Book History

Authoring Sentences of Death: Early American Gallows Literature, Print Culture, and Social Media

***Disclaimer: attached is a PDF copy of my paper, which has awesome formatting and footnotes lost to the blog.***



My sentence is now past

And hearts as hard as steel

Are looking forward to the time,

When I its power feel.


The death sentence is a speech act with curious properties.  It is a performative declaration that has bodily consequences.  “The death sentence was a rigidly conventionalized utterance, imported to North America as part of English criminal procedure” (Smith 61).  It is an historical speech act that has a formalized style upholding and establishing a tradition of justice, as well as a specific power in a specific time and place when uttered by specific embodiments of power.  We might think of it as a physical thing handed over to someone who has been condemned by the laws of the courts, but it is an intangible speech act made physical through documentation and fulfillment of the decree of capital punishment.  It is obvious that when handing out a death sentence, like one might hand out some other document, the judges and juries are acting from a position of social power, but the death sentence has a two-fold identity.  It can be seen as the utterance of the judge and jury, thus the state and the people, the dominant over the subordinate or insubordinate, or it can be this final act of the condemned.  Such speech acts of the administration of judicial power over convicted individuals are not without their counterpart; speech acts are granted as the last rite of a citizen condemned to death under the American system of justice.  So, a different kind of death sentence is ultimately uttered by the condemned and the power of the performative speech act is transferred to the powerless.  Last words must be thought of as authored on this occasion, because they are not words carelessly spoken, but they are composed for a purpose.  In taking up the final speech act, the condemned is given a certain power as well.  Individuals use this power to different ends.  But what if that power to speak is mediated?  It can have very different meaning if one’s words are yours, and a very different meaning when re-written and published by another.  The mediation of an individual’s words can also have different meaning if you are an already marginalized person, a racialized other.  Those authoring these last words might not be who we expect, and therefore those words might function in ways that have very different meaning, depending on who we understand the author to be.  Understanding how authorship makes meaning for these speech acts is important, especially when they are converted into texts.

These final speech acts had a distinct literature of their own in the early print culture of America.  From the time after the American Revolution to the Civil War, the Antebellum period, establishing civil order in the new republic was a concern for social leaders of the time (Masur 27).  This was done both by the ritual of public execution and the accompanying print practices where “pamphlets and broadsides that contained the lives, last words, and dying confessions of a criminal were sold on execution day and distributed throughout the community” (33).  Certainly, the rituals of legal execution have changed from the Antebellum to now.  It is not only the structure of court system, trial procedure, or the shift from publicly performed ceremonies to the privatization of capital punishment, but certain oral and print practices associated with the staging of an execution have changed (95-116).  What has not changed is the idea that dying speech and last words have their power.  The condemned have been given and continue to be given the opportunity to have the last word, to speak before a society who has sanctioned their death and this plays out in new ways in our moment.

Examining the circulation of texts of the final speech acts of a person facing capital punishment from the Antebellum period, uttered or printed, compared to last words in other media formats driven by technology (from penny-press newspapers to the digital formats of social media) shows how American print and textual culture has changed and how the understanding of power in authorship have shifted in new media formats.  We can also see that through the history of these documents and the issues of power around them that some things in the American justice system are not changing.  As media formats and textual practices change because of technology, power can transferred from the final speech act of the condemned to the public against the dominant authority as a means of carrying a message of social change rather than social stability.

Digital media now allows final speech acts to circulate in new ways.  Interesting questions of power arise when we think of these speech acts as they relate to print and digital forms.  The ephemeral texts of the literature of dying speech in multiple media formats over broad periods are textual objects worthy of scholarly inquiry, and meaning in the texts can be found in probing the author function of these documents and their circulation in the public and private sphere.  This can be understood by examining the history and social practices surrounding the documentation and distribution of dying speech through the comparative media study of various print and digital texts from turn of the eighteenth century printed broadsides and pamphlets to social media such as viral videos.  Though not always considered proper objects for literary study, these texts are “bibliographical documents”, meaning “something printed or written in multiple copies that its agent . . . produces for public consumption . . . designed to perform a specific function, either public or private” (Adams 51).  They are important literary artifacts.  They tell us about complicated interplay of social power and authorship and how different media forms function and mean differently from documents of social control to documents of protest.


