Upon the moment of their demise, most people make an effort to leave the world with a few profound words, something that sums up the meaning of their existence, or wisdom passed on from personal experience. Others, however may choose to ease the grief of loved-ones and perhaps their own fear of death by offering quips of levity.
Such was the case with Queen Marie Antoinette. While being led to the guillotine in 1793, she accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner. Well-mannered to the end, she responded by saying, “Pardon me sir. I did not do it on purpose.”
Gallows humor has certainly remained alive and well, so to speak, in modern times. Take the case of the convicted murderer, James French, who was sentenced to death in the electric chair in 1966. As members of the press waited to witness his execution, he shouted to them, ” How’s this for a headline? French Fries.”
Humphrey Bogart, cool even as he faced death after a long battle with esophageal cancer, was quoted as saying, ” I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”
Voltaire, author, philosopher and historian, was said to have responded to a priest’s insistence that he renounce Satan, “Now, now, my good man. This is no time for making enemies.”
The famous French grammarian, Dominique Bouhours, quite accurately left us with, “I am about to — or I am going to die: either expression is correct.”
Infamous revolutionary Pancho Villa, seemed to have been concerned with creating good public relations, even after death. His last words were, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” It seems that his spin doctors did not comply.
Oscar Wilde certainly managed to keep his wit about him. As he lay dying penniless in a squalid room after the effects of hard labor while in prison, he said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
Comedians like Grouch Marx, followed that maxim of leave ’em laughing, with quips like, “Die, my dear? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do.” And Del Close left us with, “Thank God. I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.”
But not all last words were meant as a lasting sense of humor. Take for instance, the master of the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe. It just would not seem fitting for his departure to be light and cheery. In characteristic Poe fashion, he leaves the world stating, “Lord help my poor soul.”
Perhaps someone should have told General John Sedgwick about jinxes. A union commander during the Civil War, he commented on nearby confederate troops with, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Moments later, a sharpshooter’s bullet found its mark in the commander’s head.
Renowned whiskey distiller Jack Daniels pleaded for, “One last drink, please”, on his deathbed. He had succumbed to blood poisoning from an injury in his big toe after he had kicked a safe in anger when he forgot the combination.
And not to be outdone by a moonshiner, the great film and stage actress Tallulah Bankhead called for “Codeine…” bourbon in her final hour before falling to double pneumonia.
Speaking of actors, the acclaimed John Barrymore had this to say as he lay dying in a hospital room after a long bout of ill health, “Die? I should say not dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.”