Remarkable cases of longevity in the 19th century
Napoleon Bonaparte died when he was 51 years old. Though his life was cut short by stomach cancer, he lived a reasonable life span for someone who was born in 1769, when life expectancy at birth was no more than 40 years. Even factoring out infant mortality, the life expectancy for white men in the early 1800s was probably less than 60 years.
How to live a long life
Dr. Félix Formento, a Napoleonic Wars veteran and the character in Napoleon in America who lived the longest (non-fictional) life, was 98 when he died in 1881, a striking age for the time. Such remarkable cases of longevity were noted in the papers. People looked to the very old for clues about how to live a long life, just as they do today. For example, Niles’ Weekly Register reported in November 1823:
A man, named Robert Bowman, lately died near Carlisle England, in the 118th year of his age. It is said of him that he never was intoxicated but once; that he neither used tea or coffee; that his chief beverage was water or milk and water. He never had any sickness, except caused by the measles or whooping cough – he had the last after he was 100 years old. In his 108th year he walked sixteen miles in one day, and still worked in the field. One of his brothers died in 1810, aged 99 years. He did not marry until he was 50 years of age, and has left six sons, the youngest 50 years old. (1)
In 1829, Dr. Thomas John Graham published An Account of Persons Remarkable for their Health and Longevity; Exhibiting their Habits, Practices, and Opinions, in Reference to the Best Means of Preserving Health, Improving a Bad or Impaired Constitution, and Prolonging Life. Dr. Graham observed that there were some “natural indications” of long life, namely:
- To be descended, at least on one side, from long-lived parents.
- To be of a calm, contented and cheerful disposition.
- To have “a just symmetry, or proper conformation of parts: a full chest, well formed joints and limbs, with a neck and head large rather than small in proportion to the size of the body.”
- To be a long and sound sleeper.
- To be female.
- To be married. (2)
He also demonstrated “the uncommon and superior efficacy of a properly regulated diet and regimen both in curing disease and prolonging life.” (3)
Were they really that long-lived?
Though Dr. Graham cited some examples of individuals who had lived into their early 100s, most of his cases of remarkable longevity were in their 80s or 90s. This was prudent, given that historically the majority of claims of exceptional longevity have likely been false. As recently as 1980, the number of reported centenarians in many countries was thought to be inflated by a factor of two or more, with the ratio of fanciful to actual cases among supercentenarians (those over 110) being even higher. (4) Of 2,700 Americans who reportedly reached the age of 110 or older between 1980 and 1999, only 355 (13%) could be confirmed. (5)
Historical reports of men who lived beyond age 110 – including the afore-mentioned Robert Bowman – are particularly suspect. A Quebec bootmaker named Pierre Joubert, who was reportedly 113 years and 124 days when he died in 1814, was later found to have been a case of mistaken identity. The death dates of Joubert and his son, who both had the same name, were confused.
In 1873, William J. Thoms, Deputy Librarian of Britain’s House of Lords, published Human Longevity, Its Facts and Its Fictions, a book devoted to debunking a number of celebrated claims of remarkable longevity.
After reading, within a short period, of the death of Ebenezer Baillie at 103; of Captain MacPherson, at 100; of Betty Evans, at 102; of Mr. John Naylor, at 117; of Mrs. Sarah Edwards, at 104; of Mrs. Margaret Curtis, at 103; of Sarah Pay, at 104; of Sarah Jones, at 108; of Sarah Clarke, at 108; of Matthew Baden, at 106; of Richard Purser, at 112; and Jacob Fournais, at 135…and dozens of similar notices, it seems almost an impertinence to doubt the accuracy of any of these statements, though there is probably scarcely one per cent among these confident announcements which would bear the test of a thorough investigation. (6)
Thoms pointed out problems with the type of evidence on which cases of abnormal longevity tend to be based. Baptismal certificates could belong to someone else –an older sibling who had died in childhood, for example (parents often gave the same names to successive children), or (as in Joubert’s case) a parent or other relative. Tombstones could be inscribed with incorrect dates, “sometimes the result of mere carelessness or ignorance; sometimes they have been made deliberately for the gratification of personal vanity; sometimes for the baser purpose of falsifying pedigrees or bolstering up fraudulent claims to titles and estates.” (7) The memories of the person in question could be false.
