From a cast of billions, ten individuals in the 20th century who drew the final curtain on major chapters of human history…
1. Last widow of the American War of Independence – died 1906.
Esther Sumner Damon of Vermont was the last American Revolutionary War widow to receive a pension. She married Noah Damon in 1835 when she was 21 and he was 75. Noah served with the Massachusetts troops as a private during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and applied for a war pension in 1848. When he died aged 93 in 1853, Esther applied for a widow’s pension which she claimed until her own death aged 92 in 1906. Her obituary, published in the New York Times, noted that her passing closed the Revolutionary War pension list.
2. Last “wild Indian” in North America – died 1916.
Ishi was the last known member of the Native American Yahi tribe, indigenous to northern California. Widely acclaimed in his time as the “last wild Indian”, Ishi lived most of his life completely outside the culture of European North America. Massacres, starvation and disease had killed countless Native Americans across the continent following contact with European settlers from the early 16th century; by the start of the 20th century, many had been forced into reservations. When Ishi emerged from his ancestral homeland in “the wild” at the age of around 50 in 1911, he caught the public imagination across the United States.
Ishi’s story was an unhappy one. As a young boy in 1865, his tribe was virtually wiped out in a series of attacks by white settlers. The last survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 43 years and their tribe was believed to have become extinct. In 1908, a group of surveyors came across a camp inhabited by Ishi, his younger sister, and his elderly mother. Ishi and his sister fled while their mother hid herself in blankets, as she was sick and unable to flee. The surveyors ransacked the camp. Ishi’s mother and sister died soon after, leaving him alone as the last of his tribe. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, Ishi walked out into the modern world. He was captured attempting to steal meat.
Ishi was eventually brought to the University of California, where he lived for the short remaining years of his life. Studied closely by anthropologists at the university, Ishi helped them to reconstruct Yahi culture, including his Yana language. He never revealed his true name – Ishi means “man” in the Yana language, and this was how the anthropologists referred to him. Having no immunity to the diseases of modern civilization, Ishi was often ill and he eventually died of tuberculosis in 1916.
3. Last soldier killed in World War One – 10:59 am, 11 November 1918.
American soldier Henry Gunther was the last of an estimated 10 million military personnel killed during World War I. He was killed one minute before the 11 am armistice on 11 November 1918.
Gunther was born into a German-American family in Baltimore, Maryland in 1895. He arrived in France in July 1918 as a sergeant in the American Expeditionary Forces. In a letter to a friend at home he reported on the “miserable conditions” at the front and advised him to try anything to avoid being drafted; the letter was intercepted by the censor and Gunther was demoted from sergeant to private.
Like all Allied units, Gunther’s squad was still embroiled in fighting on the morning of 11 November 1918. The Armistice with Germany had been signed at 5:00 am, but was not due to take effect until 11:00 am. Gunther’s squad approached a roadblock of two German machine guns in the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers. Disobeying orders to stay down, Gunther bayonet-charged the machine gun post. The German soldiers, aware that the armistice would take effect in one minute, tried to wave him off. Gunther kept going and fired a couple of shots. When he got too close to the machine guns, he was shot and killed instantly.
Gunther’s comrades noted afterwards that he had brooded a great deal over his reduction in rank and “became obsessed with making good before his officers and fellow soldiers.” The US Army posthumously restored his rank of sergeant and awarded him a Divisional Citation for Gallantry in Action and the Distinguished Service Cross.
Subsequent investigations revealed that on the last day of World War I, in the 6 hours between the signing of the armistice and its entry into force, about 11,000 men were wounded or killed – far more than usual.
4. Last native African brought to the United States as a slave – died 1935.
Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis was born around 1840 in the West African country of Benin, where he was captured around the age of 20. Together with more than a hundred other captured Africans, he was brought on the slave ship Clotilde to Mobile, Alabama in 1860. Cudjoe and 31 other enslaved Africans were taken to the property of Timothy Meaher, owner of the Clotilde, but due to a federal investigation into the slave deal they were at first left to fend for themselves. They quickly built shelters and started hunting game. While they could not legally be held as slaves, they were controlled by Meaher for 5 years as if they were slaves.
At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, slavery was abolished and Cudjoe and his people were declared to be free. Their request to be repatriated to West Africa was turned down, so they established a community at Magazine Point near Mobile, Alabama, which became called Africatown, where they maintained their language and tribal customs. Cudjoe was the last of the Clotilde slaves when he died in Africatown in 1935 at the age of around 94.
5. Last person to be executed at the Tower of London – died 1941.
Josef Jakobs was a German spy executed in the grounds of the Tower of London on 15 August 1941. The Tower, founded as a royal residence by William the Conqueror, was also used as a prison from 1100 (Ranulf Flambard) until 1952 (the Kray twins). The first execution inside the grounds of the Tower was that of William Hastings in 1483, beheaded in the courtyard on the orders of Richard III.
Jakobs’ execution came after he was captured parachuting into the United Kingdom during WW2. He was shot while seated blindfolded in a Windsor chair (he had broken his ankle in the parachute drop) and his last words to his military firing squad were: “Now shoot straight, you Tommies”. A final letter to his family, which went undelivered for 50 years as his family had been bombed out in Germany, was eventually delivered to his granddaughters.
