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15 Last Survivors of Famous Events

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No matter how many people are involved in an important event, one of them has to be the last to leave this earth. Here are 15 people who not only made history, but got to tell the tale for decades to come.

1. George Robert Twelves Hewes // Last survivor of the Boston Tea party

George Hewes was born in Boston in 1742 and was a poor shoemaker his whole life. We probably wouldn’t even know his name, if it weren't for the fact that his longevity made him a celebrity in the 1800s.

Hewes was injured in the Boston Massacre and later was a part of the group that threw tea into Boston Harbor. During the Revolutionary War he was both a militia member and a privateer. But after the war ended his life went back to normal. Then, in the 1830s, Americans “rediscovered” the Boston Tea Party and looked for any remaining participants. Hewes became a celebrity, had two biographies published, sat for his portrait, and was the guest of honor at a prestigious Fourth of July celebration. He died in 1840, aged 98. (The other candidate is David Kinnison, who—if we’re to believe his account—died in 1851 at 115 years old. But he’s now widely believed to be a fraud.)

2. Aristodemus of Sparta // Last Survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae

Two hundred and ninety-eight of the infamous 300 Spartans died in this battle against the Persians. One messenger, Pantites, was sent to deliver a letter and missed the fight. When he returned and found himself in disgrace, he hanged himself. Aristodemus and Eurytus were excused from fighting when they both came down with eye infections. According to Herodotus (who you have to take with a big grain of salt), Eurytus ran to the battle when he heard his fellow warriors were being slaughtered, but Aristodemus stayed behind. The Spartans were so disappointed in his perceived cowardice that they gave him the ultimate punishment: Keeping him alive to live with the shame.

3. Mary Allerton Cushman // Last Survivor of the Mayflower

While many of the men on the Mayflower hedged their bets and left their families back at home, just in case life in the New World was too difficult, Isaac Allerton not only brought his pregnant wife, he brought his three young children as well. Mary, the youngest, was only four when she was bundled on to the ship and left Europe forever. In America, things seem to have gone well for her. She eventually married and had eight children as well as 50 grandchildren, living to the ripe old age of 83.

4. Daniel F. Bakeman // Last veteran of the American Revolutionary War

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The longest lived veteran of the War of Independence was just a teenager when he signed up to fight, but he lived to see the end of the Civil War, and then some. In 1867, Daniel Bakeman finally applied for a military pension, even though his service had been almost 90 years before. At that point he claimed to be 107, and was 109 when he died two years later. It's also claimed that he was married to his wife for 91 years and 12 days, which, if true, would make it the longest marriage ever recorded.

5. Charles Carroll // Last signer of the Declaration of Independence

Despite being born a bastard and a Catholic (in an overwhelmingly Protestant colony where Catholics couldn't even hold office), Charles Carroll not only signed the Declaration of Independence, he lived longer than anyone else who did. He was involved with the fight for freedom from the very beginning, writing newspaper articles denouncing British rule and taxation, representing Maryland in almost all of the pre-revolutionary councils, and playing a role in setting a ship full of tea on fire. In spite of the danger of his activities, he survived the war, got involved in politics, and died in 1832 at the age of 95.

6. Nicolas Savin // Last veteran of the French Revolution

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When Nicolas Savin died in 1894, he was supposedly 126 years old. This would make him four years older than the oldest verified person ever recorded. However, there is evidence he was born almost 20 years later than he said, which would make his claims of fighting in the French Revolution suspect. He did serve during the Napoleonic wars, though, and was highly decorated. He was captured by the Russians and after the wars were over he decided to stay in that country. If he did fight during the Revolution, he was the longest living veteran by miles.

7. Rebecca Tickaneesky Neugin // Last survivor of the Trail of Tears

Neugin was only four when her people were forcibly removed from Georgia to Oklahoma. Dozens of children died of disease during the journey, and her parents and many others had to walk the whole way. Neugin, who rode in a wagon, brought her pet duck with her for companionship, but it died on the way; she still remembered that pain when interviewed in her 90s. She eventually married, had two children, and died in 1932 at age 98.

8. Eliza Moore // Last Living American to Be Born Into Slavery

It is hard to be sure about this one because so few personal records about slaves were ever kept. But when she died in 1948 aged 105, people believed that Eliza Moore was the last person to have been born into slavery in the U.S. She married another slave and was probably owned by a Dr. Taylor in Alabama. After the war ended, she and her husband became sharecroppers and may have had two children.

