they inhabited. Organized by era and method of execution, these final statements range from heartfelt to horrific. Some are calls for peace or cries against injustice; others are accepting, confessional, or consoling; still others are venomous, rage-fueled diatribes. Even the chills evoked by some of these last words are brought on in part by the shared humanity we can’t ignore, their reminder that we all come to the same end, regardless of how we arrive there.

Last Words of the Executed is not a political book. Rather, Elder simply asks readers to listen closely to these voices that echo history. The result is a riveting, moving testament from the darkest corners of society.

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Editorial Reviews

Chronicle of Higher Education
"Last Words draws no straightforward conclusions about capital punishment. Instead, the book tells a harrowing and bewildering tale of aggression and redemption, pride and humility, strength and weakness."
Economist
"Knowing something of the deficiencies of the American justice system is useful for leafing through Last Words of the Executed, the final statements of hundreds of Americans who have been condemned through the centuries. . . . The last words are remarkable for their remorse, humour, hatred, resignation, fear and bravado. 'I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner,' a 19th-century Wyoming murderer told his hangman. Some rambled; others were concise. Several blamed the drink; others reasserted innocence, or (especially in recent years) railed against the death penalty. Some accepted their fate. 'If I was y'all, I would have killed me. You know?' said a Texan, who had murdered his son’s former girlfriend and her sister, as he readied himself for lethal injection. America’s diverse heritage is stamped even onto its killers’ final moments."
Time Out Chicago
The quotes are often poignant or funny (one man before the firing squad requests a bulletproof vest) and often don't register as much more than interesting historical documents from centuries past. But read in aggregate, all that pain piles up. Essentially, Elder has amassed a collection of what people say when they know they are going to die, the final product of what could be seen as psychological torture.

— Jonathan Messinger

New City
“If the book is intellectually engaging as a historical document, then it is emotionally immersive as a series of psychological snapshots.”
Sean Chervover

"By compiling the last words of people put to death by the state in America, juxtaposed against details of their crimes and victims, Robert K. Elder has created an extraordinary book. No matter which side of the capital punishment divide you find yourself, Last Words of the Executed is a must-read. Because this is not a political book, but a human journey. You may find your beliefs challenged, changed, or reaffirmed, but you will not come away unaffected."--Sean Chercover, author of Trigger City

New York Review of Books
Enthralling. . . . Often more interesting than the final thoughts of some of these men and women are the short descriptions Elder provides of their backgrounds and the crimes they committed. . . . Whatever side in the argument one habitually takes, this book is recommended reading, so that in addition to learning how we put people to death, one can also test the firmness of one's convictions.

— Charles Simic

Harper's
Even though the topic is polemical, Elder's book is dispassionate. . . . Whatever terrible crimes they committed (or, as many insist to the very end, did not commit), these are, for the most part, regular people being killed, and in their last moments they ask for forgiveness, protest their innocence, say goodbye, remember their parents and lovers and children.

— Benjamin Moser

New�City
“If the book is intellectually engaging as a historical document, then it is emotionally immersive as a series of psychological snapshots.”
New�Republic

"This extraordinary book gathers the last words of victims of capital punishment in the United States, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present."

— Ruth�Franklin

New Republic
This extraordinary book gathers the last words of victims of capital punishment in the United States, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present.

