Last Words

Suicide notes left by people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, gathered by Marc Etkind for Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes, 1997:

“This is where I get off.” — Harold W., the first suicide, three months after the bridge opened, 1937

“Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.” — 49-year-old John Thomas D.

“I am sorry … I want to keep dad company.” — 24-year-old Charles G. Jr., whose father had jumped four days earlier

“Do not notify my mother. She has a heart condition.” — Steven H., the 500th person to jump

“Why do they leave this so easy for suicide? Barbed wires would save a lot of lives.” — A 72-year-old man

“I and my daughter have committed suicide.” — A man who jumped with his 5-year-old daughter

“Loved Ones: My nerves are shot. Please forgive me. Chris” — A member of the San Francisco board of supervisors. This was a fake — he turned up a year later selling Bibles in Houston.

One person leapt with $36 in his mouth. “What he meant by this gesture is open to interpretation.”

“Obvious reasons for the bridge’s popularity are that it is easy and effective,” Etkind writes, “but there must be something more, for many suicides travel over the equally effective and accessible Oakland Bridge just to jump off the Golden Gate.”

Figure and Ground

The tradition of flying a flag at half-staff began when a symbolic space was left at the top of the staff for the “invisible flag of death,” signifying death’s dominion over earthly affairs.

A riderless horse accompanies the funeral procession of U.S. military officers. The horse above, Black Jack, accompanied more than 1,000 such processions, including those for John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas MacArthur.

When Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova died in 1931, her next show went on as scheduled, with a spotlight circling an empty stage.

Great Minds

boullee newton cenotaph

In 1784, French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée proposed building an enormous cenotaph for Isaac Newton, a cypress-fringed globe 500 feet high. A sarcophagus would rest on a raised catafalque at the bottom of the sphere; by day light would enter through holes pierced in the globe, simulating starlight, and at night a lamp hung in the center would represent the sun.

“I want to situate Newton in the sky,” Boullée wrote. “Sublime mind! Vast and profound genius! Divine being! Newton! Accept the homage of my weak talents. … O Newton! … I conceive the idea of surrounding thee with thy discovery, and thus, somehow, surrounding thee with thyself.”

As far as I can tell, this is unrelated to Thomas Steele’s proposal to enshrine Newton’s house under a stone globe, which came 41 years later. Apparently Newton just inspired globes.

Tomb Evader

When you die, perhaps you will cease to exist. Or perhaps you’ll be reincarnated, or your soul will go to heaven, or to hell. But in none of these cases will “you” be placed in a casket and lowered into the ground; you will never find yourself in the grave. What all these conceptions have in common is that the dead cannot be buried — they are either elsewhere, or nowhere.

Socrates says, “I cannot make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who have been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soon see, a dead body — and he asks, How shall he bury me? … I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and then he will suffer less at my death, and not be grieved when he sees my body being burned or buried. I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or, Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him. … Be of good cheer, then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual, and what you think best.”

(Palle Yourgrau, “Can the Dead Really Be Buried?”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 24:1, 46-68.)

Out on Top

During an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, publisher and organic gardening advocate J.I. Rodale boasted, “I’m in such good health that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way.” When Cavett’s next guest, New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, joined them on the couch, Rodale made a snoring sound. Hamill told Cavett, “This looks bad.”

“The audience laughed at that. I didn’t, because I knew Rodale was dead,” Cavett wrote later in the New York Times. “To this day, I don’t know how I knew. I thought, ‘Good God, I’m in charge here. What do I do?’ Next thing I knew I was holding his wrist, thinking, I don’t know anything about what a wrist is supposed to feel like.”

Rodale had died of a heart attack. The episode was never aired.

Last Words,_December_6,_1917.jpg

On Dec. 6, 1917, an overnight express train bearing 300 passengers was approaching Halifax, Nova Scotia, when an unexpected message arrived by telegraph:

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

The train stopped safely before the burning French cargo ship Mont-Blanc erupted with the force of 2.9 kilotons of TNT, the largest manmade explosion before the advent of nuclear weapons.

The blast killed 2,000 residents, including train dispatcher Vince Coleman. He had remained at work in the telegraph office, sending warnings, until the end.


To-day at 10 a.m. the Cardinal was buried in the church at the back of the Catinari. According to old custom, when he was put into the grave, his head-cook walked up to it and said, ‘At what time will your Eminence dine?’ For a minute there was no response, and then the major-domo replied, ‘His Eminence will not want dinner any more’ (non vuol altro). Then the head-footman came in and asked, ‘At what time will your Eminence want the carriage?’ and the major-domo replied, ‘His Eminence will not want the carriage any more.’ Upon which the footman went out to the door of the church, where the fat coachman sat on the box of the Cardinal’s state carriage, who said, ‘At what time will his Eminence be ready for the carriage?’ and when the footman replied, ‘La sua Eminenza non vuol altro,’ he broke his whip, and throwing down the two pieces on either side the carriage, flung up his hands with a gesture of despair, and drove off.

— From the journal of Augustus Hare, Rome, Dec. 21, 1865



On March 18, 2002, Zimbabwean farmer Terry Ford was murdered on his farm outside Harare, apparently by government-backed invaders.

When authorities arrived they found a 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier guarding the body. “Squeak,” described as Ford’s best friend, had accompanied his master when he tried to escape by breaking down a fence with his car. When this failed, the attackers had pulled Ford from the vehicle, beaten him, tied him to a tree, and shot him through the head.

“When Terry Ford’s battered body was found under a tree, the little terrier was still at his side,” said Meryl Harrison of Zimbabwe’s SPCA. “The dog would not leave the farmer’s body.”

At Ford’s funeral, Squeak followed the procession up the church aisle and sniffed the coffin, evidently confused, before retreating to the arms of Ford’s fiancee. He was finally adopted by a friend of the family.

Till Death

At 1 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1910, West Virginia peach grower Charles Twigg called on his fiancee, Grace Elosser, at her home in Cumberland, Md. The two were to be married the following day. They closed themselves in the parlor and remained undisturbed until 2:30, when Grace’s mother looked in with a question. She found Charles sitting in a corner of the divan, with Grace leaning against him. Both were dead.

A post-mortem suggested traces of cyanide in their stomachs, but no container was found on the bodies or in the room. If it was not suicide, was it murder? The couple had led uneventful lives, and only Grace’s family had had access to the parlor. A jury returned a verdict of cyanide poisoning “at the hands of person or persons to us unknown.”

The matter remained at an impasse until Jan. 28, when, as an experiment, doctors J.R. Littlefield and A.H. Hawkins left two cats in baskets on the parlor divan, lighted the stove, and closed the door for an hour. Both cats died. The lovers’ bodies were exhumed, and an examination showed that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The flue had been choked with soot, and the odorless gas had overwhelmed the couple.

The Elossers cleaned the flue and moved out the house, but nearly the same tragedy befell the two women who succeeded them. On Feb. 21, 1913, a neighbor happened to call and found both women unconscious in their chairs. It was discovered that two bricks had been placed in the flue to reduce its draft, and soot had again choked the narrowed opening.


British statesman Charles James Fox died in 1806.

His last words to his wife were “Trotter will tell you.”

She had no idea what he meant.