We assign a great deal of significant to last words. We expect them to be deep and profound, the sort of thing you immortalize on a $3,000 headstone. We hope we’ll say something really clever when it’s our turn, and not “what’s this button do?” or “hold my beer.” But you may end up with last words like American author Henry David Thoreau, who simply said “moose…Indian.” From the profound to the prophetic, from the ironic to the ignominious, from founding fathers to TV stars, we look into the final utterances of the famous and infamous alike.
“I am about to — or I am going to — die; either expression is correct.” These were the last words of 17th century French Jesuit priest, grammarian, and man after my own heart, Dominique Bonhours. That’s right up there with 18th century aristocrat the Marquis de a Favras, who pronounced, “I see you have made three spelling mistakes,” as he read over his own death warrant. We assign a great deal of significant to last words. We expect them to be deep and profound, the sort of thing you immortalize on a $3,000 headstone. We hope we’ll say something really clever when it’s our turn, and not “what’s this button do?” or “hold my beer and watch this.” But you may end up with last words like American author Henry David Thoreau, who simply said “moose…Indian.” My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.
Many people think Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde’s last words were, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” That would be typical Wilde, but there are two small factual inaccuracies there. The actual quote is “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do,” and he said this a few weeks before he died. Oscar Wilde’s actual last words were a mumbled Catholic prayer. He did also say toward the end of his life, as he lay in bed sipping champagne, ”I am dying beyond my means.” With about a third of the world being Christian, it’s not surprising that God gets mentioned a fair amount. When the priest performing last rites for Charlie Chaplain reached the line,“may God have mercy on your soul,” Chaplain replied, “Why not? After all, it belongs to him.”
In a bizarre twist, Chaplin’s body was stolen from a cemetery in Switzerland by men who demanded a $600,000 ransom from Chaplin’s widow. Thankfully, the body was recovered and the culprits arrested. As the clock was winding down for one of of Golden Age Hollywood baddest bitches, cancer-stricken Joan Crawford, her housekeeper began to pray aloud at her bedside. Crawford summoned her remaining strength and snapped, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!” A priest was at the bedside of François-Marie Arouet, the philosopher and firebrand known as Voltaire. The priest implored him to renounce the devil. Voltaire considered his advice, but decided, “This is no time to be making new enemies.” German Romantic Heinrich Heine took a different view as he lay dying of tertiary syphilis. “God will forgive me,” he said, “that’s his job.”
A quick tangent: while the undead have been in our collective fears and folk-lore since the caveman days, our modern interpretation of zombies is strongly influenced by the ravages of syphilis. Its body count is paltry when compared to the Black Death, but the five million people it killed in the fifteenth century alone definitely qualify it for epidemic status. Syphilis comes in distinct stages. Primary syphilis is characterized by painless sores on the genitals or mouth, which typically heals on its own. The second stage usually presents with a rash and fever. These resolve and the disease enters the latent stage, which can last for years. You are not infectious in the latent stage, but the bacteria may still be damaging their heart, bones, nerves and brain. People would think they were no longer sick, which is just as well since there was no cure anyway. In tertiary syphilis, the skin may be covered by growths that break down into lesions that spread unchecked. The disease can eat away at bone and causes tremendous pain. Patients also suffer numbness and difficulty controlling muscle movements, vision problems sometimes leading to blindness, and dementia, courtesy of neurosyphilis. This left Europe with people shambling down the cobbled streets with their faces rotting off. If you bumped into such a person under a ruddy gaslamp in a London alley, you’re probably be willing to believe it was a corpse that had gotten loose of its grave. We’ll save the debate for the spread of syphilis, whether it began in North America or Europe, for another day.
We have these last words because someone was there to hear and record them. Sadly, that wasn’t the case with Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of the twentieth century. He was not alone in the room as he passed away, but he understandably spoke his final words in his mother tongue and the nurse that was attending him did not speak German. Perhaps his final wish was something along the lines of “Don’t let anyone steal my brain and keep it in their desk for years.” As you can probably guess, that’s precisely what happened, but that’s a topic for another day.
