Last Words

Last Words: Documenting the End of Lives

Cathy Moran Hajo

(Published in Documentary Editing, 2006)

King Arthur: “What does it say?”

Brother Maynard: “It reads, ‘Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Arimathea.  He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the castle of aaaaaagh!’”

King Arthur: “What?”

Brother Maynard: “The Castle of aaaagggh.”

Sir Bedevere: “What is that?”

Brother Maynard: “He must have died while carving it.”

Sir Launcelot: “Oh, come on!”

Brother Maynard: “Well that’s what it says.”

King Arthur: “Look, if he were dying, he wouldn’t bother to carve ‘aaaaggghhh,’ he’d just say it!”

Brother Maynard: “Well, that’s what’s carved in the rock!”

Sir Galahad: “Perhaps he was dictating.”1

Aside from making me laugh, the above scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail can be contorted into an illustration of the dilemma faced by documentary editors when dealing with the death of the subject of their edition.  We want to use documents to chronicle the lives of our subjects, but, as King Arthur rightly exclaimed, few record their dying moments in print.  In most editions, the death of the subject also ends the editor’s work, adding another layer of significance to the event.  In this article, I will explore the different ways editors have recorded and contextualized these deaths and discuss how the Margaret Sanger Papers Project grappled with the issue of selection as we reached Sanger’s death.

For a woman who lived such a long, turbulent and vibrant life, Margaret Sanger died quietly.  Congestive heart failure due to arteriosclerosis took her life on September 8, 1966 at a nursing home in Tucson, Arizona.2 She was almost 87 years old and had been under care for the last four years.  For about two years prior to this she had been at home, in poor health and slowly but surely becoming incapacitated.  Momentous events in the birth control movement, from the F.D.A.’s approval of the oral contraceptive to the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision were announced without public comment from the woman who had led the birth control movement since she named it in 1914.

At the end of her life, Sanger suffered bouts of confusion and memory loss and was often bed-ridden.  As her close friend Dorothy Hamilton Brush wrote to Sanger’s son Stuart, “My heart aches for her all the time.  We can live too long.  It seems so wicked that one who has overcome in her lifetime a thousand obstacles insuperable for any but a genius, should have to be submitted to the ignominy of a rudderless drifting towards death.  Especially as it is the one thing she repeatedly said she would never permit to have happen to her.  But as someone once said, when the time to act really comes, one is usually beyond the power to know it.”3 Frail and disoriented one day, Sanger could rally the next, holding long conversations with family or friends, or even more improbably being interviewed by CBS News for a birth control documentary in March 1962.4 But she wrote very few letters during these years, and most of what survives are brief, typed business letters drafted by her secretary or written for her by Dorothy Brush.  As a newly hired secretary described in May 1962, “Mrs. Sanger has been sleeping most of the time since I have been here.  Once and a while she will have the energy to look at a few letters and react somewhat but I can’t get her to do much dictating as yet.  Maybe she will later on.”5 She never did.  The last letter authored by Sanger that we have found was penned for her by her friend Grace Sternberg in July of 1963, who wrote she had written “exactly as M.S. dictated.”  The last letter with Sanger’s signature was written only the week before, more than three years before her death.6 Most details about her final years come from letters written between Sanger’s friends and family, and they offer two very different narratives.  A group of friends felt that Sanger should have been allowed to remain at home and blamed her sons, particularly Stuart, a medical doctor who lived next door to his mother, for taking legal custody and placing her in a home.  He, on the other hand, argued that his mother was incapable of taking care of herself and argued that these “friends” had been taking financial advantage of her.   Sanger herself remained mostly silent, though in 1963, Stuart Sanger claimed “She seems to take great delight in keeping things stirred up and in a turmoil. Her well-meaning, but rather uninformed friends go into battle upsetting all of us who are trying to do our best for her.”7