The media forms of dying speech, print and digital, have an affect on the way social power is propagated and applied, how it is deployed in society, and how that power functions in ways that touch our lives today.  Americans are not removed from the politics and power of dying speech in print or digital media.  We may not be purchasing a gallows confession as we gather to witness a display of justice executed in the streets; we are, however, bearing witness to dying speech and seeing it reproduced differently to different ends in the digital age of social media and its attendant technologies.  It is important to look at the social practices surrounding public execution, the historical conditions under which these documents first began to circulate, and it is important to compare what might seem like disparate media.  To explore this argument, the history of American literature of execution will be introduced.  Examples of the literature of execution in its typical forms, formats, and will be discussed to familiarize a type of literature that is ephemeral, undervalued, and often unexplored in the field of literary studies.  An understanding of comparative textual media, certain theories in bibliography and print studies, and a focus on the politics of power in print and other media technologies will be necessary to probe the subject of gallows literature by working primarily outside of the specific content of the documents, however compelling the content of these documents may be, working against a more traditional literary approach of close reading the texts to come to new knowledge.

Building upon and working with the key concepts that drive Caleb Smith’s examination of the speech acts and the poetics of justice as they relate to condemnation and the condemned,  Smith’s work “is a book about scenes of judgement in American Literature, very broadly defined, and especially about the popular genres that emerged at the boundary between legal institutions and the public at large, inviting common readers into ceremonies of justice” (4).  He looks “to describe the styles of nonrational persuasion [these] documents performed and to analyze how they can be understood as capable of summoning the assent or dissent of lawgiving publics, even of that elusive, chimerical audience known as ‘the people’ ” (4).  My argument focusses on the ways these statements circulate to create assent and dissent and the complications inherent in the authorship of these circulating documents.  It is important to understand that these are works with an author and shared authorship is a factor in the document’s power.  In thinking about the author function, Foucault reminds readers of Beckett’s question, “What does it matter who is speaking?” (281).  We can think of this question in terms of how these documents come to be printed and circulated or shared among readers.  Examining different forms of circulating dying speech and looking into the historical social practice where dying speech first began to circulate will surely answer that question.


Until just around the 1780’s, the time after the American Revolution, an offender in America “could be executed for any number of offenses.”  So, various crimes fell under the ultimate punishment of death.  After the 1780’s, most Northern states altered their laws concerning crime and punishment typically limiting the death sentence to a judgement fit for murderers, and not forgers, for example.  Until around the 1830’s, executions remained public events (Masur 4-5).  The ritual of public execution was not just for the offender and the victim, but can be seen “as a spectacle of civil and religious order, as a performance directed by magistrates and ministers and involving the condemned themselves.” It was also for others: “The spectators who gathered by the gallows participated in an exhibition that served as a warning and celebration, as both a deterrent to potential subverters of republican and Christian values and a representation of communal identity and individual salvation” (5-6).  Public execution was a display of social control and social identity, as much for the crowd as for the condemned.

In his book, Rites of Execution, Louis P. Masur details what a public execution in the late eighteenth century might look like.  It might begin in a church with a fiery sermon delivered to dole out spiritual justice and to preach to the community and to the condemned directly.  There might be a procession through the streets to the place of the executions; in the case detailed by Masur, the prisoner is marched with his hands secured and the rope already around his neck trailed by a cart with his coffin in it.  This scene must have made quite an impression.  In this case, the condemned also had the option to ride atop the coffin in a cart on the way to the gallows; it seems like he opted out of that in this case.  The condemned, Joseph Mountain, “probably paused to pray and to deliver his last words to those within hearing distance” and then he was hanged (25-26).  It is interesting that there is no assurance that he voiced his final words and if he did speak only the few near him were privy to his words.  Despite the uncertainty of the speech of the condemned being heard in this case, typically “spectators who gathered on execution day viewed, heard, and read a variety of messages . . . Printed versions of the sermons, confessions, and other gallows ephemera, which sold as pamphlets and broadsides on execution day and often contained woodcuts of the hanging scene helped to disseminate the message of the  hanging through the crowd and across the region (26).  There are displays of power at work in the viewing of a public execution and messages being transmitted that exceed the physical performance and sight.  Though disposable, documents were available to create a kind of permanence of the spectacle, that people “viewed, heard, and read a variety of messages” was a staple for social control; this literature enforced the message of the ritual by making the message portable and legible to those who were not there and those who may not even be able to read via certain print practices, such as the inclusion of woodblock images.  The use of the imagery translated the message of execution into terms that would be nearly universal.  “Lest the drama of penitence be lost on the multitude assembled to witness the execution spectacle, ministers clarified the relationship of the criminal to the populace-at-large”, meaning that the criminal was the visible reflection of what might be inside the public and many verbal cues were provided to emphasize this (43).  It was not only what might be inside the public, but what needed to be controlled within the public.  Seeing in the public space reverberated in the private spaces through the distribution of these portable documents.  That people bought the gallows documents says that the crowd found them valuable and worth their dime, or penny as it were.  It is not as if these were passed out for free, but someone purchased them even if afterwards they shared it with others who did not purchase the gallows literature, it was purchased at some point.


