A book by Chris Wood
Famous Last Words – Confessions, Humour and Bravery of the Departing was a bit different than what I expected it to be. I was expecting a true crime book looking at what people said as they stared down the gallows – perhaps entirely made of quotes or something. There is a bit of that here, but this book is a LOT more as it covers a large swath of noteworthy people and what they said before their (usually) untimely demise. The book looks at executed murderers, celebrities, esteemed royalty, and even would-be terrorists, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Chris wood takes great care to explain every detail of what leads up to the infamous final breaths, and adds context to what they are saying. In this regard, this is a very interesting history book with a number of surprises.
“Nothing focuses the mind more starkly than impending death. Its inevitable spectre greets us all; from princes to paupers and nobility to the needy. Prepare to mount the scaffold and share in the final utterings of the condemned; join the stricken in their death beds and witness unburdened tongues wag their closing, and often remarkable confessions as deeply entrenched secrets are finally unshackled in the wake of imminent death.”
I think the most interesting one in here, for me at least, was that of Sir Henry Irving, a famous Victorian actor that literally delivered his last words in a play he was acting in wherein the character he was playing was killed. Playing the lead in Becket, he uttered “Into thy hand, O Lord, into thy hands!” as the curtain fell on both the play, and sadly his own life. Irving was taken back to his hotel after folks realized his health was failing, and he died soon after. Imagine being in the audience for something like that, and realizing that was his final minutes on Earth – the sheer morbidity of it all would be crazy.
This is an enjoyable book, and an easy “read a chapter before bed” sort of thing. Pend and Sword did a Similarly structured book a while back called First World War Trials and Executions that I also enjoyed a lot for the exact same reason. It’s full of interesting facts and had some things, being outside of the UK, that I was unaware of. Definitely recommended.
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