Selecting documents for the Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger is a difficult enough proposition.  We have almost 100,000 documents in the Sanger microfilm edition, which we have culled down to a four-volume book edition of about 1,000 documents.   For us, Sanger’s death will occur first in Volume 3: The Politics of Planned Parenthood, 1939-1966.8 Of the twenty-seven years covered in the volume, the last five needed special care and could have been handled any number of ways.   Poorly documented as it is, Sanger’s decline and death have not been well covered in secondary material.9 Unlike her childhood and youth, the other major undocumented period of her life, we do not have her memoirs or recollections to draw from.  We will never have a good sense of what Sanger was feeling, how aware she was, and what she may have thought about developments in the birth control movement or the debates between family and friends. Instead, we are left with scattered letters written by her friends, sons, and secretaries, describing her declining health and the care she received.   We also have some oral interviews with family and friends about her final years.  These third-party documents would normally be excluded from our volumes, as we limit selection to Sanger-authored documents and only the most valuable incoming letters.10 If we adhered strictly to our selection policies, we would have to document her death with editorial text, either noting her death in the introduction to the final chapter of the volume, an editorial note following the last document, or though annotation.  The last document in the edition would most likely have been an incoming letter by Walter Groth, written on July 26, 1965, though we might have selected Sanger’s last outgoing letter, to Leighton Rollins in July 1963.  The Groth letter is an interesting hearkening back to her activism in the 1910s, and the Rollins letter discusses the condition of her health in 1963, but neither provide us with any insight into her final years.  Ending our volume with one of these rang false to one of the goals of our volumes, which is to create a documentary edition that can be read as a narrative biography.

Looking at how other editors handled this issue proved a useful exercise.   Solutions ranged from using editorial notations in introductions, headnotes, endnotes and footnotes, to inserting third-party letters and documents created after the death of the subject.  Most  editors of personal papers will one day grapple with the deaths of their subject, and exploring the issue before the time comes can lead to a more reasoned decision that takes into account the nature of the edition.

The Editor Breaks the News

Using editorial notes to report the death is an understated approach which hews strictly to the selection policies of many projects.  Editions that include only outgoing letters cannot, by definition, include coverage of the subject’s death, unless, like Joseph of Arimathea, he used a dictation service.   Even projects that include both incoming and outgoing correspondence face the same dilemma.  Once a person dies, does the editor continue to include incoming letters, which the subject never received?  In the case of the Andrew Johnson Papers, the editors did, using a get-well letter to Johnson written the day he died to report Johnson’s death in a footnote.11

Most editors provide information about the subject’s death in introductory material for the final volume of the edition.  When a chronology is included in the volume, it, too, includes details of the subject’s death.  Some editors use this as the only mention of the death.  Beverly Palmer employs this stratagem in the Selected Letters of Charles Sumner, in which the volume simply ends with a March 9, 1874 letter.  Thomas O’Brien Hanley’s The John Carroll Papers includes Carroll’s awareness of his impending death by including his last will and testament and then his request for prayers as he might “shortly appear before my God and my judge,” but no specific reference is made in annotation or in the documents to his death.  Few are as eloquent in these statements as Robert A. Rutland, editor of the Papers of George Mason, who described Mason’s death in the foreword to the volume, “And then, on an autumn Sunday afternoon in 1792, all of George Mason’s anxieties disappeared forever.”12 In volumes like this, the final document is given no special treatment or annotation to indicate that death followed, save the start of appendices, the bibliography or index.

Another approach is to add an endnote or footnote to the last document in the volume providing the details of the subject’s death.  Given the amount of space and time devoted to the subject, this can come off as markedly laconic.  Salmon Chase’s May 7, 1873 death is reported in footnote 4 of a letter he wrote to his daughter Janet Chase Hoyt on April 12, discussing his plans to come visit her and her new baby.  The note reads: “Chase went to New York on May 3 and stayed at Nettie’s house on West Thirteenth Street, where he died on May 7.”  But this is not the last document in the volume.  Two letters written by Chase on April 13 and May 5 follow.13 The editors of the Louis Brandeis Papers end their volume with a brief letter he wrote to Robert Szold, noting in a footnote that shortly after the meeting discussed in the letter, Brandeis’ health declined, he suffered a heart attack and died fifteen days later.  The note also offers a detailed description of Brandeis’ memorial, including quotes by Dean Acheson and Felix Frankfurter, and a report on the burial.14 Gary Moulton ended his volume of Chief John Ross’s Papers with his last will and testament, written on July 11, 1866, three weeks before his death.  He uses a footnote with information about actions that were taken on the will after Ross’s death to give the date and circumstances of the death.15