Before coming to an understanding what the historical literature of execution might look like, there is a little issue of nomenclature and taxonomy.  What do we call these things?  Why are there so many terms?  Not that labeling is terribly important here, these are a variety of texts that have similar materiality, names, but different content.  They are distinctly labelled by content.  As they are discussed in a more general sense, gallows literature and the literature of execution, refer to the body of ephemeral documents, while more specific forms like gallows sermons, for example, will refer to gallows literature with specific content of a sermon delivered by an authority. The terms gallows literature and literature of execution are interchangeable umbrella terms used to discuss the various textual artifacts that include the historical documents such as gallows confessions, gallows sermons, last words and dying speech; and we may even extend that to cover certain modern digital text such as websites (Executed Offenders TDCJ), viral videos (Eric Garner), and hashtags (#HandsUpDontShoot).  It is important to clarify some of these things before we begin looking at specific documents.

The practice of drafting and printing formal the documentation of criminal trials and sentencing goes back to a time long before the Antebellum period, and this system of printing and distributing literature during a public execution developed from a British heritage (Harvard Broadsides).  Regardless of origins, we know that this type of literature, gallows literature, was produced and circulated in America.  Examples in the Harvard collection from the Antebellum period include documents printed primarily in the Northeastern United States: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.  The printers of execution broadsides were done by both well known and lesser known publishers (Cohen 17).  It was a broad practice among the early American printers.

These documents were designed for easy distribution.  According to Daniel Cohen’s accounts of pre-Revolutionary printing, these documents were made by printers who “would rush to produce broadsides quickly enough to cater to the thousands of spectators who often gathered at the gallows . . . sell them directly from their shops, and probably also arrange for hawkers to peddle them among the crowds gathered at the scaffolds” (18).  They were easy to generate and had a unique marketplace, likely with little competition.  Cohen “suspects that individual copies of broadsides often reached a multitude of readers and auditors.  Surely they were sometimes read aloud, passed hand to hand, and posted for display on walls, especially at quasi-public venues” (18).  They are documents of a local context that speak to larger cultural issues.  They are also able to be disseminated in many ways: physically, orally, conversationally, publicly, and privately.  Considering the time, one wonders how far these documents of gallows literature could really travel hand-to-hand or ear-to-ear?  Far enough to still be here today!

Many of these early historical documents are broadsides, though in many accounts they could have been pamphlets.  The broadside is a form of street literature, often posted for the public to read and reread.  Broadsides were single sheet documents, that were cheap to produce and easy to arrange.  As such, the “ephemeral publications were intended for the middle or lower classes, and most sold for a penny or less” (Harvard Broadsides).  Broadsides were used for a variety of reasons, but seems to be the preferred form for gallows confessions.



Book HIstory

One such gallows confession broadside is a single sheet printed piece of paper titled the Soliloquy, of Prof. John W. Webster, after the murder of Dr. Geo Parkman up to the time of his execution.  It is thought to be from 1850.  It is (very curiously) authored by Mary Doe, but is the final speech act of Prof. John W. Webster.  The document recounts the murder, sentencing, appeal, and grief of Webster (who was convicted of murdering what one can assume to be a colleague).  There is a stylized decorative border framing the text.  The title and byline are centered on the top of the document in fancy type.  The decorative type, while somewhat subdued, is typical of print design in the later Antebellum period, hinting at the abundant and carnivalesque style typical of early nineteenth-century print which sought to be pretty and appealing to the eye (Lehuu 157).  Centered below the detailed title is a bible passage, an authoritative text and voice.  The main text appears in three columns; it is of a smaller, but easily legible type.  The account of the crime and punishment is in rhyming verse with 48 stanzas each with four lines.