6. Last person to witness the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – died 1956.
Samuel James Seymour was the last of approximately 1,700 people present in Ford’s Theater, Washington D.C. on 14 April 1865 – the night U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Seymour was 5 years old and had been taken to the theater by his godmother. Sitting in the balcony opposite Lincoln’s box, Seymour recalled seeing the President waving and smiling at people. He then recalled a sudden a shot ringing out and someone in the President’s box screaming. He saw Lincoln slumped forward in his seat, then witnessed Lincoln’s assassin jump off the balcony.
At the age of 95, a frail Mr Seymour appeared as a mystery subject on the 9 February 1956 episode of TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret, in which the panel had to guess his claim to fame. He died two months later at the age of 96.
7. Last Emperor of China – died 1967.
Aisin-Gioro Puyi became the 12th ruler of China’s Qing Dynasty in 1908 at the age of two. Closeted inside the Forbidden City in the centre of Peking, Puyi was treated as a god and unable to behave as a child. Wherever he went, grown men would kneel down in a ritual kowtow, averting their eyes until he passed. He soon discovered the absolute power he wielded over the eunuchs who constantly attended him, and frequently had them beaten for small transgressions. His forced abdication in 1912 after the successful Xinhai Revolution not only ended the Qing Dynasty, which had ruled since 1644, but also effectively ended the millennia of dynastic rule in China in place since around 2100 BC.
Puyi was briefly restored to the throne from 1 to 12 July 1917 as a nominal emperor by a local warlord, but the restoration failed after extensive opposition across China. In 1934, under the protection of the Empire of Japan, he was declared the Emperor of the puppet state of Manchukuo which he ruled until 1945. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Puyi was imprisoned as a war criminal for 10 years.
When the Chinese Communist Party declared him reformed, he was released and went to work at the Peking Botanical Gardens. He later worked as an editor for the literary department of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and, with the encouragement of Chairman Mao, wrote his autobiography (translated in English as From Emperor to Citizen).
The last Emperor of China died in Peking from kidney cancer in 1967, aged 61.
8. Last World War 2 Japanese soldier to surrender – 1974.
When Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army was posted to Lubang Island in the Philippines at the end of 1944, his orders were clear: do all you can to hamper the enemy, and under no circumstances surrender or take your own life. When US and Philippine forces regained the island in early 1945, Onoda and three other soldiers took to the hills and continued to wage World War 2 for the next 29 years. They dismissed any airdropped leaflets telling them the war was over as Allied propaganda, and their guerrilla activities led to 30 Filipino deaths and several shootouts with the local police. One of the four finally surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950. A second was killed by a shot fired by a search party looking for them in 1954. Onoda’s last remaining companion was killed by two shots fired by local police in 1972.
In February 1974, a young Japanese traveller Norio Suzuki, who had made it his mission to find Onoda, managed to track him down. Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographic proof of their encounter and the Japanese government located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller. Taniguchi flew to Lubang in March 1974, finally met Onoda and issued him with the formal order to surrender. Though he had killed people and engaged in shootouts with the police, Onoda received a pardon from President Ferdinand Marcos.
Onoda was given a hero’s welcome when he finally returned to Japan, and shortly afterwards released his autobiography, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War. Unhappy with the attention and troubled by what he saw as the decline in traditional Japanese values, he became a cattle farmer in Brazil. Onoda returned to Japan in 1984 and established an educational camp for young people. He also revisited Lubang Island in 1996, and donated US$10,000 to the local school. At the time of writing, he is still living in Japan at the age of 91.
9. Last person to be guillotined in France – died 1977.
Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant, was the last person to be beheaded by the guillotine in France on 10 September 1977.
The guillotine had been the main method of carrying out the death penalty for civil capital offences in France since the height of the French Revolution in 1791. Djandoubi was executed at Baumettes Prison in Marseille for the torture and murder of 21-year-old Elisabeth Bousquet.
10. Last death caused by smallpox – 1978.
On 11 September 1978, medical photographer Janet Parker became the last fatal victim of smallpox, an infectious disease which had killed hundreds of millions of human beings since around 10,000 BC. The World Health Organisation officially declared smallpox to be eradicated just over 12 months later.
Parker was exposed to the most lethal strain of the virus as a result of laboratory accident at the University of Birmingham Medical School in the UK. She worked in a darkroom above a laboratory where research on live smallpox viruses was being conducted. The viruses probably spread through a service duct that connected the two floors. Parker fell ill on 11 August 1978, but was not admitted to hospital until 24 August. Many people had close contact with her in the intervening period, but only her mother contracted the disease. Her mother survived, but her father died aged 77 following a cardiac arrest when visiting his stricken daughter in hospital. Following Parker’s death, the scientist responsible for smallpox research at the University of Birmingham, Professor Henry Bedson, committed suicide.
In light of the incident, all known stocks of smallpox were destroyed – except two. One is still kept in a laboratory in the United States and the other in Russia.