For reasons I can’t quite grasp, I was meditating on “famous last words” the other day. And not just any last words.
Over the years I’ve amassed something of a mental collection of final utterances of the good and the guilty, as spoken on the gallows or on the way to the electric chair or facing the axeman’s blade – a collection to be dredged up in the course of one of those conversations in bars for the delectation of your old muckers who have probably heard them all before. Words to die by, as it were.
It’s always seemed to me a special brand of courage, to show sangfroid in the face of certain doom, with no chance of reprieve and not to die like a yellow rat, as Rocky Sullivan would have had it. You don’t remember Rocky? Oh.
It’s also one thing to face whatever comes after this life, maybe while dying in your own bed or surprised by the Angel of Death. It’s quite another to face the ritual of judicial execution — for one of the many things judicial execution is, is ritual — knowing to the end that the human sacrifice is you, and at the same time, striving to preserve your dignity and courage.
There it is: courage — “grace under pressure” as Papa Hemingway would have it. Maybe in the circumstances of a judicial execution it is really less courage than resignation. In an era of countless appeals and avenues of legal recourse and years on death row, you have to think that some people just need to get it over with. They are worn down. Certainly that would seem to be the conclusion with someone like Gary Gilmore, if his brother’s brilliant book “Shot in the Heart” is to be believed, or even Norman Mailer’s more problematic “Executioner’s Song”. Gary’s reported last words were “Let’s do it.” Or Australian bushwacker/Robin Hood type Ned Kelly, whose last words were “Such is life”. That’s either resignation or a complete misreading of the situation, Ned.
I don’t know where this morbid interest started but I suspect it may have been in college while writing a paper on Danton, the French revolutionary. Danton, charming scamp that he was, was also a man of wit and courage. Outmaneuvered by Robespierre and his cronies on the Committee of Public Safety (he had only himself to blame but we won’t go in to that), Danton found himself arrested, tried and sentenced to die. He faced it all with his customary aplomb. And aplomb is difficult whilst facing Madame Guillotine.
In jail before his execution, Danton was defiant, saying of his enemies on the Committee, “If I could give my legs to that cripple Couthon and my balls to Robespierre, then everything would be fine. ” On the tumbril to the platform, passing Robespierre’s house, Danton called out, “Infamous Robespierre! The scaffold is calling for you! Your house shall be razed! You shall follow me!” Best of all were his words to the executioner, “Show my head to the people, it’s worth seeing.” I always imagine him saying that with a wry smile on his coarse pockmarked face.
Another man who was very conscious of what the crowd might make of his last moments was Charles I of England, executed by a reluctant Parliament in 1649. Refusing to compromise at every turn, Charles left his enemies with no alternative but to put him to death, although they were very clear of the consequences of such actions (The story is recounted lucidly here). Charles strayed not a whit from his absolutist principles, refusing to acknowledge the court had any jurisdiction over him and adhering to his belief that he was a divinely anointed monarch and answered only to God. His last words before the headsmans axe fell were, “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.”
Maybe more telling were his words before walking out of Whitehall Palace (The scaffold was placed against the building and he walked through the windows. The Banqueting Hall in London, often overlooked by the tourists hordes who visit the city, is all that remains of the palace. It is definitely worth a visit.) Charles wore two heavy shirts on a chill January morning and remarked, “I would not care to shiver and have them think me afraid.” That was his moment of grace and courage which his obstinacy and mulish adherence to his beliefs had led him.
One man who could never be accused of mulish obstinacy was Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, head of Clan Fraser and as slippery a weasel as one is likely to find. Murder, rape and rebellion should have ensured the old reprobate had a date with the executioner many times over, but it wasn’t until he was eighty years of age in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 that Fraser finally got his comeuppance. Fraser had spent years playing conspirator with the Jacobites and loyal subject to the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain. He betrayed both sides and walked a skillful line between both while amassing power and prestige. When Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Jacobite prince, landed to reclaim the throne for the exiled Stuarts, Fraser had a choice to make; he could throw his lot in with the Stuarts or remain loyal to London and the German king. Sending a reluctant son to join the Stuart prince, he professed his allegiance to the powers that be in London. When the rebellion failed and the government started rounding up conspirators, Fraser was finally caught in the net. Tried and found guilty, he was the last man executed on Tower Hill in London, where for centuries notables like Sir Thomas More, the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Strafford had met their end. His last words were from Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” but maybe a more telling moment occurred as he mounted the scaffold: a harridan from the hostile London crowd reared up in his face and screamed at him, “You’re going to die you Scotch dog!,” to which he replied, “Yes I am, you English bitch.” That always makes me laugh. Gallows humor, you can say.
It’s obvious that, for their Official Last Words, political prisoners give some thought to what they will say — which is probably why I sometimes think the off the cuff remarks more revealing. In my home place Ireland, the speechifying is usually reserved for the dock, and the statements of Robert Emmett, William Orr, Roger Casement or the Manchester Martyrs were long regarded as statements of principle and manifestos for future generations of Irish patriots and rebels. These speeches became sacred texts in Irish Republicanism, vital affirmations of the chain of rebellion and resistance that was never broken. Which is not to say that, in front of the executioner, Irish rebels had nothing left to say (they are Irish, of course they had feckin’ something to say.)
Maybe the most famous, possibly apocryphal, but certainly the moment that has entered into legend, is the execution of James Connolly. Connolly, severely wounded in the Rising of 1916, was strapped to a chair and carried out into the yard at Kilmainham Jail. Faced with a firing squad (“Present arms!”), legend has it that Connolly himself called out the order, “Fire!” I don’t know if this is true, but it is entirely in character with everything we know about Connolly, his courage and his no nonsense approach to life and in this case, death. It has gained wide credence in Ireland in the years since. I have seen grown men tear up at the thought of it (Kilmainham Jail is now a museum and an absolute must-see for any visitor to Dublin).
Childers, faced with a Free State firing, displayed an admirable courage saying, “Take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way.” That must have been bloody unnerving for a young soldier faced with the task at hand. I imagine several of them hoped at that moment that they were the rifleman with the blank round.
And maybe that is where we should end, with the interesting question — what goes through the mind of the executioner at the Last Moment?
Apropos to the above, here’s an old English folksong….