Firsthand Accounts Of Historical Events And People We Found Out About In 2021

List Rules
Vote up the most interesting eyewitness details.

Most secondary historical sources are written decades, centuries, or even millennia after the events in question. While there are some benefits to being able to take a detached view of events and having a wider array of documents to draw upon, there's nothing quite like getting information straight from the source.

The accounts of eyewitnesses have an authenticity that even the most diligently researched book will never replicate. Nobody else can know what a Civil War battlefield actually sounded like, and the closest we can get to knowing what ancient Rome smelled like or how it felt to live for years under siege is to read the accounts of those who lived through it all. 

From the haunting accounts of survivors of the hungry winter at Leningrad to what it was really like being inducted into the Mafia, this collection features historical records from those who were there. 

  • 1
    22 VOTES

    Sicilian Hitman Maurizio Avola Described His Induction Ceremony To The Mafia

    Maurizio Avola became a full-fledged member of the Sicilian Mafia in 1983, when he committed his first murder on the mob's behalf at the age of 21. Despite the fact that his family ran their own restaurant and had nothing to do with organized crime, Avola found his way into the fold. After the murder, he was officially initiated:

    During the ceremony my finger was pricked with a needle in the presence of my godfather. Drops of my blood were burnt over the image of a saint while I took the oath. I was struck by the formal declaration of the rules; never introduce yourself as a member of the mafia to another associate, never desire the woman of another member, never kill another member unless authorised to do so by the head of the family, never use prostitutes and never speak to the police. I soon learnt other rules. 

    Avola was careful to play by the rules for many years, and admitted to killing 80 people. After his arrest, and realizing former associates wanted him dead, he broke the rules and revealed information about his former associates and the entire mob that led to more than 100 arrests.

    Read more firsthand mafia accounts here.

    22 votes
  • North Sentinel Island Natives Remain 'All Set To Defend Their Land'
    Photo: Jesse Allen / NASA Earth Observatory / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    14 VOTES

    North Sentinel Island Natives Remain 'All Set To Defend Their Land'

    As one of the Andaman Islands, North Sentinel Island is located in the Bay of Bengal. It's supervised by India, and visitors need permission to set foot on its shores. 

    Restricted entry and limited contact with the indigenous people serve two purposes. There's a desire to protect the island and its population, as well as to prevent additional acts of violence that have involved past visitors.

    During the late 19th century, European exploration of the island proved fruitless, while 20th-century interactions with the Sentinelese left the Indian government and anthropologist T.N. Pandit struggling to establish friendships. Pandit recalled his trips to the island:

    We had brought in gifts of pots and pans, large quantities of coconuts, iron tools like hammers and long knives... But the Sentinelese warriors faced us with angry and grim faces and fully armed with their long bows and arrows, all set to defend their land. 

    In 1991, successful contact was made, but efforts to drop in relief after the tsunami in 2004 were met with aggression. In 2006, natives killed two fishermen for getting too close to the island, and in 2018, the death of John Allen Chau demonstrated how dangerous it could be to approach the shores.

    Chau attempted to spread Christianity on North Sentinel Island, first getting shot at with arrows on approach - only to return the next day. The natives proceeded to kill him. To maintain peace and the integrity of the island itself, his body was never recovered

    Pandit commented on Chau's death in 2018, pointing out:

    During our interactions they threatened us but it never reached a point where they went on to kill or wound. Whenever they got agitated we stepped back... I feel very sad for the death of this young man who came all the way from America. But he made a mistake. He had enough chance to save himself. But he persisted and paid with his life.

    Read more firsthand accounts of dangerous islands here.

    14 votes
  • 3
    13 VOTES

    In 1949 USA, 'It Was Obvious... That Soviet Russia Was An Enemy'

    In 2016, former lawyer John Davis wrote that when he started school in 1949, "It was obvious to me that Soviet Russia was an enemy."

    Davis recalled seeing headlines about "Russians exploding a hydrogen bomb," watching "duck-and-cover" films in class, and hearing politicians call for a greater focus on national defense:

    I remember also some films demonstrating what to do in the event of a nuclear attack; essentially, the advice was to get under your desk. Even as a small boy, however, I didn’t think that would do much good if an atom bomb was dropped nearby.

    When Davis got to college, it became clear to him how dangerous the era was, especially as he watched President John F. Kennedy "address the [Cuban] crisis... and it scared the heck out of me."

    What really shocked him, however, was what he saw while driving to Cheyenne in his native Wyoming:

    A... silo about a half mile south of the freeway had suddenly shown activity. The missile in that silo was part of the nuclear deterrent force of the United States and I’m sure carried a big hydrogen bomb... And what I saw that October was one of the most chilling sights of my life. The missile had been pulled up out of the silo and was issuing steam, or some such effluent, showing that it was being readied for launch. And toward the top of the silo a big red light I’d never seen before was ominously blinking.

