Stuart Lutz says he has always been fascinated by the stories he heard from older people. Twelve years ago, he began recording interviews with an elite group of Americans " the last survivors who witnessed, and lived through, some of the most tragic and awesome events in the nation's history.
Lutz, a historic document specialist, recently published their stories in his book, The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known Survivors. Here are a few of them.
Robert Lockwood Jr.
The last person to play with Blues legend Robert Johnson
If you ever heard the Rolling Stones' cover of "Love in Vain" or Eric Clapton's version of "Crossroads," you're familiar with the work of the great bluesman Robert Johnson. His stepson, Robert Lockwood Jr., was the last person to have played with him. Lockwood was also the only person to ever learn the secrets of the notoriously private guitarist. He also traveled and performed with him.
Lockwood recalled a joint performance with Johnson in Mississippi: "He put me on one side of the river and he went on the other. Folks crisscrossed that bridge like crazy. They didn't know which one of us was Robert Johnson, and they filled up both our baskets!"
Until his 90s, Lockwood had a weekly gig where he continued to push musical boundaries " one time inviting his saxophonist to play a flute during a blues number.
Lockwood died in 2006 at age 91.
The final survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Perhaps the most famous industrial fire in American history, which led to demands for labor reform and regulations, began in a shirt factory in New York's Greenwich Village in 1911. The fire quickly spread. Most of the factory's workers, mainly immigrant teenage girls, were trapped. The factory's executives were in the habit of locking the doors to ensure workers wouldn't be late and didn't leave early. The workers were forced to jump to their deaths from high floors.
But Rose Freedman, then 17, had a different idea. She recalled: "Everyone started screaming and running toward the fire escape. I wasn't near the windows. I was further back and stood still in shock."
Then she asked herself, "What are the executives on the 10th floor doing?" Everyone else made the seemingly logical choice of going down to escape. But Freedman said she "pulled my skirt over my head and dashed up the interior stairs to the 10th floor."
A police officer on the roof next door hoisted her over, and she walked downstairs to safety. That day, the fire claimed 146 other workers.
Freedman died in 2001 at age 107, a month before the 90th anniversary of the fire.
The last surviving person to perform with Harry Houdini
During one of Harry Houdini's acts, Dorothy Young hid in this oversized radio. "Houdini would come out, turn it on, tune it and I would pop out," Young recalls. "He would announce me, lift me up and then I would do the Charleston."
Young is 102 and lives in Ocean Grove, N.J.
The last passenger of the sunken Lusitania
Struck by a German submarine's torpedo in 1915, the RMS Lusitania ocean liner sunk in 18 minutes and paved the way for the nation's entry into World War I. Barbara Anderson McDermott was 3 at the time of the disaster, but still remembered it.
"I saw the ship sinking before me. I was grabbed by a crew member [Assistant Purser W. Harkless, pictured above with McDermott] and put into a lifeboat. Lucky for me, it turned out to be the same one as my mother was in," she recalled. "Since we were having lunch, I had a spoon in my hand when the ship went down. I still had it when we got to England."
McDermott died in 2008 at age 95.
The final witness to the infamous 1923 Rosewood race riots
On Florida's Gulf Coast on New Year's Day in 1923, a white woman falsely accused a black man from Rosewood, Fla., of assaulting her. Thus began the last major race riot in the South. Robie Mortin clearly remembered the mob coming first to her uncle's home. "During the massacre, Uncle Sam " poor thing " was lynched during the evening part," she said. "My grandmother saw them hang him up. The mob took him down and dragged him off to the woods and killed him back there. My grandmother lost the last son she had." During the next few days, the entire town was burned to the ground.
Mortin said she was not bitter. "Hate destroyed Rosewood, so why should I allow it to destroy me?
"Once you get past the massacre, life has been beautiful to me. I married a good man for 43 years and had five children. ... We have nurses and schoolteachers in the family. One of my granddaughters wants to be a senator. We have come a long way, baby."
Mortin died June 12, 2010, in West Palm Beach, Fla., at age 94.
The final survivor of the 1904 General Slocum fire on New York City's East River
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the worst fire in New York City's history began with an excursion steamboat carrying about 1,300 church members for an afternoon picnic. Adella Wotherspoon was just 6 months old at the time. The fire killed about 1,021 passengers " including Wotherspoon's two older sisters, two aunts and two cousins.
"I assume someone helped me and my mother off the ship," she said. "She was very badly burned on her left side " she stayed until her clothes were nearly all burned off. ... My sister Helen was never identified, and we think she was buried in the mass grave at the Lutheran Cemetery [in Queens]. Anna was found with all her clothes on, and even her hat was still fastened to her head by the elastic. ... My mother said my father walked the streets for weeks and was always at the morgue, looking for Helen."
Wotherspoon died in 2004 at age 100, five months before the centennial of the disaster.
The last of the physicists present at the first controlled nuclear reaction on Dec. 2, 1942
The historic experiment was led by the great physicist Enrico Fermi. To house the first nuclear reaction, the physicists built a structure under the University of Chicago's Stagg Field " under some abandoned grandstands" without anyone's knowledge.
"The big graphite structure ... left a black residue everywhere," Wattenburg remembered. "We looked like coal miners! When we built the structure, we wore these black coveralls. But we couldn't go outside like that because it would give away the secret that we were doing war work. So we would change clothes to look like ordinary graduate students dressed to do research!"
