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The Last Words of 38 Presidents

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Some are eloquent quotes worthy of the holders of the highest office in the nation, and others... aren’t.

1. George Washington

"'Tis well."

2. John Adams

"Thomas Jefferson survives." What Adams didn't know was that Jefferson had actually passed away several hours earlier.

3. Thomas Jefferson

His last recorded words are "No, doctor, nothing more," but the three people present at the time of his death all noted that he either stated or asked about the date shortly before his death. The date: July Fourth, of course. History likes to remember him as closing out his time on earth with this fitting speech: “Is it the Fourth? I resign my spirit to God, my daughter, and my country.”

4. James Madison

“Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.” It was his response when one of his nieces asked him “What is the matter?”

5. James Monroe

“I regret that I should leave this world without again beholding him”—"him” being James Madison, one of his best friends.

6. John Quincy Adams

“This is the last of earth. I am content.” JQA actually had a stroke on the floor of the House of Representatives and died in the Speaker's Room in the Capitol Building.

7. Andrew Jackson

“I hope to meet each of you in heaven. Be good, children, all of you, and strive to be ready when the change comes.”

8. Martin Van Buren

“There is but one reliance.”

9. William Henry Harrison

Spoken to Veep John Tyler: “I understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”

10. John Tyler

“Perhaps it is best.”

11. James K. Polk

“I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.” Sarah, as you might have already assumed, was his wife. Sarah lived for another 42 years.

12. Zachary Taylor

“I regret nothing, but I am sorry to leave my friends.” I bet what he really meant was, “I regret nothing, except for snacking on those cherries.”

13. Millard Fillmore

“The nourishment is palatable.” He was commenting about some soup he had just been fed. By the way, does Fillmore look particularly attractive to you? Queen Victoria once said he was the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes upon.

14. Franklin Pierce

No last words seem to have been recorded for Pierce, though given his tragic life, perhaps they were words of relief that it was finally ending. In lieu of Franklin Pierce, I give you Ben Franklin's final words: "A dying man can do nothing easy,” he said, after his daughter asked him to change positions in bed.

15. James Buchanan

“Oh, Lord God Almighty, as thou wilt!”

16. Abraham Lincoln

“She won’t think anything about it.” His remark was to his wife, who was wondering what their female theater companion would think if she saw Mary Todd "hanging" on her husband so.

17. Andrew Johnson

“Oh, do not cry. Be good children and we shall meet in heaven.” Rather similar to Andrew Jackson's last words, aren't they?

18. Ulysses S. Grant

“Water.” Grant was suffering from throat cancer and couldn't speak much, but he did write something more poignant shortly before his death: "There was never one more willing to go than I am."

19. Rutherford B. Hayes

“I know I am going where Lucy is.” His wife, teetotaling "Lemonade" Lucy, had died four years before.

20. James Garfield

“Swaim, can’t you stop the pain?” Garfield, who had been shot by an assassin months before, was napping in his room in the company of good friends General David Swaim and Colonel A.F. Rockwell. About 15 minutes into his nap, he awoke, clutching his heart, and spoke his final words to Swaim.

21. Chester A. Arthur

They’re apparently not recorded, a friend said “almost” his last words were, “Life is not worth living.”

22. Grover Cleveland

“I have tried so hard to do right.”

23. Benjamin Harrison

“Are the doctors here? Doctor, my lungs...” Harrison died of pneumonia.

24. William McKinley

“Goodbye, all, goodbye. It is God’s way. His will be done.”

25. Teddy Roosevelt

“Put out the light.” He was speaking to his valet right before he went to sleep. He died sometime during the night.

26. William Howard Taft

His words were not recorded for posterity, but I thought you might enjoy a picture of him anyway.

27. Woodrow Wilson

“When the machinery is broken... I am ready."

28. Warren G. Harding

“That’s good. Go on, read some more.” His wife had been reading him an article about himself from the  Saturday Evening Post.

29. Calvin Coolidge

“Good morning, Robert.” He greeted a carpenter working on his house, then died of coronary thrombosis shortly thereafter.

What he told a friend not long before his death is perhaps more fitting: "I feel I no longer fit in with these times."

30. Herbert Hoover

We don’t know the last words he spoke, but the last words he is known to have written were a get well message to Harry Truman, who hit his head on the bathtub after slipping in his bathroom. In a telegram, Hoover wrote, “Bathtubs are a menace to ex-presidents for as you may recall a bathtub rose up and fractured my vertebrae when I was in Venezuela on your world famine mission in 1946. My warmest sympathy and best wishes for your speedy recovery.”

31. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“I have a terrific headache.” He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage a few minutes later.

32. Harry Truman

Truman's words are unknown, but his Vice President's last words were actually caught on tape. Veep Alben W. Barkley was giving a keynote address and had just said the words, "I'm glad to sit on the back row, for I would rather be a servant in the House of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty," when a heart attack struck him on stage.

33. Dwight D. Eisenhower

“I want to go. God take me.”

34. John F. Kennedy

"No, you certainly can't." Kennedy said this in response to his fellow passenger, Nellie Connally, the wife of governor John Connally. She had just remarked, "You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President."

You'll occasionally read that Kennedy's last words were “My God, I’ve been hit."

35. Lyndon B. Johnson

“Send Mike immediately.” Mike was his Secret Service agent who was housed in a compound 100 yards away from the main house at Johnson's Texas ranch. When agents arrived in Johnson's bedroom, he was already dead.

36. Richard Nixon

“Help.” He said this to a housekeeper as he had a stroke in 1994. Though he remained alert for a period of time after he was taken to the hospital, he was unable to speak.

37. Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford's last words are not known.

38. Ronald Reagan

Reagan's last words have not been shared with the public, but his daughter Patti shared his final moments:

At the last moment when his breathing told us this was it, he opened his eyes and looked straight at my mother. Eyes that hadn‘t opened for days, did. And they weren‘t chalky or vague. They were clear, and blue, and full of love. If a death can be lovely, his was. In his last moment, he taught me that there is nothing stronger than love between two people, two souls ... It was the last thing he could do in this world to show my mother how entwined their souls are ... and it was everything.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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