Editors Pamela Herr and Mary Lee Spence introduced their final selection of Jessie Benton Frémont’s letters with a seven page essay that covered the years 1888-1902.  The essay detailed the death of Frémont’s husband and her relocation to California to begin work on her memoirs.  It reports an accidental fall in 1900 which confined Frémont to a wheelchair.  The last letter in the volume, written in June 1902 closes, “written with much pain,” and the editors note that for the last six months of her life Frémont lapsed “into silence, evidently writing no more letters,” and died quietly on December 27, 1902.16

Some editors employ the device of an unnumbered editorial note to describe the death, which can offer dramatic impact when the event was sudden or unexpected.  In The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, Michael Stevens included the last letter Victor Berger wrote his wife and noted that a month later:  “Berger was injured in a streetcar accident in Milwaukee on July 16, 1929, and died the following August 7.  Berger’s body lay in state in Milwaukee’s City Hall, and more than 100,000 people came to pay their respects.”17 In her edition of Frances Willard’s diaries, Carolyn De Swarte Gifford employs the same method to describe the final two years of Frances Willard’s life.  No diary for the years 1897-98 has been found, so following the final entry for 1896, Gifford inserts a three-paragraph summary of Willard’s activities until her death in February 1898, including her travels, activities, illness and her wishes about her replacement at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.18 Patricia Holland and Milton Meltzer end Lydia Marie Child: Selected Letters 1817-1880 with a letter to Sarah Shaw that ends, in part, “There are stormy times ahead.  But perhaps you and I will slip away before they come.”   A final end note notes that Child died six weeks later, briefly describing the services and her burial.19

Mary Jo Kline chose the device of an “Epilogue” when she completed her work on Aaron Burr.   Two pages summarize the last twenty-eight years of Burr’s life, detailing medical setbacks, changes that Burr made in his will, his death and the tributes to him that followed.  The Volume ends with the text of Burr’s gravestone.20 Roger N. Parks used a similar tactic to end the Papers of General Nathanael Greene, where the  epilogue describes Greene’s illness and his final six days.  More extensive than the Burr example, Parks includes treatment of the questions raised about Greene’s exact cause of death, his burial and the subsequent mystery of the location of his tomb, including tributes, eulogies, and notes on the fates of Greene’s wife and children.21

This device seems to work best when there is some controversy following the death.  In The Letters of William Cullen Bryant, a three page narrative describes Bryant’s death, which occurred after he spoke at the dedication of a statue of Mazzini in New York’s Central Park.  Bryant was pressed by James Grant Wilson to accompany him to his house, but on his way up the stairs, the 83 year old poet stumbled and struck his head on the stairs.  Wilson delayed in taking Bryant home, and several days later the poet suffered a brain hemorrhage, worsened and died.  Bryant’s friends blamed Wilson for his death, arguing that he ought not to have pressed a feeble Bryant to visit his home; some even accused Wilson of jostling Bryant, resulting in the accident.  They also criticized his delayed decision to seek help.   While the editors also include coverage and quotes of eulogies and funeral services dedicated to Bryant, no documents are used after Bryant’s death. The last letter in the volume was written by Bryant the day before his accident.22

