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The strange phenomenon of deathbed confessions

One of the first things Jimmy Hoffa said to Frank Sheeran was, “I heard you paint houses.”

Sheeran replied, “I do my own carpentry, too.”

The exchange had nothing to do with paintbrushes or wood. According to a book-length confession from Sheeran at the end of his life, “painting houses” is mob-speak for murder (“painting” walls with victims’ blood) and “carpentry” is disposing of bodies (building coffins — although I presume that hit squads usually dispense with that nicety).

Hoffa apparently needed an occasional painting job, which, over the following years, Sheeran may have provided. Sheeran became a Hoffa loyalist and a key connection between unions and gangsters, as well as one of only two non-Italians identified by the FBI as being a top mob official.

So it’s ironic that, as he faded into wheelchair and nursing-home days, Sheeran gave a detailed confession to writer Charles Brandt about how he “painted” a house in Detroit with Hoffa’s blood and brains on orders from other mobsters.

In addition to confessing to a writer, Sheeran — raised devoutly Catholic — also unloaded his story on a priest.

—–

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to write about deathbed confessions. Just as I was reading about Sheeran, Connick v. Thompson hit the news. That case was moved along, in part, by a deathbed confession by a prosecutor, Gerry Deegan.

He told a DA-office colleague, Mike Riehlmann, that he had hidden evidence of Thompson’s innocence. Riehlmann didn’t come forward until years later, when Thompson’s own lawyers had begun to unravel the prosecution’s case.

Unfortunately, Connick v Thompson ended with the U.S. Supreme Court saying, “No problem. Hey, what’s a little official corruption between colleagues?” So after years of struggle (and 18 years in prison, 14 of it on death row, for the innocent Mr. Thompson), Deegan’s deathbed confession was not as much a blessing for Thompson as it should have been.

I don’t know whether Gerry Deegan also talked with a priest. But if he seriously regretted his corruption, you’ve got to wonder why he didn’t confess to, say, an investigative reporter. Or a representative from the ACLU or the Innocence Project. Mike Riehlmann might be a sterling fellow (though given his inaction, I doubt it). But surely Deegan knew Riehlmann, a colleague in a corrupt system, wasn’t motivated to take up a crusade on behalf of some poor black guy on death row against his own employer.

—–

Deegan and Sheeran, that pair of confessing Irishmen, got me on this subject. Having never been on my own deathbed and having never been at the scene of somebody else’s last-gasp confession, I don’t have any voice of experience. But I can think of only four reasons someone would make a deathbed confession:

  • To “get right” with God in an attempt to avoid hell *
  • To get the feeling of guilt off one’s own chest even when it’s impossible to right the old wrong
  • To have a last laugh (“Ha ha! Those smart cops never figured out that I killed Roger Rabbit!”)
  • To give information that the living can actually use to right a wrong

I don’t know Deegan’s motivation, but Frank Sheeran, after spending a lifetime casually murdering people, hoped for a “get out of hell free” pass from The Almighty. As (according to that bastion of journalistic integrity, The National Enquirer) did another Irish-American scoundrel. Ted Kennedy not only assumed an “in” with God, but if the report is true, he actually wanted to get up there and say, “Hey, Mary Jo, really sorry about leaving you to asphyxiate over agonizing hours in that air pocket while I concocted a cover story to save My Fabulous Kennedyness. Thanks for not having any hard feelings.”

One reason I put off writing on this subject is that I didn’t want to offend anybody’s religious sensibilities. I have never understood why God reputedly wants the company of the Kennedys and Sheerans of the world while cheerfully stewing the Gandhis, the Buddhas, and the ordinary skeptical Joes and Josephines for several quadrillion years in vats of political speeches.

I can only say that, on the extreme outside chance that I ever make it to heaven … um, please don’t put me on the same cloud with Teddy and Frank.

—–

The second and third reasons for death-bed confessions are personal and I really don’t have anything to say about them. To each his own. The fourth reason — to try to right a wrong — is the one that strikes me as being related to freedom (and that’s what this blog is supposed to be about, though you’ve probably noticed I’ve never let irrelevance stop me before).

