Often when we have school programs at the Cottage, we try to establish with the students just how long ago the Civil War was. One way some interpreters choose to do this, especially with young school children, is to ask “Were your parents alive during the Civil War? “Were your grandparents?” and keep going a few generations back so the students understand just how long ago the 1860s were, in terms that are familiar for them.
And truthfully, the Civil War was about six generations ago, if you assume a generation is roughly 20-25 years. Yet in other contexts, 150 years ago really isn’t that long ago, especially when compared to say events in European history or certainly geological history. (After all, the grandson of John Tyler, the 10th U.S. president is still alive.)
The video clip below, is a great example of the latter, so called “human wormholes” or “great spans” where a very old generation connects to a young generation. Thanks to the wonder that is YouTube (and by extension the internet), this clip from the February 9, 1956 episode of the quiz show “I’ve Got a Secret” is making the rounds on the internet. (I first saw it via this Atlantic blog post). On the game show, four celebrities would try to guess a contestant’s secret by asking him or her yes or no questions. So why is this clip relevant to Lincoln? Well the contestant in this specific clip was 96 year-old Samuel J. Seymour, who’s secret was that he was present at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot!!
As a five-year old boy in 1865 he and some friends got tickets to Our American Cousin, and while watching the play he witnessed the assassination. However, he was too young to know exactly what was going on, and actually only was worried about Booth, who had broken his leg jumping to the stage after shooting Lincoln! According to the clip Mr. Seymour was the only witness of the assassination still alive in February 1956, and he would die nine weeks after this episode aired, on April 12, 1956.
So once you’ve watched this clip you can say you’ve seen a man talk about seeing Lincoln’s assassination. Pretty sweet wormhole!