A while back, I was asked to read a galley of journalist Robert K. Elder's new book, and say something nice about it if I liked it. I thought it was terrific, and here's what I said: "By compiling the last words of people put to death by the state in America, juxtaposed against details of their crimes and victims, Robert K. Elder has created an extraordinary book. No matter which side of the capital punishment divide you find yourself, Last Words of the Executed is a must-read. Because this is not a political book, but a human journey. You may find your beliefs challenged, changed, or reaffirmed, but you will not come away unaffected."
I also invited Rob to guest-blog at The Outfit, and here he is...
By Robert K. Elder
When Sean Chercover asked me to guest post this week, I thought: This will be easy. Since the name of this blog is The Outfit, I would just choose some excerpts from “Last Words of the Executed” about gangsters and their final words.
There was just one problem.
As my friend Jonathan Eig (author of “Get Capone”) pointed out to me recently, “The death penalty was not a deterrent for organized crime. So few of them were even prosecuted, let alone found guilty.” And for the most part, he’s right.
Most of the executed gangsters in my book are from lower level street gangs. And the one, true member of a crime syndicate I found—Louis Lepke, the former overlord of Murder, Inc.—used his final words to reinforce omertà, organized crime’s code of silence.
“I am anxious to have it clearly understood that I did not offer to talk and give information in exchange for any promise of commutation of my death sentence,” Lepke said in 1944 on his way to Sing Sing’s electric chair.
So, what I’ve chosen below are a series of last words from Chicago-related cases, including the last words of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer at the heart of Erik Larsen’s “Devil in the White City.” I’ve also included excerpts from the murderers of Chicago mayor Anton J. Cermak, a Chicago Daily News reporter, as well as a few other cases.
If you want to read more, you can pick up the book here or attend the book release bash Thursday, June 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Stop Smiling (1371 N. Milwaukee Ave.). The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan will MC the event. I also post historical last words every day from lastwordsoftheexecuted.com and from my Twitter account, @lastwordsx.
Now, excerpts from “Last Words of the Executed”:
“Beautiful world . . . I’ve forgiven everybody. . . . I haven’t a thing to say. Turn ’er loose. . . . Goodbye, Doc. . . . You’re a wonderful old boy. I haven’t got a thing against anybody in the world. I forgive everybody. I can do that because of this wonderful Jewish rabbi. That’s all. Goodbye.”
—Charles Birger, convicted of murder, Illinois. Executed April 19, 1928
A gang leader in southern Illinois, Birger was convicted of hiring two men to murder the mayor of West City. Birger scoffed and jeered during his sanity trial while deputies were trying to testify, and at one point he got up and remarked, “We’ll take a smoke on that, judge, as you can’t do any more to me than you already have.” When asked where he wanted to be buried, Birger said, “A Catholic cemetery because that’s the last place the devil would look for a Jew.”
“I no want minister. There no God. It’s all below. I’ll go myself, I no scared of lectric chair . . . See, I no fraid of lectric chair. No cameraman? No movie to take a picture of Zangara? Lousy capitalists—no picture—capitalists, no one here take my picture, all capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Good-bye, adios to all the world. Push the button!”
—Giuseppe Zangara, convicted of murder, Florida. Executed March 20, 1933
After President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt finished a speech in Miami, Zangara attempted to assassinate him with a pawnshop revolver. Instead of hitting Roosevelt, Zangara wounded four others, including Chicago mayor Anton J. Cermak, who later died of his wounds. Zangara, an Italian immigrant, claimed that “pains in his stomach” caused him to hate people in power, according to a newspaper report.
“Gentlemen, I have very few words to say. In fact, I would make no remarks at this time except that by not speaking I would appear to acquiesce in my execution. I only wish to say that the extent of my wrong-doing in taking human life consisted in the death of two women, they having died at my hands as the result of criminal operations. I wish to also state here, so that there can be no chance of misunderstanding hereafter, that I am not guilty of taking the lives of any of the Pitezel family—the three children and Benjamin, the father—of whose death I was convicted, and for which I am to-day to be hanged. That is all I have to say.”
—Herman Webster Mudgett, best known by his alias H. H. Holmes or Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, convicted of murder, Pennsylvania. Executed May 7, 1896
Holmes killed more than twenty people in his hotel on Chicago’s South Side and sold some of their remains to medical schools, according authorities. Perhaps it’s understandable that Holmes instructed that his body be cemented into his coffin to fend off grave robbers after his execution. He had built his hotel to prepare for Chicago’s World Fair, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and many of his guests were his victims. Holmes was the “devil” in Erik Larson’s book “The Devil in the White City.”
“Frank Bell, having been baptized, made confession and received communion. He felt resigned to God’s holy will and stated that he was perfectly sure that Leo Brothers is innocent of the crime he is charged with. The reason I make this statement is because I would have appeared at Brothers’ trial if the Supreme Court should have given him a new one. I regret that the Supreme Court did not grant a decision before [it was] too late for me to act. I made a statement contradicting my testimony given to officials denying I had anything to do with the Lingle murder. My first statement which I made was the true facts pertaining to the Lingle case.”
—Frank Bell, convicted of robbery and murder, Illinois. Executed January 8, 1932
Bell faced the electric chair for his part in the murder of restaurant manager Chris Patras, who allegedly had promised Bell and his gang $10,000 for the killing of Chicago Daily Tribune crime reporter Alfred Lingle. Lingle was shot in the middle of the day in a crowded subway in downtown Chicago. Bell ﬁngered fellow gang member Richard Sullivan as the triggerman in Patras’ slaying.
Robert K. Elder is the author of “Last Words of the Executed” and Regional Editor for AOL’s Patch.com in Chicago.