By Robert K. Elder

Sometimes we remember nothing more than someone’s last words.
Take, for example, Revolutionary War patriot and spy Nathan
Hale, whose statue I walked by every day on my way into the Chicago
Tribune offices. 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 col-
lected since antiquity because they speak to a primal curiosity and
spark introspection: what does one say on the edge of oblivion? In
America, the cult of last words remains particularly strong. Orson
Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane preys upon and fuels this primal
pull, when an investigator is hired to make sense of a newspaper
magnate’s enigmatic deathbed utterance: “Rosebud.” “Maybe he
told us all about himself on his deathbed,” suggests one character
in the film.

Last words matter for one simple reason: they cannot be taken
back. 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.

On his last night, Louis Toombs played cards with his jailer until al-
most midnight. Convicted of first-degree murder in 1902, Toombs
(also known as Thombs) had more than a month to ponder his final
words. On the gallows, he said: “I am about to pay the penalty for
a most atrocious crime. I am innocent. My only hope is that the
lapse of time will purge my wife and child of the disgrace that is now
being brought upon them.”

Almost a hundred years later, in Texas, Dennis Dowthitt—con-
victed of rape and murder—had nine years to think about his part-
ing words. When his time came, he said: “I am so sorry for what all
of you had to go through. I can’t imagine losing two children. If I
was y’all, I would have killed me. You know? I am really so sorry
about it, I really am. I got to go sister; I love you. Y’all take care and
God bless you.”

While other books have recorded the last words of the rich, re-
spected 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.