14 Surprising Historical Last Events

December 6, 2022 People's Tonight 388 views

Melissa Sartore
March 6, 2021

People, trends, norms – they all come and go. As a result, history is full of firsts, lasts, and everything in between. What’s innovative one day may be rendered obsolete within a few years, decades, or even longer, while methods of communication continue to change at exponential rates.

When it comes to identifying exactly when something fell out of use, narrowing down the last event can be helpful in understanding why and how a historical phenomenon came to an end.

Whether it’s when the last duel was fought, when the Tower of London last served as a prison, or when the last telegram was sent, the end date says a lot. Historical lasts are full of some fascinating revelations.


• Photo: Civil War Harper’s Weekly / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

War1Passing Of The Last Civil War Widow – 2020

Helen Viola Jackson married Civil War veteran James Bolin in 1936. Jackson was 17 when they wed, while James was 93 years old.

Their marriage, according to Jackson, was based on convenience and “respect,” noting her husband “really cared for me [and] wanted me to have a future.” The two were living in Missouri at the time, with Jackson struggling to survive during the Great Depression. Bolin, who’d fought for the Union during the Civil War, wanted to help and promised to leave Jackson his pension when he passed.

Because Jackson was concerned she looked like an opportunist, she never applied to receive Bolin’s pension after his passing in 1939. She never remarried either, and only spoke about her relationship with Bolin in 2017.

At the age of 101, Jackson – the last widow of a Civil War veteran – passed in December 2020.

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• • • Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Fair Use

ManxLast Native Speaker Of Manx, One Of The Defunct Celtic Languages – 1974

Cornish and Manx are two Celtic languages that, according to the Endangered Language Alliance, have “completely fallen out of everyday use.” The last native speaker of Cornish, Dolly Pentreath, perished in 1777, while Manx continued in remote areas of Britain through 1974.

The final native speaker of Manx was Edward “Ned” Maddrell, a resident of the Isle of Man. Born in 1877 or 1878, Maddrell learned Manx as a boy, worked as a fisherman for much of his life, and passed in late 1974. Recordings of Maddrell speaking Manx exist, as do books and dictionaries, and there have been efforts to bring the language back on the Isle of Man.

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• • Photo: Hephaestos / Kauko56 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

GuillotineLast Use Of The Guillotine – 1977

Often associated with the French Revolution, the guillotine has origins in the Middle Ages. It was a method of execution that was purported to be more humane than other techniques, and found use well into the 20th century.

The last time the blade of a guillotine came down on a convicted criminal’s neck, it was that of Hamida Djandoubi. The Tunisian immigrant lived in Marseilles, France, and was sentenced to execution after having slain his girlfriend. He was executed on September 10, 1977.

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• • Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

TelegramLast Telegram Ever Sent – 2013

On January 27, 2006, Western Union in the United States sent its final telegrams – a collection of messages that went out via their network of lines that began in 1851. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the very last message went out, but this wasn’t the end of telegrams worldwide. That didn’t happen until 2013.

In India, telegram messages came to an end on July 14, 2013 – officially nixing the communication technique. The government-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited ended telegram service due to economic losses brought on by “SMS and smartphones… [rendering] this service redundant.”

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• • Photo: Rafesmar / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

PrisonerLast Prisoner(s) Held At The Tower Of London – 1952

With a history that traces to the 11th century, the Tower of London wasn’t initially intended to be a prison – but it became one of the most famous places used for punitive confinement in the world.

Prisoners held at the Tower of London include then-princess Elizabeth Tudor in 1554, two of Henry VIII’s wives – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – and Guy Fawkes after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The Tower continued to be used as a prison on and off through history, with a pair of brothers serving as its last prisoners. The Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, were members of an organized crime outfit in London’s East End, but it was failing to report for military duty that landed them in the Tower in 1952.

The Kray twins were in and out of prison for the rest of their lives, but the Tower of London became more of a repository of documents and royal artifacts, as well as a tourist attraction, thereafter.

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Video: YouTube

DuelLast Duel Using Fencing Swords – 1967

In 1967, tempers flared during a debate at the National Assembly in Paris, France, and Gaston Defferre resorted to calling his rival an “idiot” (or something comparable). In response to Defferre, politician Rene Ribière (then the mayor of Marseilles) demanded an apology. When Defferre refused, Ribière challenged him to a duel.

Defferre accepted, even after reportedly calling a duel “grotesque and ridiculous.” He even threatened Ribière’s manhood – indicating he’d make sure to render him “unfit” to be married the following day.

The two men met on April 21, each armed with an épée sword designed for fencing. The duel took place outside of Paris at Neuilly-sur-Seine, overseen by Jean de Lipkowski, the secretary of state for Foreign Affairs. Defferre and Ribière exchanged jabs, with Ribière declared the loser after being struck twice in four minutes.

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• • Photo: Giacomo Grimaldi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

PopeLast Pope To Be Married While Holding Office – 872 AD

The issue of clerical celibacy dates back to at least the fifth century, but the Catholic Church didn’t forbid marriage among the clergy until the 12th century. This isn’t to say that men weren’t married before taking holy orders, nor that they gave up wives and families easily.

Popes, too, were part of the conversation about marriage and celibacy, although most were either widowers or renounced their married lives when they became pontiff.

Pope Adrian II (also called Hadrian II) was unique in his position as pope because he refused to give up his wife and daughter. He was 75 years old when he was elected in 867 AD and didn’t want the role, having declined it on two previous occasions. At some point during his pontificate, his daughter was kidnapped and assaulted by a rival bishop’s son (or nephew), Eleutherius. Eleutherius later took the lives of both Adrian II’s wife and daughter.