Using Documents to Break the News

Another tactic is to loosen selection rules slightly at the end of the edition to use third-party material, including letters discussing the final illness, posthumous descriptions of the death, funerals and memorials, and other materials that tell more about the impact of the subject’s life and death.  Few of us are as fortunate as the editors of the Papers of Henry Clay, who had the relative luxury of a series of letters written in his last three months detailing his final illness.  “I am so feeble that the labor of writing soon exhausts me, and in regard to the state of my health, I have nothing encouraging to communicate,” he wrote to his wife, Lucretia Hart Clay from Washington on March 22, 1852.  On April 2, he wrote her again, reporting some improvement after a week of serious illness.   On April 21, he wrote his son Thomas Hart Clay, wishing that he could return home at the end of May, but fearing that his health would not permit the journey.   On April 25, he wrote again to his wife, reporting a “constant decline in strength, and all the essential functions of nature.”  Clay further wrote: “I write to nobody in my hand writing now but to you.  How long I shall be able to do this is uncertain.”   On April 28, telegrams were sent asking Thomas Hart Clay to come to Washington, and Clay wrote James Brown Clay,  “My health continues precarious & extremely critical.  Unless there is a favorable change soon, I cannot hold out much longer.”  Between April 30 and late June, Clay disposed of business matters and organized his estate.   His actual death on June 29 is reported by an executive order of President Millard Fillmore, calling the death “long anticipated,” yet painful to all nonetheless.  The editors also included a resolution of the U.S. Senate in summary form. A description of Clay’s funeral service on July 10, 1852 ends the volume.23

Lacking such detailed first-person descriptions in either diaries or letters, many editions turn to other sorts of documents.  The Papers of Henry Laurens used a brief notice in the Dec. 11, 1792  City Gazette and Daily Advertiser: “DIED. On Saturday last, at Mepkin, the honorable Henry Laurens, Esq. formerly President of Congress.”  In a footnote, the editors provide the exact date of Laurens’ death (December 8).  For a more descriptive account of Laurens’ last moments, editors David Chesnutt and C. James Taylor included a letter written by his daughter, Martha Laurens Ramsay to her husband, not only providing details, but testifying about the impact of his death on her.  Finally, Henry Laurens’ will, made out a month before his death, is included as an appendix to the volume.24

In the Papers of Daniel Webster, Webster’s letters to President Millard Fillmore set up his final illness.  On October 15, 1852, Webster notes that he had been in “grave danger.”  Third-party letters are used to record Webster’s worsening condition, including instructions for his gravestone.  On October 17, he rallied, writing to Fillmore that he felt “uncommonly well & strong.”  The next day he reported feeling “easy, & strong, & as if I could go into the Senate and make a speech!”  But a peek at the thinness of the remaining pages in the volume clues the reader to the grim truth.   By October 21, Webster is again failing; a third-party letter describes the signing of his will.  The editors include the will, and third-party letters to President Fillmore reporting Webster’s increasingly dire condition.  Once again, Millard Fillmore is tapped to deliver the news, as the editors use his October 25 letter to the Cabinet announcing Webster’s death the day before.  The editors conclude the volume with an autopsy report and a listing of Webster’s property at the time of his death.25

In The Papers of William Livingston, Carl E. Prince relies on third-party letters between Livingston’s friends and family to recount his final illness.  He reports Livingston’s death with a published death notice and includes letters between his children which document the disposal of Livingston’s household and properties.  Livingston’s will is included in the volume.  The final letter in the volume was written ten years after Livingston’s death by his son William Livingston, Jr.  Writing to William Paterson, Livingston announces his quest to gather and publish his father’s papers, an admirable coda to the modern edition that completed the son’s work almost two hundred years later.26

Controversy regarding the circumstances of death often encourages the editor to expand the treatment of the event to provide richer context.   No edition demonstrates this better than The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, in which the fatal duel that claimed his life is documented in minute detail.   An introductory note precedes the first letter from Aaron Burr, giving a historical context for dueling, a summary of Hamilton’s participation in previous duels, and a summary of his increasingly acrimonious relationship with Burr.  The editors note the many questions about the duel that they cannot answer, noting “Those interested in such questions must for the most part look elsewhere for answers for this volume presents only the written record of the events preceding, during, and following what the Reverend Eliphalet Nott called: ‘MURDER, deliberate, aggravated MURDER.”27

