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January, 1892.

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: Jan. 1, '92, as second- dac-s matter.














INFIDEL aeatn-beds have been a fertile theme of pulpit elo-
quence. The priests of Christianity often inform their .con-
gre'gations that Faith is an excellent soft pillow, and Eeason
a horrible hard bolster, for the dying head. Freethought,
they Bay, is all very well in the days of our health and
strength, when we are buoyed up by the pride of carnal
intellect! but ah! how poor a. thing it is when health and
Strength fail us, when, deserted by our self-sufficiency, we
need the support of a stronger power. In that extremity the
proud Freethinker turns to Jesus Christ, renounces his wicked
scepticism, implores pardon of the Savior he has despised,
and shudders at the awful scenes that await him in the next
world should the hour of forgiveness be past.

Pictorial art has been pressed into the service of this plea
for religion, and in such orthodox periodicals as the British
Workman, to say nothing of the horde of pious inventions
which are circulated as tracts, expiring sceptics have .been
! portrayed in agonies of terror, gnashing their teeth, wringing
their hands, rolling their eyes, and exhibiting every sign of

One minister of the gospel, the Rev. Erskine Neale, has not
thought it beneath his dignity to compose an extensive series
of these holy frauds, under the title of Closing Scenes. This
work was, at one time, very popular and influential ; but its
specious character having been exposed, it has fallen- into
disrepute, or at least into neglect.,

The real answer to these arguments, if they may be called
such, is to be found in the body of the present work. I have



narrated in a brief space, and from the best authorities, tKo
" closing scenes " in the lives of many eminent Freethinkers
during the last three centuries. They are not anonymous
persons without an address, who cannot be located in time or
space, and who simply serve " to point a moral or adorn a
tale." Their names are in most cases historical, and in some
cases familiar to fame ; great poets, philosophers, historians,
and wits, of deathless memory, who cannot be withdrawn
from the history of our race without robbing it of much of
its dignity and splendor.

In some instances I have prefaced the story of their deaths
with a short, and in others with a lengthy, record of their
lives. The ordinary reader cannot be expected to possess a
complete acquaintance with the career and achievements of
every great soldier of progress ; and I have therefore con-
sidered it prudent to afford such information as might be
deemed necessary to a proper appreciation of the character,
the greatness, and the renown, of the subjects of my sketches.
"When the hero of the story has been the object of calumny
or misrepresentation, when his death has been falsely related,
and simple facts have been woven into a tissue of lying absur-
dity, I have not been content with a bare narration of the
truth ; I have carried the war into the enemy's camp, and
refuted their mischievous libels.

One of our greatest living thinkers entertains " the belief
that the English mind, not readily swayed by rhetoric, moves
freely under the pressure of facts." 1 I may therefore venture
to hope that the facts I have recorded will have their proper
effect on the reader's mind. Yet it may not be impolitic to
examine the orthodox argument as to death-bed repentances.

Oarlyle, in his Essay on Voltaire, utters a potent warning
against anything of the kind.

" Surely the parting agonies of a fellow-mortal, when the spirit
of our brother, rapt in the whirlwinds and thick ghastly vapors of
death, clutches blindly for help, and no help is there, are not the
cenes where a wise faith would seek to exult, when it can no
onger hope to alleviate ! For the rest, to louch farther on those

i Dr. E. B. Tylor : Preface to second edition of Primitive Culture


their idle tales of dying ho-rrtirs, remorse, and the like ; to write of
such, to believe them, or disbelieve them, or in anywise discuss
them, were but a continuation of the same ineptitude. He who,
after the imperturbable exifr of so many Cartouches and Thurtells,
in every age of the world,, can continue to regard 'the manner of a
man's death as a test of his religious orthodoxy, may boast himself
impregnable to merely terrestrial logic." 2

There is a great deal of truth in this vigorous passage; I
fancy, however, that some of the dupes of priestcraft are not
absolutely impregnable to terrestrial logic, and I discuss the
subject for their sakes, even at the risk of being held guilty
of " ineptitude."

