Exit Lines

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About to die at the untimely age of forty-four in 1883, Dr. George Miller Beard, a Connecticut physician and pioneer in neurology, remarked: “I should like to record the thoughts of a dying man for the benefit of science, but it is impossible.” And with those words, Dr. Beard passed beyond further speech. Regardless of their inner thoughts, we do at least know what many individuals uttered before giving up the ghost. Some were clear-headed, sensing perhaps that they were speaking for posterity; this may have been the case with Nathan Hale, whose well-chosen comment before being hanged is surely the best remembered of all. Others about to die were delirious, and their minds—like Robert E. Lee’s when he called for A. P. Hill to bring up his troops—wandered back over past struggles. The following are last words attributed to twenty-three Americans. Some quotations may have been dressed up a little, but not by us.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887): “Now comes the mystery.”

Mary Dyer (?-1660), Quaker martyr and friend of Anrie Hutchinson, on being asked at her execution whether an elder of the church should pray for her: “Nay, first a child; then a young man; then a strong man, before an elder of Christ Jesus.”

Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), clergyman: “Oh, it is only my body; all is right in my soul.”

Samuel Newman (1602-63), clergyman: “Angels, do your office.”

Giles Corey (ca. 1612-92), Massachusetts colonist pressed to death for witchcraft: “Add more weight that my misery may be the sooner ended.”

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848): “It is the last of earth. I am content.”

James Madison (1751-1836): “I always talk better lying down.”

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90): “A dying man can do nothing easy.’

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), asked by his physician whether he wished to believe that Jesus is the son of God: “I have no wish to believe on that subject.”

Daniel Webster (1782-1852): “I still live!”∗

∗According to an unauthenticated story, as Webster lay in his dying coma the doctor instructed his attendant to give him a spoonful of brandy every half-hour while he lived. When the clock chimed and the brandy was not immediately produced, the great man opened his eyes and uttered his last words as a reminder.

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850): “The South! The South! God knows what will become of her.”

John Wilkes Booth (1838-65): “Tell mother—tell mother—I died for my country.”

John Brown (1800-59): “I am ready at any time—do not keep me waiting.”

J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913): “Don’t baby me so!”

P. T. Barnum (1810-91): “How were the circus receipts today at Madison Square Garden?”

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794 1877): “Yes, yes, sing that for me. I am poor and needy.”

Louisa May Alcott (1832-88): “Thus far the Lord has led me on.”

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878): “Whose house is this? What street are we in? Why did you bring me here?”

Henry D. Thoreau (1817-62): “I leave this world without a regret.”

O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910): “Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”

Damon Runyon (1884-1946): “You can keep the things of bronze and stone and give me one man to remember me just once a year.”

Rudolph Valentino (1895 1926): “Don’t pull down the blinds! I feel fine. I want the sunlight to greet me.”

Hart Crane (1899-1932), poet, as he jumped into the sea: “Good-by, everybody!”