— Ruth Franklin

Sister Helen Prejean
“This is a dangerous book. Who knows how we will emerge from the encounter? It makes me want to live, use my energies in soul-sized pursuits like justice, like love. One of the psalms says that God collects our tears in a flask—so too does this collection of last words from human beings before they were killed.”
Rob Warden
“This is a powerful, haunting book. Whether you favor or oppose the death penalty, you won’t think about it the same way after reading the last words of the condemned—some remorseful, some spiteful, some humorous, all tragic. Most horrifying is the realization that some of those who claimed innocence until the end probably were telling the truth.”
New York Review of Books - Charles Simic
"Enthralling. . . . Often more interesting than the final thoughts of some of these men and women are the short descriptions Elder provides of their backgrounds and the crimes they committed. . . . Whatever side in the argument one habitually takes, this book is recommended reading, so that in addition to learning how we put people to death, one can also test the firmness of one's convictions."
Harper's - Benjamin Moser
"Even though the topic is polemical, Elder's book is dispassionate. . . . Whatever terrible crimes they committed (or, as many insist to the very end, did not commit), these are, for the most part, regular people being killed, and in their last moments they ask for forgiveness, protest their innocence, say goodbye, remember their parents and lovers and children."
Sean Chercover
"By compiling the last words of people put to death by the state in America, juxtaposed against details of their crimes and victims, Robert K. Elder has created an extraordinary book.  No matter which side of the capital punishment divide you find yourself, Last Words of the Executed is a must-read.  Because this is not a political book, but a human journey.  You may find your beliefs challenged, changed, or reaffirmed, but you will not come away unaffected."
Time Out Chicago - Jonathan Messinger
"The quotes are often poignant or funny (one man before the firing squad requests a bulletproof vest) and often don't register as much more than interesting historical documents from centuries past. But read in aggregate, all that pain piles up. Essentially, Elder has amassed a collection of what people say when they know they are going to die, the final product of what could be seen as psychological torture."
New�Republic - Ruth�Franklin

"This extraordinary book gathers the last words of victims of capital punishment in the United States, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present."
New Republic - Ruth Franklin

"This extraordinary book gathers the last words of victims of capital punishment in the United States, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present."
NewCity
“If the book is intellectually engaging as a historical document, then it is emotionally immersive as a series of psychological snapshots.”
NewRepublic - RuthFranklin

"This extraordinary book gathers the last words of victims of capital punishment in the United States, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present."
Publishers Weekly
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)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226202686
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/30/2010
  • Pages: 301
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert K. Elder has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Salon, and many other publications. He teaches journalism at Northwestern University and is the author or editor of several books.

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Read an Excerpt

LAST WORDS OF THE EXECUTED


By ROBERT K. ELDER

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Robert K. Elder
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-20268-6


Chapter One

THE NOOSE

In the two days before Augustus Johnson's 1878 execution, thousands flocked to Rome, Georgia, to witness the event: the New York Times recorded that they came by "steam- boat, railroad, wagons until finally there were at least 10,000 persons present." Johnson, who was white, faced the gallows for the murder of a "colored" man, Alfred M. Carver; details of the crime do not survive in newspaper accounts. Two weeks prior Johnson had converted to Catholicism; he was "clean shaved and drank whisky freely." Escorted to the gallows by one hundred guards, Johnson ascended the scaffold and said:

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.

Johnson then said good- bye to his friends, and at 1:50 p.m. he dropped seven feet through the trap door. The fall did not break his neck. Johnson strangled to death for eighteen minutes and was cut down after twenty.

Hanging is America's oldest method of execution, imported from Britain, and also the simplest. It required only a sturdy rope and a high perch—usually a tree or scaffold bar—strong enough to support a human body. In the best circumstances, the fall broke the condemned person's neck. Some, however, like Johnson, dangled and kicked until they suffocated. In more than a few instances, others were decapitated by the force of the drop.

Prisoners knew these horror stories all too well, and their final statements reflect this. In 1852, in California, convicted thief James Robinson yelled at the sheriff: "You don't know anything about hanging men!" He then instructed the sheriff to move the knot under his left ear, a more effective placement. Then, as the wagon moved from under his feet: "Oh God! Have I got to die?"

History does not record how quickly he died.

But the presence of a crowd was more influential on last words than almost any single factor. As in Johnson's case, there's a sense of oration, of ritual and even public theater. Further, final statements in front of assembled masses facilitated dialogue, as the condemned often spoke directly to audiences and elicited responses. This changed, of course, as scaffolds came to be built behind prison walls and capital punishment was taken out of the public eye.

Rainey Bethea, age twenty- two, was the last person in the United States to face an official public execution. In 1936 the young African American was hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky, for the murder of a seventy- year- old white woman. The county had the choice of carrying out the hanging in public or in private and chose the former without explanation. No last words survive.

By the 1930s the noose had been largely replaced as a method of capital punishment by the gas chamber and the electric chair. But as late as 1996 it was in use in Delaware. Billy Bailey was convicted of the 1979 murder of Gilbert and Clara Lambertson, though he claimed until his death that he did not remember shooting the elderly couple because he had been drinking heavily that day. Delaware constructed a fifteen-foot-high gallows specifically for Bailey's execution. Bailey had chosen hanging over lethal execution because, he said, "the law is the law."

