Rants and Raves

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Famous Last Words

Last night I stayed up entirely too late, absorbed in Paul Johnson's book 'Heroes', of which I will write more anon.

The book was worth the price of admission if only for reminding me of the reply Lord Lovat gave to a heckler while being conveyed to his execution.

Lord Lovat was a Scots noble who came out for the Bonnie Prince in The '45. (That is, he sided with the Stuart pretender Charles Edward Stuart when he attempted to wrest the throne of England and Scotland from the House of Hanover in 1745.) Lord Lovat became the last noble to be executed in the Tower of London shortly thereafter.

While on his way to the execution ground, an old woman shouted from the crowd, "They're going to hang you, ye old Scotch dog!"

He replied, "I believe they are, you old English bitch."

One of my hobbies is collecting historical examples of snappy comebacks and famous last words.

Everyone knows Winston Churchill's great comeback to, "Winston Churchill, you are horribly drunk."

"Madam, you are horribly ugly. But in the morning I shall be sober."

But only real aficionados of the comeback know the one from a conversation between a Roman matron and a woman of then-Celtic Gaul around the first or second century AD.

The Roman matron charged that Celtic women were, well - sluts.

The Celtic woman replied, "Our customs are more in accordance with the laws of nature than yours. For we consort openly with the best of men, while you debauch yourselves in secret with the vilest."

Lord Lovat's utterance falls in both categories, snappy comebacks and famous last words.

Another example might be Ethan Allen on his deathbed. Allen was a militant atheist, and when a doctor tried to comfort him thus, "General, I fear the angels are waiting for you."

He replied, "Waiting are they? Waiting are they? Well damn them let 'em wait!"

We love last words that show courage and class and inspire us to believe that we too might die well, no matter what the circumstances.

Who could forget the Viking warrior who, when struck near the heart with an arrow, pulled it out, looked at it and said, "My king has been good to me, there is much fat around my heart roots."

And some can move you to tears. The sweet and unaffected goodness of Marie Antoinette for example. As she mounted the scaffold to the guillotine, she accidentally stepped on the foot of the executioner and said, "Pardonnez-moi, monsieur."

Equally touching is the story of John Jacob Astor, at the time the richest man in the world.

After an apparently messy divorce, Astor 46, married an 18-year-old woman named Madeline. Because this was a public scandal they took a two-year holiday abroad to let things cool down a little. But when Madeline became pregnant they decided to return to New York.

Unfortunately they booked passage aboard the Titanic.

After the Titanic hit the iceberg, the Astors were about to board one of the last remaining lifeboats when John Jacob saw a woman approaching.

He turned to his wife and said, "The ladies have to go first. . . . Get in the lifeboat, to please me. . . . Good-bye, dearie. I'll see you later."

Courage and class indeed!


After Paul Johnson reminded me of Lord Lovat's bon mot, I googled "famous last words" and found this treasure of a site, 'Last Words': http://www.sanftleben.com/Last%20Words/lastwords.html

It is divided into: fictional last words, real last words, epitaphs, farewells, and last stands.

Check it out.


  • At 8:04 AM, Blogger metapundit.net said…

    I saw this post in my feeds while listening to a recording on my brother's blog. He's a music student (about to plunge back in to get his Doctorate) and has been teaching at the community college in our town while he takes a year off from school. He recently conducted the college's community chorus and posted a recording of the one of the songs, Dear Sarah, to his blog.

    It's worth a listen and qualifies as last words - the text is Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife shortly before he was killed in the First Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War. Most people have heard the text of the letter from Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War - I can't hear it without being struck by how much more eloquent people formerly were in private conversation and by how simply and unashamedly people of that era could implicitly reference patriotism and honor as concepts worth dying for...

    It's worth a listen (and be sure to read along with the lyrics)

    I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. How great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, and to pay that debt.

    Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

  • At 9:19 AM, Blogger gun-totin-wacko said…

    Not Last Words, but Churchill had one of the greatest comebacks ever: He walked into a men's room, and saw one of his political opponents in there. Churchill moved down to the other end of the urinal trough, at which point the man said "Feeling a bit standoffish, Winston?"

    Churchill's reply: "No, it's just that whenever you see anything big, you try to nationalize it".

    No matter the circumstances, the man could turn a phrase.

    I do love last words that show grace, courage, or class.

    Like General Dan Morgan of Revolutionary fame. Maybe not last words, but he told his doctor as he lay dying "Doctor, if I could be the man I was when I was 20, I'd be content to be stripped naked to run for my life with a pack of hounds at my heels."

    Given the man he apparently was at 20, my money wouldn't have been on the dogs.

  • At 8:36 AM, Blogger dchamil said…

    Famous Last Words, compiled by Ray Robinson (2003) relates that Pancho Villa remarked, "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." Save that one in reserve in case inspiration fails as the end draws near.

  • At 7:01 PM, Blogger Galt-In-Da-Box said…

    Weren't Krista McAuliffe's last words something like "Gee, I wonder what this switch does?"
    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

  • At 9:04 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I thought her last words were to her husband, "You feed the dogs, I'll feed the fish."



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