Editor Harold Syrett included a number of documents between Hamilton and Burr on the grievance, as well as the letters of their representatives, William P. Van Ness (for Burr) and Nathaniel Pendleton (for Hamilton).   They also used sections of a later narrative of the events written by Van Ness and Pendleton, interspersing their remembrances of each day with the actual documents, providing a gripping build up to the fateful meeting.  Hamilton, preoccupied with setting his financial affairs in order in the days before the duel, wrote several letters to be opened only upon his death.  The duel itself was described by Van Ness and Pendleton’s later recollections, as were Hamilton’s lingering death the next day.  Documents range from the bill for Hamilton’s coffin, to the coroner’s report and newspaper coverage.  Because of the controversy surrounding his death, the Hamilton volume includes the correspondence between Pendleton and Van Ness as they attempted to issue a joint description of the events, though their partisan recollections do not agree.  Among the final documents include news coverage of Hamilton’s funeral and the indictments laid against Burr in both New York and New Jersey, for Hamilton’s murder.28 Throughout the section, the Hamilton editors provided detailed annotation leading the readers to other primary and secondary materials with more information.

The death of Booker T. Washington is similarly chronicled through third-party letters and documents.  Washington’s last letter is a brief missive about tending his property on Nov. 10, 1915.  This is followed by an article in the New York Tribune reporting Washington’s nervous breakdown.  Washington was examined by doctors who found him “ageing rapidly,” and blamed “racial characteristics” in part for his breakdown.  They argued that “He is prone to worry under the strain of work, and while there is nothing to indicate that he is mentally unbalanced he is in no shape to go back to Tuskegee.”  Letters between Washington’s friends and relatives discuss his rapidly declining condition.  They decide to transport him from New York City to Alabama.  A flurry of telegrams from Emmet Jay Scott, announce Washington’s death four hours after his arrival in Tuskegee.  The editors include a number of condolence letters and telegrams, ranging from ordinary letter carriers to President Theodore Roosevelt.  A lengthy obituary in the Montgomery Advertiser was included, as well as an elegy offered at his funeral by Capp Jefferson.29

In the Eugene V. Debs Papers, incoming letters wish Debs well while he is in the hospital.  His death is announced by a condolence letter written by a Standard Oil worker, Earl V. Hankins and his wife, to Debs’ brother Theodore.  The details of Deb’s death on Oct. 20, 1926 and his funeral are found in footnotes 2 and 3.  The editors end the volume with fifteen more letters of condolence, written to either Theodore Debs or to Eugene’s widow Katherine, as well as one incoming letter written the day that Debs died.  Throughout the volume letters written to and from Theodore Debs, who served as Eugene Debs’ secretary, were included because they were written on Debs’ behalf, as were occasional letters written by Katherine Debs in order to illuminate Debs’ family life.  Thus their inclusion at the end seems in keeping with the rest of the volume.30

The editor of the Correspondence of H.G. Wells, David C. Smith, used a unique letter to end his volume.  It was written by Margaret Sanger to Wells on August 14, 1946, after she heard of his death.  The letter begins “So, Darling HG you have gone out to the Great Beyond–“ and contains Sanger’s musings on Wells’ death, reminisces about their relationship and her plans to visit London in the next week and visit his family.  “It will be too awful not to see you there.  My love wherever you are.”  This letter, found in Sanger’s papers, was obviously never seen by Wells.31

The Editor’s Challenge

The question of how to handle the death of the subject raises broader questions about how the edition is conceived and what its underlying purpose is.  In her “Historical Introduction,” to the Burr papers, Mary Jo Kline, states “This is an edition of documents, not a documented biography.”32 Other editors might argue that one cannot understand the letters without access to biographical details.  It is a question of emphasis.  Does one stress the Papers of Margaret Sanger, or the Papers of Margaret Sanger?  Are the documents truly the focus of our work or is the subject who created them?  When critical life events are not documented, does the editor skip over them, detail them in introductions, headnotes or endnotes, or do they include third-party or secondary source material to fill the gaps.  How far should editors go to present a complete life, especially when documentation is poor or non-existent?

