Uttered in the last moments of consciousness, a person’s final words seem to say something essential about who that person really was, and about the life he or she lived. In some cases, history has even put certain last words into people’s mouths when they didn’t actually say them right before dying, or didn’t say them at all — just because those last words seemed so fitting.
Whether said in public or murmured in a hushed bedroom to a family member or caretaker, the last words of many famous people have been recorded (and misrecorded) by history, and continue to fascinate those who come after them. Last words can inspire or instruct us, offer a cautionary tale or even make us laugh.
With that in mind, here are the memorable last words attributed to nine famous people and a look at whether they were, in fact, spoken during their final moments.
“I’m bored with it all.” –Winston Churchill
In his book The Private Lives of Winston Churchill, John Pearson wrote that the 90-year-old former British prime minister said this to his son-in-law Christopher Soames after Soames offered him some champagne. Shortly afterward, Churchill, who had recently suffered the latest in a series of strokes, sank into a coma. He died more than a week later, on the anniversary of his own father’s death.
“I want nothing but death.” –Jane Austen
In July 1817, the celebrated novelist Jane Austen lay dying of unknown causes, which may have been the rare illness known as Addison’s disease. Her sister Cassandra recorded some of her last hours in a letter to Jane’s niece, Fanny Knight, writing: “When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: ‘God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!’ Her voice was affected, but as long as she spoke she was intelligible.” Austen died on July 18, 1817, at the age of 41.
“Thomas Jefferson survives.” –John Adams
On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the 90-year-old John Adams reportedly uttered these words shortly before dying that evening, not knowing that the 82-year-old Thomas Jefferson had died just five hours earlier, at his estate in Virginia. After years of estrangement over their political differences, Adams and Jefferson had written to each other over the last 15 years of their life, in an extraordinary exchange of ideas between two influential Founding Fathers.
In fact, the historian Andrew Burstein found that Adams’ last words may have been embellished by eulogists at the time for the sake of telling a better story. Burstein found that the only person known to be present at Adams’ death (his wife’s niece and adopted daughter, Louisa Smith) reported that he said the words “Thomas Jefferson,” shortly before dying, but said she couldn’t catch the rest of the sentence.
"Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” –Oscar Wilde
Once a successful playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde was living nearly penniless in a hotel room in Paris when he died at the age of 46 in November 1900. As he was famous for his witticisms, it’s tempting to accept this quip as his last words. But while Wilde did come up with this particular bon mot — what he actually said was, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do”— they were not his last words. According to biographer Richard Ellmann, Wilde made the remark to a friend, Claire de Pratz, at least a few weeks before he died.
“Hey Ram.” –Gandhi
These last words said to have been uttered by the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi after he was fatally shot by a Hindu extremist on January 30, 1948, are a matter of some dispute. Gandhi’s great-grandson argued in 2006 that Gandhi did, in fact, fold his hands and address the Hindu god Rama with his dying breaths, citing testimony given during the assassination trial. He was refuting a statement made at that time by Gandhi’s former personal secretary, Venkita Kalyanam, that Gandhi did not say those famous words.
In 2018, Kalyanam (by then 96) said he had been misquoted and had never said Gandhi didn’t say “Hey Ram” — he just didn’t hear him say it. “Everybody was shouting when the Mahatma was shot. I could not hear anything in the din,” Kalyanam clarified. “He may have uttered ‘Hey Ram.’ I do not know.”
“Pardon me, sir. I did not mean to do it.” –Marie Antoinette
While making her way up the stairs to the scaffold where she would be executed via guillotine for high treason on October 16, 1793, the doomed French queen Marie Antoinette accidentally stepped on her executioner’s foot. “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur,” she said politely to Charles Henri Sanson. “Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès.” As Marie Antoinette quotes go, this one is far less famous than “Let them eat cake,” which she actually did not say.
“Where is my clock?” –Salvador Dalí
In 1958, the flamboyant surrealist artist Salvador Dalí offered what would have been memorable last words in a TV interview with journalist Mike Wallace, declaring: “I myself do not believe in my death. I believe in general in death, but in the death of Dalí, absolutely not.” And just before death came for him more than 40 years later, Dalí may have uttered a simple question: “Dónde está mi reloj?” Although the source of this anecdote is unclear, these last words would certainly be fitting, given the image of the melting watch that appears in much of Dalí’s most famous work.
“I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man.” –Che Guevara
On October 8, 1967, U.S.-trained Bolivian soldiers captured the Marxist guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who had helped Fidel Castro seize power in the Communist Revolution in Cuba. After Bolivian leaders ordered his execution, Guevara uttered his memorable last words to Sgt. Jaime Terán, the soldier who had been ordered to shoot him, according to biographer Jon Lee Anderson. After Terán shot him in the throat, Che’s body was put on display for the people (and the international press) before being buried in a mass grave.
“I knew it, I knew it! Born in a goddamn hotel room and dying in a hotel room.” –Eugene O’Neill
At the time of his death, the playwright Eugene O’Neill had been suffering for several years from Parkinson’s disease, which made it nearly impossible for him to write. In late November 1953, he was living at the Hotel Shelton in Boston when he was struck with pneumonia. According to biographer Louis Scheaffer, shortly after uttering these words (which referred wryly to his birth in a hotel room off Times Square in New York City in 1888) O’Neill lost consciousness and lay in a coma for 36 hours before he drew his last breath.