Longevity

It is a situation nearly everyone who has done any degree of genealogical research has encountered before. Upon locating information on one of your ancestors and doing some simple subtraction, the result just seems too unlikely.

“There is NO WAY he was 138 when he died!”

Most astute researchers will dismiss these claims and move on to finding some proof of birth or death to debunk this incredibly unlikely scenario. For now, the oldest verified person who ever lived was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122.[1]

Throughout history there have been scores of individuals who were said to have lived for extremely long periods, but most of these claims surfaced long after the individual in question had died. However, there have been some instances in the past where a living person claimed to be extremely old, and fewer still are the instances in which this person’s claims were taken as truth.

In some cases, individuals have claimed to be of an extreme age as a means of verifying their presence at significant historical events, including wars, as a means of obtaining a pension. Below are some well-known examples of people who claimed to be extremely old during their lifetime and whose claims could not be verified, sometimes in spite of strong anecdotal evidence.

William Lundy

William Allen Lundy, who claimed to have been born on 18 January 1848, was once believed to be one of the last living veterans of the American Civil War.[2] Lundy vehemently alleged that he served in the Alabama Home Guard in 1865.[3] Despite his insistence, it was found that between 1870 and 1930, Lundy gave census enumerators years of birth ranging from 1853 to 1860.[4] In 1860, he appeared in the census aged 1.

If he was truly born in January 1848, then he would have been 12 years old at the time, a significant difference in age which has led historians to reject Lundy’s claims. During his lifetime, and for many years after he died, Lundy’s claims were generally accepted as factual, and he was even profiled in the 1 June 1953 issue of Life magazine, where he gave a detailed (and likely fabricated) account of his service.[5]

Charlie Smith

Up until he died in 1979, Charlie Smith maintained that he was born in Liberia in 1842. If this were true, he would have been 137 years old at the time of his death.[6] In 1973, National Geographic published a piece which repeated Smith’s allegation that he was born in 1842. Astute genealogists later uncovered evidence to discredit Smith’s claims, including records from the 1900 census which give his age as 21 (instead of 58) and his 1910 marriage certificate which lists his age as 35 (and not 68).[7] Smith’s claims to longevity gave him status as a minor celebrity in Florida, and as a result, he was invited to the VIP area to watch the launch of Apollo 17 at the Kennedy Space Center.[8]

Henry Jenkins

Perhaps the most infamous claim to extreme longevity belongs to a man named Henry Jenkins of Bolton-on-Swale, North Yorkshire, England. Very little is known about Jenkins’ early life, although it is known that he was buried on 9 December 1670 at the reputed age of 169 years.[9] Unlike the others listed above, Jenkins’ alleged age cannot be verified or debunked. According to his own account, Jenkins was born in 1501.

In England, churches were not required to maintain parish registers until 1538 and, therefore, if he were truly born in 1501, his baptism would not have been recorded.[10] Furthermore, the record of Jenkins’ burial only describes him as “a very aged and poor man” and does not provide any reference to his actual or supposed age.[11] In 1743, an obelisk in Jenkins’ memory was erected in the churchyard of Bolton-on-Swale.[12]

Much of the evidence in support of Jenkins’ claims is speculative and relies heavily on the small amount of information available from Jenkins himself and those who met him. This same information has been repeated consistently over the last 350 years. One of the most oft-cited pieces of evidence is a letter from a Mrs. Anne Savile to Dr. Tancred Robinson, who later served as physician to King George I.[13]

In this letter, Mrs. Savile recounts the information she had heard about Jenkins and then provides an account of a meeting with him. Jenkins claimed to remember the reign of King Henry VIII (who had died 118 years prior to his encounter with Mrs. Savile), and his first memory of a public event was the Battle of Flodden Field.[14] Jenkins then mentioned how he had been sent to retrieve a horse-load of arrows during the battle (9 September 1513) when he was “10 or 12.”[15]

Upon reviewing a historical account of the battle, Mrs. Savile found the information provided by Henry Jenkins to be accurate, which led to her believing his claims as “Henry Jenkins was a poor man and could neither write nor read” and, therefore, could not have learned of this battle from a book. She also mentions that the four or five people in the parish 97 years or older claimed that Jenkins had been an elderly man as long as they had known him.[16]

*

Over the last several centuries, stories have circulated of other individuals who lived well beyond the currently verified record of 122 years, including John Rovin, a Romanian man who supposedly lived to be 172 (and his wife 164); Peter Zorten, who died in 1724 at the age of 185; and Catherine, Countess of Desmond, who was born in 1468 and died in 1612 at the age of 144.[17]

Unfortunately, little evidence exists to verify or debunk the aforementioned claims, including those of Henry Jenkins, although modern scientific knowledge suggests that they are unlikely to be true. Given the time in which Jenkins supposedly lived and certainly died, very little was ever recorded regarding Jenkins prior to the last five years of his life. Therefore, it is doubtful that historians will ever be able to truly verify these claims, leaving us only with stories and the fanciful accounts from years ago.

Notes

[1] Craig R. Whitney, “Jeanne Calment, World’s Elder, Dies at 122,” The New York Times, 5 August 1997.

[2] Frank Grzyb, The Last Civil War Veterans: The Lives of the Final Survivors, State by State (2016), 68.

[3] Clifford L. Linedecker, Civil War, A to Z: The Complete Handbook of America’s Bloodiest Conflict (2007), 202.

