Sunday, October 22, 2017

323. Famous Last Words and Gestures

      Anaphora Literary Press invites submissions of full-length manuscripts of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; there is no submission fee and it reads year round. For more information and guidelines for submissions, go here.  

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       Recently I read that, for a final gesture, Mata Hari, the exotic dancer whom the French executed in 1917 as a German spy, blew kisses at the firing squad just before they fired.  Legendary femme fatale as she supposedly was, Mata Hari was perhaps not even a spy; needing money, she took cash from the Germans for useless information that was already known.  But what struck me about the anecdote was how charming and courageous her last gesture was, which in turn set me to thinking about last words and final gestures of other people, and what they said about those people and their society.  Hence this post.  Granted, many of these citations may be more legendary than factual; only those reported by trustworthy eyewitnesses are beyond doubt.

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In 1906, in all her glory.

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Statue of Nathan Hale at the CIA
headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
         I grew up on stories of heroic Americans whose last words were memorable.  Nathan Hale, the American schoolteacher hanged by the British as a spy in 1776, declared, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” But did he really say it?  Possibly, but the British officer who described Hale’s courage and composure did not mention it.


         “Don’t give up the ship!” were the dying words of Capt. James Lawrence, whose frigate Chesapeake was disabled by fire from the British frigate Shannon in an engagement outside of Boston on June 1, 1813.  Yes, he really said it, but alas, a British boarding party overwhelmed his crew and captured his disabled ship.  A flag with the words “Don’t give up the ship” stitched in it was flown from the USS Lawrence, the flagship of Capt. Lawrence’s friend Oliver H. Perry, in Perry’s victorious fight with a British squadron on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, and the original flag is now displayed at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis, Maryland.

         On his deathbed John Adams, second president of the U.S., murmured “Jefferson” or “Jefferson survives.”  Longtime political opponents, he and Thomas Jefferson, third president of the U.S., had later reconciled and carried on a lengthy correspondence.  Both had signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and both, the last surviving signers, managed to die on July 4, 1826.  In Massachuetts, however, Adams was unaware of Jefferson’s death in distant Virginia five hours prior to his own, and so thought Jefferson the survivor.

         While we’re dealing with politicians, how about Winston Churchill, who saw Britain through the darkest days of World War II?  What were his last words?  Rather different from those just mentioned: “What a bore it is!”  He was departing this earth slowly, and found prolonged incapacity alien to his temperament.  This is one of two Churchill quotes that I love.  The other came near the beginning of his career in Parliament: “But that’s detail work.  I don’t do detail work!”  How wonderful it must be, to hand detail work over to some obliging flunky.  He presumably did it all his life, while busying himself with grandiose policy issues and matters of state.

         The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, on being shot by the young Serb assassin Gavrilo Princip at Sarajevo in 1914, remained sitting upright in the limousine while being driven to the governor’s residence for medical attention.  Mortally wounded, the archduke begged his wife to live for the sake of their children, and then, when asked about his injury, replied several times, “Es ist gar nichts” (It is nothing).  Which didn’t keep him from dying, or World War I from breaking out, triggered by his assassination.

File:Postcard for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.jpg
The Archduke and his wife leaving the Sarajevo guildhall, where he had 
made a speech.  They then left in the open car and, minutes later, were shot.
Karl Tröstl?

         Now how about the two famous Marxes, because, oh yes, there were two.  The last words of Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto and so much more: “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”  And the other Marx, Groucho: “This is no way to live.”  As for his brother Harpo, the consistently mute harpist who spoke not a word in films, if he spoke any last words, I haven’t found them; hopefully, he kept in character and didn’t.

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One of the Marxes.

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The other Marx.

         Groucho wasn’t the only one to inject a note of humor.  Oscar Wilde, dying of meningitis, reputedly said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  One or the other of us has got to go.”  The wallpaper, it seems, won out.  But the quote has been questioned, since it was reported later by friends; no one witnessed it at the time of his death.  (A familiar problem with reported last words.)

