What Were Your Ancestor’s Last Words?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary takes a fascinating look at some of the last words people said before they died – both famous and not-so-famous.

When a person breathes their last, the grieving often ask: “What were his or her last words?”

For some people in these final cherished moments of life, their dying wish is to impart memorable quotes or words of wisdom to those left behind. These last words are great fun to read and contemplate.

Many are quoted in newspapers, so if you are lucky you might find your ancestor’s last words.

Religious Expressions

Many obituaries report the deceased’s devotion to, or love of, God.

One example was reported in this death notice for Miss Anna Harmon, who died at the age of 30. She said:

I wish I might – I hope I do resign myself to Christ, for time and for eternity!

obituary for Anna Harmon, Vermont Gazette newspaper article 24 January 1804

Vermont Gazette (Bennington, Vermont), 24 January 1804, page 3

In 1831, Caesar Low told his wife that he was going to die. His death notice reported that “spiritual light seemed to increase in his soul” and noted his last statements just before he died as follows:

“Glory to God – Hallelujah to God, hallelujah – Oh, my dear Father! My Heavenly Father! He is my Father.” Then pointing to heaven, he said: “Yes, I am coming, I am coming!” His final words were:

See Jesus! See Jesus! How shall I act in Heaven?

obituary for Caesar Low, Liberator newspaper article 29 October 1831

Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1831, page 176

Instructions or Words of Wisdom

Although not reported in her obituary, noted abolitionist and suffragette Lucy Stone (1818-1893) left advice for her only daughter with her dying words, Alice Stone Blackwell.

obituary for Lucy Stone, Springfield Republican newspaper article 19 October 1893

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 19 October 1893, page 5

Lucy encouraged Alice to “make the world better,” which she did.

last words of Lucy Stone, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

By the time of her mother’s death, Alice (1857-1950) had become editor of the Woman’s Home Journal and recording secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. During her life she championed many causes, including Russian freedom and world peace – and unlike her mother, was able to celebrate the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 (see the National Archives).

Enter Last Name

Alice’s last words were not recorded – but many would like to think she was thinking of her mother when she passed.

photo from the obituary for Alice Blackwell, Boston Herald newspaper article 16 March 1950

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 March 1950, page 27

Appropriate Sayings

Joseph Medill (1823-1899), editor of the Chicago Tribune (who must have read hundreds of last words during his career), appears to have contemplated his own final utterance. Shortly before he passed, his physician heard him comment: “My last words shall be, what is the news?”

obituary for Joseph Medill, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 17 March 1899

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 17 March 1899, page 2

Bat Masterson (1853-1921), another newspaper man, is quoted as having written a lengthy statement. It didn’t appear in his obituaries, but was widely cited years later.

obituary for Bat Masterson, Estrella newspaper article 5 November 1921

Estrella (Las Cruces, New Mexico), 5 November 1921, page 4

Masterson’s last words were:

There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both!

Bat Masterson's last words, Greensboro Record newspaper article 30 September 1964

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 30 September 1964, page 9

How It Feels to Die

Others use their last words to express feelings about death and dying.

Enter Last Name

For example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) responded “beautiful” to a question about how she felt, and William Hunter (1718-1783), the famous Scottish physician and anatomist, said:

If I had strength enough left to hold a pen, I would write what a pleasant and easy thing it is to die.

article about some famous people's last words, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

Jane Austen (1775-1817), author of Pride and Prejudice and other novels, didn’t feel the same. She was reportedly asked if there was anything she wanted. Her reply was:

Nothing but death.

Jane Austen's last words, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

U.S. Presidents’ Last Words

Some of the most-quoted last words are from famous people, such as U.S. presidents.

Modern-day writers like to report that President John Adams, who died on the same day as President Thomas Jefferson on 4 July 1826, said for his final words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

As in all statements about history and ancestry, historical newspapers are one of the best ways to check the facts. For his last words, did Adams say, “Thomas Jefferson survives” or did he actually say “It is a great and glorious day”?

article about the last words of John Adams, Spectator newspaper article 14 July 1826

Spectator (New York, New York), 14 July 1826, page 1

Watch for a follow-up article offering more U.S. presidents’ last words, in celebration of the upcoming Presidents’ Day – and by all means, let us know what last words your ancestors are reported to have said!

