Groucho Marx? Lord Palmerston? Old Bishop? Söndags-Nisse? Robert Lee Bullard? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A famous person lying on their deathbed overheard distraught visitors discussing mortality. The stricken but still lively individual sat bolt upright and declared:
Die? That’s the last thing I’ll do.
This humorously redundant statement has been attributed to U.S. comedian Groucho Marx and U.K. statesman Lord Palmerston. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The phrasing of this quip has evolved over time. Here is a sampling with dates:
1866 Jun 28: Dying was the last thing a man should think about.
1867 Mar 01: As for my dying, that is the last thing I shall do.
1883 May 17: Die, my dear doctor? That’s the last thing I think of doing.
1886 May 22: Die, my dear doctor! That’s the last thing I shall do.
1901 Mar 25: Die? That’s the last thing I’ll do.
1925 Jan 18: Die . . . That is the last thing I intend to do.
1933 Oct 12: The last thing that I intend to do, brethren, is to die.
Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple) died on October 18, 1865. The quip was attributed to him by March 1, 1867. The context was his retirement and not his deathbed. Lord Palmerston is the leading candidate for crafter of this quip based on current data.
There is one complication. A variant joke was ascribed to an “old Bishop” by June 28, 1866. This date was after Palmerston’s death but before he received credit. Hence, it is possible that an existing anonymous joke was simple reassigned to Palmerston posthumously.
Groucho Marx was born in 1890 and died in 1977. The joke was ascribed to him by 2008. This is very weak evidence, and QI believes the attribution to Groucho is spurious.
Below are selected citations in chronological order.
The earliest match located by QI appeared in June 1866 within an article printed in “Wilmington Journal” of North Carolina. The word “phrase” was spelled as “phraze”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
A good old Bishop once remarked, that “dying was the last thing a man should think about,” and the mixture of wisdom and quaint humor in the phraze had impressed Mr. Davis.
The above passage appeared in other newspapers such as the “Daily Clarion and Standard” of Jackson, Mississippi. 2
In March 1867 “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London attributed the quip to Lord Palmerston, but the line was not delivered from a deathbed: 3
There is a story of Lord Palmerston that, on hearing that some of his friends, who discountenanced his retiring, had said they thought that “if he gave up office he would die,” he replied, “as for my dying, that is the last thing I shall do.”
The passage above achieved further circulation when it was reprinted in multiple newspapers in England. “The Pall Mall Gazette” was acknowledged. The papers included “The Newcastle Daily Chronicle” of Newcastle Upon Tyne 4 and “The Derby Mercury” of Derby. 5
In 1883 “The Wayne County Herald” of Honesdale, Pennsylvania published a variant tale about Palmerston. The passage referred to a medical malady and not retirement. Also, this instance of the quip used the word “think”: 6
Lord Palmerston during his last attack of the gout exclaimed playfully to his medical adviser, “Die, my dear doctor? That’s the last thing I think of doing.”
In May 1886 “The Manchester Courier” of England printed another version of the Palmerston tale. This instance of the quip did not use the word “think”: 7
Lord Palmerston’s good humour as a distinct element his character is well known. We find it even during his last illness, when his physician was forced to mention death. “Die, my dear doctor!” he exclaimed; “that’s the last thing I shall do.”
By June 1886 the passage above had jumped across the Atlantic Ocean and was printed in “The Brooklyn Union” newspaper of Brooklyn, New York. 8
In 1901 “The Minneapolis Tribune” printed another instance of the joke while crediting Söndags-Nisse, a Swedish humor magazine: 9
“But, my dear Tobias, remember that you may die at any time.”
“Die, did you say? Die? That’s the last thing I’ll do.”
In 1904 the attribution to Lord Palmerston continued to circulate via the pages of “The Saskatoon Phenix” of Canada: 10
It was said of Lord Palmerston that he never grew old and was as light-hearted as a boy to the very end. When he was on his deathbed and the doctors told him that his time had come he brightened up for a final jest. “Die, my dear doctor! That’s the last thing I shall do!” It was.