Be it known to all this day, that we suffer not as evil doers, but for conscience['] sake; this day we shall be at rest with the Lord.

MARMADUKE STEVENSON, convicted of disobeying banishment, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed October 27, 1659

Stevenson (sometimes spelled Stephenson) was a plowman in England until he took to a religious calling. He left his family and traveled to Barbados. Eventually, in Rhode Island he met William Robinson, with whom he traveled to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to protest a law banishing a new religious order called Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Stevenson was banished himself and, when he later returned to the colony, sentenced to die. He was hanged in the Boston Common, the first of three known as the "Boston martyrs."

This is the day of your visitation, wherein the Lord hath visited you. This is the day the Lord is risen in his mighty power, to be avenged on all his adversaries. I suffer not as an evil doer. Mind the light that is within you; to wit the Light of Christ, of which He testified and I am now going to seal with my blood. Now ye are made manifest; I suffer for Christ in whom I live and in whom I die.

WILLIAM ROBINSON, convicted of disobeying banishment, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed October 27, 1659

Robinson was a Quaker living in Rhode Island. Upon hearing of the nearby Massachusetts colony's law exiling members of his religion, he went with several others to protest the law and was arrested and exiled. After he violated the terms of his exile, he was executed.

Upon being asked to resume her exile:

Nay, I cannot; for in obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in his will I abide faithful to the death.

When told she was responsible for her own execution:

Nay, I came to keep blood- guiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law of banishment upon pain of death, made against the innocent servants of the Lord, therefore my blood will be required at your hands who willfully do it; but for those that do it in the simplicity of their hearts, I do desire the Lord to forgive them. I came to do the will of my Father, and in obedience to his will I stand even to the death.

Being asked by a pastor to repent:

Nay, man, I am not now to repent.

Upon being asked if she wished for an elder to pray for her:

I know never an Elder here.... I desire the prayers of all the people of God.... I know but few here.... Nay, first a child, then a young man, then a strong man, before an Elder of Christ Jesus.

Finally, when someone from the crowd asked if she'd been in Paradise:

Yea, I have been in Paradise several days and now I am about to enter eternal happiness.

MARY DYER (AKA MARY DIER OR MARIE DIER), convicted of disobeying banishment, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed June 1, 1660

Dyer was already an unpopular figure in the colony for her support of Anne Hutchinson, who was banished for heresy—notably her belief that God spoke not through clergy but to individuals directly.

A Puritan, Dyer later converted to Quakerism, feeling God had called her to return to Boston. She was given a last-minute reprieve twice, the second with a sentence of banishment. Instead, she chose to be executed for violating the terms of her exile. Today, her statue sits outside the Massachusetts State House over the inscription "Witness for religious freedom."

For bearing my testimony for the Lord against deceivers and the deceived, I am brought here to suffer. Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

WILLIAM LEDDRA, convicted of disobeying banishment, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed March 14 (sometimes recorded as March 24), 1661

Despite the executions of three fellow Quakers in the colony, Leddra had refused to stop preaching. He was the last Quaker to hang in Boston and is sometimes recognized as a fourth "Boston martyr."

I have been among drawn Swords, flying bullets, roaring cannons, amidst all which, I knew not what Fear meant: but now I have appreciations of the dreadful wrath of God, in the other World, which I am going into, my Soul within me, is amazed at it ...

I pray God that I may be a warning to you all, and that I may be the last that ever shall suffer after this manner: In the fear of God I warn you to have a care of taking the Lord's name in vain. And have a care of that sin of Drunkenness, for that sin lead[s] to all manner of sins and wickedness ... as I am a dying man, and to appear before that Lord within a few minutes that you may take notice of what I say to you ...

UNNAMED RINGLEADER, convicted of treason and mutiny, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed 1673

Neither his name nor the details of his crime survive this "ringleader," only his last words.

I had rather go to an Ale-house than to any Church. Pray Young People take warning by my shameful end: keep the Sabbath truly.... I have had great Oppression upon my Spirit since I was in this prison and I thought I should never repent or confess, until Almighty God softened my hard heart and gave me grace to repent. I beg all good people to joyn in prayers with me, I have great need of your prayers.

