Book Excerpt: 'Last Words'

Some apologize, some claim their innocence, some even make jokes. Before Robert Alton Harris was executed in 1992, he said "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper," a line of dialogue from the film "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey." Journalist Robert K. Elder included those words in his new book, "Last Words Of The Executed," excerpted below.


In the two days before Augustus Johnson’s 1878 execution, thou-
sands flocked to Rome, Georgia, to witness the event: the New
York Times recorded that they came by “steam-boat, railroad, wag-
ons until finally there were at least 10,000 persons present.” John-
son, who was white, faced the gallows for the murder of a “colored”
man, Alfred M. Carver; details of the crime do not survive in news-
paper accounts. Two weeks prior Johnson had converted to Cathol-
icism; 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 sup-
port 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 state-
ments in front of assembled masses facilitated dialogue, as the
condemned often spoke directly to audiences and elicited re-
sponses. This changed, of course, as scaffolds came to be built be-
hind 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 for-
mer 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 el-
derly 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 be-
cause, he said, “the law is the law.”


“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.


“I killed the men. I do not regret [it], but they tell me
it was wrong. If so, I am sorry. You see how I am here.
Try and help my people. If so, tell them how I died, and
warn them not to do as I did, or they may die, as I have
to die. Be kind to my people and see that they do not
want. I am glad you come and I thank you for being here
and for what you have done for me. See that I am bur-
ied with my people.”

—Pierre Paul, convicted of murder, Montana.
Executed December 19, 1890

Paul, a member of the Pend d’Oreilles Native American tribe, par-
ticipated in the shooting of two white men. He addressed his final
statement to two Native American chiefs who were attending his
hanging. Afterward he said “Good night” to his defense attorney
and then amended it to “Good-bye.”

Reprinted with permission from Last Words of the Executed, by Robert K. Elder, published by the University of Chicago Press.
© 2010 by Robert K. Elder. All rights reserved.


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