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Famous Last Words (Paperback)

Confessions, Humour and Bravery of the Departing

British History P&S History Social History

By Chris Wood
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 216
Illustrations: 32 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526770899
Published: 21st May 2021
Last Released: 26th November 2021

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As featured on BBC Radio Newcastle! Listen to the author interview here 

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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.

‘Famous Last Words’ collects a fascinating selection of destinies culminating in their often flamboyant yet always captivating, final utterances before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Revealed inside are tales of sangfroid bravery, astonishing ironies and overdue confessions often betraying grave miscarriages of justice, throughout British history.

Writer and poet Sir Walter Raleigh had some typically forthright and urging words for his executioner as the hesitant axeman displayed fear and reluctance to perform his stately duties. Having felt the sharp edge of the tool that would presently be rained down upon him, rather than fearing his impending doom, Raleigh would offer goading encouragement to his maker.

Were the final words of convicted murderer Ernest Brown a candid confession to another killing he had committed deep in the Northumberland Moors some two years previously which had lay unsolved?

And what of Britain’s first actor to have had a knighthood bestowed upon him? Learn of the staggering irony that saw his final words on stage prophetically turn out to be his last in life…

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I really enjoyed learning about people's last words, this was a really well written and researched book. It was a really well done read.

NetGalley, Kay McLeer

"Well, researched and compiled."

Mr J Stout - Roots Family History Service

The author’s research into all of the narratives is awe-inspiring, and I for one feel like I’ve read twenty three separate books, instead of just one. The stories span the width and length of our fair and brutal isle, time-travelling centuries back for some of the accounts. The chapters that take place in Victorian Scotland are my favourite.

Read the full review via Instagram

Instagram, @natalieisahistorybuff

As soon as I saw this book I was intrigued. Hearing the last words of a person can leave us an insight into so much of their personality and there mental state at the time of death. A suicide note can leave loved ones answers to why they were prematurely robbed of life. The last words of the condemned man can show his remorse, his apathy to his crimes or give a last minute plea of innocence.

The book is a compilation of famous, to not so famous, British figures who met untimely or unforgettable ends. Including women and men of all social classes and time periods; because in the end we all live and we all die, regardless of the labels we carry in life.

I could not put this book down, the stories were well researched, unique, addictive and full of drama. It was often very sad, especially the stories of hardships that led to suicide or murder. Spoiler, but my favourite was the story of a couple going to the gallows together and marrying each other before facing their ends together. The ultimate Bonnie and Clyde moment.

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Instagram, @historic_rabbithole

Wow I've never read anything like this book before! It tells the stories of loads of people, some of whom you may know, others who you may not and what their last words were.
I found this absolutely fascinating and couldn't put it down!
Some of the people in this book I'd never heard of before but it didn't make their stories any less interesting. @hewritesatnight has done a fantastic job of making you feel like you could have actually been there and captured it perfectly.

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Instagram, @c _h_a_p_t_e_r_o_n_e

My thoughts: It’s fascinating to read what a person’s final words were at the end of their life. Whether they used those words to convey guilt by admitting something dark about their past, perhaps they expressed their love to friends and family or maybe they cracked a joke? The subject of Chris Wood’s new book: ‘Famous Last Words’ focuses on just that!
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Each of the people to feature in Famous Last Words has several pages dedicated to them and their lives, right up until their final words and demise. This layout makes it great for dipping in and out of without having to reacquaint yourself with the book. The subject matter is very sobering, and I found each person’s story evoked different emotions in me. I found the most heart-breaking stories were the ones regarding suicide and the sheer desperation those people felt leading up to the act. The crime and punishment stories really highlight just how unfair and barbaric the legal system could be at certain times throughout history.
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As well as seeing some familiar names, I was also introduced to lots of new ones. Famous Last words has left me wanting to go and research the lives of several of the people mentioned! Their stories were treated with respect and were very well researched and written. The way Chris writes holds your attention, and at no point did I feel myself zoning out! I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can see myself re-reading, referencing, and referring to it many times in the future. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Read the full review via Instagram

Instagram, @historyart10

There are some very well researched and in-depth accounts of stories that you might already know, like the story of Burke & Hare or Lady Jane Grey. Others like the story of Frederick Fleet which tells the story of that young sailor who said the fateful words 'iceburg ahead' on the Titanic are equally compelling... this is a quick and enjoyable read for history lovers.

