Melodramatic phrases comfort the soul

I saw someone on Tumblr talking about John Wilkes Booth’s death today, and his last words were so melodramatic I was fascinated. Here’s the whole story, from his Wikipedia article:

Before dawn on April 26, the soldiers caught up with the fugitives, who were hiding in Garrett’s tobacco barn. David Herold surrendered, but Booth refused Conger’s demand to surrender, saying “I prefer to come out and fight”; the soldiers then set the barn on fire. As Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him. According to Corbett’s later account, he fired at Booth because the fugitive “raised his pistol to shoot” at them. Conger’s report to Stanton, however, stated that Corbett shot Booth “without order, pretext or excuse”, and recommended that Corbett be punished for disobeying orders to take Booth alive. Booth, fatally wounded in the neck, was dragged from the barn to the porch of Garrett’s farmhouse, where he died three hours later, aged 26. The bullet had pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him.

In his dying moments, he reportedly whispered, “Tell my mother I died for my country”. Asking that his hands be raised to his face so he could see them, Booth uttered his last words, “Useless, useless,” and died as dawn was breaking. In Booth’s pockets were found a compass, a candle, pictures of five women, including his fiancée Lucy Hale, and his diary, where he had written of Lincoln’s death, “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”

Who were the other four women?? Also, “Useless, useless”! It reminds me of two other really dramatic life-and-death stories: Henry II muttering “Shame, shame on a conquered king” before dying, and this one about the robber baron Henry Clay Frick (anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him after Frick’s Pinkertons attacked striking steelworkers, killing 7):

The bullet hit Frick in the left earlobe, penetrated his neck near the base of the skull, and lodged in his back. The impact hurled Frick off his feet, and Berkman fired again, again striking Frick in the neck and causing him to bleed profusely. Carnegie Steel vice-president (later, president) John George Alexander Leishman, who was with Frick, was then able to grab Berkman’s arm and deflect a third shot, saving Frick’s life.

Frick was seriously wounded, but rose and (with the assistance of Leishman) tackled his assailant. All three men crashed to the floor, where Berkman managed to stab Frick four times in the leg with the pointed steel file before finally being subdued by other employees, who had rushed into the office. As the police entered the room, guns drawn, Frick reportedly yelled, “Don’t shoot! Leave him to the law, but raise his head and let me see his face.”

“Raise his head and let me see his face”! It’s like something out of a movie. Do people naturally behave like this in times of crisis? Or do they do it out of a sense of what’s expected of them because they’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of theater/movies? And is that even a meaningful distinction? Speech, being communication aimed at someone else, inherently has an element of “for effect” in it. And raising a child without ever telling him a story isn’t “natural” either (well, I guess especially if you were doing it to find out how he reacted when you shot him). It’s fascinating.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.