On being told the house doctor was coming, Max Baer said, “No, dummy, I need a people doctor.”
Hart Crane, jumping overboard: “Goodbye, everybody!”
Edison emerged from a coma to say, intriguingly, “It is very beautiful over there.”
James Joyce, fittingly: “Does nobody understand?”
William Saroyan: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
Ernest Shackleton, to his doctor: “You are always wanting me to give up something. What do you want me to give up now?”
Preparing for heart surgery at age 81, Rodney Dangerfield was asked how long he’d be in the hospital.
“If all goes well, about a week,” he said. “If not, about an hour and a half.”
A manuscript published at Tortona, Italy, in 1677 tells of a Milanese friar who was killed by a meteorite:
All the other monks of the convent of St. Mary hastened up to him who had been struck, as well from curiosity as from pity, and among them was also the Canon Manfredo Settala. They all carefully examined the corpse, to discover the most secret and decisive effects of the shock which had struck him; they found it was on one of the thighs, where they perceived a wound blackened either by the gangrene or by the action of the fire. Impelled by curiosity, they enlarged the aperture to examine the interior of it; they saw that it penetrated to the bone, and were much surprised to find at the bottom of the wound a roundish stone which had made it, and had killed this monk in a manner equally terrible and unexpected.
On Aug. 12, 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123 suffered mechanical failures after departing Tokyo. It struggled for 32 minutes to stay aloft but finally crashed into Mount Takamagahara, killing 520 people.
Among the debris was found the company diary of 52-year-old shipping manager Hirotsugu Kawaguchi. Apparently he had spent the fateful half hour composing a seven-page letter to his family:
Mariko, Tsuyoshi, Chiyoko — Please get along well with each other and help your mama. Papa feels very sorry I won’t survive. I don’t know the reason. Five minutes have passed. …
I never want to take an airplane again. Dear God, please help me. I didn’t imagine that yesterday’s dinner was going to be the last one with you all. …
Something seems to have exploded in the airplane. Smoke is coming out. … Airplane is going down. I don’t know where we are going and what is going to happen. …
Tsuyoshi — I do really count on you. Honey — I feel very sorry about what is happening to me. Goodbye. Please take care of our children. It’s six-thirty now. The airplane is spinning and going down quickly. …
I’m very thankful to you that I was able to have a really happy life up to now.
The crash remains the deadliest single-plane accident in world history.
When New York gangster Dutch Schultz was shot in 1935, police had a stenographer take down his delirious last words. Find a confession here if you can:
- “Police, police, Henry and Frankie. Oh, oh, dog biscuits and when he is happy he doesn’t get snappy.”
- “I am a pretty good pretzler. Winifred. Department of Justice. I even get it from the department.”
- “Please, I had nothing with him. He was a cowboy in one of the seven-days-a-week fight.”
- “There are only 10 of us. There 10 million fighting somewhere of you, so get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag.”
- “The sidewalk was in trouble and the bears were in trouble and I broke it up.”
- “No payrolls, no walls, no coupons. That would be entirely out.”
- “Oh, sir, get the doll a roofing.”
- “A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim. Did you hear me?”
- “Please put me up on my feet at once. You are a hard-boiled man. Did you hear me?”
- “Please crack down on the Chinaman’s friends and Hitler’s commander. I am sure and I am going up and I am going to give you honey if I can.”
- “I am half crazy. They won’t let me get up. They dyed my shoes. Open those shoes. Give me something. I am so sick.”
His final words were “I will settle the indictment. Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up, you got a big mouth! Please help me up, Henry. Max, come over here. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.”
Some kings expire in bed. Some die gloriously in battle.
Alexander of Greece was bitten to death by monkeys.
He was walking in the royal garden in October 1920 when a monkey attacked his dog. He fought it off with a stick, suffering only a wound on the hand, but the monkey’s mate rushed in and gave him a much more severe bite. He died of blood poisoning three weeks later.
Alexander’s exiled father returned and led the nation into a bloody war with Turkey. “It is perhaps no exaggeration,” wrote Winston Churchill, “to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”
A building curiously arranged to resemble the hull of a ship, the rooms of which were made to look like its cabins, used to be pointed out for many years in Wandsworth. Upon the top of it a small room, or rather turret, used to attract special attention, for it contained the corpse of its builder and former owner, an eccentric old sailor, whose will made it a condition of inheritance that his body should be buried on what he called ‘the deck’ of his ship-house. The house was pulled down by a railway company about 1860.