THOMAS LUTHERLAND, convicted of murder, colonial New Jersey. Executed February 23, 1692

Lutherland, a carpenter, was hanged for strangling merchant John Clark, then stealing his goods. The undecided jury invoked the "law of the bier": Lutherland was forced to touch Clark's rotting corpse. It was believed that a corpse would bleed when touched by its murderer, and Clark's did not, but Lutherland broke down on the spot and confessed to his crime anyway. "When I touched the murdered Corpse of John Clark, I was afraid the Blood would have flown in my face," he said.

It should be noted that another source claims that Lutherland was executed in Pennsylvania; yet another insists he was put to death in 1691.

I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.

SARAH GOOD, convicted of witchcraft, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed July 19, 1692

After Good's first marriage failed, she moved to Salem and remarried. Some townspeople disliked her and accused her of casting evil spells and attacking a woman at knifepoint.

Good and fellow accused witches Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes were executed together on Salem's Gallows Hill. When urged by Rev. Nicholas Noyes to confess, Good called him a liar, then delivered her final, now famous last words.

Paraphrased account from Robert Calef, later a critic of the witch trials:

[Burroughs] made a clear Speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions, as were to the Admiration of all Present. [Burroughs then perfectly recited the Lord's Prayer, which] drew Tears from many.

GEORGE BURROUGHS, convicted of witchcraft, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed August 19, 1692

It was believed that witches could not say the Lord's Prayer, thus the tearful crowd reaction. Burroughs's recitation caused concerns that "the Spectators would hinder the Execution." But as soon as Burroughs hanged, Rev. Cotton Mather told the crowd that the prisoner was "no ordained Minister" and "the Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light."

... And now I have forsaken God, he has forsaken me, and I acknowledge he has been just in leaving me, for that I have gone from bad to worse, till for my sins I am now to die.... whereas I have been charged with and tried for burning my master's barn, I now declare as a dying man that I did not do it.... I acknowledge I deserve to die, and would confess especially my drunkenness and Sabbath- breaking, which have led me to this great Sin for which I now die.

JULIAN, convicted of murder, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed March 22, 1733

Julian, slave of John Rogers of Pembroke, confessed to killing his master but denied accusations of burning his master's barn. When Julian fled authorities, a reward was posted, and a bounty hunter captured him. On the way to returning Julian, his captor stopped to eat, leaving the runaway slave standing outside the diner. He again fled, and when the chase led into a neighboring cornfield, Julian stabbed the bounty hunter. Shortly thereafter he was captured and hanged.

Julian may have been John Julian, pilot of the pirate ship Whydah.

How are we condemned by the Covenant of Works, and relieved by the Covenant of Grace.

PATIENCE BOSTON, convicted of murder, colonial Maine. Executed July 24, 1735

Boston did not intentionally kill her baby. She was released for lack of proof and because her confession had been alcohol fueled. However, Boston decided to murder another child to validate her claims; she did so by holding a boy under water until he drowned. Her written confession was printed and sold by S. Kneeland and T. Green near the prison in Falmouth, Maine. Other sources list her day of execution as July 31.

In the presence of God, the possessor of heaven and earth, I lift up my hands and solemnly protest I am innocent of what is laid to my charge. I appeal to the great God for my non-knowledge of Hughson, his wife, or the creature that was hanged with them [Peggy Carey, a prostitute]. I never saw them, living, dying, or dead; nor ever had I any knowledge or confederacy with white or black, as to any plot; ... and I protest that the witnesses were perjured; I never knew them but at my trial.

REV. JOHN URIE, convicted of conspiracy, colonial New York. Executed August 29, 1741

Urie was a clergyman and a schoolteacher who was accused of having incited a group of slaves into arson and robbery. The Hughson he references was a tavern owner who was also convicted of inciting arson. Hughson and Urie were both hanged when New York was gripped by a wave of paranoia that its slaves were seconds away from overthrowing their masters. The colony ended up hanging eighteen slaves and burning eleven who were implicated in the conspiracy, as well as hanging four white people: Urie, Hughson and his wife, and a prostitute who frequented Urie's bar. The order to execute the slaves read in part, "You have grown wanton with excess of liberty and your idleness has proved your ruin."

