The famous last words of 12 enigmatic icons
The famous last words of the dying, or the last dying words of the famous—whatever you call them, one thing is for sure: it's a good thing someone was around to write them down.
1. “A dying man can do nothing easy.”
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
A printer whose success as an author led him to take up politics, Franklin played a major role in the American Revolution and helped draw up the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As a scientist, he is remembered for his research in electricity and his many inventions. In his last years, Franklin corresponded widely, received many visitors, and invented a device for lifting books from high shelves.
2. “Moose. Indian.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
Thoreau is considered one of the most influential figures in American thought and literature. In 1845, Thoreau built himself a small cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. He remained there for more than two years, "living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life." Wishing to lead a life free of materialistic pursuits, he supported himself by growing vegetables and by surveying and doing odd jobs in the nearby village.
3. "Texas! Texas! Margaret..."
Sam Houston (1793–1863)
Houston was an American frontier hero and statesman of Texas. After the surrender of the Alamo, Houston's army persistently retreated before the numerically superior forces of Santa Anna, and there was panic among Texas settlers and much criticism of Houston. He brilliantly redeemed himself at the battle of San Jacinto when, by a surprise attack, he decisively defeated the Mexicans and captured Santa Anna himself. In 1836, Houston was elected the first president of the new Republic of Texas.
Margaret, by the way, was his wife.
4. “You are wonderful.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930)
Doyle was also directing his final words to his wife.
Educated at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Doyle received a medical degree in 1881. In 1887, the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet,” appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Doyle abandoned his medical practice in 1890 and devoted his time to writing. The brilliant and theatrical Holmes solves all his extraordinarily complex cases through ingenious deductive reasoning. The Holmes cult has given rise to several notable clubs, of which the Baker Street Irregulars is perhaps the most famous.
5. “I am not in the least afraid to die.”
Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh and for the ministry at Cambridge but lost interest in both professions during the training. His interest in natural history led to his friendship with the botanist J. S. Henslow—and through him came the opportunity to make a five-year cruise (1831–36) as official naturalist aboard the Beagle. This started Darwin on a career of accumulating and assimilating data that resulted in the formulation of his concept of evolution and his explication of natural and sexual selection.
6. “Stand away, fellow, from my diagram.”
Archimedes (287–212 BCE)
Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, physicist, and inventor in the 3rd century BCE. He is famous for his work in geometry (on the circle, sphere, cylinder, and parabola), physics, mechanics, and hydrostatics. Few facts of his life are known, but tradition has made several stories famous—one of which is that he discovered the fluid displacement principle while bathing.
7. "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
Nathan Hale (1755–1776)
A young schoolteacher when the Revolution broke out, Hale was commissioned an officer in the Connecticut militia. He volunteered for the dangerous mission of getting information about the British forces on Long Island, where he went in the natural disguise of a schoolmaster. Inexperienced, he revealed his mission to a former British officer, was captured, and was hanged without trial.
8. “I’m going away tonight.”
James Brown (1933–2006)
Combining gospel and blues roots with a stage presentation that mixed calculated hysteria and absolute musical precision, Brown emerged by 1962 as the leading star in rhythm and blues and one of its key innovators. His nicknames included "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business" and "Soul Brother Number One.” By the early 1970s, he had become one of the first black entertainers to assume complete control of his own career, and this remains an enduring aspect of his legacy.
9. “I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring.”
Richard Feynman (1918–1988)
Feynman was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Princeton (1941–42) and Los Alamos (1942–45). He applied his dynamism, curiosity, and intuition to linguistics, music, art, and teaching, and was an outspoken critic of NASA's laxity in constructing the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger. His free-spirited personality engaged a wide public with his memoir, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (1984).
10. “Good night, my kitten.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
After a career in journalism, Hemingway became known for simple sentences, enigmatic dialogue, and precise description in his fiction. The Sun Also Rises (1926) gained him instant acclaim and seemed to capture "the lost generation." By the 1950s, however, Hemingway was restless and unable to complete new writing projects while suffering from various physical ailments, mental depression, and eventually a form of paranoia. He committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.
11. “I feel great!”
Pistol Pete Maravich (1948–1988)
Before his NBA career, Maravich was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association scoring leader at Louisiana State University (1968–70), virtually rewriting the National Collegiate Athlete Association record book. Nicknamed "Pistol Pete," he was elected to basketball's Hall of Fame in 1987—a year before his death.
12. “I must go in, for the fog is rising.”
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
Dickinson is known for her poignant, compressed, and deeply charged poems, although only two of her poems were published in her lifetime. Her sister, Lavinia Dickinson, discovered hundreds of her poems after her death and they were published in selections from 1890 on. Dickinson died after living as a recluse since roughly 1862.
What are the best "last words" you've ever heard?
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