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Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

12 One-Word Famous Last Words

Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

It is nice to think that one’s final moments will involve passing on a vital message, expressing love, or delighting family and friends with a witty quip. Indeed, some people manage to convey a great deal of meaning through just one word. In the case of the 12 famous people below, each one went to their grave after gifting us with a very pithy exit line.

1. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

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“Useless!” – John Wilkes Booth (1838–65)

After assassinating President Lincoln on the night of April 14 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D. C., John Wilkes Booth fled on horseback, despite suffering a broken leg which he sustained when jumping from the presidential box to the stage. By April 26, Booth had made it to Virginia and was holed up in a barn when, in the middle of the night, agents turned up to arrest him. Since Booth refused to leave the barn, the New York Cavalry set a fire and Booth was forced out, which is when he was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett. Booth was immediately paralyzed, and so was laid upon the porch, where he slowly died. In his last moments he requested that his hands be raised up so he could look at them, and he uttered his final, miserable word.

2. ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING

“Beautiful.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (pictured above) was a Romantic poet whose best works were those inspired by her love for her husband, the poet Robert Browning. Elizabeth had always suffered from poor health, and a number of personal tragedies had caused her to live as a recluse. However, in 1844, her poetry caught the attention of Robert Browning and they began exchanging letters. Over the course of 574 letters in 20 months, the pair fell in love and eloped to marry. They settled in Florence, where Elizabeth produced some of her best poetry, gaining significant critical success. By 1861 Elizabeth’s already-fragile health was failing, and she was said to have died in her husband’s arms. Her final words were in response to the question "How are you feeling?"

3. PAUL CEZANNE

“Pontier.” – Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)

Paul Cézanne is now regarded as one of the foremost artists of the French Post-Impressionist movement, and yet like many artists, he was largely unrecognized in his lifetime. Toward the end of his life Cézanne returned to his roots in Aix-en-Provence, continuing to paint and starting to gain some modest recognition for his talents. However, such was his melancholy nature that he still harbored resentment over some negative reactions to his works earlier in his life. In 1906, while painting outside, Cézanne was caught in a rainstorm and developed pneumonia, which became fatal. His final word was repeated over and over: It was the name of Auguste-Henri Pontier, director of the Musée Granet, which in 1896 had refused an offer of 100 canvases by the artist, a slight which still clearly haunted Cézanne in his final moments.

4. ULYSSES S. GRANT

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“Water.” – Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85)

Eighteenth U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant served from 1869–77. Prior to his presidency Grant had commanded Union forces to victory over the Confederate forces during the Civil War and as such was seen as a hero. His presidency, however, was not a great success. After his retirement from the White House Grant unwisely invested in a financial company, which went bankrupt, leaving him with large debts. Diagnosed with throat cancer, Grant began writing a memoir in an effort to provide for his family. Grant dictated the words to a stenographer, and as his health deteriorated and his voice failed, the stenographer was forced to sit ever closer to Grant’s bed to catch his whispered words. The last page of the memoir was completed just days before Grant’s death and it went on to be a great commercial success.

5. JOSEPH HENRY GREEN

“Stopped.” – Joseph Henry Green (1791–1863)

Dr. Joseph Henry Green was an eminent surgeon and anatomist who became great friends with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. On his death, Coleridge left Green as his literary executor, tasked with dispersing Coleridge’s literary estate for the benefit of his friends and family. However, Green was a doctor to the last, and as he lay dying, he pointed at his heart and said "congestion," before taking hold of his own wrist and feeling for his pulse, his last words indicating that his heart had ceased to beat.

6. THOMAS FANTET de LAGNY

“144.” – Thomas Fantet de Lagny (1660–1734)

Thomas Fantet de Lagny was a French mathematician who is best known for his contribution to computational mathematics—calculating π to 120 places. As de Lagny lay dying, his friends gathered round him. At one point, de Lagny had not moved for some time, and his companions feared he may have already died. Knowing de Lagny’s passion for mathematics, one friend decided to test his theory and asked de Lagny what the square of 12 was. With his last breath de Lagny shot back the answer.

7. MARTIN LUTHER

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“Yes.” – Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Martin Luther was a German theologian who kick-started the Protestant reformation when he nailed his list of complaints about the Catholic Church’s abuses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Throughout his life he was a controversial figure, challenging the accepted practices of the church and translating the Bible into German so that ordinary people might read it themselves. Although in his lifetime his ideas gained support across Germany and into Europe, he was still seen as a radical (indeed he was excommunicated by Pope Leo in 1521). On his deathbed, he was asked if he continued to stand by his doctrines, to which Luther gave an emphatic reply.

8.  GUSTAV MAHLER

“Mozart!” – Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler lived a tragic life—he lost a brother to suicide, his daughter died aged four, and his wife became an alcoholic and had an affair. Despite these terrible blows, Mahler continued to make music, but his genius was not truly recognized until many years after his death. Mahler, who was already suffering from a bad heart, fell ill with blood poisoning while conducting for the New York Philharmonic, and returned to Vienna, traveling on a stretcher and drifting in and out of consciousness. Mahler died leaving his final symphony unfinished, with the name of one of his idols on his lips.

9. RAPHAEL

“Happy.” – Raphael (1483–1520)

One of the great High Renaissance artists, Raphael’s influence is far-ranging. Some of Raphael’s most famous works are his series of Madonnas, influenced by the work of Leonardo da Vinci, and his many frescoes in the Vatican. Unlike many artists in this list, Raphael gained much respect and recognition in his lifetime, so perhaps it is not surprising that when he died suddenly at the age of 37, his final word expressed joy.

10. RUPERT BROOKE

“Hello!” – Rupert Brooke (1887–1915)

Rupert Brooke, who was once part of the famed Bloomsbury set, is best known for his powerful war poetry, written after he had fought in Belgium in the early days of World War I. Brooke’s poems gained some positive attention and he was offered the opportunity to return to Britain and serve away from the battlefield, but he refused. In April 1915 Brooke sailed with his unit to Greece in preparation for the invasion of Gallipoli, but unfortunately he contracted serious blood poisoning from an insect bite. Brooke was transferred to a hospital ship off Skyros and his final words, said on April 23, 1915, were in greeting to a visitor.

11. QUEEN VICTORIA

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“Bertie.” – Queen Victoria (1819–1901)

Queen Victoria came to the British throne just after her 18th birthday, on the death of her uncle, King William IV, who had no legitimate children. She oversaw a huge empire, encompassing large parts of Africa, India, and Australia, ruling over one quarter of the world’s population. Victoria had a very happy marriage to Prince Albert and together they had nine children, however, she long refused to cede any power to her heir, Prince Edward (who was known as Bertie). In her last moments she was surrounded by her family, including her grandson the German Kaiser, but it was to her son, the future King Edward VII, that she addressed her last word.

12. JOSEPH WRIGHT

“Dictionary.” – Joseph Wright (1855–1930)

English linguist Joseph Wright had a humble beginning. Coming from a poor family, he was forced to work from a very young age. Wright took his first job age six, leading a donkey laden with tools from the smithy to the quarry and back again. Wright worked throughout his childhood, but also managed to secure a free education, and with his sharp intellect, eventually became a professor at Oxford University. Wright’s passion was languages, and so for many years he toiled to create the English Dialect Dictionary, preserving the many regional strands of the English language. The work was finally published starting in 1896. His thoughts were seemingly of his great work up until the very end. 

Adapted from Famous Last Words: An Anthology, edited by Claire Cock-Starkey and published by Bodleian Library on July 15, 2016.

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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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