This is the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in Amer­i­ca, told from the gal­lows, the chair, and the gur­ney. Though not a polit­i­cal book, it asks: If the­se are the most reviled, out­cast mem­bers of society—why does it remain a cul­tur­al val­ue to record what they say?

Web­site: lastwordsoftheexecuted.com.

Praise for the book:

Robert K. Elder is a jour­nal­ist in the noblest tra­di­tion.… What I will remem­ber most about this book is its poet­ry in the speech of peo­ple at the most trau­mat­ic moment of their lives.”
—Studs Terkel, from the fore­word

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This is a dan­ger­ous book. Who knows how we will emerge from the encoun­ter? It makes me want to live, to use my energies in soul-sized pur­suits like jus­tice, like love…”
—Sis­ter Helen Pre­jean, author of Dead Man Walk­ing

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From The New York­er:

…A har­row­ing por­trait of our jus­tice sys­tem.”
—Book Bench column, August 5, 2010

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From The Econ­o­mist:

The last words are remark­able for their remorse, humour, hatred, res­ig­na­tion, fear and bravado…America’s diverse her­itage is stamped even onto its killers’ final moments.”
—Review excerpt, April 29, 2010 issue

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From The New York Review of Books:

An enthralling book…recommended reading…Most like­ly, some of the exe­cut­ed were inno­cent, while oth­ers, who were guilty, had com­pli­cat­ed and awful lives; one tends to feel sor­ry for them and wish­es to know more about their sto­ries. It’s when it comes to true mon­sters, and there are plen­ty of them here, that even some­one like me, who oppos­es cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, begins to won­der if there ought to be an excep­tion now and then. Take the case of Ted Bundy who killed at least thir­ty wom­en, and of oth­er seri­al killers. 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 put to the test the firm­ness of one’s con­vic­tions.” Review by Charles Sim­ic, excerpt from July 7, 2010

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From Harper’s Mag­a­zine:

As har­row­ing as it is to read about slave own­ers and Nazis, one can be con­soled by the thought that they (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, at least) lie safe­ly buried in the past. By con­trast, there is some­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly nau­se­at­ing about know­ing that one’s own coun­try stands proud­ly alongside Chi­na, Saudi Ara­bia, and Myan­mar in embrac­ing legal mur­der. Even though the top­ic is polem­i­cal, Elder’s book is dis­pas­sion­ate: the ‘last words’ are print­ed above a sober descrip­tion of the dead person’s pur­port­ed crimes.”
—Review excerpt, May 2010 issue, pages 71–72

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From The Sun­day Times of Lon­don:

This is, in short bursts, a fas­ci­nat­ing book. But, hav­ing read it almost in one go, I must warn you that it is also depress­ing. The mech­a­nisms of judi­cial death crush you with the bur­den of human futil­i­ty and the long parade of exe­cu­tees strug­gling to make sense of their last moments dark­ens your day. So take it easy.” June, 2010

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From Seattle’s The Stranger:

No mat­ter how you feel about the death penal­ty, you’ll be hyp­no­tized by this book.”

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From The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion:

…the book tells a har­row­ing and bewil­der­ing tale of aggres­sion and redemp­tion, pride and humil­i­ty, strength and weak­ness. At times it is per­verse­ly fun­ny.”

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From The Min­neapolis Star Tri­bune:

Words That Haunt: Robert K. Elder’s fas­ci­nat­ing yet dis­turbing col­lec­tion of final statements…The book at once evokes the sense of pathos and final­i­ty sur­round­ing the exe­cu­tions, and yet after a point there’s a rote-ness, a ter­ri­fy­ing famil­iar­i­ty to the­se last moments. The book is at once thick with emo­tion and desen­si­tiz­ing. Elder him­self is rel­a­tive­ly pok­er-faced…”

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From Chicago Tri­bune:

Those with no inter­est in using the book to make the case again­st cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment (or, for that mat­ter, to jus­ti­fy the death penal­ty) should still find it worth­while read­ing. I hes­i­tate to use the word ‘enter­tain­ing’ to describe the text. ‘Com­pelling’ is more appro­pri­ate.”

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From New­C­i­ty:

If the book is intel­lec­tu­al­ly engag­ing as a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment, then it is emo­tion­al­ly immer­sive as a series of psy­cho­log­i­cal snap­shots… 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.”

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From Pub­lish­ers Week­ly:

Last Words of the Exe­cut­ed
Robert K. Elder, fore­word by Studs Terkel.
Univ. of Chicago, $20 (264p)
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)

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The day is com­ing closer when the death penal­ty will be seen as an his­tor­i­cal relic, out of touch with con­tem­po­rary soci­ety. The young will ask why this prac­tice pre­vailed for so long.  Per­haps it has served as a form of theater—a moral­i­ty play capped by the unvar­nished last words of human beings about to cross into the great unknown. Robert K. Elder has care­ful­ly chron­i­cled the­se acts, sur­round­ing them with the con­text that brings each of the exe­cut­ed momen­tar­i­ly back to life. Hope­ful­ly, the­se words will impart some wis­dom to the next gen­er­a­tion.”
—Richard C. Dieter, exec­u­tive direc­tor, Death Penal­ty Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter

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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 and Big City, Bad Blood

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From Chicago’s Stock­yard:
“With Studs Terkel’s recent death, Elder car­ries on the jour­nal­is­tic approach that the for­mer his­to­ri­an mastered…One of Elder’s most chill­ing cura­to­ri­al deci­sions is to place the fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion after the quo­ta­tions them­selves.” July, 2010