The cost is 4 cents.  This is in bold towards the bottom of the page.  There does not appear to be any publishing information provided (one would expect that branding to be there), nor are there any significant references to the date of publication.  However, the texts suggests this was produced and possibly distributed coincidental with the execution:

My last nine months are spent,

Within the prison walls;

But ere to-morrow’s sun shall set,

I shall have suffered all.

The text suggests it was printed to accompany the public display of power, but the length and form of the text suggests it was a document in the works for some time; 48 stanzas is a lot of poetry; nine months in jail is a long time.  Also, just because it is in print does not mean that it is true (remember that now we do not believe everything we read on the internet–print is the internet of the time).  The only date provided is the date of the execution, “In August, on the thirtieth day, / I die before ‘tis noon”.  This is both a reminder and an invitation.  There are no measurements given for this document, but it appears relatively larger than a modern standard piece of paper. It has been folded, which is strong evidence of the mobility of the document.  It shows some wear and staining.

Stephen Smith, Dying Words


Looking at an earlier document to understand similarity and difference, to familiarize genre, the Life, Last Words and Dying Speech of Stephen Smith: A Black Man, Who Was Executed at Boston This Day Being Thursday, October 12, 1797 for Burglary is another gallows confession.  This document’s materiality is obscured by the method of digitization (it appears like a photocopy, though the original certainly is not stark white), however the original text and type are reproduced.  This document is far less neatly organized than the first; it has a more crude composition, and this is telling that it is an earlier document lacking the decorative flourish of later Antebellum documents.  It feels slapped together, reminiscent of the way Cohen suggested that these documents could be assembled quickly.  This document has a thick, (ominous) black border which frames the whole sheet and divides the document into five distinct and asymmetrical textual blocks or elements. The top frame containing images and title takes up two-thirds of the sheet.  There is a woodblock image of an execution which is flanked to the left by a skull and to the right by a simple (unmistakeable) coffin shape.  The wood block image is composed of a gallows structure, which is nearly the whole image, with a hanged figure off its right side.  There is a cart at the bottom of the ladder that leads up the gallows.  Presumably, this cart is the way in and out of the ceremony and is one of the many technologies of execution.  The gallows is flanked on either side by an “orderly crowd” who watches.

The crowd seems composed of authorities (holding spears) who are the barrier between the crowd (the public) and the condemned.  Below these images, but in the same frame, the title of the document is printed in very large type.  Below this first frame is a long, thin, horizontal window that provides the subtitle and date, ancillary information, in much smaller print.  Below this, the main body of the text is divided into three blocks.  These are all in prose with certain words and phrases in italics or capitals.  The first, on the left, recounts the life of Stephen Smith; the second column (right) continues his life and last words, and below that is the account of the hanging that could not possibly come from Smith, as it was written from the point of view of the hanging.  “The last moment drew near, the HALTER was put around the Culprit’s neck, the white CAP drawn over his eyes . . . ”  And so it goes.

Typically in this literature, whether in prose or in verse, the content was similar.  “Offenders provided brief sketches of their youth, describing how they had strayed from the path of virtue.  They recounted their crimes, their feelings of guilt, and their awakenings to belief.  They acknowledged that they deserved to die, and they prayed for God’s mercy” (Smith 78).   No matter what the content, the purpose is always the same and that is to convey a message in both public and private ways. Though the print productions encompassed in the term gallows literature goes beyond confessions to descriptions of crime and sermons preached (authored) by very definite individuals, it is the relation of authorship that causes the focus here to be on the confessions, on the words of the condemned.  Because the early documents of confession have questionable authors, compared to gallows sermons for example, they are the more complex in their intent.  “In such performances, the felon was constituted as a speaking subject, but only to justify his conversion into an object of punishment” (19).  So the convicted was given the right to speak, but only as a way means to display his punishment, and the speech he was given was mediated by the authorities.


Masur offers a warning about being careful when examining this literary genre as a historical document, because “[s]omeone other than the prisoner edited, if not completely fabricated, the last words of the criminals.”  His research also tells us that these documents were almost fill-in-the-blank forms (33).  He tells readers in one example of dying speech and last words of two rebels against the early American government, the execution day statement “of Bly and Rose were constructed . . . It is unlikely that Bly and Rose spoke these precise words at the gallows or at the prison.  Whoever wrote the last words of these criminals felt little need for subtlety” (31-32). Despite Masur’s caution against examining these documents, but also at the risk of again silencing voice of the condemned, these documents are fit for historical analysis for the very reason of their questionable authorship.