Of the various kinds of evidence brought forward in proof of the great age of an alleged Centenarian, that which is founded on the supposed recollections of the old person is at once the most fallible, unsatisfactory, and difficult to deal with – more especially in those instances where these supposed recollections are brought forward in perfect good faith, and without any intention of deceiving, either on the part of the Centenarian or his friends. I believe the most conscientious self-examiner, when he comes to consider carefully what he believes to be his ‘earliest recollection,’ would find it very difficult to decide whether he really recollected such event, or having heard it much talked of in his youth, did not actually recollect it, but had it impressed upon his memory by what he had heard others say of it. (8)
Modern investigators of extreme longevity take a number of steps to validate a claim, including ensuring that all available documents contain or imply the same date of birth (and death, if the person is no longer alive); ensuring that the person’s life events (marriage, birth of children, schooling, etc.) are consistent with the alleged date of birth; and ensuring that the person who claims a particular identity (and corresponding date of birth) is not an imposter. (9) If the person is still alive, investigators consider the consistency between the documentary evidence and the person’s account of his or her life and family history.
The oldest veteran of the Napoleonic Wars?
Though Félix Formento lived to a ripe old age, he was not the longest-lived Napoleonic Wars soldier. That honour goes to Dutch-born Geert Adriaans Boomgaard (September 21, 1788 – February 3, 1899, age 110), who served in the 33rd Light Infantry Regiment of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Boomgaard is considered to be the first validated case of a supercentenarian. Wikipedia provides a list of the last surviving veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s not clear to what extent their ages have been verified. Many men who claimed to be elderly survivors of the American Civil War turned out to be imposters. They lied about their age and/or their military service in a quest for personal glory or a pension. The same thing undoubtedly happened after the Napoleonic Wars, making Boomgaard’s case even more remarkable.
Brown University Library’s Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection has some wonderful photographs of members of Napoleon’s army taken when the veterans were well into their 70s and 80s. Visit Adventures in Historyland for photos of some of the last British survivors of the Battle of Waterloo.
You might also enjoy:
- Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore), November 15, 1823, p. 170.
- J. Graham, An Account of Persons Remarkable for their Health and Longevity; Exhibiting their Habits, Practices, and Opinions, in Reference to the Best Means of Preserving Health, Improving a Bad or Impaired Constitution, and Prolonging Life (London, 1829), pp. 1-2, 24.
- Ibid., p. viii.
- John Wilmoth, Axel Skytthe, Diana Friou, Bernard Jeune, “The Oldest Man Ever? A Case Study of Exceptional Longevity,” The Gerontologist, Vol. 36, No. 6 (1996), p. 786.
- Robert D. Young, Bertrand Desjardins, Kirsten McLaughlin, Michel Poulain, Thomas T. Perls, “Typologies of Extreme Longevity Myths,” Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research; 2010: 423087; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3062986/ Accessed June 17, 2016.
- William J. Thoms, Human Longevity, Its Facts and Its Fictions (London, 1873), pp. 1-2.
- Ibid., p. 45.
- Ibid., p. 53.
- “The motivations for such a switch of identity could be numerous: to marry before the legally sanctioned age, to avoid military service, to facilitate migration, to gain early retirement benefits, to claim an inheritance under false pretense, or to enjoy the celebrity status that often accompanies exceptional longevity.” “The Oldest Man Ever? A Case Study of Exceptional Longevity,” p. 784.
Of the various kinds of evidence brought forward in proof of the great age of an alleged Centenarian, that which is founded on the supposed recollections of the old person is at once the most fallible, unsatisfactory, and difficult to deal with.
William J. Thoms