Article: Best Last Words in History: HowStuffWorks
Best Last Words in History
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About This Article
While it's generally the case that all of us have someone in our life who will record our first word, sadly many of us shuffle off this mortal coil without anyone being present to record our last words. For many people, this is probably just as well, since putting together something particularly memorable is generally not high on anybody's priority list as the end draws nigh. We are fortunate to simply get the chance to say our farewells and perhaps pass on any nugget of wisdom we might have gleaned along the way.
Of course, some people nail their last words. Most of these are people with a particularly strong lifetime track record of excellent words, though every so often a person not noted for being very witty or inspired comes out with a genuinely excellent zinger at the critical moment. Some of these speakers landed a great set of last words because they'd prepared them in advance, while others seem to have just come out with something brilliant on the spot - and then, perhaps having concluded that they weren't going to top such an achievement, decided to make a graceful exit and leave on a high note.
It's time to take a walk down memory lane, and bring you some of the best last words ever uttered!
Nostradamus' One Indisputably Accurate Prediction
Some people say that the prophet Nostradamus — known during his life by his French name, Michel de Nostredame — managed to accurately predict a great many future events. Indeed, Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, was so intrigued by him that she paid to bring him to Paris to find out more. It's questionable whether he was right about the vast majority of his predictions, but he definitely got one of them right. The day before his death, he said, "Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here."
Wilson Mizner Put A Priest In His Place
Wilson Mizner is no longer a household name, but he was very famous during his own time as an American playwright. His best-remembered line is the sage advice, "Be nice to people on the way up because you'll meet the same people on the way down." However, he really should get more credit for being quick-witted even at death's door. A priest arrived to give him the last rites, and he waved the fellow away, saying dismissively, "Why should I talk to you? I’ve just been talking to your boss."
Billionaire Richard B. Mellon Finally Won
Richard B. Mellon, whose name is now immortalized at Carnegie Mellon University, was a Robber Baron born in the mid-1800s who made a fortune in banking and industry. He lived a long life, and during its many decades, he and his beloved brothers played an ongoing game of tag; whenever they saw one another, they would try to tag each other and then run away. Mellon had the last laugh when, on his deathbed, he realized the Grim Reaper was hovering, tapped his brother on the shoulder, and with his dying breath, uttered the words, "Last tag."
Leonardo da Vinci's Final Burst Of Modesty
Some last words are funny, and some are merely inspiring. Leonardo da Vinci's are a little of both, but they're primarily thought-provoking. Da Vinci is indisputably one of the greatest artists in the history of the world, and not known for his modesty. However, he suddenly had a flash of humility when he felt the clammy hand of Death on his shoulder, uttering the unexpected last words, "I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have." It goes to show that imposter syndrome can strike at any time.
Murderer James W. Rodger's Excellent Joke
Not all best last words come from a famous person; sometimes, they emerge from relative obscurity. It is a tradition that when a condemned man is sent to the firing squad, he is granted the last meal of his choice, and then in the final minutes, offered a shot at absolution and a chance to speak any last words or make any last requests. Murderer James W. Rodger, facing the firing squad, was granted this mercy. When asked if he wanted his executioners to bring him anything, he produced the immortal words, "Bring me a bullet-proof vest."
Grammarian Dominique Bouhours Nailed It At the Last
Dominique Bouhours was a French priest and grammarian who lived in the 1600s. Those who are familiar with the French language will know that correct form is taken very seriously. There is even a governing body that gets to decide what counts as a proper word or turn of phrase, and what is mere gobbledegook. Getting French right is thus the only way to be taken seriously, which is important context to understand Bouhours' approach to his own last words. He said, "I am about to - or I am going to - die: either expression is correct."
Many Men Saluted Their Wives
Surely there is no category of last words more charming than a person who pays tribute to their true love. To experience deep romantic love is one of the most transformative and sublime experiences imaginable. Thus it is no surprise that many men speak their last words to their wives. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, told his wife that she was wonderful. Poet T. S. Eliot passed with the name of his wife Valerie on his lips. Joe DiMaggio, baseball player and ex of Marilyn Monroe, said as he went, "I finally get to see Marilyn." The phenomenon appears male-dominated until we reach Virginia Woolf, who proved her point about how women who get the opportunities enjoyed by certain men will also do great things. She bade farewell to her beloved with the sweet words, "I don't think two people could be happier than we have been."
Spike Milligan's Marvelous Epitaph
The Goons were a British comedy group who hit it big in the early days of television, becoming the first comedy stars of the BBC just as every household acquired a TV with which to watch them. Members Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe all became household names, with Sellers, in particular, hitting it big in Hollywood. Milligan was hilarious to the last, writing his epitaph for inclusion on his headstone, "I told you I was ill."