Though it might not be easy for us to understand, because print is so ingrained in us to be what it purports to be, as readers in their own time with their own understanding of print, “Antebellum Americans were particularly attuned to the differences between words spoken and words consigned by an absent author to the impersonal world of print, though they were profoundly ambivalent about what that difference meant” (Henkin 19).  So Antebellum readers could understand the difference between who was said to author these words and who actually did.  They would be alert to it it, but not certain on whether that mattered or not.

To see a printed document available for public viewing in the Antebellum era was “to be aware of the other readers whom the text impersonally addressed, but also . . . was . . . to be aware that one’s act of reading was a public spectacle” (10-11).  If the confession broadside was posted, others would see you taking part in reading it.  If it was sold, it was done in sight of others.  In a way, one would be participating in the maintenance of the social order by reading these documents and by accepting them despite knowing the discrepancy in authorship.  “Reading is never purely an act of isolation.  When we read, we enter a world of commonality, whether of language, story, or material object.  Reading socializes” (Piper 84).  The reading and purchasing of these documents affirms the authority in their control over others, over the condemned and the public and reading these documents socialized people to the associated practices.  The fact that the words were stock and standard, and the fact that even the images were stock and standard, often reused for various documents made the circulation and viewing of the literature symbolic, was “a reminder that the public execution is for the crowd, an image of the community united, a model for how the viewer is to behave” (Masur 47).   So, reading these documents was a form of social control and that they were bought and sold is evidence that they were functioning as such.


Gallows literature of the Antebellum period in print form created a relationship of power between reader and author, those authors being figures in control of the local community or local legal system.  There is a distance between the reader and the person of the author, a removal, a mystery and degree of separation in the obvious multiplicity and duplicity of the author of gallows confessions.  The printed page mediates between the public and private worlds of author and reader.  We have come to understand the documents as exercising a message of control over crowds, thus also individuals.  “Confessions . . . called readers to recognize the authority of the ministry and the shared norms of Christian communities, producing subjects whose words reinforced the legitimacy of the institutions that condemned them” (Smith 78). This is because frequently the words of the gallows confessions were the words of the civil and religious authority not the words of the person purported to be speaking.  “Authorship was attributed to the condemned, but the text was normally composed by religious and civil professionals, based on interviews and other inquiries.  Editors and printers made their changes, too.  The voice of the condemned was an effect produced through coercion, collaboration, and ventriloquism” (78).   Many people had their hands in the fashioning of these statements, least of all those authors it seems is the person who is the “dummy” of the authority, thus assuring that no hints of dissent were present in the documents because they were composed by the authorities.

As technological changes brought media changes, which made curious emendations to the nature of the authorship and circulation of gallows literature, taking the power away from certain institutions.  This came about due to the intersection of the evolving print forms of newspaper and the reportorial style of writing that went along with them, as well as in a transformation in the proceedings of capital punishment in the legal system which changed the location of executions from the public square to the privatized world of the penitentiary:

Far more significant in deflecting public opposition to private execution was a revolution in journalistic practices and printing technology.  Prior to the early nineteenth century, newspapers did not furnish lengthy accounts of public executions.  A separate genre of gallows literature–broadsides, last words and confessions, ministers’ sermons–provided the reading public with details, but newspapers mentioned the hanging only in a terse sentence or two.  All this began to change in the 1820s and 1830s.  Facilitated by technological inventions such as steam-driven and cylinder presses, a new type of newspaper emerged.  (Masur 114)

The change in printing practices and in the mass dissemination of another affordable text recounting executions changed to a reportorial style, the words and privatized scene being mediated by a more working class person without the agenda of a minister or revered social leader, meant that the texts no longer emphasized the morality of the situation (114).  When the accounts in these documents are able to be authored by a different class of person, similar to the type of person at which the texts were aimed in a way that is accessible to more classes of people the mediation of the words and the scene changes.  Popular accounts of executions rather than “the conventionalized narrative of the colonial era, with their emphasis on conversion and penitence, were displaced more and more with sensational accounts, preoccupied with details of motive and method” (Smith 79).  This is because the new media forms allowed by new technologies were produced by authors who could exercise their own democratic motives in printing the story, rather than the motives of agents of social control.

