The last words of great men and women have long been recorded for posterity. Whether sad, inspiring, or witty, these final utterances can certainly make their mark — they serve as a final sign-off, a way to leave the world with one last flourish.
Unfortunately, last words are notoriously dubious when it comes to their veracity. The following goodbyes from famous historical figures are often cited, especially online, but there is little in the way of factual evidence to support them. In some cases, the words were spoken but not during the speaker’s very last moments. Other famous last words were never said at all, but were simply invented or misattributed — but that didn’t stop them from going down in history.
Et tu, Brute?
— attributed to Julius Caesar
Arguably the most famous Latin phrase of them all, “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?”) was the last utterance of Julius Caesar upon his assassination in the Roman Senate on March 15, 44 CE — according to Shakespeare, at least. No evidence exists to suggest that Caesar said these words, and Shakespeare likely used them for dramatic effect over 1500 years later. (It’s safe, at least, to assume that Caesar did not predict a murderous betrayal from Marcus Brutus, who had been one of his closest allies.) Caesar’s Roman biographer, Suetonius, wrote that Caesar “was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke.” He does note, however, that some contemporaries reported Caesar’s last words as “Kai su, teknon,” a Greek phrase meaning “You too, my child?”
This is no time to be making new enemies.
— attributed to Voltaire, Machiavelli, and others
This witty deathbed remark was supposedly uttered in response to a priest asking a dying man to renounce the devil. It’s often attributed to Voltaire (who died in 1778), and sometimes to Niccolò Machiavelli (who perished in 1527). But there’s no evidence to confirm that either man said these words, which more likely came from a joke that started circulating in the mid-1800s.
Is it the Fourth?
— attributed to Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of Independence Day in the U.S. A fitting date, certainly, and his oft-reported last words would be equally appropriate. But while Jefferson did wake on July 3 and enquired about the date, these were not his last words. He lived until the following day, and his actual final words are not known with any certainty.
— attributed to King George V
King George V ruled the United Kingdom from 1910 until his death in 1936. Lying on his deathbed, someone in attendance supposedly commented that he would soon be well enough to return to the south-coast town of Bognor Regis, where he had previously been recuperating. Unimpressed, the King replied, “Bugger Bognor!” But while George V (Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather) might have had such an exchange at some point, they were not his last words. More likely, his final words were “God damn you!” — said to a nurse while she gave him an injection.
Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.
— attributed to Francisco “Pancho” Villa
The Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa reportedly said these words in the moments before his assassination in 1923. That, however, is highly unlikely. More than 40 rounds were fired into his 1919 Dodge, killing him instantly with no time to say anything, let alone two sentences.
Either this wallpaper goes or I do.
— attributed to Oscar Wilde
It’s often written that Oscar Wilde said these final words as he lay on his deathbed in a cheap hotel in Paris. But that isn’t quite right. He actually said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” The words also weren’t his last, but rather were said during the weeks leading up to his death in November 1900.
I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.
— attributed to Humphrey Bogart
Ever since his death in 1957, it’s been widely reported that these were Humphrey Bogart’s last words. Again, not true. The line first appeared in a 1975 novel by Nicolas Freeling called “What Are the Bugles Blowing For?” Bogart’s actual last words, according to his wife, fellow screen legend Lauren Bacall, were, “Goodbye Kid. Hurry back,” which he said to Bacall as she left his hospital room to pick up their children.
Kiss me, Hardy.
— attributed to Admiral Horatio Nelson
Horatio Nelson remains England’s greatest naval hero, thanks in large part to his heroic victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. He lost his life during the battle, when a French sharpshooter shot him as he stood on the deck of the HMS Victory on October 21, 1805. Ever since, there’s been plenty of debate surrounding his last words. Three eyewitnesses declared that Nelson did indeed say “Kiss me, Hardy” prior to his death, and that Captain Thomas Hardy kissed Nelson on the cheek. But Nelson didn’t die precisely then, and it’s more likely his very last words were “Thank God I have done my duty.” A few decades later, some argued that Nelson actually said “Kismet Hardy,” “kismet” meaning fate or destiny in Turkish. But it’s unlikely, as “kismet” was not used in England at the time of Nelson’s death.