Elvis Presley's Surprising Insecurity
The King of Rock 'n' Roll was not a man given to fits of modesty, but he was in a rough place toward the end of his life. He was addicted to drugs, and his health was in such decline that he feared it had begun to jeopardize his talent. He had a flash of doubt at his final concert, where he left the stage with the tragic words, "I hope I haven't bored you." Wife Priscilla Presley claimed in 2018 that he committed suicide, and while it's clear from his final words that he was pretty miserable, it's generally believed that he merely suffered an accidental drug overdose.
Oscar Wilde's Excellent Taste
Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright and society wit who is famous for so many witty remarks that one would have to sit through his entire oeuvre to be sure of catching all of them. From, "I have nothing to declare except my genius" to "Today I worked very hard. This morning I put in a comma, and this afternoon I took it out again" to "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance," he never failed to amuse. His last words have been somewhat distorted; they are commonly recorded as, "Those curtains go or I do," but it seems more probable that he said, "This wallpaper is terrible - one of us will have to go!"
George V's Scornful Comment
There is a charming little town on the south coast of England with the rather odd name of Bognor Regis. It was popular in Victorian times through the advent of affordable air travel as one of the sunnier spots in the UK, and people believed that going there could help one regain one's health after an illness. This was the prescription given to King George V in 1928, who had just undergone a grueling lung surgery and was very fragile. The king was offered the use of a stately home belonging to a patriotic gentleman down in Bognor Regis, but made clear his position with his final words, "Bugger Bognor!" It's a pity, of course; maybe if he had not been so upset, he would have lasted longer.
Comedy Writer Charles Gussman Nailed His Last Joke
Charles Gussman was never a household name, but his creations certainly were: he is the screenwriter behind the pilot of the NBC hit show, "Days Of Our Lives." He lived until a hearty 87 years old and wrote a great many soap operas, many of which were notably framed by commercials for their sponsors. However, comedy was his first love. When he was on his deathbed, he indicated that he had something to say, and his loving daughter leaned in. Gussman removed his oxygen mask and spoke softly, delivering his dubiously comforting farewell, "And now for a final word from our sponsor ..."
Captain Oates Bade A Noble Farewell
During Edwardian times, it was believed that nobody had reached the South Pole, which is approximately 800 miles from the nearest coast, in the middle of some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. In 1912, rival expeditions set out: one Norwegian, one British. Roald Amundsen of Norway made it there first, and the Brits arrived afterward to see the Norwegian flag already planted. Disappointed, they turned around and set out for the coast. Eleven miles short, they were bogged down in a blizzard and running out of food. Expedition member Captain Lawrence Oates had terrible frostbite, and his feet had turned black. He realized he could not walk the rest of the way. Instead of wasting food on himself, he said to his companions, "I am just going outside. I may be some time." He then walked off into the blizzard, sacrificing himself for his comrades. They were able to record his heroism, though eventually, the blizzard got the better of them too.
Mathematician Archimedes Remained A Consummate Professional
The foundations of modern mathematics seem to be eternal and immutable, but they had to be discovered for the first time. Archimedes was an ancient Greek mathematician who uncovered a number of the mysteries of math, and he was so obsessed, that he kept this up throughout the Second Punic War. The Romans had conquered Archimedes' home city of Syracuse, and consul Marcellus sent for the great mathematician to be brought to him. Archimedes was so engrossed in his work that he snapped at the soldiers who came to get him, "Stand away, fellow, from my diagram!" The soldiers were so offended that they killed him on the spot.
Groucho Marx's Stellar Last Laugh
Groucho Marx (above with brothers Harpo and Chico) was probably the most famous of the Marx Brothers, a family of comedians who made a splash on Broadway and in vaudeville, as well as being some of the earliest TV stars. Marx was known for his bon mots, such as when he was told he couldn't go in a hotel pool because he was Jewish, saying, "My daughter is half-Jewish; can she go in up to her waist?" His last words were equally designed to poke fun at the status quo; he said, "This is no way to live!" Marx's brother Chico also had some top-notch last words, saying to his wife, "Remember, honey, don’t forget what I told you. Put in my coffin a deck of cards, a mashie niblick [golf club] and a pretty blonde."
Ludwig Von Beethoven's Final Curtain Call
Ludwig von Beethoven was a great composer whose works are recognized even by those with the most fleeting interest in or knowledge of classical music. He is particularly noted for continuing to compose even as he became deaf in his later years; he could still notate his work, and thus was able to imagine how it would sound. His last words are commonly recorded as, "Friends applaud, the comedy is finished," but he also spoke an even more profound phrase, leaving with the words, "I will hear again in heaven."
