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Demands of the Dead

Executions, Storytelling, and Activism in the United States

Katy Ryan

Publication Year: 2012

The first work to combine literary criticism with other forms of death penalty–abolitionist writing, Demands of the Dead demonstrates the active importance of literature and literary criticism to the struggle for greater justice in the United States. Gathering personal essays, scholarly articles, and creative writings on the death penalty in American culture, this striking collection brings human voices and literary perspectives to a subject that is often overburdened by statistics and angry polemics. Contributors include death-row prisoners, playwrights, poets, activists, and literary scholars.

Highlighting collaborations between writers inside and outside prison, all within the context of the history of state killing laws and foundational concepts that perpetuate a culture of violent death, Demands of the Dead opens with a pamphlet dictated by Willie Francis, a teenager who survived a first execution attempt in Louisiana’s electric chair before he was subsequently killed by the state in 1947.

Writers are a conspicuous part of U.S. death-penalty history, composing a vibrant literary record of resistance to state killing. This multigenre collection both recalls and contributes to this tradition through discussions of such writers as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Gertrude Atherton, Ernest Gaines, Sonia Sanchez, Kia Corthron, and Sherman Alexie. A major contribution to literary studies and American prison studies, Demands of the Dead asserts the relevance of storytelling to ethical questions and matters of public policy.

Sherman Alexie
John Cyril Barton
Steve Champion
Kia Corthron
Thomas Dutoit
Willie Francis
H. Bruce Franklin
Tom Kerr
David Kieran
Jennifer Leigh Lieberman
Jill McDonough
Anthony Ross
Katy Ryan
Elizabeth Ann Stein
Rick Stetter
Matthew Stratton
Jason Stupp
Delbert Tibbs


Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. c-ii

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-vii


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pp. viii-x

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Acknowledgments and Permissions

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pp. xi-xii

My dad put The Autobiography of Malcolm X into my hands at an early age and taught me, by example, to distrust the barbed wire, not the people inside. My mom always encouraged me to write, to think, to love. My first thanks to my parents, Bill and Mary Ryan, for whom justice is a matter of everyday struggle....

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pp. 1-30

The United States has puzzled for centuries over the most humane and least offensive way (to spectators) to kill people—hanging, gunfire, gas, electricity, or lethal injection. Willie Francis, a teenager whose narrative opens this collection, dispensed with such concerns in the middle of the twentieth century: “I wasn’t worried at all whether it would hurt me,” Francis explains about Louisiana’s portable electric chair. “I was more worried about the fact it was going to kill me.”...

Part 1: Words through Walls

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My Trip to the Chair

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pp. 33-44

They tell me that this is the first time anyone ever had a chance to tell the story of how it feels to go to the electric chair and know that you might have to go back there. This is the first time I ever told the whole story and I hope that by at last telling it people will understand what it means to go through what I went through. I hope it will help people to do the right thing and live right. I know how it felt to have them read a death warrant...

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Living Death: Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying and the Execution of Willie Francis

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pp. 45-58

Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying is, first and foremost, a prison novel. This is worth stating at the beginning because it has not been read primarily as a novel about prison; it has been read as a novel about personal transformation and racial reconciliation. One historical source for Lesson is the 1947 execution of Willie Francis, a black sixteen- year- old convicted by an all- white Louisiana jury of murdering a white storeowner, a case Gaines...

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The Sword into a Pen -

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pp. 59-73

San Quentin State Prison was a violent inferno when my codefendant Anthony Ross and I arrived in the winter of 1982. Racial wars, stabbings, and murders were as commonplace as the hundreds of feral cats that roamed the prison grounds. By the summer of 1985, San Quentin (SQ) would earn the infamous distinction of being the most dangerous prison in the state and, by some accounts, in the country....

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Writing with the Condemned: On Editing and Publishing the Work of Steve Champion

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pp. 74-88

Crouched between the wall phone and floor- as- desk so he could hold the phone with one hand and turn pages with the other, Steve Champion read poem after poem to me as I captured them on a digital recorder three thousand miles away. He was out of solitary confinement in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin and able to use the phone only because he was in the Orange County Jail awaiting a court appearance in Los Angeles....

