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"[H]is Voice Cannot be Heard; and Words Spoken, Even on Such an Awful Occasion, are Soon Forgotten": A Comparative Analysis of the Final Words of the Executed Prisoners in England 1840-68 and Texas 1982-2004 (by John Walliss and Laura Adnum): Review 3

Published onJul 17, 2023
"[H]is Voice Cannot be Heard; and Words Spoken, Even on Such an Awful Occasion, are Soon Forgotten": A Comparative Analysis of the Final Words of the Executed Prisoners in England 1840-68 and Texas 1982-2004 (by John Walliss and Laura Adnum): Review 3

Vote: Publish pending major revisions

We recommend publication following extensive revisions.  The methodology and design of this comparative study are not well justified. The authors’ argument that the last statements of the condemned are limited to Texas and that the scope of the research on last statements should be broadened has great potential. However, the authors do not explain why executions in England from 1840-1868 are selected as a particularly appropriate or illuminating comparison. They use the typology created by Vollum, but Vollum’s codebook was an inductive typology specific to the statements of executions in Texas. The authors deductively apply this typology to another data set without adjusting for cultural and temporal context. The article also lacks theoretical framing regarding the significance of the last statements themselves, which makes the authors’ claim that the scope should be broadened less compelling than it could be. 

The sample of English prisoners was selected for its availability rather than for any methodological consideration. Once we get a better justification for the English prisoner sample, it would be valuable to make some apples-to-apples comparisons, comparing statements of prisoners on the threshold of execution in England and Texas and then comparing the last statements of prisoners from each sample that were culled from the material during the days, maybe weeks, preceding execution. (For the Texas prisoners, those statements might come from their files, letters, blogs, or observations of their keepers.)

We are not historians, but we would like to mention that there is evidence that public executions in England and America were often awesome, raw affairs, leaving some, maybe many, speechless on the threshold of execution. Is it is possible that media accounts used in this paper sanitize this reality, conveying images of execution cultivated for the general public rather than accurately representing the reality on the ground?

The authors might consider the following example from Johnson & Davies’ chapter in America’s Experiment with Capital Punishment by Acker, Bohm, and Lanier (2014), such as this excerpt on p. 662:

…the historical record suggests that the vast majority of offenders lived in oppressive, isolated, and often squalid conditions of confinement. They faced public executions marked by a level of torture and brutality inconceivable today. Psychological paralysis born of sheer terror was the most common reaction among the condemned. Prisoners routinely approached the scaffold numb with fear— shaking, soiling themselves, rendered mute, likely in a state of shock (Gatrell 1994; Harrington 2013). Some offenders would break down completely and have to be carried to their deaths; a few would attempt to flee the scaffold, only to be caught and put to a decidedly ignoble death. Even would- be suicides received no special consideration; they would be dragged to the gallows, with fresh wounds recently mended (by the executioner, no less) or bleeding freely, then strapped to a chair or pole and summarily hanged so that they could be executed before they expired from their own efforts (see, e.g., Spear 1845/1994; Harrington 2013). The vast majority of those sentenced to public execution, however, were incapable of any kind of resistance. Defeated and demoralized, they would meekly submit to the executioner.3

Similarly, Austin Sarat’s Gruesome Spectacles (2014), while focusing on U.S. executions, might also provide important context for these last statements and does not currently appear in the authors’ bibliography.

The authors do perform some promising historical contextualization around innocence claims on p. 11-12:

The accounts of executions found in nineteenth century newspapers reveal numerous examples of prisoners initially asserting their innocence before eventually admitting their guilt under the ministrations of these reverend gentlemen. They also show how some chaplains attempted to wring confessions from those asserting their innocence right up until the moment that the drop fell; on some occasions attempting to delay the executioner from ‘launching the prisoner into eternity’ if they believed that a recalcitrant prisoner might admit their guilt at the final moment.

However, the presumption of guilt is problematic (“asserting innocence before eventually admitting their guilt”) given the fear and anticipated torture of those facing execution. How do we know with certainty that their “confessions” were accurate?

Therefore, we suggest heavy revisions to the design and analysis of the authors’ current typology to nuance the framework and discussion surrounding these last statements.

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