Last words are a tricky business. Many famous ones have been misquoted, misattributed, distorted by rumor, or just plain made up. Even the most well-attested final utterances are ultimately dependent on the fallible memories of eyewitnesses, except in those rare cases where actual recorded audio and video survive.
All those caveats aside, there have been some reliably-reported cases in history when men and women in their last moments truly rose to the occasion, saying something so memorable that if we had read it in a novel or seen it in a movie, we might have considered it unrealistic. Here are a few such examples.
James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States, fell ill and passed away only three months after leaving office in 1849.
Polk's wife Sarah was at his bedside, and his extremely romantic last words have come down to us.1,62764Great last words?
Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was injured in his left arm by friendly fire while riding back from a scouting expedition in the dusk toward the end of the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
The arm was amputated, but Jackson contracted pneumonia and passed a few days later. Jackson's wife Mary Anna was with him at the end, as was his doctor, Dr. Hunter McGuire, who left this description of the final moments:
A few moments before he [passed] he cried out in his delirium, "Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks—" then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."1,138105Great last words?
- Photo: Miracle on 34th Street / 20th Century Fox
The last words of British actor Edmund Gwenn, best remembered for playing Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, have been condensed over time into "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
However, the longer original form does appear to be reasonably well-attested:
One day [Miracle director George] Seaton, coming into the room and looking down at his game old friend, felt a sudden surge of compassion.
“All this must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy,” he said sympathetically.
Gwenn didn’t buy that sympathy. A smile touched his lips.
“Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy,” he answered cheerfully.
They were his words of exit. His head turned on the pillow. He was dead. Up to his last breath and in spite of great physical suffering, Gwenn had actually lived the gentle whimsicality on which his career was based.87585Great last words?
As with John F. Kennedy, King's life ended suddenly, so his final words - a simple request to musician Ben Branch - did not reflect any conscious awareness that the end was imminent. (King, however, was well aware of the persistent danger his career put him in, and expressed that awareness in his final public speech.)
Nonetheless, King's last words seem to transcend the circumstances that made him utter them.981110Great last words?