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Leaving Death Row: A Screenplay

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pp. 89-96

The handcuffed hands of Tommy, 32, a convicted murderer whose poor, rural manner belies an extensive self- education acquired during ten years on Texas’s Death Row. He moves with a modicum of dignity preserved against the odds....

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Dead Man’s Soap

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pp. 97-110

My journey to death row started in 2006 on a bright and cold February morning at the training field house of the Eastham Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Thirty of us were five weeks into the basic correctional officer class that every new TDCJ hire attends to prepare for assignment to a working unit. Bad drug tests and attitude problems had reduced our class from forty or so. Once we graduated and hit the prison...

Part 2: History and State Power

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Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Four Centuries

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pp. 113-134

No work of literature probes more deeply into the guts of capital punishment than Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor. Set in the last decade of the eighteenth century, finished just before the author’s death in the last decade of the nineteenth century, this novella has continued to provoke fierce controversies about its meanings ever since it was discovered in manuscript shortly after the First World War. Yet strangely enough, amid all...

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Antigallows Activism in Antebellum American Literature

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pp. 139-161

During the colonial period and in the early years of the Republic, “Hanging Day” and its practices—the execution sermon, the condemned’s last words or dying confession, the public spectacle of the execution, and official narratives or popular broadsides documenting the event—were designed to promote religious order and good citizenship. However, the role and place of the death penalty changed dramatically in the decades following...

December 26, 1862 Chaska

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p. 135-135

August 23, 1927 Nicola Sacco

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p. 136-136

May 3, 1946 Willie Francis

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p. 137-137

October 9, 2002 Aileen Wuornos

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p. 138-138

Electric Sensations and Executions in Gertrude Atherton’s Patience Sparhawk and Her Times

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pp. 162-180

Life by Asphyxiation

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pp. 181-214

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pp. 215-218

I wake up early in the morning. That’s when all the noisemakers have fallen asleep. Guys who incessantly engage in pointless arguments and banal babble: “If a gorilla and a grizzly had a fight who would win?” Shit like that. They make a racket during the day and well into the night, shouting over each other at insane decibels as if that would leapfrog their train wreck of logic to the forefront of the bedlam. Chaos is their escapism, a...

Part 3: Voices and Bodies in Resistance

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Jacques Derrida on Pain of Death

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pp. 221-234

From 1999–2001, Jacques Derrida delivered twenty separate two- to three- hour lectures on the death penalty at the École des Hautes Études in Sciences Sociales.1 Derrida focused on themes such as sovereignty and exception, the onto- theologico- political implications of the death penalty, cruelty, the theatre of capital punishment, rational calculation of equivalency between crime and punishment, the relation of the death penalty...

Capital Punishment

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pp. 235-238

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Lynching, Embodiment, and Post-1960 African American Poetry

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pp. 239-254

“Capital punishment.” “The death penalty.” “Executions.” In U.S. culture, these words generally conjure an action by the state, but the long history of lynching is a reminder that the death penalty has frequently been imposed without a trial and outside of the jurisdiction (though often with the implicit cooperation) of law enforcement and judicial officials. Amy Wood demonstrates that nineteenth- century public executions “were legal...

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State Killing, the Stage of Innocence, and The Exonerated

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pp. 255-272

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s documentary play The Exonerated brings to the stage the experiences of six people who spent between two and twenty-two years on death row for crimes they did not commit. Drawn from interviews and developed with Allan Buchman, director of the Culture Project, The Exonerated was first performed by the Actor’s Gang in Los Angeles on April 19, 2002. The play moved to Off- Broadway six months later, directed...

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Rap Sheet of Capitol Crimes: Music, Murder, and Aesthetic States of Terror

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pp. 273-294

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft famously denied Timothy McVeigh’s request to have his own execution broadcast on national television while simultaneously suspending Bureau of Prison regulations so that more family members of victims could watch the lethal injection on closed- circuit television. Declaring that eight witnesses would be “plainly inadequate,” Ashcroft justified his decision by enumerating McVeigh’s...

A Poem for No Reason

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p. 295-295

For Gary Graham, a.k.a. Shaka Sankofa

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p. 296-296

Death Law

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pp. 297-298

I Need a Poem

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pp. 299-300


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pp. 301-304

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 305-312


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pp. 313-315

Back Cover

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p. 316-316

E-ISBN-13: 9781609381035
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609380885

Publication Year: 2012