I was once brought round to a sharp turn by an essay by Alexander Cockburn in which he recounted how his grandmother told him she'd known someone who had seen Marie Antionette on her way to the guillotine.
Think about it, do the math: Cockburn's born maybe in the 1940s -- guessing here. That would mean his grandmother, if sufficiently venerable, would have been born in, oh, say, the 1860s. From here it's not at all a stretch of imagination to postulate someone born in 1785, say, who would have been eight years old at the time of Marie Antoinette's execution, and who could quite easily have lived long enough to have recounted her impressions of the event to a young girl in 1875.
The point being, owing to what I think is a natural, inborn solipsism, we think of the past as unreal, a fancy story somebody made up, a nice costume drama but certainly nothing that has any bearing on us today.
Here's another example.
So this house...
...belonged to a guy named John Stevens in 1859, the year of John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry. Its yard is adjacent to mine.
[Edit, March 5, 2006: This information is incorrect. This is not that house. Please see this post, from a year later, for the corrected information)
I was wandering around in the graveyard of Mount Olivet Methodist a few days ago, and quite by accident I found his final resting place:
The stone's a little difficult to read, but it says
John J. Stevens
Born Aug. 3, 1837
Died Dec 10 1905
Well, John Stevens, in 1859, built the gallows on which John Brown was hung.
Furthermore, he guarded Brown's cell on the night before he was hung, had words with the crazy old bugger.
Brown's Execution, December 2, 1859
This absolutely knocks me on my ass. These... these... ghosts wander around among us, people who were here just fifteen minutes ago, and we treat them and their lives and their works and their memories and their names as if they NEVER EXISTED AT ALL....
Something must be done.
(I got the Stevens info from Eugene Scheel's book, Loudoun Discovered - Communities, Corners & Crossroads.)
Next Stop on the Mobberly Trail: I, uh, discover that there was this guy named Mobberly, see...