The dual shift from broadsides to newspapers and public to private locations of the administering of capital punishment was an ideological shift in the country.  “The abolition of public executions and the new methods of reportage represented a different approach to the problems of influence and authority” (Masur 115).  No longer would order be enforced in full view of the community or in its street literature.  When the shift in printed documentation of executions happened, coinciding with the privatization of execution in the prison system, the force of the documentation was paradoxically altered because of the new way the information and social practice was mediated:

Ironically, what had been thought too corrupting to witness publicly, even with the attendant safeguards of minister’ sermons and formulized moral messages, could now be experienced privately through a printed medium that reported the execution without emphasizing its didactic purpose.  Readers were free to construct their own interpretations rather than receive only an official one.  (115)

In this new, but still historical, form of reporting that seeks to be a stand in for the individual by explaining what could be seen, the newspaper was thought to be less influential, more straightforward in terms of not putting the public in their place and not ensuring order, as they had less of an agenda.  The authors of the newspaper were thought to be reporting rather than moralizing.  That the newspapers were not having an influence might not exactly be true, while “[the] penny-press newspaper permitted the appearance of openness, the illusion that the public had access to events that, in reality, had become shut off to them . . . [Prison] executions . . . used the penny press to peddle the fiction that it was open to public scrutiny while actually revealing itself only to a segment of American society” (116).  Just because the style of the message has changed, this does not mean that there is any less mediation; there is still an illusion.

To jump ahead a century plus, computer and internet technology gives readers access to this world at the interface of legal institutions and the public sphere.  We cannot see death penalties executed, but we can access the digital texts that accompany executions.  The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) web page, “Executed Offenders”, echoes the reportorial style of the printed penny-press news on its website.  The web page lists the last 537 executions with name, county, age execution date, race, and two links–the more difficult content that you must seek out further by clicking–for offender information (their crime) and last words.  This is an interesting document because the two links juxtapose the voice of the authority and the voice of the convicted, and you have to want to press on and read these; they are not just displayed.  Though the page is clearly maintained by the TDCJ, the last words appear unmediated, unchanged, and capture something of the condemned, whether it is dissent or assent to their sentence or simply silence.  This website exists because these words are public documents, to be shared and accessed.


All of this research began with a thought about historical forms of print culture and how they relate to new modern forms of media, social media came especially to mind.  “Sharing texts have never been more popular” (Piper 85).  The kinds of sharing that Americans are capable of now far surpass those of early print.  It is technology that allows the increased popularity of shared texts.  When I think about the dying speeches and last words, when I think about sharing, I think about the viral videos and the social media outcry that took up the last words of victims of police brutality, those young men and women who in a way suffered a kind of public execution, the incidents of Eric Garner and Michael Brown come to mind immediately.  In the case of Eric Garner, his final words, “I can’t breathe”, were indeed spoken many times.  In the case of Michael Brown, the words of his final speech act are contentious, as they may have come from his actions and are reported to not actually have been said by him.  Regardless, “[the] idea of Brown being shot while his hands were raised in surrender would spread like wildfire on social media, and became a rallying cry and a mantra that inspired demonstrations across the country–even as the debate about the accuracy of the phrase continues” (Corley).  In this case and like the early gallows documents, authorship has less importance than the spread of the message.  Whether or not we accept that this speech act was derived from the actions of Brown, or simply symbolic of an action occurring in repeated incidents of racially motivated police brutality across the country, the message was still shared to great effect.   “Sharing is a way of going public.  It is what transforms a private reading experience into a public act” (Piper 90).  After this incident, the act of sharing the hashtag, #HandsUpDontShoot, led to sharing these words in a protest against the type of authority that might seek to control and punish, opposite to the way the circulation of the early documents of execution literature meant to establish social order.

It is not the only dying phrase to be reproduced in protest of social pratice.  “ ‘I can’t breathe’ has become a slogan for the people, led by young African Americans, who have taken to social media and the streets to protest the killing of unarmed African Americans, challenging a system that fails to indict and calling for greater equality” (Kim).  To reiterate, rather than reaffirming the people in power, these last words were a call to social action against authority.  This was only possible through social media, through the sharing of ephemeral texts.  When a spokesperson for Ferguson Action, a coalition civil rights group said, “Social media allows people to take simple actions that resonate widely”, he means that social media provides a way for voices to be heard.  This can mean “the silent majority of people that believe black lives matter” resonate with the text; we can stretch it to also mean a textual practice that allows the voices of the condemned heard, circulated, and reauthorized as well (Specia).  This is part of the beauty of digital textuality.  “Digital writing in many of its forms separates the author from the text, as does print, but also mobilizes the text so that the reader transforms it, not simply in his or her mind or in his or her marginalia, but in the text itself so that it may redistributed as another text” (Poster 489).  The last speech and dying words of these modern public deaths are transformed and turned into symbols of protest, whether they were meant to or not or whether they are even accurately authored.  According to Piper, by sharing we lose something, it can be the transfer of rights to an object or the transfer of authorial rights over words (104).  In a way, by sharing in the recreation of digital text and messages across social media we lose our individuality and gain community and in these cases it was a community of protest, though clearly the sacrifice when these words became shared was much larger for Brown and Garner.