– The World of Wonders, 1883
Epitaph on a Florentine tombstone of 1318:
Here lies Salvino Armolo D’Armati,
the inventor of spectacles.
May God pardon his sins!
From Walter Henry Howe, “Here Lies,” 1900
At Bradford, England, a girl, aged 16, met death in an extraordinary manner. While in the playground of her school she was caught by a veritable tornado which carried her into the air. … [A] witness who was waiting for a car in front of the school said he saw the girl in the air, her skirts blown out like a baloon. She was 25 to 30 feet in the air, just above the school balcony (the latter, the coroner remarked, was 20 feet high). … The physician who was called found the girl unconscious and pulseless, suffering from severe concussion of the brain and compound fractures of the lower jaw, right arm, wrist and thigh. It appeared that she was wearing a pair of bloomers with an ordinary skirt but without petticoats. The jury returned a verdict of ‘died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.’
– Journal of the American Medical Association, quoted in Medical Sentinel, June 1911
05/24/2010 I’ve found some confirmation of this in William Corliss, Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, 1983:
“February 25, 1911. Bradford, England. A letter to the editor called the report of a girl being killed by a gust of wind preposterous and asked for an investigation. The editor replied: ‘Acting on this suggestion, we communicated with Mr. H. Lander, the rainfall observer at Lister Park, Bradford, who kindly sent us a copy of the Yorkshire Observer for February 25th, in which there was a fairly full report of the inquest on the school-girl who was undoubtedly killed by a fall from a great height in an extremely exposed playground during very gusty weather. One witness saw the girl enter the playground from the school at 8.40 a.m., and saw her carried in three minutes later. Another witness saw the girl in the air parallel with the balcony of the school 20 feet above the ground, her arms extended, and her skirts blown out like a balloon. He saw her fall with a crash. The jury found a verdict, ‘Died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.’”
He cites Godden, William; “The Tale of — a Gust,” Symons’s Meteorological Magazine, 46:54, 1911.
Spiritualist Ludwig von Guldenstubbe had a no-nonsense approach to communicating with the dead — he left paper and pencil for them in Paris churches and cemeteries.
He got only a few scrawls at first, but apparently word spread through the underworld, and soon more illustrious correspondents turned up. In August 1856 von Guldenstubbe produced the signatures of the emperor Augustus and of Julius Caesar, collected at their statues in the Louvre:
He also received writings from Abélard, who wrote in bad Latin, and Héloïse, in modern French — evidently she’s been taking correspondence courses since the 12th century.
Sadly, it appears that death spoils one’s penmanship — here are writing samples from Louise de La Vallière, the repentant mistress of Louis XIV, before (top) and after dying:
Perhaps that’s understandable, given the circumstances.
In the 10 months between August 1856 and June 1857, von Guldenstubbe says he got more than 500 specimens this way, in the company of more than 50 witnesses — but somehow no one has ever duplicated his results.
Most graves in Massachusetts’ Stockbridge Cemetery are oriented with the feet facing east, so that on Resurrection Day the dead will rise facing Jerusalem.
Not so the Sedgwick family — patriarch Theodore Sedgwick ordered that his family’s graves form a circle with their feet toward the center. This way, on Judgment Day, Sedgwicks will see only other Sedgwicks.
It’s been called “the laughingstock of the entire Eastern seaboard.”
Grave inscription of a horse thief:
He found a rope and picked it up,
And with it walked away.
It happened that to other end
A horse was hitched, they say.
They took the rope and tied it up
Unto a hickory limb.
It happened that the other end
Was somehow hitched to him.
From Frederic William Unger, Epitaphs, 1904
On Aug. 11, 1978, English medical photographer Janet Parker fell ill with muscle pain, headache, and a rash.
She had often used the darkroom on the upper floor of the University of Birmingham Medical School in Edgbaston.
On the lower floor was a research lab where a live smallpox virus was being grown.
Parker was diagnosed with the disease two weeks later, and she died on Sept. 11. That makes her the last human being on earth to die of smallpox, the only infectious disease we have completely eradicated.
Description of the bed chamber of countess Cornelia Bandi as discovered by her maid one morning in 1731, reprinted in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1745:
Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, 2 legs untouched, from the foot to the knee, with their stockings on: between them was the lady’s head: whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; among which were found 3 fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture.
… The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated into the chest-of-drawers, even to foul the linens; nay the soot was also gone into a neighbouring kitchen, and hung on the walls, moveables, and utensils of it. From the pantry a piece of bread covered with that soot, and grown black, was given to several dogs, which refused to eat it.
