The Last Words of Evariste Galois

A drawing of Evariste Galois by his brother

Evariste Galois (1811–32) was an extremely promising French mathematician however a series of strange events and a tragic early death would conspire to obscure his talents for many years.

Born in Bourg-la-Reine near Paris, France in 1811, Evariste’s father was Nicolas-Gabriel Galois, the village

A drawing of Evariste Galois by his brother
Evariste Galois by his brother, Alfred

mayor. From the age of twelve Evariste attended the lycée of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, but it was a time of great upheaval at the school and many pupils were expelled and the quality of the teaching greatly suffered. Evariste began to tire of his studies, all except for mathematics, for which he developed a precocious talent.

At the age of fifteen, Evariste was already studying the original papers of the celebrated eighteenth -century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange. He began to focus only on mathematics to the detriment to his other studies and despite working at a very advanced level in maths (he studied Leçons sur le calcul des fonctions which was aimed at professional mathematicians) he twice failed to secure a place at Paris’ prestigious École Polytechnique and much to his bitter disappointment instead went to the more modest École Normale. Here he continued to excel at mathematics and was able to make some very complex leaps of logic, however in his other studies he was unusually weak. His literature examiner remarked of his exam:

This is the only student who has answered me poorly, he knows absolutely nothing. I was told that this student has an extraordinary capacity for mathematics. This astonishes me greatly, for, after his examination, I believed him to have but little intelligence.’

Mathematical genius

At the age of just eighteen Evariste began publishing papers, one on continued fractions made it into Annales de mathématiques but another paper on the solvability of algebraic equations which he submitted to the French Academy of Sciences was lost and never published. Evariste’s disappointments were compounded by the tragic death of his father who, depressed by political infighting, committed suicide. His father’s death deeply affected the young Evariste and understandably caused him to behave somewhat erratically on occasion and become more engaged in political causes.

In 1830 Evariste re-wrote the lost paper he had previously submitted it to the French Academy of Sciences to be considered for the Grand Prix of the Academy in Mathematics. However in a strange quirk of fate his paper was lost once again as he gave it to Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier who took it home but unfortunately died a few weeks later and the paper was never found amongst his things.

Evariste was by now becoming increasingly political and in 1830 he penned a pro-Republican letter which got him expelled from the École Normale and he was twice arrested and once imprisoned for six months for his stridently Republican views.

In 1831 Evariste, demonstrating quite some determination, for a third time re-wrote his piece on the solvability of algebraic equations and again submitted it to the academy. This time it was read but received a negative critique – which modern mathematicians have subsequently suggested was simply because they failed to follow his advanced and original thinking and falsely presumed his theories to be wrong.


7_102014_burr-hamilton-duel8201On 30th May 1832 twenty-year-old Evariste Galois took part in an ill-advised duel, the reasons for which are murky but some have suggested it was staged to resemble a police ambush, others have indicated that it was over a woman, Mademoiselle Stéphanie-Félicie Poterin du Motel. What we do know is that the night before the duel Evariste was aware he might not survive and so stayed up all night, feverishly writing out his many mathematical ideas, which he then sent to his friend, Auguste Chevalier.

His theories safely committed to paper, Evariste met his opponent but was shot in the stomach. Hours later a peasant discovered his prone body and he was taken to hospital where he managed to relay some tragic last words to his dear brother, Alfred:

Don’t cry. I need all my courage to die at twenty.’

Galois’s papers were annotated and posthumously published in 1846. These ideas and conjectures were built upon and refined by fellow mathematicians Joseph Liouville and Camille Jordan and have gone on to form the basis of group theory, finally bringing the brilliance of Evariste Galois to light.


For more Famous Last Words see my new book Famous Last Words: An Anthology published by Bodleian Library Publishing on 29 April 2016.

The Tragic Tale of the Death of Nicolas Chamfort 


While researching Famous Last Words I came across so many fascinating (and sometimes tragic) stories of people’s last moments the full detail I was not able to include in the book, so I thought I might share some snippets here on my blog. I wrote about the Curious Fate of King James II a couple of weeks ago and now I would like to share the tragic tale of Nicolas Chamfort.

Nicolas Chamfort

Nicolas Chamfort (c.1740–1794) was a French playwright born in a small village in Clermont Auvergne. Despite his lowly beginnings Chamfort managed to secure a scholarship to study in Paris.

Chamfort soon rose to fame in Parisian society for his great wit, handsome face and brilliant conversation. When commenting on his extensive education he quipped: ‘What I learned I no longer know; the little I still know, I guessed!’

Chamfort published a number of well-received plays and in 1769 was admitted into the Académie Française. So far, so good. Chamfort had risen to the heady heights of social success, supping with the cream of society.

The French Revolution

During the intellectual debate stirred by the French Revolution Chamfort became disillusioned with his patrons from the upper classes. Chamfort walked away from the riches poured on him in society, and returned to relative poverty.

Chamfort became secretary to the Republican Jacobins and wrote revolutionary pieces such as Pensées, maximes et anecdotes (1795). He also coined many aphorisms such as ‘War to the châteaux, peace to the cottages’ and his version of the Revolutionary cry ‘fraternity or death’ – ‘Be my brother or I’ll kill you’ which summed up the fervour of the Revolution.

As the Revolution spiralled out of control and the Reign of Terror took hold, Chamfort, disgusted by the blood-letting, turned his back on the Jacobins and took up with the Moderates. This change of allegiance enraged the Jacobins, who had him arrested and imprisoned.

