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Robert K. Elder

Robert K. Elder

Posted: July 21, 2010 06:40 AM

Last Words Of The Executed

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Sometimes we remember nothing more than someone's last words.

Take, for example, Revolutionary War patriot and spy Nathan Hale. We remember little of him but how he left this world. "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," is how history records his last words.

The final words of the famous and infamous have been collected since antiquity because they speak to a primal curiosity and spark introspection: what does one say on the edge of oblivion? We expect last words to be poignant, a résumé or summation of life experience. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. We want them to reveal secrets. But they very seldom do.

While other books have recorded the last words of the rich, respected and famous, Last Words of the Executed documents the final thoughts of the most discarded, reviled members of our society. It's an oral history of the overlooked, the infamous and the forgotten--who nonetheless speak to a common humanity with their last act on earth. This is the history of capital punishment in America, told from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney.

Sarah Good
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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. Playwright Arthur Miller based his 1953 play “The Crucible” on the witchcraft trials, which resulted in 20 executions—including Giles Corey, who was crushed to death, for not entering a plea. At least four other accused witches died in prison, though scholars debate that the number of prison deaths might have been as high as 17.
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