         Last words became something of a tradition in England back in Tudor times, when public beheadings were popular entertainment, and the scaffold provided a wonderful farewell stage.  Condemned for adultery, Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, humiliated Henry by announcing, “I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper.”  Culpepper, too, lost his heart and then his head.

         The French Revolution prompted many a memorable utterance either on the scaffold facing the guillotine, or in the tumbril en route to it.  The noblest of them all was probably that of Madame Roland, a Girondin  moderate among the revolutionaries, who was eliminated by Robespierre and his Jacobin crew:

            “O liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!”

             Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!

         When betrayed and condemned by Robespierre, Danton, no innocent, conducted himself with dignity on the scaffold.  His last words were to Sanson, the executioner: “Show my head to the people; it is well worth showing.”  And Sanson no doubt did just that, it being customary.

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Maximilien de Robespierre, a portrait circa 1790.
The Incorruptible, elegant, his jaw still intact.

         Robespierre too, the so-called Incorruptible, was fed to Madame la Guillotine, for the Revolution ended by devouring its own.  In 1794 the day of his downfall came and he attempted suicide, but only managed to shoot himself in the jaw.  When he was delivered, bound securely, to the executioner, Sanson pulled his coat off and then, in a needless act of cruelty, snatched away the dirty linen binding his lower jaw, which then fell open, at which point Robespierre uttered a piercing shriek, hideous to hear: “Sanson, you cannot be too quick!”  With the fall of his head into the waiting basket, and its display to a cheering crowd, the Reign of Terror came at last to a bloody end.

File:Execution robespierre, saint just....jpg
Robespierre's execution, July 28, 1794.  The executed man is not Robespierre, 
who, dressed in brown and wearing a hat, is seated in the cart nearest the scaffold..

         And the royal victims of the Incorruptible?  When the dethroned king, Louis XVI, mounted the scaffold and let his hands be tied, he addressed the crowd: “Frenchmen, I die innocent.  It is from the scaffold and soon appearing before God that I tell you so.  I pardon my enemies; I desire that France—”   At this point a general on horseback commanded, “Tambours!” and Louis’s voice was drowned out by a roll of drums.  Sanson’s blade fell, and the ex-king’s head was shown to the crowd, inciting shouts of “Vive la République!”

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Louis XVI's execution.  A German engraving of 1793.  
After this, for the Revolution there was no turning back.
         Marie Antoinette’s last words were of a humbler sort.  “Excuse me, sir, I didn’t mean to,” she said to Sanson, having inadvertently stepped on his toe.  Her head too was shown to the populace, likewise inspiring cries of “Vive la République!”

         What became of the executioner Sanson?  Did he too fall victim to the guillotine?  First of all, it must be stated that there were two executioners with the name Sanson.  The father, Charles-Henri Sanson, executed Louis XVI, Danton, and Robespierre, but his younger son and apprentice, Henri, executed Marie-Antoinette and later succeeded his father as the official executioner of Paris.  Father and son came from a long line of executioners that stretched back into the ancien régime.  The father, whose diary reveals a humane man usually anxious to spare his victims unnecessary suffering, survived the Revolution and died in 1806.  In 1792 his older son and presumed heir, Gabriel, died after falling off the scaffold while displaying a severed head to the crowd.  The father was obviously more sure-footed, as was his son Henri, who served as executioner of Paris for 47 years.

         And Napoleon and Josephine, who were spared the horrors of the scaffold and the niceties of the Sanson clan?  Josephine, divorced by him so he could marry the Austrian princess Marie-Louise and have a son and heir by her, is said to have murmured, “Napoleon … Elba … Marie-Louise …”  And Napoleon, dying in exile on Saint Helena?  “France … armée … tête d’armée [head of the army]… Joséphine …”  A true love affair, it would seem.

