All’s One for That
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The remains of Richard III were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012. In the city center searchers located the site of the demolished Greyfriars Church where Richard’s body had been buried hastily in 1485, and the skeleton of an adult male human was found beneath the church’s choir. It exhibited severe scoliosis of the spine and 10 injuries to the head, rib, and pelvis, including “a mortal battlefield wound in the back of the skull” apparently inflicted by a halberd. The king’s identity was confirmed by a mitochondrial DNA sample provided by his modern descendants.

He was reburied in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

04/13/2024 UPDATE: He was identified through descendants of his elder sister, Anne of York — he had no direct living descendants. My mistake. (Thanks, Steve.)

In a Word
Image: Wikimedia Commons

n. an unexpected view of something that startles one; a sudden fear

n. the act of sneering or laughing derisively; mockery; derision

adj. bringing or producing death

adj. inciting, animating, or inspiring

Photographer Philippe Halsman took three hours to pose seven women in the shape of a skull for his surrealistic portrait In Voluptas Mors, after a sketch by Salvador Dalí, who’s seen in the foreground. Director Jonathan Demme borrowed the idea for the one-sheet poster for his 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs — the skull image on the “death’s head moth” is a miniature version of the same tableau.

On the Wing

Diagnosed with terminal melanoma at 50, Phoebe Snetsinger resolved to devote her remaining time to watching birds. Between 1981 and 1999, as her cancer went periodically into remission, she visited every continent several times over, traversing jungles, swamps, deserts, and mountains and surviving malaria, a boat accident, abduction in Ethiopia, and rape in Papua New Guinea. In 1995 she became the first person to see 8,000 species of bird, and in time she extended the list to 8,398, nearly 85 percent of the world’s known species. She died in 1999 when her van overturned during a birding trip in Madagascar. The last bird she’d observed was a red-shouldered vanga, a species that had been described as new to science only two years previously.

In her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, she wrote, “When I was given my death sentence by the doctors, one of my immediate reactions that I clearly remember was ‘Oh no — there are all those things I haven’t yet done, and now will never have a chance to do.’ … The preparation and primarily the birding itself, plus the record keeping afterwards, all enabled me to forget the threat to my life (or at least push it aside) and to immerse myself totally in what I was doing.”

The Female Stranger,_Alexandria,_Virginia_(8597808671).jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

This enigmatic headstone stands in in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, over the body of an unknown woman. Nothing definite seems to be known as to the woman’s identity, apart from the year of her death, but the poignant epitaph has fueled speculation for more than two centuries. One common suggestion is that she was Theodosia Burr Alston, a daughter of Aaron Burr who disappeared at sea in 1813, but this doesn’t account for Alston’s whereabouts in the three years before the mystery woman’s interment at Alexandria. It seems unlikely now that the inscription will ever be explained.

A Last Performance

Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, read a poem at the gallows:

I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad. I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad. I am going to the Lordy, Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!

I love the Lordy with all my soul, Glory hallelujah! And that is the reason I am going to the Lord. Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lord.

I saved my party and my land, Glory hallelujah! But they have murdered me for it, and that is the reason I am going to the Lordy. Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!

I wonder what I will do when I get to the Lordy, I guess that I will weep no more when I get to the Lordy! Glory hallelujah!

I wonder what I will see when I get to the Lordy, I expect to see most splendid things, beyond all earthly conception, when I am with the Lordy! Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am with the Lord.

He asked for an orchestral accompaniment, but it was denied.

11/18/2023 UPDATE: Improbably, Guiteau eventually got his accompaniment — in Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical Assassins, his character sings part of the poem while cakewalking up and down the scaffold:

(Thanks, Molly.)


1985 saw an oddity in the chess world: Russian grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi undertook a game with Hungarian Géza Maróczy, who had been dead for 34 years. The game was arranged by amateur Swiss player Wolfgang Eisenbeiss, who enlisted medium Robert Rollans to contact the deceased grandmaster and communicate his moves. (Rollans did not play chess and was not paid.)

Closely watched in Germany, the game took nearly eight years to unfold, hampered by Korchnoi’s schedule, Rollans’ illness, and Maróczy’s unhurried pace. Korchnoi, who won after 47 moves, remarked that his opponent had shown weakness in the opening but made up for it with a strong endgame.

After an analysis in 2007, neuropsychiatrist and amateur player Vernon Neppe declared that Maróczy had played at master level and that his moves could not have been found by a computer. Further, when asked to confirm his identity, the deceased grandmaster had dictated 38 pages of text to Rollans, complaining, “I am astonished when somebody does not believe me to be here personally.” Historian and chess expert Laszlo Sebestyen determined that 87.9 percent of Maróczy’s assertions there (about his playing, tournament wins, and personal life) had been accurate.

