This week’s entry: List of last survivors of historic events
What it’s about: It’s a well-worn cliché that the elderly are “our link to the past,” but it’s especially true when that person has had a remarkable life, from Amanda Jones, whose father was a slave, and at the age of 109 cast a vote for Barack Obama, to a distinguished senior citizen who can bring us back to those bygone days when people wore onions on their belts, as was the style at the time. Being the last living person to witness a particular historic event has a special significance, and Wikipedia collects a long list of people who did just that.
Strangest fact: The last Holy Roman Emperor died in 1835. After the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, Western Europe was in relative disarray until 800, when Charlemagne united what’s now France, Germany, and part of Italy. To give himself and his empire legitimacy, he called it the Roman Empire, although the Constantinople-based Eastern Roman Empire was still going strong. His successors renamed it the Holy Roman Empire to curry favor with the powerful Catholic Church—although as one observer noted, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Talk among yourselves in the comments. The Holy Roman Empire eventually lost its western and southern territory and became modern Germany. But the title of Holy Roman Emperor continued into the modern era, only ending when Francis II surrendered to Napoleon in 1806. Francis was forced to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire, although he continued on as King Of Hungary, Coratia, Bohemia, and Emperor Of Austria until his death.
Biggest controversy: Some of these people may be lying. Take Nicolas Savin, who claimed to be the last survivor of the French Revolutionary Wars and the last living officer from the Napoleonic Wars, before dying in 1894 at the age—or so he claimed—of 126. That age would make him the oldest man in history by a full decade, even more unlikely given the era he lived in. Most of the oldest people who ever lived did so in the 20th century or are still alive. Advanced ages are difficult to verify, and “oldest living person” wasn’t something people kept scrupulous track of until the 1950s. There is documentation that Savin fought in the Napoleonic Wars, but documents in Russia, where he moved after the war and spent the rest of his life, said he was born in 1787, making him a still impressive 107 at the time of his death.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Some of these last survivors are still alive. The list includes the last Project Mercury astronaut (93-year-old John Glenn), the last Nuremberg prosecutor (Benjamin Ferencz, 95), the last construction worker who helped build Mount Rushmore (Donald Clifford, 94), the last surviving U-Boat captain (Reinhard Hardegen, 102), two survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (Bill Del Monte, 109, and Ruth Newman, 113), and the last of the real-life Monuments Men (Harry Ettlinger, 88).
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Sometimes even the worst people get a long life. Rochus Misch, who died in 2013 at age 96, was the last surviving occupant of Hitler’s bunker. Fritz Darges was the last living member of Der Führer’s inner circle, and also lived to 96, dying in 2009. Vaso Čubrilović, one of the conspirators in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked WWI, died in 1990 at age 93. Gopal Godse was the last living conspirator in Gandhi’s assassination, and died in 2005 at age 86. James Robert Cummins, the last member of the James-Younger Gang, lived nearly to the gangster era, dying at age 82 in 1929.
Also noteworthy: People have survived some horrible things. Through a combination of disease, infighting, and war with English colonizers, the native Tasmanian population was completely wiped out, with the last handful of survivors removed from the island by the British in 1833. This list names Truganini, who died in 1876, as the last full-blooded Tasmanian, although some historians give that distinction to Fanny Cochrane Smith, who lived until 1905 and made the only recordings of the Tasmanian language. Elsewhere, Rebecca Tickaneesky Neugin survived the Trail Of Tears in the 1830s, and lived until 1932. Eliza Moore was a slave freed after the Civil War and lived until 1948. Isabella Breen McMahon survived the Donner Party in 1847 and lived until 1935. Werner Franz was a crew member on the Hindenburg when it exploded in 1937, and only died last year at 92.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: It’s not widely known that The Sound Of Music was based on a true story. But Maria Von Trapp was a real person, an aspiring nun who looked after the seven children of a widowed naval officer and married him after Mother Abbess said it was God’s will. The real-life couple got married in 1927, began touring as a family singing group in 1935, and escaped the Nazis in 1938 (their home was turned into Heinrich Himmler’s Austrian headquarters) not by fleeing into the hills, but to the United States, recording several LPs in the 1950s and even appearing on an Elvis Christmas album. Maria Franziska Von Trapp was the last surviving member of the Trapp Family Singers, passing away last year at the age of 99.
Further down the wormhole: In the 1920s, the U.S. Navy had a “Sky Sailor” program involving rigid airships—better known as zeppelins—a class of dirigible supported by an internal framework, and not simply a balloon full of gas. Around the same time, the British government had a far grander program involving zeppelins, the Imperial Airship Scheme, which intended to connect every far-flung corner of the British Empire with a network of airship flights. We’ll float the friendly skies with the Scheme (which never materialized) next week.