Max von Schwartzkoppen in 1895.
         Another military man much involved in French history was Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché in Paris in 1894, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Doubts about his guilt arose, and the nation was divided by the resulting controversy.  Years later, on his deathbed, von Schwartzkoppen exclaimed, “Frenchmen, Dreyfus is innocent!”  Knowing the real culprit was a Captain Esterhazy, he had longed to proclaimed Dreyfus’s innocence at the time of his trial, but was silenced by his superiors, who saw a France rent apart by controversy as in Germany’s best interests.  Only on his deathbed in 1917, with World War I raging, could von Schwartzkoppen at last proclaim the truth.

File:Bill Poole.jpg

         “I die a true American!”  There rings a noble sentiment, one that all loyal and patriotic Americans could cheer.   Was it uttered by a patriot like Nathan Hale or Captain Lawrence, or by a Founding Father of our great republic?  Not at all.  These were the last words of William Poole, known also as Bill the Butcher, founder of the Bowery Boys street gang and a leader of the vehemently anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party in New York in the 1850s.  A boxer and brawler, he was quite capable of assaulting a bartender and beating his face to jelly for having declined to serve him a third round of drinks.  On February 25, 1855, two friends of a rival boxer with whom he was feuding shot Poole in the back in a bar on Broadway near Prince Street.  Taken to his home on Christopher Street, he lingered, then died on March 8, telling his friends, “Good-bye, boys.  I die a true American.”  He was buried in an unmarked grave in Green-Wood cemetery, Brooklyn.  One of his murderers was apprehended and tried three times for murder, but each trial ended in a hung jury.

         Let’s move on to some less unsavory characters and their last words. 

·      The composer Gustav Mahler, conducting an imaginary orchestra: “Mozart.”

·      Goethe: “Mehr Licht.”  (More light.)  A plea for more enlightenment?  No, he just wanted more lamplight.

·      The emperor Augustus:  “I found Rome made of clay, and leave her to you made of marble.”

         Finally, we come to those dwelling in the higher realms of philosophy and religion.  Socrates, condemned to die by drinking hemlock, tells his friends how decent the jailor has been, and then, as recounted in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, having drunk the hemlock, says to one of them, “Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius.  See to it and don’t forget.”  But what does this mean?  Since Asclepius, the mortal son of Apollo, was a healer capable even of raising the dead, it is usually taken to mean that Socrates saw death as a cure that released the soul from the body. 

File:He drank the contents as though it were a draught of Wine.jpg
         I have heard that Mahatma Gandhi, mortally wounded, blessed his murderer, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.
         The Buddha’s last words to the monks attending him:  “I exhort you: all compounded things are subject to vanish.  Strive with earnestness.”  He then entered the dimension of nothingness and finally was totally unbound, to fully grasp which would require a deep knowledge of the Blessed One’s teachings.

         Joan of Arc, being burned at the stake by the English: “Hold the cross high, that I may see it through the flames!”  Then, as the flames engulfed her: “Jesus … Jesus …”

File:Jacopo Tintoretto - Crucifixion (detail) - WGA22519.jpg
Tintoretto's Crucifixion (detail), the most dramatic interpretation of the Crucifixion 
I have ever seen.  In the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.  For the full impact, 
you have to see the original.

         For Christians, of course, the supreme last words are those of Christ on the cross, as reported in the Gospel of John (19:30): “It is finished,” meaning that he had completed his sacrifice for humankind, following which he bowed his head and gave up the ghost.  In the Latin Vulgate this is translated from Greek as “Consummatum est,” which appears in many inscriptions and in sacred art.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

"This is an easy read about a hard life.  Interesting characters, a bustling city, poverty, privilege, crime, injustice combine to create a captivating tale."  Five-star Goodreads review by John Wheeler.

Available from Amazon.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Release date January 5, 2018, but copies now available from the author.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. More excerpts to come.

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.  

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon:  Who knows?  Maybe kinds of execution: how we do away with one another.  Or big cities versus small, and who is thriving and who isn't.  ???

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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