What We Learn From History's Great Bystanders

What We Learn From History's Great Bystanders

Why you should care

Because sometimes you just have to be there.

One of the great, or grating (depending on your view), features of the Academy Award-winning film Forrest Gump is the title character’s uncanny knack for finding himself in a front-row seat to several of the most significant moments in American history. Real-life eyewitnesses to famous events, of course, are not nearly so prolific, but history is filled with stories of individuals who were given a Gump-like chance to watch history unfold before their eyes.

In many cases, being a bystander of historic significance requires that you be in the right place at what might very well be a horrific time. Perhaps the most famous such bystander of our time, a women’s clothing maker named Abraham Zapruder, inadvertently captured John F. Kennedy’s assassination on his home movie camera in Dealey Plaza that dark November day in Dallas. Those 26.6 seconds of footage of the presidential motorcade, including the lethal shot, shocked the world, and gave the Russian émigré nightmares. It would also make his family very rich: Zapruder sold the film and rights to Life magazine for $150,000, which eventually decided to return it to his family for $1, before they in turn sold it again in 1999 — to the U.S. government — for over $16 million.

Sometimes it is not chance but duty that places you in the path of history.

Being an eyewitness to history also often brings with it the responsibility of chronicling it. Much of what we know about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. comes from the firsthand account of Pliny the Younger, the Roman politician and adviser to Emperor Trajan who witnessed the tragedy at age 18. Years later, Pliny recalled in two famous letters the events of that day as a hurricane of volcanic ash descended on the city of Pompeii:

You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children and the shouts of men … some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all.

A modern writer who had a similar experience of mass tragedy was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who as a prisoner of war experienced the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in February 1945, which killed up to 60,000 civilians. Housed in a former slaughterhouse underground, Vonnegut and his fellow POWs survived the firestorm, and the wasteland of charred bodies and corpses they encountered when they finally emerged shaped a great deal of the author’s life and work, including his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Sometimes it is not chance but duty that places you in the path of history. Herb Morrison, a 31-year-old reporter for a Chicago radio station, was covering the arrival of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937, with an engineer who was testing some new film equipment, when the unthinkable happened. Moments after Morrison had described the 804-foot airship, the largest flying object ever built at the time, as “riding majestically toward us like some great feather,” the Hindenburg exploded. “It’s burning, bursting into flames and it’s … this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world,” gasped Morrison.

A few days after witnessing Robert Kennedy’s assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the British broadcaster Alistair Cooke gave a similarly stark account over the air of what he had seen. Cooke described Kennedy’s dead visage looking up from the kitchen floor “like the stone face of a child lying on a cathedral tomb,” and the correspondent lamented the “squalid, appalling scene in a hotel pantry that I’d been a part of, and would always be a part of.”

Political assassinations may be rare, but remarkably one man had a front row seat for those of three U.S. presidents: Robert Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son. On the night Lincoln was shot, Robert had declined his father’s invitation to attend a play at Ford’s Theater, but rushed to his bedside afterward and was present when he died. More than 15 years later, as President James Garfield’s Secretary of War, Lincoln was strolling with the president in Washington D.C.’s Sixth Street Station in July 1881 when a gunman, Charles Guiteau, fired twice on Garfield, who died a few months later. Fate struck a third time 20 years later, when Lincoln, invited by President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, arrived to find that McKinley had just been shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. When Lincoln was invited by the next president, Theodore Roosevelt, to visit the White House, he declined, observing, “There is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

Robert Lincoln, like his fellow eyewitnesses to history, would bear the scars of these encounters for the rest of his days. But thanks to their testimonies, we have a far better understanding of what took place. And in most cases, they could not help but testify. “I was there,” Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim declares in Slaughterhouse-Five. “I just want you to know: I was there.”

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