I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
No one can really know what goes through the mind of someone taking those last few steps to the execution chamber, but it would be the unusual person who did not experience fear and apprehension.
Almost all condemned prisoners display stoicism in their last moments. Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s chief executioner from 1940 to 1956 and the man who hanged more than 400 people, confirms this. In his autobiography Executioner: Pierrepoint (1974), he wrote: “I have been amazed to see the courage with which they (the condemned) take that walk into the unknown.” In all the executions he carried out, he said only one “kicked up rough.”
Seeking Redemption at the Last Moment
Some convicted murderers try to atone for their crimes. Jason Eric Massey was put to death in April 2001 in Texas for the murder of two children. In a long final statement, he spoke to the family of his victims:
“ . . . I would like to apologize to each and every one of you individually. I can’t imagine what I have taken from y’all, but I do want to apologize and I want to let you know that I did do it. You guys know that I am guilty and I am sorry for what I have done.”
He went on to say sorry to his family and claim, as many do in their last days, to have found God. Most of the religious converts express the belief they will meet their loved ones again on the other side, which must be a bit disconcerting to those left behind. The received wisdom is that murderers don’t go to Heaven.
Michael F. Beuke was another of those who put his soul in the hands of God. Dubbed by the media in Ohio as the “mad hitchhiker,” he killed and wounded drivers who picked him up in a 1983 shooting spree. As Cincinnati.com reported after his May 2010 lethal injection, Beuke “held his execution audience captive for an extra 17 minutes Thursday as he turned his final statement at the Death House into a personal prayer for salvation.”
The daughter of one of his victims wasn’t convinced of Beuke’s religious devotion and said, “I was thinking, ‘You’re stalling the inevitable.’ But it’s his last minutes of his life . . . There’s nothing that is going to bring my dad back.”
Defiance to the Last
Some facing execution claim their innocence with their last breath, and a few probably are.
In January 1793, Louis XVI declared, “I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge . . . ” before the blade of the guillotine dropped.
Another political victim was George Engel. An anarchist, he got himself tangled up in the deadly bombing of the McCormick plant in Chicago in 1886. He and three other labour activists were hanged in November 1887. From the gallows, he shouted, in his native German, “Hurrah for anarchy! This is the happiest moment of my life.” George takes first prize for seeing a silver lining to a cloud.
Nicolae Ceaușescu misgoverned Romania for 24 years with brutality, while robbing millions from his country. In December 1989, he was ousted in a revolution and was captured while trying to flee with his wife, Elena. They were given a swift trial on charges of mass murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death.
Standing before the firing squad, the old leader sang the Communist anthem, "The Internationale":
“Stand up, damned of the Earth
Stand up, prisoners of starvation
Reason thunders in its volcano
This is the eruption of the end.”
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At 1.30 a.m. in the morning of October 16, 1946, convicted Nazi war criminal Ernst Kaltenbrunner mounted the gallows in the Nuremburg Prison. He was one of ten men hanged that night in an event witnessed and recorded by the American journalist Joseph Kingsbury-Smith. He quoted Kaltenbrunner’s final words: “I have loved my German people and my fatherland with a warm heart. I have done my duty by the laws of my people and I am sorry my people were led this time by men who were not soldiers and that crimes were committed of which I had no knowledge.”
Kingsbury-Smith noted that the claim of innocence was a bit of a stretch: “This was the man, one of whose agents—a man named Rudolf Hoess—confessed at a trial that under Kaltenbrunner’s orders he gassed three million human beings at the Auschwitz concentration camp!”
And, in The Observer, Aida Edemariam reports on Gary Graham, who was convicted of killing Bobby Grant Lambert in a Houston parking lot in May 1981. His last words, on June 22, 2000, ended with: “Keep marching, black people. They are killing me tonight. They are murdering me tonight.”
John Wayne Gacy was one of the most despicable members of the crowded field of American serial killers. He sexually assaulted, tortured, and murdered at least 33 teenage boys. In the final few moments before his execution in May 1994, he may have searched for some sort of eloquence, but all he could muster was, “Kiss my ass.”
Famous Last Words of Grace, Humour, and Banality
Most of us would like to think we’d come up with something memorable if in the grim position of a date with the executioner; something along the lines of the American revolutionary Nathan Hale who is reputed to have said before his execution by the British in 1776, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
The reality is that most of us will do little better than Harry “Breaker” Morant, the Australian adventurer, who told his firing squad to, “Shoot straight you bastards and don’t make a mess of it.”
There was an element of bravado and chutzpah in Breaker Morant’s last words, but he couldn’t match George Appel, who announced from New York’s electric chair in 1928, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.”
Another comedian was James French. Sitting in Oklahoma’s electric chair in 1966, he said, “How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French fries.”
The electric chair seemed to bring out humour in others as well. In 1987, in Louisiana, Jimmy Glass told the prison staff about to turn on the juice that, “I’d rather be fishing.”
Vince Gutierrez made a lengthy business of his last statement in Texas in March 2007, but he ended with a touch of humour by asking, “Where’s my stunt double when you need one?”
In 1995, Thomas J. Grasso had something else on his mind at the moment of death. Aggrieved at not having his last meal request filled, his final words to the world were, “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.”
Not exactly words to stir the heart.
George Harris was another inmate with an unresolved issue that bothered him when he was executed in Missouri in September 2000. Perhaps hoping that associates on the outside would deal with the matter, his final words were, “Somebody needs to kill my trial attorney.”
Serial killer Carl Panzram took exception to the length of preparations for his hanging in Kansas in 1930. He told the executioner, “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could hang a dozen men while you’re screwing around!”
- Peter Kürten earned the title of “The Vampire of Dusseldorf” by drinking the blood of at least one of his nearly 60 victims. He left a supremely ghoulish quote by which to be remembered as he was marched to the guillotine in July 1931: “Tell me. After my head has been chopped off, will I still be able to hear, at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck? That would be a pleasure to end all pleasures.”
- Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry and mistress of Louis XV, was a victim of the French Revolution’s bloodbath. But, she lost all sense of stoicism as the executioner went about his preparations: “You are going to hurt me, please don’t hurt me, just one more moment, I beg you!”
- Marie Antoinette maintained complete composure in her final hours. As she climbed the steps to the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on the foot of executioner Henri Sanson. Her last words were to him: “Pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.”
- “Albert Pierrepoint: Obituary.” The Telegraph, July 13, 1992.
- “I’m Ready.” Aida Edemariam, The Observer, September 20, 2006.
- “Last Statement from ‘Mad Hitchhiker’ Michael Beuke: a 17-minute Prayer.” Cincinnati.com, May 13, 2010.
- “The Execution of Nazi War Criminals.” Kingsbury Smith, International News Service, October 16, 1946.
- Famous Quotes.com
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor