While dying is not funny business, there’s no denying that some people utter some downright entertaining epigrams during their final moments on earth. Of course, there are plenty of unforgettably noble last words, but I submit that once Sam Houston summoned his remaining iron will to speak the words, “Texas––Texas! ––Margaret!” that nobody else could possibly top that. Why even try?
But those funny guys … especially the funny doomed guys, even if they didn’t mean to be amusing … they deserve special recognition, I believe, for using their last breaths to leave the crowd smiling, or at least wanting to smile.
Some were famous, like Doc Holliday, who ended his life of gunfighting and wisecracking in a sick bed. With a glance down at his bootless feet, he declared, “This is funny.” You see, he always figured to die with his boots on, pistols blazing.
Some of the most interesting dying words were spoken by people who would have otherwise faded into Old West obscurity. Their memorable farewells are about all we know about them.
GALLOWS HUMORSheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack, Montana, was hanged by vigilantes who suspected him of illegal activities. The sheriff held onto his bravado to the end and dryly remarked, “Give me a high drop, men.”
The Hanging Judge, Isaac C. Parker of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, dispensed of six murderers in a day. One of them, Sam Fooy, would have thumbed his nose at the judge and onlookers had his hands not been tied. He left them with, “I am as anxious to get out of this world as you are to see me go.”
John Owens murdered a man over five dollars in Buffalo, Wyoming, and couldn’t wait to get on with the show. “What time is it?” he said. “I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner.”
A Nebraska farmer, Lee Shellenberger, was charged with killing his eleven-year-old daughter. Before the trial date, a lynch mob dragged him from the jail. Shellenberger was most indignant and delivered a threat just before the rope tightened. “If there is such a thing as haunts, I will do it, for I recognize several of you.”
We don’t know the name of the wise guy who was hanged at Yuma Penitentiary in 1887, but his punch line lives on. When asked why he was smiling, he replied, “Well, I was just thinking. You guys have got to walk back up there in the heat. I don’t.”
An outlaw named Bill Gallagher confronted tough rancher John Slaughter near Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, and decided to charge him on horseback. Slaughter coolly shot the man down. As Gallagher lay dying, he closed with a little self-analysis. “I needed killing twenty years ago, anyway.”
The Texas Panhandle produced plenty of tough characters. Sostenes L’Archeveque was one of them. Even his friends grew tired of his violent, troublemaking ways. They invited him over for a meal, then proceeded to ambush him. After being shot and stabbed, L’Archeveque still had plenty of fight left in him. He spat at his attackers, “You pull that knife out of my back and I’ll kill every one of you!”
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Having been educated at a white man’s school, a Kickapoo woman named Oo-Lath-La-Hi-Na tried to avert an attack by soldiers who apparently didn’t realize her tribe as friendly.
“I will go out and talk with the white Captain. He thinks we are Comanches. The white men won’t shoot a woman.”
A caravan of wagons stopped for the night near Battle Mountain, Nevada, in August of 1857. One of the pioneers, Smith Holloway, declined to join the circle of wagons and camped away from the group, despite warnings of potential Indian attacks. After an uneventful night, Holloway arose and announced his last words, "Wake up, everyone. No redskins in sight!"
Four robbers were holed up in a cabin near Kokomo, Colorado when Deputy/Detective M. E. Conrad crashed through the door. Seeing no guns elsewhere in the cabin, Conrad grilled the men, forcing them to walk over to their beds, throw back the covers, and prove they weren’t bad guys. “Boys, we must see what you have got under those blankets,” he said, just before he learned the truth.
For more fascinating accounts of Western characters and their send-offs, I recommend Garry Radison’s book, LAST WORDS: DYING IN THE OLD WEST. And watch your words, my friends. They could well outlive you.
All the best,
“Writing the Range”
2015 WWA Spur Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist (Short Fiction)
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