NetGalley, Rekha O'Sullivan

Chilling and yet also moving, last words evoke the ultimate sense of the finality of death. But I want to first of all start off my review saying that this book goes beyond famous last words and explores the lives of individuals leading up to their death. From Britain’s finest actor, to the desperate parlour maid forgotten by society, this book explores how the history of justice, crime and the attitude on human lives and rights has changed over time.

So, I love the fact that this book is so easy to dip in and out of, each chapter is like a mini history book/case study in itself! As a historian, this made me want to go off and research several!

I think the stories that really hit me and my emotions most have been the ones of despair, such as the suicide of a young parlourmaid and the murder of a whole family, where the father killed his wife and children and himself, as he had no money and had no one to turn to. He didn’t want his family to live with the stigma of suicide.

In other cases, it’s fascinating as weirdly you sort of begin to slightly feel sorry for the murderer because of how brutal the justice system was and the lack of defence. You end of up asking yourself along with @hewritesatnight if many of these cases were a mere statistic of a flawed and imperfect justice system of its time, or were they cruel killers? Many of the murders also highlight the desperate social conditions of different periods.

Overall this is a fab read. I’ll be recommending it to anyone interested in crime but also social justice and the history of mental health issues. It’s an eye opener in terms of how far we have come in society regarding these issues and stigmas, and how far we still need to go. 💀

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Instagram, @historian_ellis

I've discovered a love for slice-of-life historical non-fiction recently and this one suited me perfectly! Just like how I love collections of short stories, this one features a number of quick reads about several figures in history and their parting words with with the Earth.⁠

A very intriguing read that sets up the history of each person before we come to their inevitable deaths and last words. We get a mix of funny, sad, heroic and disturbing tales in these from various figures across time. Some you may be familiar with already, like Sir Walter Raleigh or Burke & Hare, and others whose names are more obscure.⁠

An enjoyable and insightful read with plenty an interesting story to tell!...

If you know any historical readers who, like me, enjoy quick interesting facts and tales from times gone by, this is one to put on their radar.

Read the full review via Instagram

Instagram, @zukythebookbum

One thing that has to be noted about this book is the sheer amount of research that has gone into it. @hewritesatnight has written a wonderful selection of tales focusing on the deaths of fascinating figures throughout history. Initially I was concerned that this book would merely detail the deaths of famous figures that’ve already been well documented; however, it actually discusses a range of interesting people I didn’t previously know but would now love to learn more about.

Each chapter focuses on the history of a different person and allows the reader an insight into the cause of their death and the final words they uttered before their demise. From suicide to murder, this book gives you nuggets of information on each interesting person and leaves you experiencing a range of emotions - some stories are upsetting, some are amusing, and some make you question the fairness of the legal system.

I feel this book appeals to nonfiction and fiction lovers as each chapter felt more like I was absorbed in a short piece of historical fiction; the author writes in such a way that you feel pulled into each person’s story as if you’re there experiencing them yourself. From marriage proposals to explaining to the executioner the efficient way to hang a man, this book demonstrated some interesting and emotional last words of the departing that were a joy to read...

Overall, I think this is an incredible book and I think many will enjoy it!

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Instagram, @tattooedliteraryresearcher

'At the right hand of Power,
Power and Great Glory,
For Thy Church, O Lord -
Into Thy hands, O Lord,
Into Thy Hands!'

From Tenyson's Becket as performed by Sir Henry Irving

Welcome to the second day of the Famous Last Words tour! Thank you for inviting me @penswordbooks , @hewritesatnight and @what_rosie_read !

I started this post with the last words of Sir Irving. A hugely celebrated actor and important part of 19th century theatre life who uttered these prophetic words before passing out and then dying in 1905.
What I loved about the book is that we have utterances like that, so perfect a set of last words that for an actor there really couldn't have been any more apt words for him to use his last breath on.
Then you have people like Priscilla Guppy who chooses to answer a question that had been put to her decades before, yes in fact she did kill that man so many years before. Murderers are to be found a few times within these pages, each with their own way of saying goodbye to the world. From criticising society to smugness to what seems like sincere regret to their actions.

