Famous Last Apothegms

The word apothegm (pronounced ape-them’) is defined as a short, terse saying. The recording of the dying words of great men was once a respected practice. It was a common custom to huddle around the deathbed of a prominent citizen in order to catch the final words and relay them to the world. Famous men were expected to have something pithy to say about the experience of dying. Unfortunately the reporting tended to be extremely unreliable: families were not above dressing up a quote for public consumption. Disregarding their accuracy, here are a few apothegms history has recorded that were uttered by the famous and infamous.
The first that comes to mind are those last words spoken by the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. He looked his assassin in the face and said, “
Et tu, Brute? Then Caesar falls!” (Shakespeare, Act 1) Of course everyone who has read their Bible knows that as Jesus Christ hung on the cross he cried with a loud voice, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke23:46) It is reported that General George Armstrong Custer stood on the battlefield at Big Horn and turned to his sergeant and asked, “Where in the Hell did all those Indians come from?” Voltaire (1694-1778) probably rehearsed his departing words, “What, the flames already?” John Holmes, uncle of Oliver Wendell Holmes, was dying in Cambridge. A nurse reached under the covers to feel his feet and told the relatives around the old man’s deathbed that he was still alive. “Nobody ever died with their feet warm,” she whispered. Even in his final moments, Holmes’s historical sense did not desert him. He looked up, clear-eyed, and spoke his last words: “John Rogers did.” Rogers had been burned at the stake for heresy in 1555.
Here in America the last words of our dying presidents were respectfully recorded. In the ebbing afternoon of his last day, George Washington said graciously to his physicians:
“I thank you for your attention. You’d better not take any more trouble about me, but let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.” He lasted until ten o’clock that night. His final words were funeral instructions: “Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead….Tis well.”
John Adams died on July 4, 1826 at the age of 90 years and 274 days. By coincidence, Adams who was our country’s second president and Jefferson, its third, died on the same day in the same year. On the morning of July 4, he asked to be dressed and propped up at his bedroom window to see the celebration of our nation’s fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Late that afternoon he lapsed into a coma but not before saying: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” Unbeknown to him, Jefferson had died that morning.
The eighty-three-year-old Jefferson suffered bouts of amoebic dysentery and rheumatism. He became dehydrated and drifted from beclouded consciousness into a stupor. He woke briefly, asking in a soft, husky voice, “
Is it yet the Fourth?” He clung to life until the morning of Independence Day. On June 28, 1836 James Madison, who was bedridden, stared fixedly across the room and when a niece asked, “What is the matter, Uncle James?” Madison answered, “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.” He then died. President Andrew Jackson retired to Hermitage, his estate near Nashville, Tennessee. At the age of 76 he developed dropsy. On June 8, 1845, his breathing painfully labored, Jackson addressed his bedside relatives: “Please don’t cry. Be good children and we’ll all meet in heaven.”
There are many other noteworthy apothegms from individuals who, on their deathbed, have uttered words of advice or encouragement. It is interesting to note that today, with medical doctors prescribing special life-prolonging machinery, no one can be sure when death has occurred, including the corpse itself. The shortest death quotation that history has recorded was uttered by Cleopatra after being bitten by the asp. She was heard to scream, “Ouch!”