Dying Declarations – Last Words in the hands of Historians
In May 1906 the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lay in his sick bed. That evening an old friend arrived from town to see the aged tragedian. Entering the room he greeted the nurse with “How is Mr Ibsen today?” “Oh”, she cheerily replied, “he’s doing much better.” At this Ibsen sat up incredulous in bed declaring “Tvert imod!” (tr. On the contrary!) upon which he fell back into his pillow unconscious, dying shortly thereafter. For a writer whose characters rarely even cracked a smile, he managed to exit the world with one of the finest deathbed jokes in history.
Studying the last words of notable people provides some of the best material for dinner party anecdotes. They would, however, seem to serve little purpose for historians outside of a predictable fashion in which to open an article or conclude a biography. Interest in them by serious historians invites two major criticisms. Firstly, collecting them seems to be a task better suited for antiquarians. This is not to say that their collection is an easy task. A cursory look into William B. Brahms’s epic 2010 compendium Last Words of Notable People reveals an intimidating voyage of references; hunting through multiple biographies, archival materials, and interviews with witnesses to provide a properly evidenced consortium of the last words of over 3000 people from nearly as lengthy a period is not to be undertaken lightly or carelessly. Yet like a simple collection of dates unconnected to one another, the words alone offer little to an evaluation of a period or theme. Secondly, a focus on these declarations can be construed as simplistic “great man” history. “Kiss me Hardy” for example encourages a view of Trafalgar that only encompasses Nelson’s death and not the thousands of ordinary sailors who died around him. While there are some well known declarations by lesser figures such as Union civil war General John Sedgwick, standing atop the parapet encouraging his men with “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”, such examples are rarely elevated above the rank of tidbits demonstrating the universal violence of the US Civil War, touching officers and enlisted men.
However, used thoughtfully, such historical anecdotes can be powerful tools. By their nature of occurring at often the most vulnerable moment in a life, they can provide a valuable insight into the real person behind the romanticised image of great men and women. In this regard Winston Churchill’s last words might be the most important he spoke after the end of the Second World War. The image of Britain’s fearless war leader, best encapsulated either in the famous 1941 Yousef Karsh photograph of an incredulous bulldoggish Churchill, or in the titanic oratory with which he voiced the mood of a nation at the country’s darkest hour, shrouds the real Winston in his post-war years. By his death in 1965 he was a shadow of his former self; in many ways the last Victorian, his political career after the war dubious and short lived, he outlived many of his contemporaries including most of the other national war leaders. As he died, instead of the personal epitaph or message to the nation that characterises the last words of many other great figures of history (from Roman Emperors to American founding fathers), Churchill sighed and said “I’m bored with it all” before slipping into a coma. It is difficult to deny Churchill’s status as a “great man”; it is equally difficult to understand him as a complete person without thinking about his rather sad state of mind when he finally died. His occasionally depressive end was as much a part of his life as reporting at Omdurman or the rubble of the Blitz. “Bored with it all” reminds of us of the mortality of these seemingly immortal figures, of their humanity behind the public iron will. Such a reminder is necessary in order to write well-rounded histories of such figures.
While many famous figures spoke their last words at the end of a long life others had a dying declaration thrust upon them. That death can, in many cases, be unpredictable and inconvenient to the historical narrative is occasionally hard to remember when attempting to evaluate the past in s broad fashion. Assassination in particular creates an array of sudden and unspectacular last words, from Prime Minister Spencer Perceval’s “Oh, I am murdered” to Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa’s panicked “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something”. However, the last words of one figure in particular profoundly stresses the unpredictability of death and its interruption of what might seem the natural passage of history as well as returning the humanity to discussions. Possibly nobody has ever felt the hand of history upon them heavier than Abraham Lincoln. Here was a man, like a modern day Achilles, obsessed with his own death and place in the historical narrative. Deep in a depression in his early thirties, he responded to a friend’s concern over his possibly suicidal nature with – “I would just as soon die right now but I have not yet done anything to make any human being remember that I have lived”. Signing the emancipation proclamation after a thousand handshakes that morning, his hand trembled. Lincoln paused and massaged it until it stopped concerned, he said, that with a wavering signature “Posterity will say he hesitated”. Yet for a man so focussed on his inevitable mortality his last words were far more human and far less momentous. Sat in Ford’s Theatre he tried to hold his wife Mary’s hand; she was concerned with the opinion of the woman sat next to them at such a public show of affection. Abe smiled at her and said “She won’t think anything of it” taking her hand shortly before John Wilkes Booth burst into their box. Lincoln’s death has become a significant element of the Civil War narrative, a convenient concluding moment, and yet it can be seen as profoundly unsuited to the narrative of Abraham himself. This man was expecting a momentous but slow death for which he could prepare a dying testament, like a new Washington and his “Tis Well”, which would encapsulate his life and his era. Instead considering his unintentional last words gives us the real human Lincoln and not the imagined “Honest Abe”.
The reliability of last words, particularly those from many centuries ago, is always in question. We can never be sure of Cleopatra’s dramatic “So here it is”. In some cases we only have the last known words – when Karl Marx threw his housekeeper out with “Go on, get out! Last Words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” his actual dying declaration was lost to eternity. Yet we should not dismiss the validity of these statements where they can be verified. Though the prepared statements like Mary Queen of Scots’s “Lord, into Thine hands I commend my spirit” tells us of how they wanted to be remembered, as the examples of Lincoln and Churchill show death can lift the veil of greatness to allow us to peek at the human behind it.
Images: “The Death of Lord Nelson” by J. Heath after B. West (1811), & lithograph of Curtis & Ives “Assassination of Lincoln” (1865), courtesy of Wikimedia commons
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