In Chavez v. Martinez, where a police officer interrogated a badly wounded—blinded and partially paralyzed—suspect undergoing treatment in the emergency room, Justice Kennedy evoked the ancient doctrine of “dying declarations,” which provides an exception to the exclusion of hearsay evidence in the case of words spoken where “the expectation of almost immediate death will remove all temptation to falsehood.” In a context once marked by the fear of eternal damnation, the brink of death was considered to produce the truth. One can find in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts—containing confessions from those about to be hung at Tyburn—material that may both confirm and throw some doubt on the unconstrained truth of the dying declaration. But here I am especially concerned with deathbed scenes in the nineteenthcentury novel as moments of the transmission of truth—or sometimes a kind of cosmic lie. My examples are drawn from Balzac, Dickens, Collins, and Conrad.
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