David Bruce: Death Anecdotes

While in prison awaiting her execution, Marie Antoinette was given no privacy — her jailers even watched her dress and undress. Even while she was dressing on the morning of her execution, the guards watched her — until she cried out, “In the name of God and decency, I beg you give me some privacy!” She did not object when the executioner cut off her long hair, but she became upset when she had to ride to the place of execution in a cattle cart rather than a coach. A crowd watched her ride in the cattle cart, and a mother held up her little daughter to see the doomed Queen of France. Not knowing what was going on, the little girl blew her a kiss, and Ms. Antoinette smiled. Standing before the guillotine, Ms. Antoinette accidentally stepped on her executioner’s hand, and said, “Pardon me, monsieur. I did not do it on purpose.” Those were her last words.

In 1431, English soldiers burned the French heroine Joan of Arc at the stake. After she died, the soldiers collected her ashes and threw them into the Seine River. However, the ashes of her heart were not thrown into the river because it had not burned. Later, the executioner swore that her heart would not burn, even though he had tried to burn it using charcoal, oil, and sulfur, in addition to the original wood. After she died, several people, including some English soldiers, became convinced that in killing Joan of Arc, they had killed a saint. In 1920, the Catholic Church made their fear a reality when they made her a saint.

In 1769, a Franciscan priest named Junípero Serra arrived in the southern coast region of what is now the state of California. His purpose was to start missions, but many people thought that at 56 he was too old for the harsh living conditions of the California wilderness. In fact, Father Serra became so ill that some soldiers traveling with him urged him to leave California and go home to Spain. However, the priest replied, “I shall not turn back. They can bury me wherever they wish.” He recovered, and he founded nine missions before dying in 1784.

African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, influenced other writers, including Alice Walker, the first African-American author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. When Ms. Hurston died in 1960, she was buried in an unmarked grave, but Ms. Walker located the grave, cleaned it up, and gave it a headstone on which was engraved: “Zora Neale Hurston/‘A Genius of the South’/Novelist Folklorist/Anthropologist/1901-1960.”

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson stood in the Capitol Building in front of members of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Supreme Court, and he called for a declaration of war against Germany, which meant that the United States would join in the fighting of World War I. Everyone shouted, cheered, and waved flags. Afterward, President Wilson said, “My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.” Then he wept.

During World War II, many teenaged girls competed to see who could have the most pen pals in the United States military forces, but as the war dragged on, occasionally a letter addressed to a soldier would come back to the teenaged girl who had written it. The letter would include the reason why it had not been delivered — the front would be stamped “Deceased.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American to make his living as a writer, died of tuberculosis at the age of 33. During his last days, he described the routine of his life in a letter to a friend: “My life consists of going to bed at the beginning of the month and staying there, with very brief intervals of half an hour or so, until the beginning of the next month.”

Archimedes designed war machines for the city of Syracuse, and he died when the city was taken after a long siege. He was busy solving a geometry problem during the attack, and when an enemy soldier found him, Archimedes asked if he could finish solving the problem before the solder killed him. The soldier did not oblige; instead, he killed the famous scientist immediately.

In the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, Jacques Brissot and other leading members of the political group known as the Girondins were condemned to die at the guillotine. On October 31, 1793, all of them were taken to the guillotine, where their heads were chopped off — including the head of a Girondin who had committed suicide.

Sir Winston Churchill planned his own funeral and made sure it reflected the promise of resurrection. For example, Sir Winston directed that immediately after a bugler played “Taps,” which is played at military funerals, another bugler would play “Reveille,” which is the call to get up.

Bobby Griffith came from a religious family that told him that gay men would go to hell because they were sinful. On August 27, 1983, Mr. Griffith, a gay man, committed suicide two months after his 20th birthday by jumping from a freeway overpass directly in front of a fast-moving truck.

Late in Judy Garland’s career, she grew erratic, often showing up late or not showing up at all for performances. At Judy’s funeral, comedian Alan King made her daughter Liza Minnelli smile when he said, “This is the first time your mother has ever been on time for a performance.”

After George Washington complained about having a sore throat and a cold, the physicians of his day got hold of him. Among other “remedies,” they bled him, taking nine pints of blood from his body. What killed former President Washington? His physicians.

Rhythm and blues artist Aretha Franklin often sang one of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite songs, “Precious Lord,” for him. The last time Ms. Franklin sang it especially for him was in April of 1968 — at his funeral.

Little Joe Monoghan, who stood only five foot tall, was an Old West personality with a fast draw and a secret. After Little Joe died of natural causes, the undertaker discovered that Little Joe was actually a woman.

“Die, my dear doctor! That is the last thing I will do!” — Lord Palmerston.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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