Every kid who ever took a history class has sat there, looking at the images in their textbook, and wondered: ‘what would it have been like to be there?’ Imagine growing up with a Civil War hero for a father, or what life must have been like at the paranoid center of the Nazi regime. Imagine being able to tell people you took your first breaths in the 19th century. What if?
Well, for some people, these imaginings are far from hypothetical. They’re day-to-day reality. Despite the passage of time, there are still people out there who are living links to a bygone age. Links to events we’ve firmly placed in the box in our brains marked ‘history’. People like…
10. The Last Person Born in the 19th Century
As the 21st century has rolled inexorably onward, our fascination with the 19th century has grown. Steampunk. Victorian detective shows. The return of glorious moustaches. For most of us, they’re a harmless fantasy; things as unconnected to our real lives as Narnia or Hogwarts. But not for Emma Morano. At 116, the Italian Supercentenarian is the last person alive to have been born in the 19th century.
Born in northern Italy on November 29, 1899, Morano doesn’t actually remember anything that happened in the 19th century. Yet that doesn’t make her story any less romantic. On that evening, baby Emma entered a world where Queen Victoria and Oscar Wilde were still alive. A world that had never known global war, and where the automobile was still a fancy toy for rich folk. No human had ever successfully flown a plane. At that moment, Emma was closer in time to the Battle of Waterloo than she was to her twilight years in 2016.
Incredibly, this last fragment to our past may still have a few years left in her. The oldest living person on record died aged 122. If Emma follows suit, our last connection with the 19th century may not be broken until 2022.
9. The Last Civil War Pensioner
When the US Civil War ended in 1865, a grateful government promised a monthly stipend to the wives and children of Yankee soldiers. Even in their wildest dreams, they couldn’t have foreseen how long they’d be doling out that cash for. Fast forward 151 years to 2016, and Irene Triplett is still pulling down her Civil War pension.
How it’s even possible that a woman in 2016 can be cashing Civil War checks involves two very long lifespans, and one marriage with a heck of an age difference. In the 1920s, Mose Triplett – a Confederate soldier who had defected to the Union in 1862 – married Irene’s mother. At the time, Mose was pushing 80. His new wife, by contrast, was barely 30. Nonetheless, Mose managed to father a daughter with her. That child was Irene, and she would go on to be as stubbornly long-lived as her father.
Interestingly, Irene isn’t the only US citizen to pull down a pension from a war that ended outside living memory. Currently, around 15 children of veterans from the Spanish-American War of 1898 still receive benefits.
8. Joseph Goebbels’ Secretary
Brunhilde Pomsel has a disturbingly unique claim to fame. At the age of 105, she’s likely the last person on the face of the Earth with a memory of life in the Nazi inner-circle. Even crazier, she had an intimate, friendly relationship with one of the biggest monsters of the Second World War. Brunhilde was Joseph Goebbels’ personal secretary.
She got the job in 1942, aged 31. She happily took it, despite having a Jewish friend who’d just been spirited away to a concentration camp. Her recollections of those days are the height of weirdness. She still talks warmly of Goebbels’ elegance, his gentlemanly conduct, and how nice his wife was to all the secretaries. She even remembers playing with the Goebbels’ children. Despite saying she knew nothing about the Nazi atrocities, she was chosen to accompany Goebbels to the bunker in 1945. She was one of the first people to hear of Hitler’s death.
Although she says she is unrepentant, Brunhilde has also publically said she hopes to die sooner rather than later. When she does, she’ll take with her the last intimate memories of day-to-day life at the heart of a monstrous regime.
7. The Last Remnants of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang
In the 1960s, Germany was hit by an explosion of leftwing terror. Marxist groups carried out kidnappings, bombings, executions, robberies. The most-notorious of all was the Baader-Meinhoff Gang. Also known as the Red Army Faction, the group caused millions of dollars’ worth of destruction and around 30 deaths.
After their leaders died in prison, the group eventually disbanded in the mid-80s. From there they sank into the mire of history. When the last of their number was released from prison in 2007, many were surprised to find any Baader-Meinhoff remnants were still alive.
Then, in 2016, came an even-weirder story. Not only were some members of the gang still alive, they were still carrying out attacks on German soil.
It turns out a tiny hardcore segment of the gang never went away. They just ran out of funds and became so small and incompetent that German police didn’t even notice their existence. It was only when investigating a string of bungled robberies over the past few years that German intelligence realized the Red Army Faction had never really gone away.
Craziest of all, these guys are still fighting a pro-Communist battle, despite Communism itself being little more than a historical relic in Europe.
6. The Last Subject Born Under Queen Victoria
When Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901, she was head of a vast empire. Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Jamaica and many more were all under British rule. Britain was the most-powerful country in the world. London was the biggest city, the beating heart of an empire on which the sun never set. It was into this world that Violet Brown was born.
Currently the second oldest-living person on Earth, Violet just missed out being born in the 19th century by three months (she was born March 1900). Unlike Italy’s Emma Morano, though, Violet was Jamaican. That makes her the last living person to have been born as a subject of Queen Victoria.
