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Scholar's Forum

phyllis goldfarb


Illustration by: Stephanie Dalton Cowan

The Power of Last Words

There is in the world an enduring fascination with words uttered on the brink of death. My own interest in the subject began when, as part of my study of the American death penalty, I began keeping records of the last words spoken by the condemned just prior to their executions. The task was enabled by the journalistic convention of reporting last words, or the failure to utter them, when describing an execution. Reviewing my records, I realized that the collection I had created was poignant, gripping, and sometimes even sublime. They provided a unique window on the question of what law is doing, in a full sense, when it takes human life.

Western culture routinely affords the condemned the opportunity to speak as a prelude to an execution. Wondering how last words came to be incorporated into the ritual by which a death sentence was carried out, I learned that people spanning many times and places have been intrigued by them. Indeed, “last words” is a subject category in the Library of Congress classification system. Anthologies of the last words of deceased public figures were published widely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, foreshadowed in preceding centuries by a popular pamphlet genre reporting last words of the famous and the infamous from deathbeds and the gallows. (Picasso’s last words, for example, were reported to be: “Painting remains to be invented.”) Last words scenes can be found across the centuries in prose, poetry, painting, music, and film.

Understanding the extent of popular attention devoted to last words requires turning to religious views of death and redemption. The encouragement of sinners’ deathbed confessions was part of the larger emphasis in late medieval and early modern Christianity on how to die well. Jeremy Taylor’s 1651 book Holy Dying, reprinted through the nineteenth century, admonished Catholics and Protestants that their thoughts and words during their last moments were the most important of their lives. Confession of sins, repentance, prayer, forgiveness, and an affirmation of faith would guarantee the safe passage of their souls. This is why Hamlet decides against stabbing Claudius when he comes upon him praying. Claudius’ prayers would assure him a spot in heaven, so killing him at that moment would fail to avenge Hamlet’s father’s death. It may also be why, as an exception to the hearsay rule, courts admit into evidence dying declarations. The logic is theologic: No one would die with a lie on his/her lips, as it would forfeit salvation of the soul.

This religious understanding of the meaning and importance of final utterances is the apparent source of the last words ritual in the execution protocol, dating to when executions were public events. Intended as a communal lesson, executions attracted large audiences and the condemned’s last words served as the climax of the execution drama. Especially important in theocratic times, executions had an obvious providential meaning and were a superb evangelical vehicle. Prominent clerics sermonized on capital cases, spiritually guided the prisoner to confession and repentance as the execution approached, joined the prisoner’s cortege on the walk to the gallows, preached there to the assembled masses, and encouraged the condemned to voice the last words of a penitent that they might serve as a lesson to others. These lessons had a broader audience once published. One of the first known publications to exemplify them was a widely circulated account by Giuseppe Blondo, a Jesuit priest, of the last hours of a deeply remorseful criminal, executed in Rome in 1592, who died with exemplary piety and humility.

When executions moved behind prison walls and away from large public audiences, the practice of providing the condemned a chance to speak did not change. The endurance of the last words ritual even now suggests that religiously inspired views of the connection between last words and personal salvation continue to have cultural resonance. In 1998, when the state of Ohio proposed a new execution protocol that eliminated the last words opportunity, death row inmates sued to obtain it and were successful in doing so. One interpretation of the outcome of this lawsuit is that while the state has the authority to take life, it does not have the authority to take the afterlife.

Whether it is attributable to religious beliefs about the path to the hereafter, cultural expectations, human nature, or some other source, most condemned persons across countries and centuries, when faced with that unimaginable choice to say the last words they will ever utter, speak in a repentant and redemptive fashion. Although a few speak bitterly, politically, or irreverently, more often than not, those facing their imminent executions assert responsibility for the pain and grief of others, ask forgiveness, express love, recite prayers, and sing hymns.

In 1991, Warren McCleskey, strapped in Georgia’s electric chair after his powerful legal arguments were rejected by the Supreme Court of the United States, thanked God “for mercy, love, and grace extending to me” and prayed that the family of the victim, a man shot during an armed robbery, would find it “in their hearts to forgiv me not so much for me, but that they should be free—free of the spiritual weight of unforgiveness that continues to hold their lives in bondage [and] keeps destroying the happiness and peace that they desire.”

As McCleskey’s tragic eloquence attests, last words can reveal human grace in those that the state has deemed the worst among us. This is what makes them potentially and fundamentally subversive. Standing alone, they raise a devastating challenge to the American system of capital punishment.