Chamfort found the horror of prison too much to bear and yet could not restrain his flow of sarcastic commentary on the new order of things in Revolutionary France – the very skill for which he had once been so celebrated was now his downfall – as a result he was again threatened with prison.

Unable to bear the thought of his freedom being curtailed once more, Chamfort chose suicide. In September 1793, Chamfort took a gun, locked himself in his study and shot himself in the face.9781851242511

Unfortunately the pistol misfired and though he managed to shoot off his nose and part of his jaw, he did not die. Desperate now, Chamfort grabbed a paper cutter from his desk and began stabbing himself in the neck and chest.

Still living, he scrawled the following declaration ‘I, Sebastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, hereby declare my wish to die a free man rather than to continue to live as a slave in a prison.’ In rather fabulously melodramatic fashion he signed the statement with his own blood.

The men sent to arrest Chamfort found him unconscious in a pool of blood, they showed no mercy and carted him off to prison despite his terrible injuries. Imprisoned, Chamfort lingered on in great pain until April 1794, when he finally died of his injuries. His last words were: ‘And so I leave this world, where the heart must either break or turn to lead.’

Exciting new project

Famous Last Words by Claire Cock-Starkey
Famous Last Words out in Spring 2016

I am very happy to announce that I have signed up to write a number of books for the wonderful Bodleian Library Publishing.

The first of which is Famous Last Words, a collection of the last words of notable people. It has been a delight to research and collect final words – so many brilliant stories, historical insights, poignant moments and profound ideas have been found among this collection.

Famous Last Words will be published in spring 2016. See here for the: Bodleian Library Publishing Spring 2016 catalogue (the cover design in the catalogue has since been changed to the one pictured here, which is much nicer I think!).

Watch this space for the announcement of more books with Bodleian Library Publishing and British Library Publishing in 2016 and beyond!

The curious fate of King James II

Recently while researching a book I am working on (the details of which I shall reveal in October – watch this space!). I came across a fascinating first-hand account on the strange fate of the body of exiled King James II and thought it would be a good nugget to share.

King James II

James II of England (IV of Scotland) was the second son of Charles I and succeeded his brother Charles II to the crown of England and Scotland in 1685.

James was a Catholic and after years of religious in-fighting and turmoil the ruling English nobles were very unhappy to have a Catholic on the throne. The last straw came when James II’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, produced a son and heir, insuring the crown would again pass onto a Catholic.

It was at this point that James’ nephew William of Orange, a firm Protestant, was invited to invade England and seize the crown, which he successfully did in 1688 in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. To further complicate matters for poor James, William of Orange was married to James’ daughter, Mary (who had been brought up a Protestant), from his first marriage to Anne Hyde.

James went into exile in France under the protection of his cousin, Louis XIV*, where he lived out his days at a chateau in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. James died of a brain haemorrhage in 1701 and what happened to his body thereafter is rather curious.

His heart was removed and placed in a silver casket and given to a convent in Chaillot, his brain was kept in a lead casket and given to the Scots College in Paris, his intestines were decanted into two gilt urns and given to the parish church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Jesuit college in St Omer, and somewhat bizarrely the skin from his right arm was gifted to the English Augustinian nuns of Paris.

The remains of his body were placed in a lead-lined coffin and sarcophagus and transported to the Chapel of St Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines in the Rue de St Jacques in Paris. The coffin was not buried but kept in the chapel, surrounded by candles, in the hope that it might one day be returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately that never happened.

In 1789 during the French Revolution churches were raided and coffins defaced in order to use the lead inside to make bullets. It is known that James II’s coffin was plundered by revolutionaries and while researching for a book I am writing I came across this rather gruesome eye-witness account of what happened when the revolutionaries opened the coffin. It comes from The Last Words of Distinguished Men and Women (Real and Traditional) by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1901):

The following curious account was given in 1840 by Mr. Fitzsimmons, an Irish gentleman upward of eighty years of age, who taught French and English at Toulouse and claimed to be a runaway monk:

“I was a prisoner in Paris, in the convent of the English Benedictines in the Rue St. Jacques, during part of the Revolution. In the year 1793 or 1794, the body of King James II. of England (died 1701) was in one of the chapels there, where it had been deposited some time, under the expectation that it would one day be sent to England for interment in Westminster Abbey. It had never been buried. The body was in a wooden coffin, inclosed in a leaden one; and that again inclosed in a second wooden one, covered with black velvet. While I was a prisoner the sans-culottes broke open the coffins to get at the lead to cast into bullets. The body lay exposed nearly a whole day. It was swaddled like a mummy, bound tight with garters. The sans-culottes took out the body, which had been embalmed. There was a strong smell of vinegar and camphor. The corpse was beautiful and perfect. The hands and nails were very fine. I moved and bent every finger. I never saw so fine a set of teeth in my life. A young lady, a fellow prisoner, wished much to have a tooth; I tried to get one out for her, but could not, they were so firmly fixed. The feet also were very beautiful. The face and cheeks were just as if he were alive. I rolled his eyes; the eye-balls were perfectly firm under my finger. The French and English prisoners gave money to the sans-culottes for showing the body. The trouserless crowd said he was a good sans-culotte, and they were going to put him into a hole in the public churchyard like other sans-culottes; and he was carried away, but where the body was thrown I never heard. King George IV. tried all in his power to get tidings of the body, but could not.”

This is not quite the end of the story, because in 1824 the church of St Germain-en-Laye was rebuilt and one of the urns containing his intestines was found and reburied, ensuring a small scrap of James II survives buried in Paris.

*Louis XIV was a kindly cousin and once James was in exile tried to get him elected to be King of Poland, James declined the offer fearing it would prevent him ever returning to rule England.