Many people can feel the end coming and leave prophetic pronouncements behind. Reputed future-seer and tabloid-staple Nostradamus correctly forecast, “Tomorrow, when the sun rises, I shall no longer be here.” Similarly, the Godfather of Soul James Brown said, “I’m going away tonight.” Less a prediction than a timely assessment, noted English surgeon Joseph Greene declared, “It’s stopped” after checking his own pulse. The OG of horror cinema, Alfred Hitchcock left us with a non-prediction: “One never knows the ending. One has to die to know exactly what happens after death, although Catholics have their hopes.”
On the other hand, there are those who refute the seriousness of their situation. When former president all-around son of a birch Andrew Jackson was laid low, to the point that his right side was paralyzed and his daughter wanted to summon a doctor, he insisted, “I need no doctor. I can overcome my troubles.” Likewise singer Barry White said “Leave me alone — I’m fine;” actor Douglas Fairbanks said “I’ve never felt better;” and emperor of debauchery Caligula simply shouted “I live!” to name but a few. My favorite example of this comes from a man called “Mr. Organic,” healthy eating advocate Jerome Rodale. He appeared on the Dick Cavett talk show in 1971 declaring that he’d never felt better in his life and he’d “decided to live to be 100.” A minute or two later, he proceeded to slump slightly in his seat while Cavette was interviewing the next guest and died of a myocardial infarction. Frank “Tight Lips” Gusenberg lived up to his name to an insane degree – when he was shot during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a police officer asked Gusenberg who shot him. In response, he said his final words: “Nobody shot me,” truly living up to his belief in not squealing to cops, no matter what.
The highest-ranking Union officer to die during the American Civil War, Major General Sedgwick chastised the men in his command for reacting to Confederate sharpshooter fire while placing artillery in preparation for what is now known as the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in Virginia moments before a sniper’s bullet ended his life. “I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way,” he snapped. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” He had barely gotten the word “distance” out before a bullet struck him in the face. His end was closely paralleled by William “Buckey” O’Neill. Buckey’s varied and successful career came to an end while serving as a captain in the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. As he walked and smoked in front of his men in clear view of the enemy, a sergeant pleaded with him to take cover. O’Neill blew out a cloud of smoke, laughed and reportedly replied: “Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me.” A moment later he was shot dead. The reverse was true for WWI lance sgt. Hector Hugh Munro. “Put out the bloody cigarette!” he barked at a fellow officer while in a trench during World War One, for fear the smoke would give away their positions. A German sniper heard the remark and picked him off. Two different musicians also made incorrect prediction about the danger of firearms. “It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?” Those were the last words of blues singer Johnny Ace. Some reports hold that he was playing Russian Roulette, though a witness claims Ace was drunk and playing with the gun. One bullet was left in the gun of Chicago guitarist Terry Kath, who had been pulling the trigger on empty chambers of a .38 revolver at a party. The trouble really started when he switch to a 9mm pistol. He showed off the empty magazine, and said: “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.” He apparently hadn’t cleared the chamber.
Ironic last words and crash crashes go together like cat hair and clean clothes. The last known words of Ryan Dunn, one of the founding members of MTV’s Jackass, was a text reading, “Stopping for a beer, be there when I can.” More beer was the last thing he needed. After crashing his car while doing over 130 miles per hour, Dunn’s blood alcohol was found to be .196%, 2.5 times the legal limit. Speed kills, there’s no arguing that. You would hope a person would learn that after filming six movies about driving entirely too quickly. Paul Walker, whose last recorded words were the sadly inaccurate “We will be back in five minutes” was doing 80 in a 45 when his car hit a telephone pole and two trees while going around a corner and burst into flames, killing him and his passenger. It is from the passenger and mechanic of “Rebel Without a Cause” star James Dean’s that we learn the actor’s last words. A second or two before his Porsche Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard” crashed into a more substantial Ford sedan, Dean said “That guy’s gotta stop…he’ll see us.”
The tragedy didn’t end with the crash. Many people believe that Porsche 550 Spyder to be irrefutably cursed. The wrecked carcass of “Little Bastard” was sold at auction for $2500 and soon after it slipped off its trailer and broke a mechanics leg. The engine and drivetrain were sold to two different buyers, who later raced each other in cars containing the parts. One lost control and hit a tree, killing him instantly, the other was seriously injured when his car suddenly locked up and rolled over while going into a turn. Two tires from the 550 which were untouched in Dean’s accident were sold and blew out simultaneously, causing the new owner’s car to run off the road. The remains of the car caught the attention of two would-be thieves, one of whom torn his arm open trying to steal the steering wheel while the other was injured trying to remove the bloodstained seat. Due to all the incidents involving “Little Bastard,” the owner lent it to a highway safety exhibit. The first exhibit was unsuccessful as the garage that housed the car caught fire and burned to the ground. Mysteriously the car suffered virtually no damage from the fire.