Selection policies are created with the entire volume in mind.  Determining that you will include only letters written by the subject of the edition, or that you will include every letter, whether in full transcription or in summary, defines the parameters of the edition.  Momentous occasions in the life of the subject are usually, though not always, documented in some way and thus easy to include in our volumes.  Sometimes editors have to bend or stretch their rules or use editorial text to insert an event for which the documents are weak or missing.  In our first volume, one such incident was Sanger’s 1916 arrest for opening the first birth control clinic in the United States.  We had set up the clinic using newspaper interviews and letters, but the only document of the police raid was a blotter entry and a list of confiscated objects.  We chose to use the opening of the Brownsville clinic as a chapter break, allowing us to provide more detailed background to the issue in the introduction to the chapter.  We used a head note to give the particulars of Sanger’s arrest and upcoming trial and then followed with letters she wrote after it had occurred.33

Childhood presents a similar challenge.  Most editors deal with the early years of their subject’s life in essay form, detailing the influences on their lives and educations in a few pages, bringing the reader up to speed so that they are prepared to begin reading the writings of the subject as an adult.  They are helped in this task, using autobiographies, later recollections, and other documents to construct a narrative of childhood and early adulthood.  Even when documents exist for the subject’s childhood, they are usually not terribly illuminating about the subject’s development–they might be classroom copybooks or short letters to family members about mundane topics.    Few editors choose the same route when reaching the end of the subject’s life.  For many, there is no need to even consider it, as their subject is still able to communicate his or her ideas, and is producing meaningful documents.  When they are unable to do so, editors seem to prefer to include third-party discussions of the death rather than cover it in an editorial note.  Perhaps it is an emotional attachment to the subject that the editor is loathe to break.  Instead of simply noting that the author sickened and died, we are instead encouraged to attend the death vigil with family members, loyal co-workers and colleagues, through reports of the subject’s worsening condition and preparations for his or her final journey.

Death also offers the editor the opportunity to reflect upon the life of the subject, offering summaries of accomplishments written at the time.  While most volume include a general introductions that contains a historical interpretation of subject’s impact on society, eulogies, obituaries and sympathy letters offer assessments of the immediate impact, both historical and emotional.  For readers, these types of documents, which are not necessarily included in the selection policy of editions, may create a more satisfying ending than would the abruptness of a final document and a terse note indicating that no more volumes will follow.  In the case of prominent figures, editors have many such documents to choose from, and selection of a handful to serve as a coda for the volume must be approached with the same care and attention as the selection of documents in the more traditional sections of the edition.

Determining between using a will, various eulogies and obituaries, tributes by colleagues or political leaders, discussions of the funeral services, and the impact of the death upon the family, will be aided by analyzing the kinds of materials included in the rest of the volume.  Editions that focus on the subject’s management of property and businesses often include the will and other materials relating to the estate; those of politicians tend to feature expressions of grief made in Congress or by other prominent political figures.  When family relationships are a critical focus of the edition, the editor is more likely to provide letters written by family members after the death, describing it, and its effect on them.  The obituary and descriptions of funerals, memorials, and other commemorative services testify to the importance of the subject to his or her society, how their life was understood by those who shared the age, and what aspects of it were most highly prized.  They also enable the editor to indicate that perhaps the subject’s fame had begun to fade.  While the obituaries of Sanger were fulsome and widespread, some may have been surprised that she was still alive in 1966.  In fact, six years before her death, the new head of the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau, Dr. Alan Guttmacher referred to her as the “late” Margaret Sanger.  Still with her wits about her at that time, Sanger slammed Guttmacher for this unforgivable breach.34

Factors that might make an editor choose one route over another are the richness of the third-party material; the suddenness of the death; and whether the death was controversial in any way.  Readers of the Abraham Lincoln papers will likely expect more details on his assassination than would those of Margaret Sanger’s papers.  There is simply more to say about such a well-documented event.  The editors can draw from recollections from a wide variety of people who were impacted by a death fraught with historical meaning.   As with most questions of selection, it comes down to the goals of the edition.  But by looking at what other editors have done, we can all more easily determine how best to handle this issue when we face it.

