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When a person accused of a crime is convicted and sentenced to death, the person is sometimes permitted to make a final statement, or express their last words, before being executed. The substance of these last words may or may not have anything to do with the crime of which the condemned person has been convicted.
In the mid-1670s there was an explosion of printed materials about trials and executions, addressed to a wide range of people who wanted to know more about these matters. This curiosity was satisfied with regular publications about last dying speeches and the behaviour of prisoners.
The publishing of last dying speeches and confessions started to be common after 1650, at the same time with the rise of newspapers and several political executions. This right to have a public confession of innocence or guilt was one of the unalienable privileges of prisoners. But sometimes officials threatened the martyrs in order to guarantee their silence, or, other times, they were interrupted or silenced at the gallows.
Final statements relevant to the alleged crime in question may run the gamut from maintenance of innocence to self-incrimination, and their tone may likewise be anywhere from conciliatory to provocative. For example, one may
- maintain one's innocence while nevertheless forgiving one's executioners (see Ronald Clark O'Bryan below);
- maintain one's legal or at least moral innocence while haranguing the authorities and/or, as with some political criminals especially in the era of public executions, attempting to ensure one's status as a martyr (see Madame Roland below);
- admit or readmit one's guilt and apologize to one's victims (see Arthur Gary Bishop and Karla Faye Tucker below); or
- (re)admit one's commission of the alleged offense in the course of mocking that offense's victims and their injuries.
Other subject matters of final statements may include
- requests to one's executioner(s) for a quick and/or painless death (see Ronald Ryan and Irma Grese below);
- indifference toward death, especially given its inevitability for and universality among even persons not executed (see Robert Alton Harris below)
- affirmative welcoming of one's fate for reasons other than or broader than a desire to make atonement, especially including the perception of death as a release from suffering (see the second half of the first statement attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh below);
- contempt toward authorities and/or society for reasons unrelated to or broader than one's being convicted and sentenced (see John Wayne Gacy and Johnny Garrett below);
- challenges encouraging and implicitly ratifying the actions of one's executioners, usually to demonstrate bravery in the face of death in embodiment of an ethical ideal and/or establish a historical record of one's having done so (see the first half of the first statement attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh below); and
- jokes, usually to demonstrate equanimity or even lightheartedness toward or contempt for death, and in those cases usually to embody an ethical ideal, make a final demonstration of one's wit, and/or establish a historical record of one's having done either or both (see James French and William Palmer below)
- Arthur Gary Bishop: "I want to offer again my most profound and heartfelt apologies to my victims' families. I am truly sorry. I have tried my best to empathize with their grief and devastation and I hope they come to know of my concerns and prayers for them."
- Black Caesar, nicknamed after the eponymous pirate and one of the first convicts transported in Australia by the British Empire, escaped the penal colony in 1789 and lived as a bushranger in the wilderness. He survived by raiding garden patches with a stolen gun. When he was eventually caught, according to colonial governor David Collins, he was "so indifferent about meeting death, that he declared in confinement that if he should be hanged he would create a laugh before he was turned off, by playing some trick upon the executioner."
- Aileen Wuornos: "Yes, I would just like to say I'm sailing with the rock, and I'll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mother ship and all, I'll be back, I'll be back."
- Ted Bundy: "Give my love to my family and friends."
- Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed on 12 October 1915 in German-occupied Belgium because of having helped Allied soldiers escape to the then neutral Netherlands, spoke on the night before her execution to Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, and said: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, were recorded as "Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country."
- Roger Keith Coleman: "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have. My last words are to the woman I love. Love is eternal. My love for you will last forever. I love you, Sharon." In 2006, Coleman was later found to be truly guilty due to DNA evidence.
- Robert Charles Comer: "Go Raiders"
- Erskine Childers: (Facing a firing squad) "Take a step or two closer, lads. It will be easier that way."
- Lena Baker: "What I done, I did in self-defense, or I would have been killed myself. Where I was I could not overcome it. God has forgiven me. I have nothing against anyone. I picked cotton for Mr. Pritchett, and he has been good to me. I am ready to go. I am one in the number. I am ready to meet my God. I have a very strong conscience."
- Charles Deen: "I am going now."
- Edgar Edwards: (To the chaplain, on the way to the scaffold) "I've been looking forward to this a lot!"