Throughout the world the religion of mankind is deter-
mined by the geographical accident of . their birth. In
England men grow up Protestants; in Italy, Catholics; in
Russia, Greek Christians ; in Turkey, Mohammedans ; in
India, Brahmans ; in China, Buddhists, or Confucians. What
they are taught in their childhood they believe in their man-
hood ; and they die in the faith in which they have lived.

Here and there a few men think for themselves. If they
discard the faith in which they have been educated, they are
never free from its influence. It meets them at every turn,
and is constantly, by a thousand ties, drawing them back to
the. orthodox fold. The stronger resist this attraction, the
weaker succumb to it. Between them is the average man,
whose tendency will depend on several things. If he ia
isolated, or finds but few sympathisers, he may revert to the
ranks of faith ; if he finds many of the same opinion with
himself, he will probably display more fortitude. Even Free-
thinkers are gregarious, and in the worst as well as the best
sense of the words, the saying of Novalis is true *' My
thought gains infinitely when it is shared by another."

But in all cases of reversion, the sceptic invariably turns
to the creed of his own country. What does this prove'?
Simply the power of our environment, and the force of early
training. When " infidels " are few, and their relatives are
orthodox, what could be .more natural .than what is called " a

Essays, Vol. II., p. 161 (People's edition).


death-bed recantation"? Their minds are enfeebled by
disease, or the near approach of death ; they are surrounded
by persons who continually urge them to be reconciled to the
popular faith; and is it astonishing if they sometimes yield to
these solicitations ? Is it wonderful if, when all grows dim and
the priestly carrion-crow of the death-chamber mouths his
perfunctory shibboleths, the weak brain should become dazed,
and the poor tongue mutter a faint response?

Should the dying man be old, there is still less reason for
surprise. Old age yearns back to the cradle, and as Dante
Rossetti says

tc Life all past

Is like the sky when the sun sets in it,
Clearest where furthest off."

The " recantation " of old men, if it occurs, is easily under-
stood. Having been brought up in a particular religion, their
earliest and tenderest memories may be connected with it ;
and when they lie down to die they may mechanically recur
to it, just as they may forget whole years of their maturity,
and vividly remember the scenes of their childhood. Those
who have read Thackeray's exquisitely faithful and pathetic
narrative of the death of old Colonel Newcome, will remember
that as the evening chapel bell tolled its last note, he smiled,
lifted his head a little, and cried " Adsum ! " the boy's answer
when the names were called at school.

Cases of recantation, if they were ever common, which
does not appear to be true, are now exceedingly rare ; so rare,
indeed, that they .are never heard of except in anonymous
tracts, which are evidently concocted for the glory of God,
rather than the edification of Man. Sceptics are at present
numbered by thousands, and they can nearly always secure
at their bedsides the presence of friends who share their un-
belief. Every week the Freethought journals report quietly,
and as a ^natter of course, the peaceful end of " infidels " *
who, having lived without hypocrisy, have died without fear.
They are frequently buried by their heterodox friends, and
never a week passes without the Secular Burial Service, or


some other appropriate words, being read by sceptics over a
sceptic's grave.

Christian ministers Know this. They usually confine them-
selves, therefore, to the death-bed stories of Paine and
Voltaire, which have been again and again refuted. Little,
if anything, is said about the eminent Freethinkers who have
died in the present generation. The priests must wait half
a century before they can hope to defame them with success.
Our cry to, these pious sutlers is " Hands off Refute ,the
arguments of Freethinkers, if you can ; but do not obtrude
your disgusting presence in the death-chamber, t vent your
malignity over their tombs."

Suppose, however, that every Freethinker turned Chris-
tian on his death-bed. It is a tremendous stretch of fancy,
but I make it for the sake of argument. "What would it prove ?
Nothing, as I said before, but the force of our surroundings
and early training. It is a common saying among Jews,
when they hear of a Christian proselyte " Ah, wait till he
comes to die ! " As a matter of fact, converted Jews generally
die in the faith of their race ; and the same is alleged as to
the native converts that arc made by our missionaries in India.