There’s more to the story than that. If you enjoy listening to stories, I highly recommend the weekly podcast Stories of Yore and Yours. Host Shawn Ennis reads classic short stories in a very pleasant to listen to voice. It isn’t just the standards that you read in school. If you’re an author, you can you can send your short story to firstname.lastname@example.org and be part of the show. Look for it on your platform of choice; if you’re listening on an Apple product, please leave a review. Whether you write a review or just click a star rating, those few seconds are a real help to to new podcasters like Shawn and myself. The first review we received at Your Brain on Facts was from user ThatOneGuyYouKnowHim, who said, “I’m a big trivia nerd and this podcast is perfect for me and people like me! Moxie has an excellent voice for audio work and an incredibly entertaining eye (ear?) for detail. She covers a wide breadth of subjects and taught me something(s) new about each one. Do you like history? It’s on the podcast. Music? Yep. Gaming? Absolutely. I feel safe in saying, as this is a fairly young podcast, that if she hasn’t covered a subject you’re interested in yet, she probably will! And you’ll have fun listening to the other episodes on the way! “
It often takes tragic events to bring about change. Since that fateful day in 1963, when president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, US presidents no longer ride around in open-top cars, in addition to a number of other security enhancements. President Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, their wives Jackie and Nellie and two Secret Service agents rode in a convertible limousine through Dallas. “You can’t say the people of Dallas haven’t given you a warm welcome,” said Nellie Connally. Kennedy replied, “No, you certainly can’t,” seconds before bullets ripped through the cool November air. Other presidents have given us memorable last words. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson been compatriots before becoming political rivals. John Adams last words were “”Thomas Jefferson still survives.” What Adams didn’t know was that Jefferson had actually passed away several hours earlier. They both passed on the fourth of July. Millard Fillmore leaves us with “the nourishment is palatable,” commenting on the soup he had just been fed. History doesn’t record the last words of presidents Pierce, Taft, Hoover, Ford, and Reagan, but we do have the last word of founding father Benjamin Franklin. “A dying man can do nothing easy,” Franklin said to his daughter who suggested that if he lay on his side, he could breathe easier.
Some of the best documented last words in the modern era belong to those executed by the state. There’s an immediate curiosity when you hear about an execution to know the person’s last words, as well as what they requested for their last meal. The first person to be executed after the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1976, ending a 10-year lapse was Gary Gilmore, convicted of killing a motel manager during a robbery. Gilmore wholly accepted his death sentence. Against his express wishes, Gilmore received several stays of execution through the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union. The last of these occurred just hours before the rescheduled execution date of January 17. That stay was overturned at 7:30 AM, and the execution was allowed to proceed as planned. At a Board of Pardons hearing in November 1976, Gilmore said: “They always want to get in on the act. I don’t think they have ever really done anything effective in their lives . I would like them all — including that group of reverends and rabbis from Salt Lake City — to butt out. This is my life and this is my death. It’s been sanctioned by the courts that I die and I accept that.” His last words were simple and to the point as they positioned him in front of a volunteer firing squad — “Let’s do it.” If that phrase rings particularly familiar with you, it’s probably because advertising executive Dan Wieden credits Gilmore’s parting words as the inspiration for Nike’s tagline, “just do it.” Also sentenced to die by firing squad for robbery-turned-murder, Joe Hill’s last word was “Fire!” preempting the executioner’s “Ready … aim …” countdown. It’s thought he wanted to his last act to remind the squad who they really worked for: the people. Also accepting of his fate was Westley Allan Dodd, convicted of molesting and killing 2 children. “I was once asked by somebody, I don’t remember who, if there was any way sex offenders could be stopped. I said no. I was wrong.” It’s cold comfort, but there’s something to be said for self-realization. At his own request, Dodd’s 1993 execution was by hanging, the first in the US since 1965.