While Teddy and Frank had no way of undoing the harms they committed, Deegan (whatever other motivation he might have had) actually did have the ability to mitigate the harm he did to John Thompson. Since Deegan was already dying and was a government actor walled in immunities, there’s not a chance he would ever have paid any earthly price for his role in sending Thompson to prison. So you have to wonder: Why did he choose the most obviously ineffective way to get the word out? Why didn’t he tell reporters or defenders?

I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But at a guess I’d have to say he didn’t really give a damn about poor, suffering Thompson — not even at the very end. He could have done something to right the wrong — something loud, clear, and public. He did just do something to make himself feel better without actually taking any responsibility. Sort of like Janet Reno after Waco.

—–

As I say, I have no personal experience of deathbed confessions. The closest I came was listening to my grandmother, who faded away when I was a child. As she lay in bed in her last weeks, that blameless soul who had never done anything but bear more children and more responsibility than any one woman should have, fretted and muttered about her life’s omissions. Urgently, she would grab the arm of her caretaking daughter and say, “Don’t forget to tell Mattie about the spring house.” Or, “Be sure to give that watch to Carol.” But Mattie was long dead and nobody could remember anybody named Carol and what watch and what spring house nobody ever knew.

So maybe there’s just something about reaching the end that does that to a person.

I understand the need to be able to rid ourselves of guilty acts whose consequences we can’t undo. Without some easy “out” we might just end up so burdened with past regrets that we can’t function. (Or worse, we might say, “To heck with it; I’m already doomed. Might as well go out with a nice, violent bang.”) But if we have the ability to right a wrong — or even partially undo it — I don’t understand why any person of integrity would wait until it’s too late to take real responsibility for it. Let alone why anybody would then “confess” in a way that guarantees the wrong will go on. And on.

Unless it’s just as George Bernard Shaw said.

—–

* Yes, I know the idea is actually not to confess out of fear, but to out of last-minute love of God and sincere repentance. But I don’t think many deathbed confessors manage that. Frank Sheeran, for one, seemed — at most! — to have mild regrets at killing his friend Hoffa (and many excuses about how it was really Hoffa’s fault and how he, Sheeran, didn’t have any choice). Even at the end, he seemed to take considerable pride in the efficiency of his other hits and suffer not a twinge of conscience.

—–

Sorry for the slow blogging and for what some of you might think is a pointless post. The lack of blogitude is house-related. I had to speed up some DIY work these last few days to get a project ready for its professional finishing touches. (Photos later, I hope.) If this post is pointless, well I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. It was one of those things I had to write.

18 Comments

  1. Dana
    Dana April 22, 2011 1:46 pm

    You don’t want to share a cloud with Teddy and Frank? Careful what you wish for — I hear they’re still looking for another cloud-mate for Comrade Duch and David Berkowitz 😉

    References:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Berkowitz
    (Scroll down to “Berkowitz’s life in prison”)

    http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=14897

    Personally, though, I think I’ll take the cloud that Tolstoy and Gandhi are hanging out on — not that I deserve it.

    Oh, and this post was about as far from pointless as you can get.

  2. Pat
    Pat April 22, 2011 2:03 pm

    “If this post is pointless, well I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. It was one of those things I had to write.”

    Are you putting these thoughts down in a diary, Claire? I’ve often thought that your previous blogsite is dying out – or might at some time in the future – and those ideas, information and insights will be lost forever. (And before you belittle the idea, there are lesser-known people than you who have managed to write whole books on less-important subjects than what your mind can conjure up.)
    ~~~~~ 
    Why would Ted Kennedy’s “close Kennedy family sources” choose _The National Enquirer_ to tell his deathbed confession to? Did they think it was the only paper that would print it in large circulation?

    Re Gerry Deegan: I suspect he didn’t have guts enough to face society for what he did. It must be easy enough to die and leave the world behind, if he didn’t feel sufficient guilt or believe that God would get to him.

