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1977: Gary Gilmore

January 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, Gary Gilmore uttered the last words “Let’s do it” and was shot by a five-person firing squad in Utah as the curtain raised on a “modern” death penalty era in the United States.

Famous for volunteering for death — he had nothing but disdain for his outside advocates and angrily prevented his own lawyers pursuing last-minute appeals — Gilmore rocketed through the justice system at a pace now unthinkable.

Mere days after courts blessed the resumption of executions in 1976, the career criminal — just paroled from a decade mostly behind bars in Oregon — murdered two people in the Provo, Utah, area. He was convicted in a three-day trial in October 1976 … and dead little more than three months later.

Owing to his milestone status and the unfamiliar public persona he cut insisting on his own death, Gilmore left a trail of cultural artifacts far surpassing his personal stature as small-time crook.

He was lampooned in an early episode of Saturday Night Live. His public desire to donate his eyes (the wish was granted) inspired a top-20 punk hit:

Norman Mailer wrote a book about Gilmore (The Executioner’s Song) and adapted it into an award-winning television movie. Gary’s brother Mikal published his own memoir (Shot in the Heart), later made into an HBO movie.

In a weirder vein, Gilmore is the touchstone for the surrealistic film Cremaster 2, in which magician Harry Houdini — who might have been Gilmore’s grandfather — is portrayed by Norman Mailer.

Gary Gilmore’s was the first execution of any kind in the United States since June 2, 1967. According to the Espy file, it was also the first firing squad execution since James Rodgers was shot in Utah March 30, 1960; only one of the other 1,098 men and women put to death since Gilmore — John Taylor in 1996, also in Utah — faced a firing squad. (Update: After this post was published, another Utah condemned man also opted for a firing squad execution: Ronnie Lee Gardner, shot in 2010.)

Both Gilmore and Taylor chose to be shot in preference to hanging. The firing squad is all but extinct in the U.S., though it still remains on the books in some form in Idaho, Oklahoma and (for prisoners convicted before 2004) Utah.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Private Execution in America.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,USA,Utah,Volunteers

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20 Responses to “1977: Gary Gilmore”

  1. 1
    jeff Says:

    if you don’t know about the Executioner’s Song collections, you should. This volume includes a performance of “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” by Deano of the Waco Brothers. I saw the ensemble at Double Door performing a bunch of these songs when Volumes 2+3 came out. Very good stuff.

    Gary Gilmore. Total enigma, to me, I admit.

  2. 2
    Marcie Says:

    I just finished reading “Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer. It was an excellent read. Then I got interested in the other characters in the book, namely Gary Gilmore’s girlfriend, Nicole. This curiosity brought me to the internet, but there were no photos of her. I wanted to put a face to this personality, instead I found a blog she had written some time ago. She mentions that Mr. Mailer did not do her’s and Gary’s story justice and that the movie version also missed the mark.
    Nicole, tell us your story and get it right for posterity.

  3. 3
    ExecutedToday.com » 1930: Carl Panzram, rage personified Says:

    [...] * Abbott was writing to Mailer while the latter was banging out his book about notable executee Gary Gilmore. [...]

  4. 4
    kate price Says:

    Hate to be a nag, but gilmore’s last words weren’t “let’s do it”, they were “there’ll always be a meersman”. If you do a google search for: “The Law: After Gilmore, Who’s Next to Die? – TIME” you’ll see the whole story.

    As for nicole baker pictures, look up “A&E Biography gary gilmore” on youtube. There are pictures of her, and she’s interviewed!

    The executioner’s song is my all time favorite book. I loved it.

  5. 5
    ExecutedToday.com » 1996: John Albert Taylor, the last American to face a firing squad Says:

    [...] Actually, he’s the only person put to death by shooting under the modern American death penalty regime besides Gary Gilmore. [...]

  6. 6
    eddiethekid Says:

    I’d like to know the name of the song in the picture the “Executioner’s song” that is sung by the late, great Waylon Jennings. It is absolutely beautiful. That’s a heck of a thing to say when you’re watching an execution.

  7. 7
    KYGB Says:

    It’s called “Defying Gravity”

    Good video of clips from the movie as Waylon it sings here:


    “The Executioners Song” is still one of the greatest network TV movies of all time. If the networks still made movies that good, people might watch their programming.

  8. 8
    ExecutedToday.com » 1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking Says:

    [...] the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight [...]

  9. 9
    eddiethekid Says:

    Thanks KYGB. It’s been about 6 weeks since I asked the question of the name of the song in the movie “The Executioner’s song”,
    sung by Waylon Jennings. I just now checked back after reading some of my own articles. I had forgotten I asked for it, and I didn’t think anybody would even bother to tell me. Thanks again!

  10. 10
    ExecutedToday.com » 1960: Caryl Chessman Says:

    [...] had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start. I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will [...]

  11. 11
    ExecutedToday.com » 1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger Says:

    [...] Gary Gilmore had earned trivia-question notoriety as the first put to death under the new regime two years before, but Gilmore was always an outlier, a bizarrely active exponent of his own death who greased the skids for himself. [...]

  12. 12
    ExecutedToday.com » 2010: Ronnie Lee Gardner, by musketry Says:

    [...] Gardner did volunteer, if he had to die, to die that headline-grabbing, reminiscent-of-Gary-Gilmore death at the business end of an anonymous five-man team of [...]

  13. 13
    ExecutedToday.com » 1962: Mack Merrill Rivenburgh cheats the executioner Says:

    [...] it turned out, Utah would not put another criminal to death until Gary Gilmore in [...]

  14. 14
    ExecutedToday.com » 1994: Richard Beavers, hungry to die Says:

    [...] The Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database classes around 10% of all prisoners put to death in capital punishment’s modern American incarnation as “volunteers,” men and women who ultimately assent to their own execution — most famously including the very first, Gary Gilmore. [...]

  15. 15
    ExecutedToday.com » 1938: Anthony Chebatoris, in death penalty-free Michigan Says:

    [...] statute in the land. Four years later, the death penalty was revived in Gregg v. Georgia, and it took barely six months for states to resume executions. The federal government was slower, however, and the first [...]

  16. 16
    charmayne Says:

    I was also interested after reading and studying Executioners Song that I sought the internet for anything I could find on Gary Gilmore and mainly Nicole. While searching for the 100th time the other day I came across this video on youtube which depicts a biography of gary gilmore including most of the real life characters that feature in the book: brenda, vern, Neilson and Nicole!

  17. 17
    ExecutedToday.com » Themed Set: Ohio Says:

    [...] conducting only a single execution in the first quarter-century after death penalty reinstatement, Ohio has been one of the country’s most aggressive executioners in recent years — [...]

  18. 18
    ExecutedToday.com » 1989: Carlos DeLuna, “I didn’t do it. But I know who did.” Says:

    [...] Carlos DeLuna might be the most convincing — Cameron Todd Willingham notwithstanding — instance of wrongful execution in America’s modern death penalty era. [...]

  19. 19
    ExecutedToday.com » Executioner-in-Chief: a tour of U.S. Presidents and the death penalty Says:

    [...] Carter is an outspoken death penalty foe these days, but when the death penalty returned to the U.S. it was courtesy of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling called Gregg v. Georgia. Carter as [...]

  20. 20
    ExecutedToday.com » 10 executions that defined the 1970s Says:

    [...] 9. Gary Gilmore [...]

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