I heartily thank the good Ministers who have frequently visited me, and prayed for me. I heartily forgive my enemies. And I sincerely fly to the Blood of Jesus Christ which is able to atone for my innumerable iniquities and cleanse me from the Pollution of Sin.

WILLIAM WELCH, convicted of murder, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Executed April 11, 1754

Welch's relatives in Ireland attempted to curb his reputation for trouble by sending him to America, where they hoped he would reform. But little changed. Welch was soon wanted for theft and for stabbing a man who had pursued him. Later in life, Welch was caught by Darby O'Brian, who wanted to collect reward money. Welch offered him more money than the reward, then murdered O'Brian after the two achieved an agreement. Welch's account was recorded in A Chronicle of Welch's Confession and Last Words, published in Boston in 1754.

I die in the 30th year of my age, and desire all young Men and Children to take warnings by my untimely End. I die a Protestant according to the Principles of the Lutheran Church, desiring the Prayers of all my Spectators and Hearers.

In a letter to his victim's father:

Dear Mr. Jacob Woolman: I am now confined in the Dungeon in Irons for the barbarous and willfull [sic] Murder I have committed on your Son, without the least provocation, and every hour since I am praying to Almighty God to pardon my Weakness ... Now I most humbly pray you and your Wife will forgive me as it lies so heavy on my Conscience, and send one Word as soon as possible! I am certain I shall die ... but while Life remains, I include you and Family in my Prayer for your prosperity in this World and eternal Felicity in the World to come.

HENRY HALBERT, convicted of murder, colonial Pennsylvania. Executed October 19, 1765

Halbert followed in his father's footsteps as a wigmaker. After marrying and plying his trade, he was accused of stealing money. According to Halbert, the accusation was false and drove him to murderous desperation, during which he killed a young boy.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from LAST WORDS OF THE EXECUTED by ROBERT K. ELDER Copyright © 2010 by Robert K. Elder. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Studs Terkel Terkel, Studs

Introduction 1

1 The Noose 9

2 The Firing Squad 101

3 The Electric Chair 126

4 The Gas Chamber 175

5 Lethal Injection 191

A Note on Accuracy and Sources 273

Timeline of Capital Punishment in the United States 277

Acknowledgments 281

Bibliography 283

Index 287

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 24, 2010

    If you are into strange, Criminal Justice, non fiction, death row, last words, or execution books, then this book is definitely for you

    In this book you learn a lot about different execution methods-the noose, firing squad, electric chair, gas chamber and lethal injection-and their background. From 1659 to 2008, it lists and pages many exciting stories of execution. You get to learn why the United States went from the hanging (noose) method of execution the firing squad then to the electric chair, gas chamber and finally to the method of lethal injection (which is still used to this day). You also get to learn crazy facts, like Thomas A. Edison (the creator of electric lights and the phonograph) was the one to come up with the idea of the Electric Chair. If you are like me you also start noticing crazy trends in the last words due to time period or even the method of execution. Through out the many years the themes of the last words shifted dramatically. Starting at wishing forgiveness from good to blaming god for what they have done, from saying things about the noose to things about burning, and from not caring about the victim's family to begging for forgiveness. Crazy stuff right?

    Sense the 1600s to the present, the last words of people on execution row have been noted and documented. The author of this book was able to do the time consuming work of cross-referencing these lasts words from many different sources to document and write this book. He did his best to explain what happened during each person's execution, their lasts words, and explains what law each person was being executed for.

    The author of this book used other sources to help him complete this book, some of these books or articles include "A Chronicle of Welch's Confession and Last Words" (1754), an autobiography "Cell 2455, Death Row", "Last Words and Dying Speech of Edmund Fortis" (1794), an article in the 'Salt Lake Tribune', and he used newspaper articles form the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

    If you are not interested in knowing more in-detail about each method of execution, if you don't want to read stories of crimes and such, and you don't care to learn or read the last words of many people who have been executed, this book is not for you. If you are into strange, Criminal Justice, non fiction, death row, last words, or execution books like me, then this book is definitely for you. I recommend this book for all of whom are like me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted April 15, 2013

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