Margaret Sanger’s Death

So, back to Sanger.  In her case, we don’t have her introspective letters about a final illness, we don’t have letters describing her death.  She passed away quietly, years after the last letter she had written.  Because ours is a selective volume, containing less than one percent of the materials in her archive, we are already accustomed to using editorial intervention, in the form of chapter openings, headnotes, and endnotes to provide closure for issues that are mentioned but not completed within the selected documents.  We decided to go with an obituary to mark the death, using a chapter opening to give the particulars of Sanger’s life between 1963 and September 1966.  We followed that with several tributes to Sanger that help to evaluate her impact, and finally included an undated letter written by Sanger, in which she intoned in part:

There is so much comfort in life in finding one’s inner convictions expressed by one or many of our great philosophers.  One of the dearest & most treasured which has stood me well through out  the years where doubt of victory could be lurking in every closed hall or every official denouncement of the work I was doing– It was Victor Hugo’s potent words that gave me faith & strength as I stated them again & again in meetings throughout the world. “There is no Force in the World so great as that of an Idea whose hour has struck.”35

In our current plans, Sanger gets the last word in the volume.  Things may still change; we may find more letters written by Sanger at the end of her life as we work with her grandchildren and the descendants of her friends.  We may end up dating the final letter, in which case we would move it forward in the volume.  But our intent will remain the same, to report the end of Sanger’s life with as much detail and color as we have devoted to other periods in her life, and to do so using documents in conjunction with editorial bridges to convey information we cannot document.


1Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

2State of Arizona Death Certificate, Sept. 8, 1966. (Margaret Sanger Microfilm Edition, Smith College Collections, S83:901 (hereafter MSM S).

3Dorothy Brush to Stuart Sanger, Dec. 26, 1963 (Sanger Papers, Unfilmed Portion, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College) (hereafter MSP-U).

4For Sanger’s extremely brief appearance see CBS News, “Before Griswold vs. Connecticut: Birth Control and the Law – 1962″ (Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2001;  55 minutes; Black & White; first aired on May 10, 1962.)

5By the end of the month, Sellner reported that Sanger had forgotten all the instructions that she gave her the previous week, but that she was ready to respond if Sanger should return to lucidity. (Raquel Sellner to Dorothy Brush, May 2 and May 21, 1962 [MSM S59:686 and 773].)

6See Grace Sternberg to Leighton Rollins, July 21, 1963, Margaret Sanger to Leighton Rollins, July 11, 1963, and Sanger to Rollins, July 11, 1963 (MSM S59:770, 772 and 768.)

7Dorothy Brush wrote that when she asked Sanger about the rumors that her son had put her in a nursing home against her wishes, Sanger said that she “decided to go to a nursing home because she couldn’t get decent help.”  Brush then spoke to Stuart Sanger, who said that his mother had insisted on going, adding “But God knows how long she will stay.”  As Sanger’s condition deteriorated, few thought she would ever leave the nursing home, but she still held out hope that she would recover. (Brush to Margaret Grierson, Mar. 14, 1963 [Brush Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College]; Margaret Sanger to Leighton Rollins, July 21, 1963 and Stuart Sanger to Dorothy Brush, Feb. 8, 1962  [MSM S59:770 and 760].)

8Our fourth volume, Round the World For Birth Control, 1920-1966 deals exclusively with Sanger’s efforts to globalize birth control.  We will revisit her death in that volume, focusing on the international impact and reaction.

9Sanger’s two autobiographies, My Fight for Birth Control (1931) and Autobiography (1938) and Lawrence Lader’s The Margaret Sanger Story (1955) predate her death.  David Kennedy’s Birth Control Pioneer (1970) carries her story only to 1937.  Birth control histories that include detailed analysis of Sanger, like James Reed’s Birth Control and American Society (1978), Linda Gordon’s Moral Right of Women (2003) and Carole McCann’s Birth Control Politics From 1916-1945 (1994) all focus on Sanger’s professional life.  Biographies by Ellen Chesler (Woman of Valor, 1993) and Madeline Gray (Margaret Sanger, 1979) contain brief coverage of her last years.

10Incoming letters in Volumes I and II usually fit one of two categories: response documents that revealed some of Sanger’s thoughts when her letters were not found (such as her first husband’s side of their correspondence in the 1910s), and letters that Sanger responds to which are too complex to summarize in head and end notes.