Four years later, Adrian perished in 872.

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• • Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

IslandsLast Time An Immigrant Passed Through Ellis Island – 1954

Located in New York Harbor, Ellis Island opened as an immigrant station in 1892. The first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore, an Irish native who was just 15 years old at the time.

Over the coming decades, millions of immigrants would traverse the passageways of Ellis Island, undergoing inspections and waiting for entry into the United States. As US immigration policy changed during the 1920s, Ellis Island became a detention and deportation center, at times a hospital, and even a training center for the Coast Guard.

In November 1954, the final immigrant left Ellis Island – a Norwegian man named Arne Peterssen. The seaman was actually a detainee at Ellis Island, having outstayed his shore leave, and was sent back to Norway upon release.

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• • Photo: Tony Hudson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5 AU

MovieLast Major Hollywood Movie Released On VHS – 2006

A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen, was released to theaters in 2005 and on DVD and VHS the following year. Its release on VHS marked the last time a major Hollywood movie would be made available on tape.

Since their invention in the 1970s, VHS tapes had dominated the home movie market, but the growth of DVD technology during the late 1990s quickly signaled a shift in the marketplace. By 2001, DVD sales topped VHS buys, and in 2003, DVD rentals outnumbered their VHS counterparts.

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• • Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

SmallpoxLast Smallpox Mortality – 1978

As a disease that had spanned at least three centuries, smallpox ended the lives of millions of people throughout history. The use of variolation – exposing individuals to small amounts of smallpox was the foundation for the development of vaccination during the late 18th century.

By the early 20th century, vaccinations for smallpox brought numbers of the disease down to levels so low that it became possible to talk of eliminating it entirely. During the 1950s and 1960s, advances in vaccination technologies and techniques facilitated mass vaccinations worldwide.

The last natural outbreaks of smallpox occurred in 1975 in India and 1977 in Somalia. The last fatality from smallpox occurred in 1978 when Janet Parker perished. She had, according to investigators, contracted smallpox while working as a medical photographer in a building where a smallpox lab was held.

Two years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that smallpox had officially been eradicated in 1980.

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• Photo: leix38 / eBay

CigaretteLast Cigarette Ad On TV In The US – 1971

Aired on January 1, 1971, the last cigarette advertisement on American television came months after President Richard Nixon signed legislation ending the practice.

During the 1960s, there were repeated calls to lower smoking rates in the US by medical professionals and public health officials. With ever-growing evidence indicating that smoking caused serious health problems, the Federal Trade Commission decided advertisers needed to warn consumers of the dangers in 1964. When the surgeon general of the US issued a report in 1969 that connected low birth rates and smoking, Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act.

The act, signed in April 1970, mandated cigarette companies to include warnings on their packaging. It also set January 2, 1971, as the last day a television or radio ad would run for cigarettes. The date was a compromise, one that allowed Virginia Slims to advertise on New Year’s Day.

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• • Photo: Francis Meynell / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

ShipThe Arrival Of The Last Transatlantic Slave Ship In The United States – 1860

The Clotilda was the last known slave ship to have arrived in the United States, illegally bringing roughly 110 enslaved Africans to Alabama in 1860. Congress had banned the importation of slaves into the United States more than 50 years earlier, an act that went into effect on January 1, 1808.

Transported aboard the Clotilda, Matilda McCrear has been identified as the last survivor from that transatlantic journey. McCrear was, according to researcher Hannah Durkin, a member of the Yoruba peoples and was just 2 years old at the time.

McCrear, who passed in 1940, accompanied her mother and three sisters. McCrear was able to stay with her mother, Grace, and one of her sisters, Sallie, but never saw her two other siblings again after they were sold.

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• • Photo: Stephen Edmonds / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

AlcatrazLast Time Alcatraz Was A Functional Prison – 1963

Located on the island of the same name, Alcatraz went from military facility to federal penitentiary in 1934. For the next 29 years, Alcatraz was home to some of the most dangerous criminals in the United States.

Al Capone spent time in a cell at Alcatraz, as did Robert Stroud (the so-called “Birdman of Alcatraz”), and the high security prison was the site of repeated, unsuccessful escape attempts. By the end of the 1950s, Alcatraz had proven too expensive to maintain and operate. As a result, the government decided to close it, and in 1963, the final inmates were removed.

The last of the 1,576 men held at Alcatraz Penitentiary, convicted robber Frank Weatherman, climbed aboard a boat with guards. He reportedly said upon his exit, “Alcatraz never was good for anybody.”

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• • Photo: Florence Ramioul / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

ConcordeLast Flight Of The Concorde – 2003

The first prototype of the Concorde flew in 1969, with the airliner introduced for cross-Atlantic travel in 1976. Developed through the cooperation of British and French entities, the Concorde was designed to fly at 1,350 miles per hour (Mach 2) and shorten the trip from Europe to the United States to about three and a half hours.

Between 1976 and 2003, Concordes flew from London to New York, as well as into airports in places like Paris and Edinburgh. Only 20 Concordes were ever built; they required a hefty price tag to climb aboard, and passengers were treated to the most luxurious service the friendly skies had to offer.

A crash in July 2000 halted Concorde travel, but the supersonic airliners continued to be in service until October 2003. By that time, the age, expense, and decline in popularity of Concorde planes made their use untenable.

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