The first instance of capital punishment on record in America was the shooting in colonial Virginia of George Kendall, accused of plotting to betray the British to the Spanish. If he had any parting quips, they were not written down. We have to wait for the execution of two Quakers, Marmaduke Stevenson and William Robinson, fifty years later, on October 27, 1659, for an account of the last words of the condemned. As one would expect, the two men, who were convicted and hung for disobeying banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, reaffirmed their faith in God and reminded the spectators to mind the light that shone within them. Since then, as Last Words of the Executed, an enthralling book by Robert K. Elder, amply documents, there have been over sixteen thousand executions in this country and a vast record of final pronouncements taken from prison records, eyewitness statements, newspaper accounts, period diaries and written statements. Some of these are credibly attributable to the executed while others are of questionable origin or indisputably redacted.
Why this enormous interest in the final thoughts of men and women who were often guilty of committing horrific crimes? It must be the same morbid curiosity that brought huge crowds of Americans to public executions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Many considered these grim occasions so much fun they brought their families along. The spectators didn’t mind if the hanging they were watching was botched and the condemned struggled choking for a long while at the end of the rope, or if his body dropped headless to the ground, and greeted such horrors with “rude jests” and “rabid laughter.” They expected, as part of the program, to hear a public admission of guilt, expression of remorse, appeal for forgiveness from God and the assembled, and a warning about the evils of booze and company of loose women. They were rarely disappointed…….