There are some genuinely very moving inclusions such as Charlotte Ellen Reeve and Frederick Fleet. Fleet survived the Titanic but never recovered mentally and decided he could no longer take it anymore. Reeve was a single mother during the Victorian era, a hostile place for her due to her standing and nature who left letters to her sister instructing her of what she was going to do and saying goodbye. Both stories incredibly sad in their own ways, leaving you feeling if only there was more help back then to show them they aren't alone, but even now as we see constant cuts to the mental health sector, it isn't easy getting help when you need it most and they both felt that gap.

Each person, no matter their reasoning for inclusion, is treated with respect and with some genuinely beautiful writing. It left me thinking about last words with people I've loved. I know my last words to my mum and hers to me was I love you, as I would always go over to her and kiss her on the head say bye, love you and she would say the same. She wasn't famous but they are nice last words, aren't they?

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Instagram @sarasreadingdiary

This was fabulous, an account of multiple people’s last words before their death.

I found the section on Lady Jane Grey fascinating and some of the things she said too! Also, Sir Walter Raleigh’s section was super interesting!

I personally think that I’d recommend this to fans of true crime also, as some of the things mentioned are defo borderline murder + crime confessions If you ask me! Honestly I feel as though some of these need examining by a police officer to be honest.

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Instagram, @charlottereadsx

What a book. Peppered with events and people you'd recognise and people you've never heard of, this book really keeps you on your toes. This book deal with the high drama of the Gunpowder plot, survivor's guilt from the Titanic and the dirty dealings of bodysnatchers Burke and Hare. As much as these high profile events are well known to us, I feel like I took the lesser known tales equally to heart. The death bed confessions, the book bound in human skin and the most poignant of suicide notes. It was a roller coaster ride of humour, high jinks and horror.

5 stars

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Instagram, @when_cathy_met_heathcliffe

A Morpeth resident’s debut book looks into the stories behind the final utterings said, or reported to have been said, that include bravery, irony and confessions.

Read the full feature here

Morpeth Herald

The inevitable spectre of death greets us all, from princes to paupers. So 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, often remarkable confessions as deeply entrenched secrets are finally unshackled in the shadow of imminent death.

Read the full review here

Bradford Telegraph and Argus

The book is well written and doesn’t pretend to be too gory or salacious. The book has been well researched and there was a good variety throughout time, with each chapter representing each character. A fun balanced book with something for every to get their nose into.

Read the full review here

UK Historian

This is an enjoyable book, and an easy “read a chapter before bed” sort of thing. Pen 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.

NetGalley, Stephen Kelley

Perfect for the macabre loving and historical fans like myself. Definitely would like to read more about this particular subject in the future.

NetGalley, Charlie Read

As featured on BBC Radio Newcastle with Lisa Shaw!

BBC Radio Newcastle.

'Famous Last Words collates a fascinating selection of utterings from those about to leave this Earth and the circumstances that surround it.'

NARC magazine

This is a fascinating account of the deaths of 23 historical figures. They range from the very well known (Lady Jane Grey, William Burke) to the previously unfamiliar (to me). The accounts are written simply and engagingly in plain language. Despite the often gruesome nature of the murders, poisonings, and other crimes which led directly to the executions, the descriptions are neither too graphic nor disturbing (most of them happened many many years ago and have lost the immediacy of horror). They're not all executions, several are related stories from the deaths of non-criminals (Liam Whelan, Sir Henry Irving)... This would be a good selection for library acquisition, or for history fans. It would also be a good choice for true crime fans.

Four stars.

NetGalley, Annie Buchanan

This was a really entertaining read.Easily put down and picked back up as there were many different stories to become engrossed in.I thought when I picked this up that some of the more famous names would interest me the most but all the stories were fascinating in their own right.Although,I particularly liked Walter Raleigh's tale,Robert Catesby and the lookout from the Titanic,Fred Fleet.It was well written,informative and a much needed compelling distraction.

NetGalley, Leslie Hall

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This wow! book details the circumstances surrounding deaths (natural, executions, suicide) and the last words spoken by the person(s) who died when they realized death was imminent. Some are surprising, some proclaimed innocence to the end whether they were innocent of a crime or not, others poignant and heartbreaking. From confessions to allusions to secrets to words of love to instructions to the executioner, this book is unputdownable in its intensity and captivation. Most of the stories took place in the last few hundred years with a few more recent and highlight both famous and not famous people.