- Edward Ellis: "I just want everybody to know that I think the prosecutor and Bill Scott [a fellow inmate who testified against Ellis] are some sorry s.o.bs."
- Murderer James French (Before his death by electric chair): "Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow's paper? 'French Fries'!"
- John Wayne Gacy: "Kiss my ass."
- Johnny Garrett: "I'd like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me, and the rest of the world can kiss my ass."
- Kenneth Edward Gentry: "Thank the Lord for the past 14 years that have allowed me to grow as a man. To J.D.’s family, I am sorry for the suffering you have gone through the past 14 years. I hope you can get some peace tonight. To my family, I am happy to be going home to Jesus. Sweet Jesus, here I come. Take me home. I am going your way."
- Gary Gilmore: "Let's do it!", before being executed by firing squad. Gilmore is also oft-quoted as saying a few minutes earlier, as he walked past the Hi-Fi Murderers on his way to be executed was: "Adios, Pierre and Andrews. I'll be seeing you directly."
- G.W. Green: (Echoing Gary Gilmore) "Lock and load. Let's do it, man."
- Roosevelt Green: "I am about to die for a murder I did not commit, that someone else committed ... I love the Lord, and I hope that you all love him too and that God takes me into his kingdom, and goodbye, [M]other."
- Irma Grese: "Schnell." (translated as "Quick" and glossed idiomatically as "Make it quick" or "Get it over with.")
- Donald Harding: Declined to make a final statement, but signaled the executioner to get started. His asphyxiation in the gas chamber took 11 minutes before death was finally confirmed, and Harding spent his last moments cursing Arizona's state attorney general Grant Woods and giving him the middle finger.
- Robert Alton Harris: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper." (This is a misquotation of a line in the 1991 film Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, which was in turn a paraphrase of the German danse macabre caption Wer war der Thor, wer der Weiser, wer der Bettler oder Kaiser? Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich ("Who was the fool; who [was] the sage; who [was] the beggar or [the] Emperor? Whether rich or poor, in death [all are] equal.").
- Joe Hill: When on November 19, 1915, Deputy Shettler, who led Joe Hill's firing squad, called out the sequence of commands preparatory to firing ("Ready, aim,") Joe Hill shouted, "Fire -- go on and fire!" Just prior to his execution, Hill had written to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, saying, "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah."
- Daryl Holton: "Two words, I do."
- Mona Fandey: Aku tak akan mati (I will never die)
- Jerome Bowden: "My name is Jerome Bowden, and I would just like to state that my execution is about to be carried out. And I would like to thank the people at this institution for taking such good care of me in the way that they did. And I hope that by my execution being carried out, that it may bring some light to this thing that is wrong. And I would like to have a final prayer with Chaplain Lizzel if that is possible. Thank you very much."
- Ned Kelly: Allegedly, "Such is life."
- Timothy McVeigh: Convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh chose "Invictus" (Latin for "unconquered"), an 1875 poem by the British poet William Ernest Henley, as the final statement prior to his execution.
- Harry Morant, to his firing squad: "Shoot straight, you bastards. Don't make a mess of it!"
- At his public execution, the murderer William Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor on the gallows and asked the hangman, "Are you sure it's safe?"
- Ronald Clark O'Bryan: "What is about to transpire in a few moments is wrong! However, we as human beings do make mistakes and errors. This execution is one of those wrongs yet doesn’t mean our whole system of justice is wrong. Therefore, I would forgive all who have taken part in any way in my death. Also, to anyone I have offended in any way during my 39 years, I pray and ask your forgiveness, just as I forgive anyone who offended me in any way. And I pray and ask God’s forgiveness for all of us respectively as human beings. To my loved ones, I extend my undying love. To those close to me, know in your hearts I love you one and all. God bless you all and may God’s best blessings be always yours. Ronald C. O’Bryan. P.S. During my time here, I have been treated well by all T.D.C. personnel."
- Saint John Ogilvie was hanged, drawn and quartered at Glasgow Cross on 10 March 1615, because of having preached the Catholic religion, then illegal in Scotland, and for refusing to pledge allegiance to King James. Ogilvie's last words were: "If there be here any hidden Catholics, let them pray for me, but the prayers of heretics I will not have."
- Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618. "Let us dispatch", he said to his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he mused: "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." According to many biographers – Raleigh Trevelyan, in his book Sir Walter Raleigh (2002), for instance – Sir Walter's final words (as he lay ready for the axe to fall) were: "Strike, man, strike!"
- James W. Rodgers: (Facing a firing squad) "I done told you my last request ... a bulletproof vest."
- Madame Roland: "O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!" ("Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!")
- Ronald Ryan: to the hangman "God bless you, please make it quick"
- John William Rook: "Freedom. Freedom at last, man."
- John Thanos: "Adios."
- Karla Faye Tucker: "Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you-the Thornton Family and Jerry Dean's family that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this. Baby, I love you. Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you."
- William Tyndale, before being strangled and burned at the stake: "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."
- Dmitry Bogrov, before being executed for assassination of the Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin: (to the executioner) "Should I lift my head a bit?"
- McKenzie, Andrea, Tyburn's Martyrs Executions in England, 1675-1775
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- "Infamous last words: "Go Raiders"". The Denver Post. 22 May 2007. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
- Boyle, Andrew (1977). The Riddle of Erskine Childers. London: Hutchinson. p. 25. ISBN 0-09-128490-2.
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- Ward, Laura. Famous Last Words: The Ultimate Collection of Finales and Farewells. p. 58.
- "Movie, Documentary Could Be Adapted From Book By Gacy's Lawyer". CBS. 2011-12-21. Retrieved 2011-12-21.
- "Offender Information (Gentry, Kenneth)". Death Row Information. Texas State Department of Criminal Justice. Archived from the original on 4 March 2014. Retrieved 14 September 2013.
- Spangler, Jerry (28 August 1987). "Selby Pays for 1974 Hi-Fi Murders: Injections painlessly end life of killer by 1:12 a.m." The Deseret News. Retrieved 29 July 2012.
- Pierrepoint, Albert (1974). Executioner. Harrap. ISBN 0-245-52070-8.
- "AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State Corruption: Episode 4". PBS.org. Retrieved 26 September 2012.
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- Woods, Grant (14 January 2008). "Reflections on death in the gas chamber". Arizona Republic.
- Joe Hickerson (December 2, 2010). "Joe's Last Will". Labor Notes. Archived from the original on 16 October 2012. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- BBC - h2g2 - Joe Hill - Murderer or Martyr?
- Zinn,Howard A People's History of the United States p. 335.
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- Catherine Quayle (2001-06-11). "Execution of an American Terrorist". Court TV.
- Rita Cosby (2001-06-12). "Timothy McVeigh Put to Death for Oklahoma City Bombings". FOX News. Archived from the original on 2008-04-13. Retrieved 2008-04-15.
- Shapiro, Fred R., ed. (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. Yale University Press. p. 536. ISBN 978-0-300-10798-2. Retrieved 16 November 2009.
- Witticisms Of 9 Condemned Criminals Archived March 14, 2008, at the Wayback Machine at Canongate Press
- "Offender Information (O'Bryan, Ronald Clark)". Death Row Information. Texas State Department of Criminal Justice. Archived from the original on 4 March 2014. Retrieved 15 September 2013.
- "10. mars: Den hellige John Ogilvie (~1580–1615)". 13 March 2010. Archived from the original on 13 March 2010. Retrieved 14 May 2017.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- "National Affairs". Newsweek. 61 (1). January 7, 1963. p. 34. Retrieved December 19, 2010.
Usually, by choice, the doomed man is strapped into a scarred old chair facing the firing-squad enclosure 23 feet away. His head is hooded, and a white cloth heart, trimmed in red, is pinned to his chest. Precisely at sunup, five .30-30 rifles-one loaded with a blank—do the job. Utah's unique tradition has its own gallows humor. Just before he was shot in 1960 for killing a uranium miner, James W. Rodgers made a last request: a bulletproof vest
- McShane, Larry (24 April 1992). "Last Words of Those Executed Express Variety of Emotions". Daily News. Retrieved 29 July 2012.
[alternately reported as] "O, Liberty! How they have duped you.
- Small, Glenn (17 May 1994). "Unrepentant Thanos put to death". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 15 September 2013.
- Foxe, John (1570). Actes and Monuments, VIII.1229. Foxe's Book of Martyrs Variorum Edition Online.[permanent dead link]