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Valentine’s Day History: A Look Back at Old Love Poems & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches through old newspapers to find valentine poems and other romantic messages from Valentine’s Day celebrations of the past.

an 1890 Valentine Day's card

Illustration: “To My Valentine,” 1890. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Ask any child if they know a valentine poem, and they’re likely to recite this couplet:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.

Love Poem History in Newspapers

If you research early newspapers, such as the online collection in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, you’ll discover quaint “Roses are red” valentine traditions—along with many variations on the theme. Many of these old love poems have delighted children and amorous suitors for a very long time.

One of the earliest “Roses are red” newspaper references was in this 1874 review of Fantoccini, a book fashioned after a puppet show by the same name.

a review of the book "Fantoccini," Springfield Republican newspaper article 1 September 1874

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 1 September 1874, page 3

Roses Are Red Alice

The author of this newspaper article panned Fantoccini for mimicking the “Alice” books, and criticized this version of “Roses are red” as an example of how “any number of well-meaning idiots have been moved to think that they could do as well” as the Alice in Wonderland books.

Roses are red
Diddle, diddle,
Violets are blue;
You love not me,
Diddle, diddle,
Though I love you.
Could them three flowers
Diddle, diddle,
Alter their dyes,
Then might we love
Diddle, diddle,

Turn of the 19th Century Valentine’s Day Trends

An 1899 Valentine’s Day trend was to send a valentine with a small object attached. One such Valentine’s Day card had an artificial violet and featured this poem:

Roses are red, violets are blue;
Sugar is sweet and so are you.
So please accept this small bouquet
That I have picked for you today.

article about Valentine's Day cards, Evening Star newspaper article 11 February 1899

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 11 February 1899, page 2

As cards became commercialized, shop clerks often assisted shoppers in their frantic searches for the perfect valentine card. These clerks were often amused at the suitors’ choices, as not everyone chose wisely!

In 1907, a sentimental young man purchased a valentine with this plea:

Come rest in my bosom my own stricken deer.

I hope his love interest fell for that line, although he might have been better off with this fashionable seller of the day:

The light that lies in woman’s eyes has been my heart’s undoing.

As this article notes, the old favorite was also offered on 1907 cards:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue;
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.

article about Valentine's Day cards, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 14 February 1907

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 February 1907, page 4

Anonymous Valentine Admirers

Have you ever sent or received an anonymous Valentine’s Day card?

In 1909, valentines overwhelmed the mail carriers, but “cupids” were also prone to depositing a card at a young woman’s door, ringing the bell and then fleeing off into the darkness before being discovered.

Valentines--Yes, Thousands of Them, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 14 February 1909

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 14 February 1909, page 2

Valentine Telegrams

There once were even valentine telegrams—certainly a relic of the past to any of today’s youth.

Western Union used to offer suggestions as to what to write. Many valentine poems and sayings reflected the era they were written in, such as these hipster valentine telegrams from 1954. These messages were always printed in upper case, as that was the only typeface option available for telegrams:

article about Valentine's Day telegrams, Oregonian newspaper article 12 February 1954

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 February 1954, page 15

Then of course there were singing telegrams that suitors could use to woo their valentines, which, according to this 1938 Texas newspaper article, originated in New York. Popular for multiple holidays, the telegraph company accommodated special requests—including special tunes and parodies.

article about singing telegrams, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 31 August 1938

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 31 August 1938, page 3

Valentine Newspaper Advertisements

Was your family particularly romantic on Valentine’s Day? If so, see if they may have placed valentine advertisements in newspapers. Search your hometown papers, but remember to be creative, as the suitors rarely used their full names!

Valentine's Day newspaper ads, Springfield Union newspaper advertisements 14 February 1983

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 14 February 1983, page 25

Romantic Ideas & Inspiration

If you’re feeling like “Roses are red, Violets are blue” doesn’t express the perfect sentiment for your sweetheart, you can always find inspiration by searching old newspapers for romantic poetry.

Valentine's Day poem, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 14 February 1984

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 14 February 1984, page C2

That reference to “Elizabeth Barrett” reminds me of one of my favorite love poems of all time: this timeless verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Springfield Republican newspaper article 16 July 1874

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 16 July 1874, page 3

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!