How far back is “living memory”?

At political blog CrashBangWallace, the answer is “quite a long way”.  He writes that the great events of history are within touching distance.

In one of these pleasingly highbrow moments which proves that the internet is not just about videos of cats and moon-walking budgies, a clip has gone viral on Twitter today showing a 1956 TV appearance of the last surviving eye witness of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:  <video>

By that time the man in question was 96, an impressive achievement for a lifelong pipesmoker born in the mid-19th Century.

The video itself is an interesting historical curio, but the message it carries is even more interesting. We tend to think of history as being distant – particularly that history which is not recorded in colour or even in film or sound. In reality, though, it’s remarkably close.

I’m told that as a small child I met a lady in her 90s who had when a small child herself met someone whose father fought at the Battle of Waterloo. That’s three degrees of separation between me in the 21st century and a British soldier in 1815. Similarly there must be quite a number of people still living who met the gentleman in the Lincoln video.

Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, which is now 146 years ago.

It makes you think, doesn’t it?

10 Responses to “How far back is “living memory”?”


  1. CC

    I have a similar experience with respect to the Napoleonic Wars – my dad had a neighbour who was in his 90s when my dad was a boy in the 50s. The neighbour’s grandfather (or so I’ve been told) had fought as a very young man in the Russian campaign (on the French side), and so I have some slightly used Napoleonic War details myself :). I’d think there are lots of people with family stories that go back way further, even if a date can’t easily be set to them.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you — that’s very interesting. I’d be interested in what you could tell us about the Napoleonic War!

  3. Tom

    As a young man my grandfather interviewed one of the last surviving veterans of the american civil war, he has pictures to prove it and in fact my grandfather is still alive. 150 years and only one step removed from today.that is similar to Irenaeus and his chronological distance from jesus.

  4. Roger Pearse

    That is very interesting! Is there any chance of seeing one of the photographs?

  5. Tom

    Ill see if I can get a copy of one of them when I get home next week!

  6. Roger Pearse

    Thank you! You might do a blog post on it yourself…!

  7. James

    The closest brush I personally had with “living memory” was with a church member whose father was born in the 1840s. He died a couple years ago but he was only in his early 90s. I’ll have to ask someone about the details but I suspect that his father must have been a Civil War veteran and he got married late in life to a much younger woman for the Civil War pension.

    The most extreme example of “living memory” I have heard of is the the fact that as of this year, two of President Tyler’s grandchildren are still living. President Tyler was born in 1790! His father served in the American Revolution so they are linked to a event that happened 235 years ago via their great grandfather. An average generation is generally around 20-30 years. If you take 25 years as the norm that would normally be just over nine generations. So their great grandfather would be a 7-great grandfather for the average person!

    We know about this because they do a lot of research for family links of Presidents but even so I suspect that there must be less than 20-30 people overall worldwide who could claim a farther reach back in history for a grandfather and great grandfather.

    I hope you find this interesting!

  8. Roger Pearse

    These are very interesting snippets — thank you! It goes to show that what we think of as improbable is not that rare.

  9. Living memory | Chronicon Blog

    [...] months ago Roger Pearse blogged about “living memory” and how far back it might extend. It is easy to think that an event that occurred long ago [...]

  10. “How long is in living memory”, part 2 at Roger Pearse

    [...] little while ago I asked, “How far back is ‘living memory’”?  I got some interesting answers, but, far more interesting, Tom Schmidt was inspired to dig out [...]



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