Famous Death Row Last Words and the Weird Art they Inspired

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Thu, October 20th, 2011

“You’re not about to witness an execution; you’re about to witness a murder,” said Stephen Woods, just over a month ago, from the execution chamber at Texas State Penitentiary, in Huntsville, Texas.

Gary Gilmore was the first person executed in the U.S. after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. His last words—“Let’s do it”—have inspired art and advertising.

The prison, nicknamed the Walls Unit, is the oldest state prison in Texas, opened in 1849. It is also the most active execution chamber in the country, it has carried out more than 450 executions since 1982. Woods, a drug dealer, was sentenced to death for a double murder that occurred in May 2001. He claimed he was high on LSD the night of the killings and that he was lighting a cigarette for one of the victims when an accomplice, now serving life in prison, shot the man in the head then killed the other victim. “I’ve never killed anybody, never,” Wood’s final statement continues. “This whole thing is wrong…Warden, if you’re going to murder someone, go ahead and do it. Pull that trigger…Goodbye.” At 6:22 p.m., on September 13, Woods was executed.

Other Great Reads: Inside the Execution Chamber with Director Werner Herzog

Along with the last meal, last words are one of the few rights granted prisoners in the moments before they die. No matter what a prisoner says in their final statement, they will die. But that doesn’t mean their words can’t live on. Some final statements are remembered for their brazenness—“Kiss my ass” said John Wayne Gacy, a Chicago-born serial killer who murdered more than 30 teenage boys between 1972 and 1978, burying many victims in the crawlspace of his home—while others for their hokiness: “I’d rather be fishing,” said Jimmy Glass, put to death in Louisiana in 1987 for robbing and murdering an elderly couple. Some are witty, as is the case with George Appel. Scant information is available regarding his life and crime but his last words pop up across the internet: “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.”

The zingiest Death Row last words belong to Gary Gilmore, the first person executed in the U.S. after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Gilmore also famously demanded that his death sentence be fulfilled. He had been convicted of murdering a gas station operator and a motel manager. On January 17, 1977 he was executed by firing squad at Utah State Prison, in Draper, Utah. His last words were, “Let’s do it,” inspiration for countless TV shows, films, rock songs and one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time.

Norman Mailer’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Executioner’s Song, documented Gilmore’s execution. In 1982, The Executioner’s Song was adapted into a TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones as Gilmore. Jones won an Emmy for the role. In 2001, HBO popularized  a lesser known portion of the story, turning a memoir written by Gilmore’s brother, Mark, once a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, into a movie called, “Shot in the Heart”. Seinfeld wanted to include a reference to Gilmore’s final words, in an episode titled, “The Jacket”, but the scene was changed at the last minute. In it, Jerry was unsure whether or not he should buy a famous leather jacket and in the end decides to: “Let’s do it.”

Other Great Reads: How to Handle Accidental Deaths

The strangest tribute belongs to artistic provocateur Matthew Barney. His epic Cremaster Cycle project uses sculpture, video, photographs, drawings and installations to depict the cycles of the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The aim of the project, which uses graphite and petroleum jelly, is to explore the process of creation. Mark Gilmore stars in one of The Cremaster Cycle videos.

Of course, the biggest plug was when Dan Wieden, of the powerful Wieden+Kennedy ad firm, used Gilmore’s last words to come up with the slogan for a new Nike campaign: Just Do It. “We thought, ‘Yeah. That’d work,’” says Wieden, explaining in a recent New York Times article his decision to use the phrase. “People started reading things into it much more than sport.”

In 1988, in a statement marking the tenth anniversary of the campaign, Nike U.S. advertising director Chris Zimmerman went even further: “It captures the whole sense of people realizing their self-potential and just being able through athletics to strive for goals and achieve a lot of things that people might think were unachievable.”

Thoughts on whether or not it was appropriate for Nike to use Gilmore’s last words? Have some clever final statements of your own? Leave a comment below...

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