In turn, that makes Violet a direct link to the life of one of the longest-reigning monarchs in British history. The Victorian times were an era of profound change. Railways unfurled across the Empire. Woman’s suffrage became a cause celebre. Bicycles were invented. Huge tracts of Africa were mapped for the first time. The Northwest Passage was discovered. It was a time of discovery. A time when Britain was on top of the world like never before or since. And when Violet goes, our last living link to it will vanish forever.
5. The Last Crewman at the Bombing of Hiroshima
When Russell Gackenbach removed his dark glasses and peered out the airplane window, the city below him had vanished. In its place was a vast mushroom cloud, slowly unfurling over the island of Japan. Far, far below, 70,000 lives had just been extinguished in a burst of fire. Gackenbach calmly raised his camera and took a picture. He knew he’d just witnessed one of the most-important events of the 20th century: the atom bombing of Hiroshima.
A photographer aboard the Necessary Evil, Gackenbach wasn’t one of the crewmen who actually delivered the bomb. But he was there above Hiroshima the moment it exploded, an immediate witness to the dawn of the atomic age. Of all those thousands still alive who can remember that exact moment, Gackenbach is the only one who came from the US side. The rest of the crews of Enola Gay and Necessary Evil are dead. For the Japanese survivors, the bombing presents a very different memory indeed.
4. The Last Nuremberg Prosecutor
At the age of 27, Benjamin Ferencz was given an unenviable task. A co-founder of the US Army’s War Crimes division, he was to bring the Einsatzgruppen to justice. A gang of SS soldiers who drove from town to town in Eastern Europe, mass-executing Jews, they were responsible for up to a million deaths. Aged 97, he still recalls winning his case against their leader. He’s the last Nuremberg Prosecutor left alive.
In the wake of WWII, the Nuremberg Trials meted out justice to 24 of the most-important leaders of the Third Reich. While a couple were acquitted, the vast majority were found guilty, imprisoned and hanged. It was a milestone in world history, laying the foundations for tribunals like that for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the modern International Criminal Court (ICC). Aside from punishing Nazis, these follow-on courts have stopped Serbian butchers, Rwandan killers and African warlords from escaping justice. And Ferencz was a vital part of it.
Fast approaching 100, Ferencz will soon no longer be with us. When he passes, we’ll lose the last of a team of prosecutors who changed the world.
3. The Last Survivors of the Armenian Genocide
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire embarked on the 20th Century’s first genocide. One and a half million Armenians were ethnically cleansed from their homelands, sent on death marches across burning deserts, shot en-masse, or herded into caves that were filled with noxious fumes. That anyone survived at all is remarkable. That some of those survivors are still living now, in 2016, is nothing short of a miracle.
The Armenian government currently recognizes around 30 genocide survivors, many of whom live close to one another in small villages. The vast majority of them are well over 100. Astonishingly, some still have vivid memories of Turkish soldiers dragging them from their homes at gunpoint and sending them off into the desert to starve.
The continued existence of these survivors is perhaps the most political item on our list. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian Genocide, and fewer than 50 countries have formally recognized it. That this small group still remembers in detail what happened makes them the last witnesses to one of history’s great atrocities.
2. The Last POW in the Real ‘Great Escape’
Before it was a classic film, The Great Escape was a real-life attempt by inmates of Stalag Luft III to escape their Nazi prisoners. Those involved were largely British or Commonwealth forces members who concocted a plan to tunnel out and escape into the dense surrounding forests. Eventually, 76 would make it outside the camp. All but 3 were recaptured. In gory reprisals, the Nazis executed 50 of them.
Those 26 survivors became the stuff of legend. Over time, their numbers dwindled, as age and fate took their toll. Fast forward to 2016, and there’s only one Great Escapee left: Dick Churchill.
Although he was unrelated to the British Prime Minister, the Nazis evidently thought Dick Churchill and Winston Churchill were family. As a result, Dick was spared execution. He made it through the War, then through the rest of the 20th century, and on into the present. This year now marks the 72nd anniversary of his daring escape attempt. To this day, Dick is proud of his role in humiliating the Nazis and their local prison guards.
1. The Historic Criminals of America’s Prison System
Some people are so intimately connected to a specific time or place that it can be remarkable to learn their still alive. Terry Nichols is one such example. The second Oklahoma City bomber, he has been locked away since the mid-90s, all but forgotten by the general public. But Nichols committed his heinous act only a mere 21 years ago. There are others in America’s prison system whose notoriety stemmed from much earlier.
One example is Charles Manson. The cult leader is forever linked to life in late 60s California, where he had his disciples butcher Sharon Tate and others at her house. Yet he remains very much alive, passing away his time behind bars. He’s in the company of another famous mid-20th century killer: the Son of Sam, who shot New Yorkers dead during the summer of ’76 on orders from his dog.
The list goes on. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, first attacked in 1978. At the age of 74, he’s still alive and well. He even shares a jail with the mastermind behind the 1993 WTC Bombing, and the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber. Proof, if needed, that what seems to be ancient history is often closer than we think.