  3. naturegirl
    naturegirl April 22, 2011 3:29 pm

    I think that maybe putting integrity and honesty together with killers and con men is probably where you went wrong……..deathbed confessions from those sorts of people is really the one last brag, more than a get out of hell hail mary pass……I guess the only indication they want to save themselves from whatever afterlife they are destined for, would be if they confess this to a priest or religious leader…..

    Think of the millions who take their secrets with them and no one ever hears them…..

    But why at that point? Probably because they’re tired, their mind is on dying more than protecting any info…..they just don’t care anymore (either way) and whomever happens to be around or mentions it, gets the scoop……

    My deathbed experiences consist of relatives talking about other long gone relatives, complaints because they don’t see a bright white light anywhere in the room, and an apology for being a bad parent….some of it incoherent and some of it didn’t make anything better…..

  4. Jason R
    Jason R April 22, 2011 3:44 pm

    I have often said that when (if?) we get to heaven, we’re going to be awfully surprised by who made it and who didn’t.

    As a Christian, I concur with the linked article about deathbed confessions. There is no amount of sin that God is unwilling to forgive, which kind of freaks people out. Try mentioning that sincere repentance and love for God would have cleared the way to eternal glory for a dude like Adolph Hitler and see how many people will share your pew next week. Some would say that such forgiveness would make God unjust and they’d just as soon go to hell than go to heaven with a God like that. But such comments only reveal their own lack of understanding of the enormity of sin and their own guilt. It would be an unjust God who forgave them and did not forgive Hitler as well. To view it otherwise puts sin on a sliding scale and how very nice that we always can find someone that we can say we’re better than. Compared to Hitler, that guy on death row (or Frank Sheeran) is a altar boy. It’s not a sliding scale- we are all on the “sinner” side of the table and we all get back to God in the same way. Ever wonder why folks like Mother Theresa look at themselves as unworthy? It’s not false humility, usually. It’s a true understanding of what sin is and their true gratefulness at being forgiven.

    That said, I don’t think ol’ Adolph made the cut, however. The Scriptures are pretty clear that once people go too far from God (which is a different place for different people) they experience a searing of the conscious and there is nothing that will lead them back. Also, there is Galatians 6:7 – “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” In simpler terms? You’re not going to put one over on God.

    There are lots of folks with rough exteriors and dark pasts who have hearts of gold and have been transformed. And there are lots of folks who have squeaky-clean public personas with souls darkened with hidden secrets (members of Congress! Thanks for joining us!) We once had a church-planting pastor’s family living with us while they got on their feet. Turns out at the time he was hiding the fact that he was the driver of the getaway car from a convenience store robbery in which his brother killed a young woman. I can’t imagine a more changed life. But he decided to face the music and went to prison. Of this blood-guilt, I would support the death penalty, even for someone obviously changed.

    Bottom line? It’s not my job or yours to decide who is going to be on those Golden Shores. My job is to decide if *I* will be there.

    Don’t want to start a flame war and I know there are those who think otherwise. Believe what you like. I’m not threatened by opposing viewpoints.

    Cheers!

  5. EN
    EN April 22, 2011 4:40 pm

    I enjoyed the post very much. I’ve been inovled with some confessions and mostly I think it’s wanting to set the record straight, and not about getting right with anyone. Mostly people don’t seem too concerned about the victims if there are victims involved, it’s more abou them.

  6. bumperwack
    bumperwack April 22, 2011 8:45 pm

    “let us cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees”…

  7. Ellendra
    Ellendra April 22, 2011 9:08 pm

    I am often forced to question the prevalent assumption that God is so stupid that he decides whether to send people to heaven or hell based solely on a technicality.

    Jason: I think it’s the “sincere” part that’s a stickler, people tend to be very poor judges of sincerity, our own *and* that of others!