“I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys. Let her rip!” Those were the last words of Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, convicted murderer. He shouldn’t have been in such a hurry. There was too much slack in the rope; when his body dropped through the gallows and the rope went taut, he was decapitated. The job that hangman did would not have pleased serial killer, rapist, arsonist, and burglar Carl Panzram. Without ever showing any sign of remorse for his crimes, he refused to appeal his sentence, he even threatening to kill members of human rights groups who attempted to appeal on his behalf. “Hurry up, you Hoosier bastard,” he yelled at the executioner, “I could kill ten men while you’re fooling around!” Lavinia Fisher and her husband/accomplice John were executed for their roles in a series of murders that took place at their tavern. While her husband was busy begging the crowd for forgiveness and putting all the blame on his wife, Lavinia took a slightly different tack: “If any of you have a message for the devil, give it to me, for I am about to meet him!” Lavinia then trumped her executioners by jumping off the scaffolding and hanging herself before they could do it .
Sitting on death row gives people a lot of time to plan their last words. James French was already serving a life sentence in an Ohio prison in 1966 when he killed his cell mate in an effort to convince the state to execute him. Strapped into the electric chair, eh said “Hey, fellas, how about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries’?” His pun comes four decades or so after one George Appel was sentenced to electrocution for murder of a New York City police officer. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “You are about to see a baked Appel.” Keeping the pun in capital punishment.
“Capital punishment: them without the capital get the punishment.” So said John Spenkelink, a drifter convicted of killing a traveling companion which he claimed was done in self-defense, making him the first man to be put to death in Florida specifically after the reinstatement of capital punishment. Similar in sentiment to Gilmore and Spenkelink was Barbara Graham, drug addict and murderess. “Good people are always so sure they’re right.” Graham and two accomplices beat an elderly woman to death when a robbery went bad. When she was strapped into the gas chamber her execution told her, “Now take a deep breath and it won’t bother you” to which she responded, “How would you know?”
Carefully selected quotes are a good choice for lat words. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh left behind a handwritten statement quoting the last lines of the poem called Invictus by Sir William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.” He chose not to speak in the death chamber. California’s first execution in decades was Robert Alton Harris in 1992. “You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper.” His last words were a misquote from the film Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.
“I did not get my spaghettiOs, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.” Before Thomas J. Grasso was executed by lethal injection for robbery-turned-murder, he took his last meal very seriously. His order: two dozen steamed mussels, two dozen steamed clams, a double cheeseburger from Burger King, barbecued spare ribs, two strawberry milkshakes, half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, diced strawberries, and a 16-ounce can of SpaghettiOs with meatballs, served at room temperature. For whatever reason, the kitchen served him actual spaghetti instead of his SpaghettiOs. This episode was originally going to be the last words and last meals of the condemned, but the scope changed when I started writing, though that doesn’t mean it won’t happen later. After all, one man requested a single olive with pit and another wanted a clump of dirt with grass on it.
Speaking of food, a quick word from our sponsor, Squeezy Cheese. The processed cheese food product in a tube. When it’s almost cheese, but not quite, it’s Squeezy Cheese.
Last words can be an ideal platform for one last F-U, to show those in power that your spirit will not be broken. Giles Corey was among those accused in the infamous Salem witch trials, but he wasn’t going to make it easy for them. According to colonial law, a person who refused to enter a plea could not be tried. Their remedy for this was “peine forte et dure”, the process where the accused was slowly compacted by rocks until a plea was entered. Giles Corey was placed between two wide boards and the stones were heaped up. He spoke only two words, but he said them repeatedly until his last breath – “more weight.”
As deacon in Rome, soon-to-be St Lawrence was responsible for the material goods of the Church and the distribution of alms to the poor. When he informed the Prefect of Rome that he’d given all the church’s wealth to the poor, the Prefect was so angry that he had a large gridiron prepared with hot coals beneath it and had Lawrence thrown on it. Legend holds that after some time, Lawrence cheerfully declared: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!” He would be made the patron saint of cooks, chefs, and comedians.
You can also use your last words to leave messages of love and  behind. The first name in reggae, Bob Marley, told his son Ziggy before he passed, “Money can’t buy life.” Children of the 70’s and 80’s will remember Michael Landon from Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. Fans were shocked when he announced he had terminal pancreatic cancer. Before he died, he said, “You’re right. It’s time. I love you all.” Another classic TV star, Leonard Nimoy left us with this: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP (Live Long And Prosper).” In the spirit of factual accuracy, I should mention that this was posted on Twitter, but I’m counting it, fight me. “Love one another.” According to his wife and son, my dad’s favorite Beatle George Harrison succumbed to lung cancer in 2001 after passing on one final message of love. I guess that’s all you need after all.
