It’s not fun to think about, but it’s natural for many of us to contemplate the legacy we’ll leave behind before we die. Even if we’re not particularly concerned about how we’ll be remembered (if we’ll be remembered at all!), we want to give our friends or loved ones something to hold on to.
That’s why we tend to place so much emphasis on the last words of the deceased. Even the most mundane statements take on a special meaning when it’s literally the last utterance that an individual will ever deliver.
The following, however, are some of the most powerful, mysterious, or otherwise memorable “famous last words” ever written. Each one gives us a new perspective on what happens when we have to stare death in the face!
This was the note left behind by 33-year-old Nadine Haag of Australia, who was found dead in her bathtub in 2009 alongside a razor and a bottle of painkillers. Her case remains shrouded in mystery: Nadine was embroiled in an intense custody battle with her ex-partner, and her family—particularly her sisters—insisted that he killed her. This was largely due to the discovery of another note that was found at the scene of the crime that read: “HE DID IT.” Apparently, the police misread it as “HEADED IT” and stored it with other evidence deemed unimportant. In 2013, however, New South Wales coroner Paul MacMahon overturned the suicide verdict and stated “[he] had a motive to harm Nadine, had the opportunity to do so, and lied about his whereabouts on 3 and 4 December 2009.” A full investigation was then launched.
Everybody knows about the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. However, few are aware of the tragedy at Wake Island only about 2,400 miles away that culminated in the Japanese capture of the military base on December 23. Most of the prisoners were transferred to Chinese camps, but 98 American soldiers stayed on the island. The U.S. retaliated in 1943; once the Japanese realized they were going to lose the battle, they executed each of the prisoners, blindfolding them and firing machine guns at them. However, one unknown soldier managed to escape, and dedicated this makeshift memorial to his comrades. When he was found, he was beheaded by the Japanese admiral himself, but the rock remains intact to this day.
In May 2006, a yacht was discovered 70 miles off the coast of Barbados… filled with the partially petrified bodies of 11 young men. Apparently, the craft set sail from the eastern coast of Africa four months prior; the men paid $1,800 each to be smuggled into the Spanish-owned Canary Islands. They were joined by at least 40 other people, all of whom had fallen into the ocean. Many wrote letters just before their final moments. Another note read: “I need whoever finds me to send this money to my family. Please telephone my friend Ibrahima Drame.”
On March 4, 1908, 25 miners were underground in the Hamstead Colliery mine in England when a fire started. Even rescue teams with professional breathing devices couldn’t stand the flames and smoke. All of the trapped miners perished; a week later, when their bodies were recovered, they were found huddled together, with the message above scratched into a wooden board.
The 2003 horror film Open Water, which followed a couple’s tragic final moments after their scuba charter boat failed to retrieve them—and left them to die in shark-infested waters—was inspired by the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan. The incident occurred in Australia in 1998. The crew tried to return for them after realizing their terrible mistake, but it was too late. The above message was found later on a slate.
In 1962, a French army patrol officer stumbled upon the wreckage of pioneering aviator William Lancaster, who crashed in the Sahara desert on April 12, 1933—29 years earlier. The above message was written on a fuel card.
Around the turn of the 20th century, many British soldiers were superstitious about writing formal wills before they went into battle. As such, many ended up scribbling them hastily on anything that they could find when they realized they were facing their final moments. One soldier in Afghanistan wrote the above message in a rock with his own blood. Similarly, there were reports of soldiers writing wills into everything from gloves to playing cards, or carved with bayonets. These makeshift wills were a legal nightmare, and in 1915, it was reported that the need for lawyers had tripled.
K-141 Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine, was in the Barents Sea on an exercise on August 12, 2000 when, for unknown reasons, an explosion blew a hole in its side and the ship started sinking. Its remaining torpedoes exploded before it hit the seabed. The Russian government, which refused to accept help at first, botched all of its rescue attempts. By the time reinforcements from other countries arrived, it was too late. Doomed sailor Dmitry Kolesnikov wrote the above message four hours after an explosion in his submarine. He later wrote that the survivors would “try to get out” and “hi to everyone. Musn’t despair.” Though they were not released to the public, other lines were delivered to his family.
Colonel Issac E. Avery fought in the Confederate States army during the Battle of Gettysburg, where he was shot in the neck and partially paralyzed. He couldn’t use his right arm, so the right-handed soldier used his left to scribble the above message in pencil on a small piece of paper. The next day, he died in the hospital.
Otto Simmonds was a German-born Jewish man who was captured by the Nazis while in France and taken to a deportation camp called Drancy in northeastern Paris. He was then put on a train heading to Auschwitz, and managed to write the above letter (despite the fact that nobody knew how he received a pen, paper, and envelope). He threw the envelope out the window of the train car; incredibly, a railway worker managed to find it and forward it to Simmonds’s wife, Marthe. He was never seen again, despite Marthe’s extensive search for him after the war.
It’s incredible to think about not just the particular things that people wrote in these final statements, but the fact that they worked so hard to write them at all. To think that it was so important to them to get their messages out there is inspiring.
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