In 1925 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of Brooklyn, New York published a piece about Lieutenant General Robert Lee Bullard who was retiring from the military. Bullard employed a version of the jest: 11
There is much conjecture as to what General Bullard will do now that he has left the service. He calls himself a man in search of a job. “I am retiring from the army,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that I am retiring from work. I’d die very soon if I didn’t have work, and that,” with a twinkle in his eye, “is the last thing I intend to do.”
In 1933 a newspaper in Clarksville, Tennessee described an amusing religious speaker: 12
Bishop Candler of Atlanta delighted the audience this morning with his ready wit . . .
Among his remarks were: “The last thing that I intend to do, brethren, is to die.”
“You’d better listen,” he said when a noise disturbed the meeting, “I am talking sense and there’s no telling how much of it you’ll need.”
In 1949 “The Home Book of Quotations” compiled by Burton Stevenson included this entry. The punchline included the word “shall”: 13
Die, my dear doctor! That’s the last thing I shall do!
In 1950 the newspaper column “Famous Fables” by E. E. Edgar printed a version of the story during which Palmerston was lying on his deathbed and he overheard his doctors conversing. The punchline included the word “intend”: 14
“What’s your opinion?” asked the first doctor.
“There’s nothing more to be done,” said the second. “I’m afraid he is going to die soon.”
At this, Palmerston opened his eyes and murmured: “That, doctor, is the last thing I intend to do!”
In 2008 “Discover’s 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Everything” implausibly attributed the punchline to comedian Groucho Marx: 15
Groucho Marx (1890-1977), vaudeville and movie actor of caustic wit: “Die, my dear? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do!”
In 2010 a columnist in a Parsippany, New Jersey also credited Groucho Marx: 16
Groucho Marx, ever the comedian, said to his grieving wife, “Die, my dear? That’s the last thing I’ll do”
In conclusion, QI tentatively credits Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple) with this quip based on the March 1, 1867 citation in “The Pall Mall Gazette”. If this ascription is accurate then Palmerston would have employed the line before his death on October 18, 1865.
A less humorous version of the punchline containing the word “think” was attributed to an “old Bishop” on June 28, 1866. It is possible that Palmerston’s remark led to the creation of this variant. Alternatively, the “old Bishop” joke may have led to the posthumous construction of the line attributed to Palmerston. QI hopes that future researchers will help to clarify the origin.
Image Notes: Public domain image of the painting titled “The Sick Child” by Arturo Michelena circa 1886. The image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Andrew Munro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1866 June 28, Wilmington Journal, Jefferson Davis in Prison (Acknowledges New York World), Quote Page 1, Column 4, Wilmington, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1866 July 7, Daily Clarion and Standard, Jefferson Davis in Prison, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Jackson, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1867 March 1, The Pall Mall Gazette, Occasional Notes, Quote Page 5, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1867 March 2, The Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Leadership of the Liberal Party (Acknowledges Pall Mall Gazette), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1867 March 6, The Derby Mercury, Lord Russell and His Party (Acknowledges Pall Mall Gazette), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Derby, Derbyshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1883 May 17, The Wayne County Herald, Wits of Former Days, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Honesdale, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1886 May 22, The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Supplement Section, Parliamentary Titbits, Quote Page 2, Column 3, County of Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1886 June 6, The Brooklyn Union, Section: The Brooklyn Union Supplement, Parliamentary Tidbits, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1901 March 25, The Minneapolis Tribune, Entertainments: Cross Tobias, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1904 December 23, The Saskatoon Phenix, The Last Thing He Did, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1925 January 18, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Section: Sunday Eagle Magazine, General Bullard Now Seeks Civilian Job by Raymond Hathaway, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1933 October 12, Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, Highlights of Methodism by Ted Northington, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Clarksville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Death, Quote Page 416, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩
- 1950 September 13, The Bangor Daily News, Famous Fables by E. E. Edgar, Quote Page 2B, Column 6,Bangor, Maine. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2008, Discover’s 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Everything: Duct Tape, Airport Security, Your Body, Sex in Space … and More! by The Editors of Discover Magazine and Dean Christopher, Chapter: Death, Quote Page 119, Collins: An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2010 June 2, Parsippany Life, Last words of the famous reveal little insight by Gene Newman, Quote Page 9, Column 3, Parsippany, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