When hanging and beheading were de rigueur, executioners were paid for good "service". Some executions occurred swiftly as planned but some were unfortunately drawn out. Bodies were often used for scientific research and some took it upon themselves to hasten deaths for payment. Mary Blandy was concerned about propriety when she was hung. Many last words were pleas to their Maker such as Sir Henry Irving's which those he used on stage during performances, "O Lord Into Thy hands". King Edward VI's were similar as were Lady Jane Grey's, while she pathetically groped for the beheading stone. Every single story is incredibly interesting including the Charles Smith book made of his skin!

Suicide notes are goosebump inducing, moving and poignant and the last despairing and revealing moments of the person's life are sometimes recorded in detail. The most heartbreaking to me was the letter from a father to his daughter. A few saw a humorous side, others instructive. Murderer Burke said, "The knot's behind" to his executioner (should have been to the side). A few shook hands with their executioner and thanked prison staff for good treatment. The degrading ducking story was just awful...the man responsible asked for forgiveness at his death. Another man blamed women for his downfall and one pleaded innocence until he was executed and it was discovered later that he indeed had been innocent. One couple recited wedding vows to each other just seconds before they were hung.

There are photos of locations and suicide letters. If you are at all intrigued by a sociological compendium of true death events and how various people viewed death in their last moments, this book is definitely for you.

My sincere thank you to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the privilege of reading the e-ARC of this fascinating book. Well worth reading!

NetGalley, Brenda Carleton

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What an amazing book. It was not what I expected so was pleasantly surprised. It featured the last words of famous people like Sir Walter Raleigh, Lady Jane Grey, William Burke to name a few but it also featured last words from very little known people whose words were quite prophetic and lingered. Some were admissions to guilt of crimes from the past which then solved it, but some were also from people protesting their innocence which later (Too late) were sadly proven right. Chris Wood has clearly done his research and is to be commended for it. I found it to be really interesting and addictive reading. I look forward to more from this author.

NetGalley, T B

My morbid soul had a wonderful time reading Famous Last Words, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an enjoyable nonfiction that they can read in one gulp, or in bite-sized chapters. Either way, there are some quotes in here that, in my opinion, have more than earned a total mic-drop.

NetGalley, Theresa Strike

It is extremely well researched and the author has a great writing style which kept me engaged. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history and crimes of the past.

NetGalley, Steph Elias

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

We have all heard the stories of the last words spoken before someone is put to death. Usually, it was in cases of medieval beheadings, etc. But this book goes beyond that, taking into account different cases over history, and sharing the crimes, the verdicts, and the final walks of those convicted, giving us a more full story of the punishment - and the crime.

For true crime lovers, this is a great delve into different cases, horrendous murders, and those convicted. For historians, its a glance back into the past, and the immortal last words spoken by those condemned. Chris Wood went above and beyond the expectations I had for this book (even though I thought it sounded fabulous from the title, I was not sure how the content would be arranged), but it was easy to read, and the facts and cases keep you pulled in. Prepare for a book hangover, because once you start this book, you will not be able to put it down until you have finished the last sentence.

I absolutely loved this book!

NetGalley, Rebecca Hill

I really Loved reading this it was very informative and interesting. Worth a read!would definitely recommend!!

NetGalley, Alex Price

“Famous Last Words” by Chris Wood is a book that caught my eye immediately. Maybe it’s the darker side of my personality speaking, but I really liked the idea of reading the last words spoken by people at the moment they were facing their death. It was immensely interesting reading the words spoken and imagining the person uttering those very words as they were preparing to die. Being an avid fan of everything history (and macabre!), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of reading this book. It was almost like an historical journey back into the lives of well known people who have lived and died. It may not appeal to everyone, but it’s a book that will definitely appeal to all history fans and those who are curious about what goes through a person’s mind in the moments leading up to their death.

NetGalley, Uppity Blond
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About Chris Wood

As a freelance writer and researcher, Chris Wood has written for the popular UK True Crime Podcast and is a student of criminology and psychology. This is his debut book around a subject which has captivated him from an early age. He lives in Northumberland with his wife and daughter, where they enjoy exploring the rugged beauty of England’s northernmost county.

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