Heine has a pregnant passage on this point. ^Referring to
Joseph Schelling, who was " an apostate to his own thought,"
who " deserted the altar he had himself consecrated?' and
" returned to the crypts of the past," Heine rebukes the " old
believers" who cried Kyrie eleisdn in honor of such a con-
version. " That," he says, " proves nothing for their doctrine.
It only proves that man turns to religion when ht> is old and
fatigued, when his physical and mental force has left him,
when he can no longer enjoy nor reason. So many Free-
thinkers aro converted on their death-beds ! . . But at least
do not boast of them. Thcso legendary conversions belong
at best to pathology, and are a poor evidence for your cause.
After all, they only prove this, that it was impossible for you
to convert those Freethinkers while they were healthy. in
body and miod." 3

3 Do VAllewacine, Vol. I., p. 174.. .


Re'nan has some excellent words on the same subject in his
delightful volume of autobiography. After expressing a
rooted preference for a sudden death, he continues : " I should
be grieved to go through one of those periods of feebleness,
in which the man who has possessed' strength and virtue is
only th shadow and ruins of himself, and often, to the great
joy of fools, occupies himself in demolishing the life he has
laboriously built up. Such an old age is the worst gift the
gods can bestow on man. If such a fate is reserved for me.
I protest in advance against the fatuities that a softened brain
may make me say or sign.- It is Ke*nan sound in heart and
head, such as I am now, and not Kenan half destroyed by
death, and no longer himself, as I shall be if I decompose
gradually, that I wish people to listen to and. believe." 4

To find the best passage on this topic in our own literature
we must go back to the seventeenth century, and to Selden's
Table Talk, a volume in which Coleridge found "more weighty
bullion sense " than he " ever found in the same number of
pages of any uninspired writer." Selden lived in a less
mealy-mouthed age than ours, and what I am going to quote
smacks of the blunt old times ; but it is too good to miss, and
all readers whp are not prudish will thank me for citing it.
" For a priest," says Selden, " to turn a man when he lies
a dying, is just like one that hath a long time solicited a
woman, and cannot obtain his end ; at length he makes her
drunk, and so lies with her." It is a curious thing that the
writer of these words helped to draw up the Westminster
Confession of Faith.

For my own part, while I have known many Freethinkers
who were stedfast to their principles in death, I have never
known a single case of recantation. The fact is, Christians
are utterly mistaken on this subject. It is quite intelligible
that those who believe in a vengeful God, and an everlasting
hell, should tremble on " the brink of eternity ; " and it is
natural that they should ascribe to others the same trepida-
tion. But a moment's reflection must convince them that this

* Souvenirs PEn/ance et de Jeimesse, p. 377.


is fallacious. The oiily terror in death is the apprehension
of what lies .beyond it, and that emotion is impossible to a
sincere disbeliever. Of course the orthodox may ask " But is
there a sincere disbeliever P " To which .1 can only reply,
like Diderot, by asking " Is there a sincere Christian ? "

Professor Tyndall, while repudiating Atheism himself, has
borne testimony to the earnestness of others who embrace it,
" I have known some of the most pronounced among them,"
he says, " not only in life but in death seen them approaching
with open eyes the inexorable goal, with no dread of a hang-
man's whip, with no hope of a heavenly crown, and still as
mindful of their duties, and as faithful in. the discharge of
them, as if their eternal future depended on their latest
deeds." 5

Lord Bacon said, " I do not believe that any man fears to
be dead, but only the stroke of death." True, and the
physical suffering, and the pang of separation, are the same
for all. Yet the end of life is as natural as its beginning,
and the true philosophy of existence is nobly expressed in
the lofty sentence of Spinoza, "A free man thinks less of
nothing than of death."