“It is impossible that by any accident the lamp should have caused such a conflagration,” remarks the correspondent. “There is no room to suppose any supernatural cause. The likeliest cause then is a flash of lightning.”
In 1981, wildlife photographer Carl McCunn paid a bush pilot to drop him near the Coleen River in northern Alaska. He thought he’d arranged for the pilot to pick him up again.
State troopers found his body the following year. He had tried to winterize his tent, then shot himself in the head. A 100-page diary read, “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure.”
Byron wasn’t shy with his political opinions — he proposed this epitaph for Lord Castlereagh, who died in 1822:
Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
An ingenious American lately computed that in the United States alone, half-a-ton of pure gold, equivalent to half-a-million of dollars, was annually put, as stuffing, into the teeth of the living, or otherwise employed by the dentist on people’s food-grinding apparatus; and inasmuch as none of this precious metal is ever extracted after death, our shrewd calculator ‘reckoned’ that, at this rate, a quantity of gold equal to all that now in circulation would, in the course of three centuries, be lying buried in the earth. It is strange to think that one digger, the sexton to wit, is constantly returning to mother earth nearly as much gold as the other digger is constantly extracting from her bosom.
– Patrick Maxwell, Pribbles and Prabbles, 1906
On Feb. 23, 1885, convicted murderer John Lee of Devon was brought to the scaffold and positioned on the trapdoor. The noose was fitted around his neck, and executioner James Berry pulled the lever.
Two warders tried to force the trapdoor to open under Lee, but they failed. They removed the condemned man and tested the door, and it worked. So they put Lee in position again, and again Berry pulled the lever.
Again nothing happened.
Exasperated, the warders again put Lee aside and set to work on the door, this time with hatchets. When they were satisfied, they returned him to the scaffold, and Berry pulled the lever a third time.
So the Home Secretary commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment.
A marble-cutter, inscribing the words,–’Lord, she was thine’ upon a tombstone, found that he had not figured his spaces correctly and he reached the end of the stone one letter short. The epitaph therefore read:
‘Lord, she was thin.’
– Frederic William Unger, Epitaphs, 1904
Cited in Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.
A tied football match in southern Congo came to an unexpected conclusion on Oct. 28, 1998, when a lightning bolt struck and killed all 11 members of the visiting team.
“The athletes from [home team] Basanga curiously came out of this catastrophe unscathed,” reported the Kinshasa newspaper L’Avenir.
“The exact nature of the lightning has divided the population in this region, which is known for its use of fetishes in football.”
Here lies the body of Thomas Woodhen,
The most loving of husbands and amiable of men.
N.B.–His name was Woodcock, but it wouldn’t rhyme.
Erected by his loving widow.
From Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.
Another great man who lost his head after death: René Descartes. The French philosopher died in Sweden in 1650 and was interred there for 16 years. When his body was exhumed for return to France, the ambassador appropriated his right index finger (“the instrument of immortal writing”) and, apparently inspired, one of the Swedish guards took the skull, engraving on it “Descartes’ skull, taken and carefully kept by Israel Planstrom when the body was sent to France and hidden since that time.”
The skull bounced around Europe for 150 years, with various owners carving their names on it; it was discovered missing only when the coffin was opened again in 1819. A Swedish chemist, no doubt rolling his eyes, tracked it down and returned it to the French academy.
Bonus beheading: When Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in 1618, his head was embalmed and given to his wife. She kept it until her death in 1647, when it was returned to Raleigh’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Excerpt from the 1791 will of an English gentleman who had been sent unwillingly to live in Tipperary:
I give and bequeath the annual sum of ten pounds, to be paid in perpetuity out of my estate, to the following purpose. It is my will and pleasure that this sum shall be spent in the purchase of a certain quantity of the liquor vulgarly called whisky, and it shall be publicly given out that a certain number of persons, Irish only, not to exceed twenty, who may choose to assemble in the cemetery in which I shall be interred, on the anniversary of my death, shall have the same distributed to them. Further, it is my desire that each shall receive it by half-a-pint at a time till the whole is consumed, each being likewise provided with a stout oaken stick and a knife, and that they shall drink it all on the spot. Knowing what I know of the Irish character, my conviction is, that with these materials given, they will not fail to destroy each other, and when in the course of time the race comes to be exterminated, this neighbourhood at least may, perhaps, be colonized by civilized and respectable Englishmen.
From Virgil McClure Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills, 1911.