With handshakes suddenly out of fashion, it’s fun to recall improbably lengthy handshake links through history.
For example, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) liked to recount in the 1930s that as a boy, Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) had told him that he remembered the bonfires celebrating victory at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.
Somebody on Twitter today extended one link recollection of those 1815 Waterloo celebrations all the way to 1979:
You may not have seen this, but in 1979 I sat next to a certain TN at dinner (b. 1887), who when a child had met someone who remembered the Waterloo celebrations.— Ecclesiam (@Bruveccles) April 27, 2020
The intermediary was Tressilian Nicholas, geologist and bursar of Trinity College, Cambridge, who lived from 1887 to 1989.
What about American links? What’s the shortest set of intermediaries to Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)?
Genial British journalist Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) liked to tell people who shook his hand: you are shaking the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln. The intermediary was the famous Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935), who shook Lincoln’s hand during the Civil War, in which Holmes (the son of a famous doctor and humorist who tried and failed, like Semmelweis, to convince his fellow doctors to wash their hands) was wounded three times.
How about to George Washington (1732-1799)?
Once again, Alistair Cooke to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. As a boy, Holmes Jr. shook the hand of John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), whose father was a key founding father. I presume that JQ Adams as a brilliant young man shook the hand of each of the major founding fathers, even Ben Franklin (d. 1790).
Robert Krulwich noted this connection in 2012, which he learned from Jason Kottke:
2. Oliver Wendell Holmes Shakes Hands With Both Presidents Adams And Kennedy
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes lived long enough (1841-1935) to shake hands with both John Quincy Adams (b. 1767) and a young John F. Kennedy (d. 1963). One man, says Kottke, “spanning 200 years of American history.”
Krulwich also supplied a more ignominious connection:
Tony Hiss, son of Alger Hiss, says that when his dad clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes, he remembers Justice Holmes saying that as a kid, his grandmother used to talk of the day at the beginning of the American Revolution when she was 5 years old and stood at her dad’s front window on Beacon Hill in Boston and watched “rank after rank of Redcoats marching through town.” So that’s grandma to grandson to us. Two bounces.
Tony Hiss, a writer for the New Yorker, says his traitor dad called it:
My father himself even had a name for a kind of ongoing closeness between people in which death is sometimes only an irrelevance. He called it “the Great Span,” a sort of bucket brigade or relay race across time, a way for adjacent generations to let ideas and goals move intact from one mind to another across a couple of hundred years or more.
So how about connecting Alger Hiss to Benedict Arnold? Alger Hiss to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to John Quincy Adams to George Washington to Benedict Arnold sounds highly plausible. And it’s not impossible that the JQA himself met Arnold as an adolescent in America and/or as a young diplomat in England, although whether JQA would have shaken Arnold’s hand after his flight in 1780 is uncertain.
Can we cut out Alistair Cooke? Is anybody still alive who shook the hand of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr in the 1930s before his death in 1935?
Tony Hiss was born in 1941 so he won’t do. Warren Buffett was born in 1930, but his father wasn’t elected to Congress until the 1940s. Bob Dole was born in 1923 but his Kansas family wasn’t of national prominence. Gore Vidal was born in 1925 to a national prominent family but he has been dead for almost 8 years. Gloria Vanderbilt (1924-2019) died last year at 95. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that she, as an heiress to a famous fortune, might have been introduced to the famous O.W. Holmes as a child.
Jurist Rush Limbaugh Sr. (1891-1996) sounds plausible but the broadcaster’s grandfather has been dead for 24 years.