But in a 2021 critique, Edwin C. May and Sonali Bhatt Marwaha point out that Maróczy had typically taken 10 days to make each move, during which time Rollans might easily have consulted outside assistance. And the medium had had ample time to prepare Maróczy’s 1986 communication confirming his identity. Ultimately the answers lie with Rollans, who, ironically, passed quickly out of reach — he died just 19 days after Maróczy’s resignation.


On Aug. 20, 1961, Harvard physicist Percy Williams Bridgman was found dead at his home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. After suffering for months with metastatic cancer, he had shot himself in the head. He left a two-sentence note:

“It isn’t decent for society to make a man do this thing himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able to do it myself. P.W.B.”

Dark Days

On June 17, 1794, Charles-Henri Sanson, high executioner of the First French Republic, guillotined more than 50 “conspirators” in 28 minutes, including an 18-year-old girl who seemed so fragile that “a tiger would have pitied her.” That night he wrote in his diary:

Terrible day. The guillotine devoured 54. My strength went, my heart failed me. That evening, sitting down to dinner, I told my wife that I could see spots of blood on my napkin. … I don’t lay claim to any sensibility I don’t possess: I have seen too often and too close up the sufferings and death of my fellow human beings to be easily affected. If what I feel is not pity it must be caused by an attack of nerves; perhaps it is the hand of God punishing my cowardly pliancy to what so little resembles that justice which I was born to serve.

(Quoted in Frances Larson, Severed, 2014.)


Entries in the keyword index of C. Bernard Ruffin’s Last Words (1995), a collection of the final utterances of famous people:

  • bored: I’m b. 98; I am b. of it all 393
  • comfortable: I am c. 154; perfectly c. 307; very c. 549; quite c. 752; most c. and pleasant life 873; c. enough to die 1223
  • cry/crying: don’t c. 498, 712, 1397; you mustn’t c. 654; nothing to c. about 654; do not c. 957; why are you c. 1152; you’re not c. 1648; you cannot c. 1651; departed with a sad c. 1700
  • damn/damned: d. it! 463, 883; can’t see a d. thing 580; God d. it! 645, 814; God d. the whole friggin’ world 645; God d. you! 719, 733; lot of d. foolery! 907; so d. much left 1137; a god-d. hotel room 1398; your d. lies 1443; all the d.-fool things you do 1469; I’m so d. tired 1623; God d. 1836; d. tired 1858; take the d. thing away 1960
  • dark: why is it so d. 352; too d. 493, 1425; leap in the d. 898; the d. way of the Church 936; life is d. to me 1192; laboring from daylight to d. 1251; long, d. road 1428; d. o’er the way 1499; go home in the d. 1509
  • grieve: do not g. for me 46; it is wrong to g. about it 10; don’t g. 146; do not g. 207, 1453; g. not for my death 592; why should you g., daughter 899
  • sad: s. that I have to leave 118; you mustn’t be s. 654; it’s s. to live on a Monday 1535; parted with a s. cry 1700
  • worry: don’t w. about me 194; don’t w. 455, 777, 1515; I am not w. 782; do not w. 795; does not w. me at all 1152; nothing to w. about 1167 that does not w. me 1418; don’t you w. about anything 1727

Minutes before his death, retired Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter told an aide visiting him in the hospital, “I hope I don’t spoil your Washington’s birthday.”

Last Words

On Sept. 8, 1880, an explosion tore through the Seaham Colliery, a coal mine in County Durham in the North of England, filling both shafts with debris and trapping scores of men in the burning seams. Most of the 164 dead were found where they had been working, suggesting that death had come quickly, but some of those farther from the shafts appear to have survived for hours or even longer in pockets of air — the oil in some of their lamps was exhausted. Some of these men had had time to leave messages to those who might find them:

September 8 1880
E.Hall and J.Lonsdale died at half-past 3 in the morning.W.Murray and W.Morris and James Clarke visited the rest on half-past nine in the morn and all living in the incline,
Yours truly,
W.Murray, Master-Shifter

Five o’ clock, we have been praying to God

The Lord has been with us, we are all ready for heaven – Ric Cole, half past 2 o’ clock Thursday

Bless the Lord we have had a jolly prayer meeting, every man ready for glory. Praise the Lord. Sign.R.Cole

Dear Margaret,
There was 40 of us altogether at 7am. Some was singing hymns but my thoughts was on my little Michael that him and I would meet in heaven at the same time. Oh Dear wife, God save you and the children, and pray for me … Dear wife, Farewell. My last thoughts are about you and the children. Be sure and learn the children to pray for me. Oh what an awful position we are in ! Michael Smith, 54 Henry Street

The last had been scratched on a tin water bottle with a rusty nail by Michael Smith, who had left his dying infant son to go to work in the mine that morning. The son died on the same day.

(From Durham Records Online.)