* So live, that when thy summons conies to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, hut sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Ijike one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams." 6

* Fortniyhtly Itericw, November, 1877.
" Bryant,


NEARLY five thousand copies of this little work having
been sold in two years, I now publish a second edition^
containing a considerable number of fresh names,
which will be found marked with a star in the index.
Scrupulous care has been taken, as before, to state
nothing but facts, vouched for by irreproachable autho-



Viscount Amberley, the eldest son of the late Earl Russell,
and the author of a very heretical w&rk entitled an Analysis
of Religious Belief, lived and died a Freethinker. His will,
stipulating that his son should be educated by a sceptical
friend was set aside by Earl Russell; the law of England
being such, that Freethinkers are denied the parental rights
which are enjoyed by their Christian neighbors. Lady
Frances Russell, who signs with her initials the Preface to
Lord Amberley's book, which was published after his death,
writes : "Ere the pages now given to the public had left the
press, the hand that had written them was cold, the heart
of which few could know the loving depths had ceased to
beat, the far-ranging mind was for ever still, the fervent
spirit was at .rest. Let this be remembered by those who
read, and add solemnity to the BO-lemn purpose of the book."


Baskerville's name is well known in the republic of letters,
and his memory still lingers in Birmingham, where he
carried on the trade of a printer. He was celebrated for the
excellence of his workmanship, the beauty of his types^ and the
splendor of his editions. Born in 1706, he died on January 8,
1775. He was buried in a tomb in his own garden, on which
was place' 1 the following inscription*:


Beneath this cone, in unconsecrated ground,
A friend to the liberties of mankind directed

His body to be inurned.

May the example contribute to emancipate thy
Mind from the idle fears of Superstition

And the wicked arts of Priesthood.


This virtuous mail and useful citizen took precautions
against "the wicked arts of priesthood." " His will,' 1 says
Mr. Leslie Stephen, "professed open contempt for Christianity,
and the biographers who reproduce the document always veil
certain passages with lines of stars as being ' far too indecent
(1.6. irreverent) for repetition.' r? *


Henri Bayle was the author of the famous Dictionary which
bears his name. This monument of learning and acuteness
has been of inestimable service to succeeding writers. Gibbon
himself laid it under contribution, and acknowledged his
indebtedness to the " celebrated writer " and " philosopher "
of Amsterdam. Elsewhere Gibbon calls him "-the indefa-
tigable Bayle," an epithet which is singularly appropriate,
since he worked fourteen hours daily for over forty years.
Born on November 18, 1647, Bayle died on December 28, 1706.
He continued writing to the very end, and " labored con-
stantly, with the same tranquility of mind as if, death had
not been ready to interrupt his work." * This is the testimony
of a friend; and a similar statement is made in the Nouvelle
Biograpliie Genei'ale, whrch says .11 mourut tout hdbille, et pour
ainsi dire la plume a la main " He died in his clothes, and as
it were pen in hand." According to Des Maiseaux, " He saw
death approaching without either fearing or desiring it."
Nor did his jocularity desert him any more than his scep-
ticism. Writing, to Lord Shaftesbury on October 29, 1706
only two months before his death he said : " I should have
thought that a dispute with Divines would put me out of
humor, but I find by experience that it serves as an amuse-
ment 'for me in the solitude to which I have reduced myself."

The final moments of this great scholar are described by a
friend who had the account from an attendant. " M. Bayle
died," says M. Seers, " with great tranquility, and without

* Dictionary of National Biography.

8 Des Maiseaux, Life of Bayle, prefixed to the English translation
of the " Dictionary."


anybody with him. At nine o'clock in the morning his land-
lady entered his chamber ; he aaked her, but with a dying
voice, if his fire was kindled, and died a moment after, with-
out M Basnage 9 , or me, or any of his friends with him."


Bent ham exercised a profound influence on the party of
progress for nearly two generations. He was the father of
Philosophical Eadicalism, which did so much' to free the
minds and bodies of the English people, and which counted
among its swordsmen historians like Grote, philosophers
like Mill, wits like Sidney Smith, journalists like Fonblanque,
and politicians like Roebuck. As a reformer in jurispru-
dence he has no equal. His brain swarmed with progressive
ideas and projects for the improvement and elevation of
mankind ; and his fortune, as well as his intellect, was ever
at the service of advanced causes. His scepticism was rather
suggested than paraded in his multitudinous writings, but it
was plainly expressed in a few special volumes. Not Paul,
But Jesus, published under the pseudonym of Gamaliel Smith
is a slashing attack on the Great Apostle. The Church of
England Catechism Explained is a merciless criticism of that
great instrument for producing mental and political slaves.
But the most thorough-going of Bentham's works was a little
volume written by Grote from the Master's notes the
Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of
Mankind in which theology is assatted as the historic and
necessary enemy of human liberty, enlightenment, and

Born on February 15, 1748, Bentham died on June 6, 18321
By a will dating as far back as 1769, his body was left for the
purposes of science, " not out of affectation of singularity, but
to the intent and with the desire that mankind may reap
some small benfit in -and by my decease, having hitherto had
email opportunities to contribute thereto while living." A

M. Basnage the author of the first History of the Jews.


memorandum affixed shows that this clause was deliberately
confirmed two months before his death.