    That image has haunted me through the years, frequently popping into my mind. What I’d seen made me realize how close we came to a nuclear Armageddon in 1962, one that would have wiped out tens of millions of people both in the United States and in Russia.

    Read more firsthand accounts of the Cold War here.

    13 votes
  • Theodore Roosevelt Was In Over His Head With His Rebellious Daughter
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    15 VOTES

    Theodore Roosevelt Was In Over His Head With His Rebellious Daughter

    The 26th president is known for many things, such as his love of the outdoors or the fact that "teddy bears" were named after this Teddy. However, one of the lesser-known but very true facts about the first Roosevelt president is that he was also the first to have a certified "wild child" in the White House. 

    Alice Roosevelt was Teddy's first child, named after her mother - and his first wife - who passed just days after giving birth. While her father stumbled through his grief for years, Alice grew up lonely, spending much of her time with her aunt.

    When Teddy married his second wife Edith and created a new family, Alice's distance from her father grew even greater, and she became more rebellious and headstrong. She embraced the "strong independent woman" movement of the time, and the media ate up her exploits. When speaking of her father, the tense relationship between the two was obvious:

    My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.

    While Teddy served as president, he and his wife spent much of their time trying to minimize Alice's antics and the media attention they attracted. In fact, Teddy is quoted as saying: 

    I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.

    Read more firsthand accounts of US presidents as fathers here.

    15 votes
  • John Wilkes Booth Told The Men Sent To Capture Him, 'I Will Put A Bullet Through You'
    Photo: J.W. Black and John G. Case / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    After shooting President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, John Wilkes Booth fled on horseback. He was on the run for 12 days, venturing into Maryland before meeting up with fellow conspirator David Herold. With the help of Confederate sympathizers, Booth and Herold made their way into Virginia

    According to Captain Edward P. Doherty, who'd been tasked with apprehending the men two days earlier: "I took the first 25 men in the saddle, Sergeant Boston Corbett being the only member of my own company." Alongside detectives, Doherty and his men "passed the Garrett farm, not then dreaming that the assassins were conceived there." 

    Herold and Booth were, in fact, hiding at the farm owned by Richard Garrett, where Union soldiers arrived to confront them on April 26. Doherty described the scene

    I unlocked the [barn] door, and... summoned the inmates of the building to surrender... I directed a corporal to pile up some hay in a crack in the wall of the barn, and set the building on fire. As the corporal was picking up the hay and brush Booth said, "If you come back here I will put a bullet through you." I then motioned to the corporal to desist, and decided to wait for daylight and then to enter the barn by both doors and overpower the assassins.

    Herold later surrendered and, when he reached the door, Doherty recalled:

    I asked him to hand out his arms; he replied that he had none. I told him I knew exactly what weapons he had. Booth replied, "I own all the arms, and may have to use them on you, gentlemen." I then said to Herold, "Let me see your hands." He put them through the partly opened door and I seized him by the wrists.

    Booth remained defiant, however, and when he made a sudden movement, Sgt. Corbett shot Booth in the back of the head. As Doherty described it, the wound was:

    ...about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln... We gave him brandy and water, but he could not swallow it. I sent to Port Royal for a physician, who could do nothing when he came, and at seven o'clock Booth breathed his last. 

    Read more about firsthand accounts of manhunts here.

    9 votes
  • Alan Seeger Described The Battle Of The Somme As A 'Rendezvous With Death'
    Photo: John Warwick Brooke / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alan Seeger was a member of the French Foreign Legion, a poet, and a casualty of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which was one of the most severe, deadly exchanges to take place during World War I - and in the history of warfare. 

    The offensive began on July 1, 1916, with large-scale advances by British and French troops. In the tense buildup to the fighting, Seeger penned an ominous poem:

    I have a rendezvous with Death
    At some disputed barricade,
    When Spring comes back with rustling shade
    And apple-blossoms fill the air -
    I have a rendezvous with Death
    When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

    Seeger's own passing at the Somme highlighted the massive loss of life. Eyewitness accounts similarly speak to the carnage. George Rudge, a British soldier, described shooting his German counterparts; George Mayne was thankful he'd shared his water with a dying German soldier; and fellow fighter Tom Short recalled coming face-to-face with a German bayonet:

    In a split second before the moment of connecting my stomach with a bayonet, at which I was nearly passed out in terror, a terrific shout of "halt" came from somewhere and knowing how disciplined the German soldier is, the bod coming at me slid flat on his back, his rifle shot straight up in the air and his legs shot between mine. It appears a German officer gave this order.

    The Battle of the Somme lasted until November 1916. The exact number of casualties remains unclear; more than 1 million individuals on both sides met their ends during the months of fighting.

    Read more firsthand accounts of major battles here.

    6 votes