  8. Dominic
    Dominic April 23, 2011 5:24 am

    I thought I’d point out a misinterpretation implied in the original post. The post implies the Gandhi and others would not be eligible for heaven, because they are not Christians, while less-than-Christian Christians would be eligible. Christian teaching holds that faith can be implicit and thus the “virtuous pagan” who sought Truth without knowing intellectually what was sought is eligible.*

    * Yes, there are those who may disagree with this teaching. However, I’ll point out that the less-than-Christian charge in the post was thrown again nominal Catholics, so I’d say that a Catholic viewpoint is the standard being applied.

  9. Pat
    Pat April 23, 2011 6:56 am

    I don’t think this is about who’s eligible for heaven at all — rather it’s about how the subjects themselves, _and the interpreters of who’s eligible,_ view their eligibility. At least that’s what I got out of it.

    To my mind, one of the “worst” type of confessions is from an agnostic: “I don’t believe in God, but in case there is one, I want Him to know I have sinned and am sorry for it.” IOW, he wants his cake and eat it too. That, too, is what Deegan might have been doing.

  10. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty April 23, 2011 10:45 am

    As a hospice nurse, I was present in the final hour for many over the years. I do not remember ANY “deathbed confessions” at all. In fact, most people lose the ability to talk long before they are close to death, and the few that remain able to talk are usually wandering in mind or completely incoherent.

    In the preceding days or weeks, however, many engage in deep contemplation of their lives and relationships. It was my privilege to be a small part of this introspection at times, often to facilitate contact with estranged family and friends in the last days. Some of these were traumatic for all involved, and some were healing times with joy for at least some.

    There may well have been confessions between friends and family in the last days or even hours, but I was never a party to them.

  11. Desertrat
    Desertrat April 23, 2011 3:06 pm

    Granted it’s cynical, but I’ve always heard that us Olde Pharts find Jesus as part of our cramming for finals.

    Ah, well. I’m coming on seventy-seven and about all that really passes through my mind for memories is how much fun I’ve had. I won’t be confessing so much as telling stories.

  12. Pat
    Pat April 23, 2011 3:38 pm

    “Ah, well. I’m coming on seventy-seven and about all that really passes through my mind for memories is how much fun I’ve had. I won’t be confessing so much as telling stories.”

    Same here, Desertrat. Strange how there comes a time when the bad is forgotten. I guess it works like pain: you know you’ve had it, but the sheer intensity of it is soon gone from memory. I wonder, too, if forgetting the bad is what’s meant by “forgiveness.”

  13. Desertrat
    Desertrat April 24, 2011 10:01 am

    I always figured that laughing was a bunch better than crying. So, why carry a bunch of bad memories around? Waste of psychic energy. My wrinkles come from grinnin’, so I musta been doin’ sumpn right.

  14. JuliB
    JuliB April 27, 2011 5:16 pm

    I despised Ted Kennedy as much as the next person, but I have to hope that he found God before he died. As a Catholic, I know that I can receive absolution only from a priest, and that it’s based on the fact that my contrition is imperfect. In other words, if I am sorry because I have sinned against God (although I may not be 100% sorry for the ‘right reasons’), the priest can grant me forgiveness as an *alter Christi*. (asterisks used instead of italics to indicate Latin).

    If I die without benefit of confession, but experience true contrition, then it’s likely I will not go to Hell. Mortal sin is not a technicality, but rather a turning from God, in which we worship ourselves and our way instead of God’s way. BTW – I have (and probably will continue to commit mortal sin, unfortunately, but I try to stay on the right path….).

    As far as Him condemning all others to hell, well, that might be the notion of many of the ‘non-aligned’ Christians, but certainly isn’t that of the Church.

    I’ve linked a great resource on this very topic below, but snipped the following out of it:

    This teaching of Christ and His Church is not meant to allow indifferentism or exclusivism. Baptism and unity with the Catholic Church provide the only assurance of salvation, but not the only means. “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments” (Catechism, no. 1257, original emphasis).

    http://www.cuf.org/faithfacts/details_view.asp?ffID=146

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