A few months ago, Chief Medicine Crow, one of the last remaining links to the Indian tribes of the wild west died at age 102. He had grown up hearing stories about George Armstrong Custer from his grandfather, who’d been a scout for the doomed general at Little Bighorn in 1876. A soldier himself in the Second World War, Medicine Crow was one of the last Crows to ever accomplish the four deeds required to be considering a war chief (command a war party, steal an enemy horse, touch an enemy without killing him and taking an enemy’s weapon).
He was a fascinating man, not just for what he did but also for what he represents to us now. He was, to use a phrase coined by Jason Kottke, a “human wormhole.” His unusual and long live is a reminder to how connected the past and present really are.
A curator at the Smithsonian described meeting Medicine Crow as “you’re shaking hands with the 19th century.” Which an amazing concept. A few intrepid historians on reddit recently discovered an even more amazing one, calculating that it would take a chain of just six individuals who shook hands with one another to connect Barack Obama to George Washington across the centuries (Obama ->Queen Elizabeth II -> Herbert Hoover -> William H. Taft -> Benjamin Harrison -> William Henry Harrison -> Benjamin Harrison V -> George Washington).
I’ve become fascinated with discovering and tracking some of these reminders. For some time now, I’ve kept a file of them on 4×6 notecards in my house. My friends and I email these moments to each other as we find them — some absurd (Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman may have hooked up), coincidental (Orson Welles claimed to have been in the Biograph Theater in Chicago where John Dillinger was killed by the FBI) and some that are so unbelievable that they might just blow your mind (there’s a video from a 1956 CBS game show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” with a very old guest whose secret was that he was in Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. Appearing with him on the show? Lucille Ball.)
Here in modern life, it’s easy to think the past is dead and distant, until we bump up against the reality of Faulkner’s admonition that it’s not really even past. England’s government only recently paid off debts it incurred as far back as 1720 from events like the South Sea Bubble, the Napoleonic wars, the empire’s abolition of slavery, and the Irish potato famine — meaning that for more than a decade and a half of the twenty first century there was still a direct and daily connection to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The US is still paying pensions related to both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.)
I’ll share a few more wormholes before I get to …read more