General John Sedgwick Underestimated A Sniper
An American patriot and hero, General John Sedgwick was a leader in the Union Army during the Civil War, where he fought mightily and was wounded at the Battle of Antietam. He had to miss the Battle of Fredericksburg but was able to regroup in time to make it to Spotsylvania in 1864. Unfortunately, he made a serious error in judgment when he noticed his men flinching in fear of a Confederate sniper on a far hill. He told them to relax, saying, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." He was wrong.
Karl Marx Learned The Value Of Brevity
The founder of communism, Karl Marx's most famous book, "The Communist Manifesto" is thankfully brief, clocking in at forty pages or so. However, he wasn't done talking when he finished it, and launched into the three volumes that became "Das Kapital." Amazingly, these three volumes were supposed to form book one of a trilogy, with the entire thing clocking in at nine! However, Marx died before he could write it, and his last words cast doubt on whether he ever intended to do so. He returned to his preference for keeping things short, by refusing to provide any more elaborate final utterance than, "Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."
Emperor Augustus Gave Himself One Last Pat On The Back
The Roman Empire lasted around 2,000 years in one form or another, and for some centuries it was a republic - at least if you were a landowning man, which may not be democratic by today's standards, but still represented progress compared to a monarchy. Rome's slide from a democracy into an empire has been much studied, as it represented a significant loss, albeit not the death of the empire itself. While the primary figure responsible was Julius Caesar, he was not the first emperor; this role belonged to his great-nephew and adopted son, Octavian, later Emperor Augustus. Augustus had a high opinion of himself, which was not entirely unwarranted given his many achievements. He suffered no final modest outburst, leaving Rome with his last words, "I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble."
Charles Darwin Knew He'd Achieved Immortality Already
The father of natural selection, Charles Darwin is one of the key figures of modern science. He was a naturalist on board the ship "Beagle", on which he traveled the world and collected all sorts of specimens. He began to realize that the Biblical account of Creation was clearly not literally correct, and developed his famous Theory of Evolution, later substantiated by a further 150 years of research. While other believers have interpreted the story of Genesis to be allegorical and thus not in conflict with evolution, Darwin's faith was rattled - but content with his many children and his outstanding achievements, he faced his end with equanimity, saying, "I am not the least afraid to die."
John Adams' Final Frustration
The Founding Fathers of America have cumulatively achieved a great thing, but they did not all like each other while doing it. The second and third presidents of the United States, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were a noteworthy pair of rivals: Adams was bookish and thoughtful, and generally got along fine with the federalists. Jefferson was outspoken and charismatic and hated the federalists. They both died in 1826 on the Fourth of July, with Jefferson passing several hours before Adams. His rival did not know that he was gone, however, and lamented with his final words, "Thomas Jefferson lives."
Thomas Edison Saluted The Ultimate Inventor
Thomas Edison is one of the greatest inventors in history, and pioneered devices in fields from electricity generation to light bulbs to sound recordings. He was born in 1847 and lived until 1931, long enough to see many of his creations become widespread. However, his last words showed acknowledgment of the one inventor far greater (and more divine) than he would ever be, as he looked out the window and noted to his wife, "It is very beautiful out there."
Charlie Chaplin Gave Us One Last Laugh
Comedian Charlie Chaplin was one of the first big screen stars and beloved in his time. He gave American morale a massive boost in the run-up to World War II with his movie, "The Great Dictator," the only film in which we ever hear him speak. He was also hilarious off the screen, as he proved on his final day when a priest came to see him and offer the last rites. The priest said to him that he hoped God would have mercy on Chaplin's soul, to which the comedian responded, "Why not? After all, it belongs to Him."
Terry Pratchett Wrote His Last Story
Beloved "Discworld" author Terry Pratchett is one of the most significant voices in science fiction, creating series that delighted millions of readers and were successfully adapted for the screen. Pratchett passed in 2015, meaning that he had time to establish a substantial social media presence in his final years. He thus wrote his final words for his fans and had them posted to Twitter in the form of one last story, consisting of three tweets. The first read, "Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night;" the second said, "AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER;" the third and final, "The end."
Hero Todd Beamer's Battle Cry
The September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon shook the world. There seemed to be no bright spot; terrorists had hijacked four planes and flown three of them into buildings, killing everyone on board and thousands more on the ground. The story of Flight 93, the fourth plane, steeled the spines of millions. Before 9/11 it was the protocol to cooperate with hijackers and assume ransom would be demanded, but passengers on Flight 93 received word that these hijackers had no such intentions. Flight attendants boiled water to use as a weapon, and a team of men formed to storm the cockpit. Among them was father of three, Todd Beamer. He placed a call using an air phone and told the plan to a supervisor on the ground. His last words were the same words his family said he would speak whenever they were preparing to go out: "Are you ready? OK. Let's roll."
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