11The footnote reported that early that morning Johnson had suffered a series of strokes and died at his daughter’s home.  A photograph of the Greeneville, Tenn. courthouse where Johnson lay in state followed.  The editors closed the volume with Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential order announcing Johnson’s death.  (Paul Bergeron, ed. The Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 16, May 1864-July 1875 [Knoxville, 2000], pp. 762-64.)

12Beverly Wilson Palmer, ed. The Selected Writings of Charles Sumner (Boston, 1990), p. xix and 631; Thomas O’Brien Hanley, ed. The John Carroll Papers (London, 1976), p. xliii, 369-373; and Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, Vo.l. III, 1787-1792 (Chapel Hill, 1970), pp. cxxv-cxxvi, xxxiii.

13John Niven, ed. The Salmon Chase Papers, Vol. 5: Correspondence 1865-1873 (Kent State University Press, Kent, 1998), pp. 368-370.

14Melvin I. Urofsky and David W. Levy, eds. Letters of Louis Brandeis, Vol. V, 1921-1941: Elder Statesman (New York, 1978), p. 655.

15Gary Moulton, ed. The Papers of Chief John Ross, Vol. II, 1840-1866 (Norman, Okla., 1985), pp. 680-82.

16Pamela Herr and Mary Lee Spence, eds. The Letters of Jessie Benton Frémont (Chicago, 1993), pp. 519-525, 557.

17Michael E. Stevens, ed. The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, 1894-1929 (Madison, 1995), p. 415.

18Gifford, Diary of Frances Willard, [pub] pp. 426-27.

19Milton Meltzer and Patricia G. Holland, eds., Lydia Marie Child: Selected Letters (Amherst, 1982).

20Kline, ed. The Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Vol. II (Princeton, 1983), pp. 1227-28.

21Roger N. Parks, ed. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill, 2005), pp. 697-705.

22William Cullen Bryant, II and Thomas G. Voss, ed. The Letters of William Cullen Bryant, Vol. VI (1872-1878) (New York: Forham University Press, 1992), pp. 416-19, 458.

23Melba Hay Porter, ed. and Carole Reardon, assoc. ed., The Papers of Henry Clay, Vol. 10: Candidate, Compromiser, Elder Statesman, January 1, 1844-June 29, 1852 (Lexington, 1991), pp. 961-69.

24David R. Chesnutt and C. James Taylor, eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens, Vol. 16 (Columbia, S.C., 2003), pp. 791-801.

25Michael J. Birkner and Charles H. Wiltse, eds. The Papers of Daniel Webster: Correspondence, Vol. 7: 1852-1852 (Hanover, N.H., 1986), pp. 360-373.

26Carl E. Prince, May Lou Lustig and David William Voorhees, The Papers of William Livingston, Vol. 5, April 1873-August 1790 (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1988), pp. 436-448.

27Harold C. Syrett, ed. Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. 26 (New York, 1978), p. 241.

28Syrett, Hamilton, pp. 322-48.

29Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock, eds. The Booker T. Washington Papers, Vol. 13, 1914-15 (Chicago, 1984), pp. 428-449.

30Robert J. Constantine, ed. The Letters of Eugene V. Debs, (Chicago, 1990), Vol. 1, p. xxxii, Vol. 3, pp 601-612.

31David C. Smith, The Correspondence of H. G. Wells, Vol. 4, 1935-1946 (London, 1998), p. 536.

32Mary Jo Kline, The Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, Vol. 1 (Princeton, 1983), p. lxix.

33Esther Katz, ed. The Selected Papers of Margarer Sanger: Vol. 1: The Woman Rebel, 1900-1928 (Urbana, 2003), pp. 197-202.

34Sanger to Alan F. Guttmacher, Feb. 22, 1960 [MSM S56:715]; for obituaries see New York Times, Sept. 11, 1966 and Tucson Evening Star, Sept. 9, 1966.

35Sanger to Clarence William Lieb, n.d. [MSM S60:799].

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