9. Raymond Pimlott Kaighn // Last Participant in the First Basketball Game

The 1800s were full of people inventing new sports, not all of which caught on. So James Naismith’s students were not too impressed when told they had to learn “another new game.” The 18 players of that first basketball game obviously had a steep learning curve, since the final score was only 1-0. But one of the participants, Raymond Kaighn, loved the game and was instrumental in organizing the first ever college game three years later. He stayed in sports his whole life, playing, coaching, and working for the YMCA. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame for his participation in that first game, and when he died in 1962 aged 92, he was the only one of the original 18 left.

10. Johnny Thomas Moore // Last Witness of the First Flight

Johnny Moore didn’t have anything to do with the development of the airplane, yet he holds a special place in aviation history. When the Wright brothers came to Kitty Hawk to try out their new machine, Moore just happened to be walking along the beach. He came over to see what was going on, thought it sounded interesting, and stuck around. He was only 16, but being in the right place at the right time meant he became one of the first six people to see an airplane fly. He also helped historians mark the exact spot the flight had taken place years later. Unfortunately, he committed suicide in 1952 aged 66.

11. Millvina Dean // Last survivor of the Titanic disaster

If it was “women and children first” when it came to getting off the sinking Titanic, Dean must have been first in line to get in a lifeboat. Not only was she female, but at only two months old, she was the youngest passenger on board. Her family wasn’t even supposed to be on the boat, but was transferred to it when a coal strike kept their original vessel from sailing. While she, her mother, and brother survived, her father went down with the ship.

Obviously, Dean didn’t have any memories of the sinking, and although she became a minor celebrity as a toddler thanks to her ordeal, she didn’t even know she had been on the Titanic until she was eight. She died in 2009 aged 97.

12. Vaso Čubrilović // Last survivor of the Conspiracy to Murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand

You might think that the men who inadvertently started WWI would have died young and violently, but one of them, Čubrilović, made it to age 93. He was only 17 when he was recruited to join the group hoping to assassinate the Archduke and liberate Bosnia. While he never ended up killing anyone, he was arrested for treason and murder and found guilty. Since he was younger than 20 when the crime was committed, he could not be executed and was instead sentenced to 16 years in prison, but was released when the war ended in 1918. After the war he got a PhD, became a professor, and got involved in politics in a way that didn’t involve trying to kill people. He died in 1990.

13. Werner Franz // Last Surviving Crew Member of the Hindenburg Disaster

You wouldn’t think it looking at the famous image, but of the 97 people on board the Hindenburg, 62 of them managed to survive the explosion and fire. One of those was a 14-year-old cabin boy who came away completely unscathed. Franz had gotten the job by chance and it was only his fifth flight on the dirigible. When disaster struck, he happened to be under a water tank that burst over him, helping protect him from the flames. He jumped to the ground through a hatch and ran. When he died last year aged 92, it was believed that two passengers and a member of the ground crew were still alive.

14. Rochus Misch // Last Surviving Occupant of the 'Führerbunker'

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Misch was only 20 when he was called up for service in the German military shortly before WWII started. In 1940, he was part of select group chosen to be Hitler’s personal bodyguards. He stayed in this position for the rest of the war, so when the Führer fled to his bunker in 1945, Misch went with him. He was with the group who discovered the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun after they killed themselves, and stayed in the bunker right to the very end, fleeing only hours before the Soviets got there. He was captured, tortured, and spent nine years in a forced labor camp. After his release, he returned to Berlin, where he became a businessman, wrote his memoirs, and would show up at the site of the bunker from time to time to tell tourists how he had been there. He died in 2013 aged 96.

15. Zelma Henderson // Last Surviving Plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education

Oliver Brown wasn’t the only person who took the Topeka public school system to court over segregation. There were 12 mothers of local students listed as well, and one of them was Henderson. Henderson herself had attended both mixed and segregated schools in her youth. In a later interview, she said her own experiences with integrated schools influenced her to get involved for her own two children, who had to be bussed to an all-black school on the other side of the city. Even though what she was doing was incredibly brave, she said no one involved had any idea how big the case would become. Henderson died in 2008 at the age of 88.

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
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Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
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That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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