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.
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:
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.”
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.”
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,
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
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.)
In 1805 a disturbed Venice shoemaker named Matthew Lovat nearly managed to crucify himself. From William Wood Seymour’s The Cross in Tradition, History, and Art, 1898:
Having prepared a cross, he stripped himself naked except for a girdle about his loins. Fearing that he would not be able to attach himself securely to the cross, he covered the lower part with a net, extending from the suppedaneum to the transverse. Having introduced himself into this, he next drove a nail through the palm of his right hand by striking it on the floor until the point appeared on the outside. He then drove a nail through both feet, fastening them to the wood. Tying himself around the waist to the cross, he next wounded himself in the side with a knife. He was yet in the room: to show himself to the people required the exercise of much fortitude and resolution. The foot of the cross having been placed upon the window-sill, he drew himself forward by means of his fingers pressing on the floor, until the lower end, overbalancing the rest, the cross fell outside of the house and hung by ropes previously fixed to sustain it. He then fastened the right hand, already pierced by the nail, to its proper place, but after driving the nail through the left hand he was unable to affix it. This took place at eight o’clock in the morning. As soon as he was seen he was taken down and carried to the hospital where his wounds were completely cured.
I haven’t been able to learn why he thought this was necessary. After an earlier attempt was prevented, “Being interrogated repeatedly as to the motive for his self-crucifixion, he maintained an obstinate silence, except, that he once said to his brother, that that day was the festival of St. Matthew, and that he could give no farther explanation.” After the 1805 attempt, he would say only, “The pride of man must be mortified, it must expire on the cross.” He starved himself to death in an asylum shortly afterward.
Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949
On July 17, 1915, Winston Churchill sealed the following message in an envelope marked “To be sent to Mrs. Churchill in the event of my death”:
Do not grieve for me too much. I am a spirit confident of my rights. Death is only an incident & not the most important which happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, especially since I met you my darling I have been happy, & you have taught me how noble a woman’s heart can be. If there is anywhere else I shall be on the look out for you. Meanwhile look forward, feel free, rejoice in life, cherish the children, guard my memory. God bless you.
Three decades later, on his 75th birthday, he told the New York Times Magazine, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”