It is important to compare media.  “It is certainly true that we no longer rely on print exclusively in organizing and presenting scientific and academic knowledge, as we have for the past 5 centuries.  The organization of such knowledge now depends on the interplay of printed and electronic forms” (Bolter 4).  Early American print culture and modern media culture both have an archive of texts that exist on the boundary of justice and criminality.  Both archives are complicated by authorship and how authorship means when documents are in circulation.  Appropriating authorship can be a means of oppression and it can be a means of protest.  It seems that the media format matters in terms of how authorship is perceived.  In print, authorship is, for lack of a better metaphor, black or white on the surface, for digital media, authorship is more ambiguous and amorphous.  “In the late age of print, however, we seem more impressed by  the impermanence and changeability of text, and digital technology seems to reduce the distance between the author and reader by turning the reader into an author herself” (4).  Modern readers can take up a mantra and share it and co-author the ephemeral texts of a movement.

It is not only in the words and in authorship where the power of social media and digital texts can be found, but the viral videos that stage these acts of violence and capital punishment for modern audiences.  Through our technological devices, we are witnesses once more to the public conviction of the marginalized, the subordinate, the socially insubordinate, far beyond the local context printed on a piece of paper.  We are seeing a problem in the system of American justice, where at least in the historical cases case of the officially sentenced and publicly condemned, there was a trial.  In these modern cases, there is no trial; there is only an unjust version of public execution.  The gallows history of the Antebellum period shows us that the publicly executed are often “young, black, or foreign” as they still are now (Masur 6).  Dying speech is just as important now as it was then, but for very different reasons.  Where those documents were turned against society to oppress the crowd, these texts are being produced in oppositional ways to fight against oppression.

The historical confessions of the condemned are paradoxical, poignant, powerful yet powerless, or if you peruse the last words on the TDCJ website at times they are beautifully crude and crass, acts of contrition or reticent defiance.  In trying to think about authorship, circulation, and media, this essay too has in some ways silenced those voices yet again, but for having more time, and a different methodological bent, the contents of their messages would be given close readings.  It is relevant and pertinent to think about the voices of the condemned and by rereading their words and considering how authorship can suppress or express their power and to pay respect to their final speech acts.

Adam Ward

March 22, 2016

I know there is something else I need to say.  I feel that.


Works Cited

Adams, Thomas R. and Nicholas Barker. “A New Model for the Study of the Book.” The Book History Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2006. 47-65. Print.

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1991. Print.

Cohen, Daniel A. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

Corley, Cheryl.  “Whether History or Hype, ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Endures.’ ” NPR. 8 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.

Doe, Mary G. “Soliloquy, of Prof. John W. Webster, after the murder of Dr. Geo Parkman up to the time of his execution.” Boston [?]: Aug 1850. Dying Speeches & Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library. Harvard Law School Library. Harvard. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.

Dying Speeches & Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library. Harvard Law School Library. Harvard. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” The Book History Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2006. 281-91. Print.

Kim, Grace Ji-Sun and Rev. Jesse Jackson. “ ‘I Can’t Breathe’: Eric Garner’s Last Words Symbolize Our Predicament.” The Huffington Post. 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016. 

Lehuu, Isabelle. Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Print.

Masur, Louis P. Rites of Execution. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989. Print.

Piper, Andrew. Book Was There. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

Poster, Mark. “The Digital Subject and Cultural Theory.” The Book History Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2006. 486-94. Print.

Smith, Caleb. The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.

Smith, Stephen. Life, Last Words and Dying Speech of Stephen Smith: A Black Man, Who Was Executed at Boston This Day Being Thursday, October 12, 1797 for Burglary. Boston: 1797. Print.

Specia, Meagan and Colin Dalieda. “How Twitter and Facebook Helped Shutdown Lower Manhattan for Eric Garner.” Mashable. 5 Dec 2014. Web. 10 May 2016.

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