Wattenburg died in 2007 at age 90.
Kitty Carlisle Hart
The last surviving actress from a Marx Brothers movie
Kitty Carlisle Hart was an unknown performer when she met the Marx Brothers on the set of A Night at the Opera in 1935, and they became friends. Her husband, Moss, a playwright and director, "invited Harpo for the weekend," Hart remembered. "Moss learned that the local minister was going to pay a call, and he didn't have anything to discuss with the minister. He instructed Harpo to interrupt them after 10 minutes. So 10 minutes goes by, and Harpo walks out onto the balcony overlooking the room. He's wearing nothing but a towel and is holding a big shaving brush. He yells down to Moss, 'Time to shave the cat!' The minister fled."
Hart became a game show doyenne on the television show To Tell the Truth. She performed well into her 90s, celebrating her 96th birthday with a gig at a posh New York hot spot.
Hart died in 2007 at age 96.
The last major designer of the ENIAC
Never heard of the ENIAC? Most people haven't, but it was the world's first general-purpose computer. Built in the 1940s, the ENIAC was decommissioned in the 1950s. The machine was huge, and 10 percent of it is now at the University of Michigan's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science building.
When Burks gave Stuart Lutz a tour, they walked past students who were typing away on high-tech laptops and oblivious that the grandfather of their machines was strolling by. Burks asked one student whether she knew what the ENIAC was. She studied it a moment, then guessed, "Some type of calculator?"
Burks died in 2008 at age 92.
Haig M. "Hal" Prieste
The last surviving participant in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics and the oldest Olympian
After winning his bronze medal for diving in 1920, Haig M. "Hal" Prieste took up new athletics. He learned to surf, perform tumbling acts in Times Square and for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and at 40, taught himself to ice skate and danced with the Ice Follies. While in the Follies, he skated around with a broomstick balanced on his head " a trick he was proud to show Stuart Lutz during their interview (see above).
But perhaps Prieste was most famous for his flag escapade. The year the Olympic Committee created the famous five-ring flag, Prieste climbed up the pole and stole it. The police chased him for five blocks, but couldn't catch the Olympic athlete. He didn't know what to do with it when he got home, so he folded it neatly and kept it for 80 years. He finally gave it back during the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney.
Prieste died in 2001 at age 104.
George Putnam Jr.
The last surviving person who flew with Amelia Earhart
George Putnam Jr. was the aviatrix's stepson, whose father helped finance Amelia Earhart's autogiro, a precursor to the helicopter, by advertising Beech-Nut gum on it. Putnam recalls, "She flew this autogyro from town to town. My job was to hand out fistfuls of gum to everyone when we landed."
Putnam is 89 and lives in Boynton Beach, Fla.
The last Civil War Union widow
Gertrude Grubb Janeway was born in July 1909, 44 years after the Civil War ended. She was 18 when she married the Civil War veteran John Janeway, who was 81: "He came back to [Blaine, Tenn.] as an old man, where he still knew a few people. He was surprised that Mama, who he knew from their youth, was still alive.
"He asked her for permission to see me. Mother told him, 'She's old enough. Ask her.' So he turned right around and asked me, right there in the middle of church! I was only 15, so we went together three years on account of my age.
"We really loved each other. And love don't forget. I really do miss him. We had 10 years of good times. I wish it had lasted 20 or 40 years."
Janeway died in 2003 at age 93.
George R. Gibson
The final player on an NFL team that folded during the Great Depression
George R. Gibson played for the financially strapped Minneapolis Red Jackets at a time when football teams were going bankrupt. "After the games, the owners paid us off from the gate receipts," Gibson said. "It rained two Sundays in a row, so they didn't get any money for tickets. If it weren't for the rainy Sundays, the team probably would have survived."
The NFL Hall of Fame recognized him as the oldest-living former football player in 2002.
Gibson died in 2004 at age 98.
One of the last escapees of the Nazi death camp Sobibor
Esther Raab remembers her trip to Sobibor. Some 800 people gathered on the train platform when she arrived. Her girlfriend Mira picked out 10 people " including Raab " from the 800 to be knitters; the rest were put to death.
She was also part of the group that revolted, killed a guard and fled the camp on Oct. 14, 1943.
She recalls a dream she had the night before: "My mother came in the main gate of Sobibor, and she knew of my escape plans. She took me by the hand and showed me a barn in a field. She told me that I would survive there."
When Raab finally reached the barn a few weeks after her escape, she found her brother was there, waiting. As Raab puts it, "Luck was with me, always."
Raab is 88 and lives in Vineland, N.J.
The last Iwo Jima flag raiser
Charles Lindberg was operating a flamethrower on Iwo Jima, the sight of the bloodiest fight in Marine Corps history, when he and his team took the island's high ground.
He remembered erecting the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi: "We tied the flag to the pole, carried it to the highest spot we could find, and we raised it." But then a corporal was worried about the flag being up there and didn't want someone to steal it for a souvenir. After all, it was the first U.S. flag to fly over Japanese home territory in World War II, and he wanted to preserve it. So he ordered another flag up " and that's when the famous photo was taken.
Lindberg remembered the first time he saw that image: "It made me feel perturbed. We took the mountain, did the fighting, and then they come and changed our flag and put the big flag up. All the recognition went to the second flag." But, he said, "It makes me feel good to be the last flag raiser."
Lindberg died in 2007 at age 86.