Dr. Southwood Smith delivered a lecture over Bentham's
remains, three days after, his death, in the 'Webb Street
School of Anatomy. He thus described the last moments of
his illustrious friend :

Some time before his death, when lie firmly believed lie was
near that hour, he said to one of his v. disciples, who was watching
over him : f I now. feel that I am dying : our care must be to
minimise the -pain. Do not let any of the servants come into my
room, and keep awaj r the youth : it will be distressing to them,
and they can be of no service. Yet I must not be alone ; you will
remain with me, and you. only ; and then we shall have reduced
the pain to the least possible amount.' Such were his last thoughts
and feelings."

Mr. Leslie Stephen relates a similar story in the Dictionary
of National Biography. " During his last illness," says Mr.
Stephen " he asked the doctor to tell him if there was any
prospect of recovery. On being informed that there was
none, he replied serenely " Very well, be it so ; then minimise
pain." Bentham may- have used the same language to the
doctor and the disciple, and it was natural on his lips. As a
Utilitarian, he regarded happiness as the only good and pain
as the only evil. He met death " serenely," but like a sensible
man he " minimised the pain. "


Paul Bert was born at Auxerre in October, 1833, and he
died at Tonquin 011 November 11, 1886. His father educated
him in a detestation of priests, and his own nature led him to
the pursuit of science. After -studying anatomy under
Gratiolet, ho took the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1863,
and three years later the degree of Doctor of Science; teach-
ing zoology at Bordeaux and succeeding Jlourens at the
Museum. Going to Paris, he became preparator to the great
anatomist Claude Bernard, whom. he succeeded at the
Sorbonne in 1869. His political life began with the fall of the

I Dr. Southwood Smith's Lecture, p. 62.


Empire. Gambetta appointed him prefect of the Nord, where
he toiled mightily with General Faidherbe. After the war he
entered the Chamber of Deputies, and devoted his great
powers to the development 6f public education. Largely
through his labors,., the Chamber voted free, secular, and
compulsory instruction for both sexes. He was idolised by
the schoolmasters and schoolmistresses in France. Being
accused of a "blind hatred " of priests, he replied in the
Chamber " The conquests of education are made on the do-
main of religion; I am forced to meet on my road Catholic
superstitions and Eomish policy, or rather it is across their
empire that my path seems to me naturally traced." Speaking
at a mass meeting at the Oirque d'Hiver, in August, 1881,
Gambetta himself being in the chair, Paul Bert declared that
" modern societies march towards morality in proportion as
they leave religion behind.," Afterwards he published his
scathing Morale des Jesuites, over twenty thousand copies of
which were sold in less than a year. The book was dedicated
to Bishop Freppel in a vein of masterly irony. -Paul Bert
also published a scientific work, the Premiere Aniiee d* Enseigne-
ment Scientifique, which is almost universally used in the
French primary schools.

During Gambetta's short-lived government Paul Bert held
the post of Minister of Public Instruction. In 1886 he went
out to . Tonquin as Eesident General. Hard work and the
pestilential climate laid him low, and he succumbed to
dysentery. A fortnight before his death he telegraphed to
M. Freycinet, desiring him to say nothing of his illness for
the sake of his friends and relatives. Some days later he
telegraphed again, " You are right ; it is better for me to die
at my post than to quit Tonquin at the present moment."
"When the news of his death reached, the French Chamber,
M. Freycinet announced the event from the tribune;

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Online LibraryG. W. (George William) FooteInfidel death-beds. Idle tales of dying horrors → online text (page 1 of 10)