Many last words are about or to the love of the dying person’s life. “I’m going to be with Gloria now,” said actor Jimmy Stewart to his family just before dying in 1997, referring to his wife of 44 years, Gloria, who had passed away three years earlier. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, died at age 71 in his garden. He turned to his wife and said, “You are wonderful,” then clutched his chest and died. Writer T.S. Eliot was only able to whisper one word as he died: “Valerie,” the name of his wife. When actor, comedian and lovable curmudgeon W.C. Fields died in 1946, his last words were to his mistress, “God damn the whole friggin’ world and everyone in it but you, Carlotta.” Likewise, Australian composer Percy Grainger’s dying words were to his wife Ella, “You’re the only one I like.”
As Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio lay dying, he said, “I finally get to see Marilyn again.” Though he and Marilyn Monroe had only been sometimes tumultuously married for less than one year and she had died 37 years before him, he had never stopped loving her. In the last year of her life, Marilyn was near emotional collapse and her doctor had her committed to a mental hospital. During her four days there, she was subjected to forced baths and a complete loss of privacy and personal freedom. The more she sobbed and resisted, the more the doctors there thought she might actually be psychotic. Monroe’s second husband, Joe DiMaggio, rescued her by getting her released early, over the objections of the staff. “I’ll give you five minutes to get her out here,” said DiMaggio, “or I’ll tear this f–king place apart brick by brick.” Another account hold that he shouted, “Give me my wife.”
The stars of Hollywood has given us as many bon mots as the have films. Humphrey Bogart proclaimed at the end “I should have never switched from scotch to martinis.” “Oh, you young people act like old men! You’re no fun!” said Josephine Baker as she left a party the night she would die of a stroke. When Bob Hope’s wife asked where he’d like to be buried, he said simply, “Surprise me.”
“Well this is no way to live,” proclaimed comedy legend Groucho Marx at the end. Groucho’s brother Leonard, better known as Chico Marx, gave instructions to his wife as his last words, “Remember, Honey, don’t forget what I told you. Put in my coffin a deck of cards, a golf club, and a pretty blonde.” Stan Laurel, of the iconic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, told his nurse, “I wish I was skiing.” She replied, “Oh, Mr. Laurel, do you ski?” “No,” he said, “but I’d rather be skiing than doing what I’m doing,” shortly before dying of a heart attack. Somewhat more fun than Henry David Thoreau’s two word non sequitur was actress Tallulah Bankhead’s – “Cocaine, bourbon.” Bankhead said a lot of memorable things in her life, like that she only threw two tantrums in a year, each being six months long. Or that “Cocaine isn’t habit forming. I should know–I’ve been using it for years.” “I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” Said Errol Flynn just before dying from a massive heart attack in 1959. The swashbuckling actor, dead at 50, was buried with six bottles of whiskey.
Donald O’Connor was a singer, dancer, and actor. He also hosted the Academy Awards in 1954. O’Connor died at age 78 with his family gathered around him. He joked, “I’d like to thank the Academy for my lifetime achievement award that I will eventually get.” He still hasn’t gotten one. Now that Leonardo DiCaprio has his, let’s get Donald O’Connor his Oscar.
Famous playwright Eugene O’Neill was born in at the Broadway Hotel in what is now Time Square. On his deathbed, he lay at a Boston hotel. His last words were, “I knew it! I knew it! Born in a hotel room and, goddamn it, dying in a hotel room.” Charles Gussman was a beloved writer and announcer who catapulted Days of Our Lives to fame after writing its pilot episode. Upon his deathbed, he reportedly removed his oxygen mask and told his daughter: “And now for a final word from our sponsor—.” Drummer Buddy Rich died after surgery in 1987. As he was being prepped for surgery, a nurse asked him, “Is there anything you can’t take?” Rich replied, “Yeah, country music.” [rimshot]
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. As I said at the top, we assign a great significance to last words. Most of us do, anyway. Karl Marx had a different take on the topic — “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”
Music by Kevin MacLeod and sound effects from freesound.org.