[4] Grzyb, The Last Civil War Veterans, 68.

[5] “Speaking of Pictures…These are the Last Five Civil War Veterans,” Life, 1 June 1953.

[6] Robert Young, Letter to the Editor of the GRG Supercentenarian Website, 17 February 2003, http://www.grg.org/Adams/CQuastLet.htm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon (1994), 495, 498, 501.

[9] Evidences of the Great Age of Henry Jenkins, with Notices Respecting Longevity and Long-Lived Persons (Richmond, England, 1859), 7.

[10] History of Parish Registers in England.

[11] Evidences of the Great Age of Henry Jenkins, 8.

[12] Ibid., 9–10.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 6.

[17] Ibid., 11–12, 29.

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About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.

7 thoughts on “Longevity

  1. Zachary, great post. I find the ideas or reasons behind reported (extreme) longevity to be interesting. The longevity itself feels tied to different aspects of each of the mentioned individuals. It’s as if noted (albeit unverified) longevity becomes ‘a product’ from some source of character, either noble and reputable or even ignominious. I wonder what singular aspect each one of these reported cases has in common with each other – aside from a fabled age. In your research, did you see any common denominator?

    I am reminded of Thomas Carrier, reputed to have died at 109 years – and said to have been in good mind and good health, just dropping dead from his daily chores. Go Grandpa Thomas!

    Jeff

    1. Although the age at death of my ancestor Mary (Brownell) Hazard, who was said in her obituary in the Boston Gazette on 12 Feb 1739 to have died in Rhode Island in her hundredth year, does not begin to approach the extremes of those mentioned in this post, it has surprised me ever since I first read about it, considering the times, and the places where she lived. Supporting evidence for her birth year includes her parents’ marriage in 1637 in London. They were in Braintree, Massachusetts before 1640, so she was possibly born there, but as far as I know, no record of her birth exists.

      1. Joan: There will ALWAYS be, statistically within any population group–human and otherwise, OUTLIERS of various sorts for age, height, etc.

        With Torrey’s NEM you can do a verification of THIS claim easily. The summary at AA reads:
        MARRIAGE : 1658
        LOCATION : Portsmouth, Newport, Rhode Island, United States
        VOLUME : Volume 2
        PAGE : 734
        TEXT : HAZARD, Robert (?1635-1700+) & Mary [BROWNELL] (1639-1739); by 1660, by 1658?; Portsmouth, RI/Kingston, RI {Hall-Baldwin 102; Briggs-DeGroff 215, 217; Reg. 48:218, 98:24; Brownell Anc. 9, 15, 26, 68, 113; McIntire Anc. 106; NYGBR 42:206, 68:2; Austin: GDR

        My interpretation is the 1st child arrived in 1660 for sure, so Torrey suggests 1658 for the marriage. I am going with 1659. Minus the standard F=18 yo at 1st marriage, gives you at birth year of 1641. The standard demographic range would be 17 to 22, a five-year window that assumes she may have been her parents’ 1st child b. early 1638. That range covers 1639.

        What one can write genealogically about Mary (Bronwell) Hazard is that she was indeed between 96 and 100 years old at her death, a truly aged person for the place and times when the average life expectancy was (perhaps, haven’t seen updated ranges) 39 to 51 for the population as a whole and likely a bit lower for women, child birth being in itself a significant danger.

        But once past child-birth years, you see marked increases in the length of woman’s lives.

  2. The subject inspired at least one author to compile a state-wide list for Connecticut over a century ago.

    “Ye Names & Ages of All Ye Old Folks in Every Hamlet, City and Town in Ye State of Connecticut: Now Living, with Ye Sketches of Twenty Living Centenarians”, by Frederick H. Nash, 1884 – (available free online on googlebooks).

    The reported ages are not extreme, but doubtless provided by the subjects. It was probably not complete. For instance, I found in Norwich death records a number of Irish-Americans who died that year, reportedly eighty or over but not listed in Nash’s book,

    Connecticut Nutmegger, Vol. 42, no. 2, Sept. 2009, p. 158.
    Norwich Irish-Americans Not Listed In Frederick H. Nash’s 1884 Book, Ye Names
    & Ages Of All Ye Old Folks … In Connecticut …
    by Paul R. Keroack, CSG # 02561.

  3. Eulalia Perez, an early resident of Alta California, claimed to be 139 when she was interviewed in 1877 for Bancroft’s History of California. While she was probably not as old as that, many modern scholars believe that she was born around 1768, just before the Spanish expedition into what is now the American state of California. This would have made her about 110 at her death in 1878. In 1876, one of her daughters had contracted to exhibit her in San Francisco and at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, before another daughter put a stop to it. When Mexico closed down the missions, Eulalia Perez’s second husband was given a land grand where Pasadena and Altadena are now located; eventually the rancho was given to a Mexican army lieutenant named Manuel Garfias, who was the godfather of my great-great-grandmother.

  4. My ancestor Matthew Pearson was born in Pannal, Yorkshire, England. Have not found birth record but newspaper accounts before and after his death claimed he was either 111 or 115 years old in the year of his death (1846) – the oldest in Knaresborough. Death record states he was 112 years old. He was said to have remembered the Scots invasion of England in 1745. Without birth record, I don’t know if this is to be believed …

  5. Zack, my name is John Garceau from Minnesota. Why did our ancestors leave France in the 1600s? Call or text me 3204921145.

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