Introduction

Humankind has always had a great fascination with individuals that are outliers in various aspects of life. Be it the fastest 100 meters sprinter or the tallest person ever. Individuals with such attributes often warrant interest and respect from their surroundings. Still, few concepts warrant more interest than the people who have lived the longest (Milholland & Vijg, 2022). We, as individuals, have a finite time on this earth and most people would give anything to be able to enjoy an extended life. There’s a reason why there was a great interest in discovering the fountain of youth or finding a way to obtain eternal life in the past. This is therefore one of the reasons why there is an interest in finding out who has lived the longest. To complicate this process is the fact that some individuals exaggerate their ages for a variety of reasons to appear older than they actually are. Some do it for pension reasons, others as a result of a mix-up in identities or uncertainty when they were born with, and some do it for notoriety (Schoenhofen et al., 2006).

In my years of researching supercentenarians, I have seen a great deal of age exaggeration with claims of having lived to be older than 115 being common. However, most of these claims are untrue. Still, in the history of supercentenarian research, some supercentenarians have been accepted as validated, only to later have their statuses disputed.

Pierre Joubert (1701? – 1814)

Early research disproved many historical supercentenarian claims from the 18th and 19th centuries, but one person that was believed to have been accurate by demographers was Canadian man Pierre Joubert (Jeune & Poulain, 2020). There existed proof of birth and death for this case, which resulted in the inclusion of Joubert as validated in several lists and by scholars up until the early 1990s, when his age was debunked by revealing that “Pierre Joubert” was actually two individuals; a father and a son and that the father’s date of birth had erroneously been attributed to his son with the same name (Charbonneau, 1990). His validation was swiftly retracted following this revelation.

Thomas Peters (1745? – 1857)

One of many inaccurate inclusions of “verified” exceptional longevity by Guinness World Records. Thomas Peters was allegedly born in the Netherlands on 6 April 1745 and died shortly before his claimed 112th birthday in 1857 (Jeune & Poulain, 2020). Peters claimed to have been a soldier and serving under Napoleon. His parents died when he was a small child, and he grew up as a “regiments-child” in the army. No early-life documentation appears to ever have existed for Peters and his age claim was rather accepted as verified as a result of hearsay. Supercentenarian fans have been trying to identify his age for several years but given the lack of information about his early life it is at present unlikely that any documents will be located. And if they are, they will most likely support him being much younger than claimed.

Media coverage of Ann Pouder’s “110th” birthday, inflating her age by one year.

Ann Pouder (1807? – 1917)

Ann Pouder is still considered to be the first American supercentenarian by less serious organizations. She was born in London, England as Ann Alexander and emigrated to the United States at a young age. Her age was supposedly validated by Alexander Graham Bell, but exactly what sort of documentation he utilized is unknown. What however is known is that when Dr. Andrew Holmes and I applied modern validation practices to attempt to verify her age, we discovered that she was in fact not a supercentenarian but rather “only” 109 years old. This was supported by her baptismal record, which was clear with the fact that she was born on 3 May 1808 rather than 8 April 1807. While not as egregious as other claims listed, being one year younger means that she wasn’t a supercentenarian.

Martha Graham (1842? – 1959)

Long recognized as the oldest person ever for about two decades by some organizations was Martha Graham, a former slave from North Carolina, and for whom the best evidence supporting her being a supercentenarian came from the 1880 census, which listed her as 35 years old. While she hasn’t been officially debunked, only disputed, observing her as being only 17 when she married in 1874 suggests that she was about a decade younger, which is further supported by the fact that she had several children under the age of five in the 1900 census. A woman giving birth in her 50s several times in the 1800s is unheard of and her claim can thus be considered exaggerated.

Shigechiyo Izumi, photo courtesy of Associated Press

Shigechiyo Izumi (1865? – 1986)

When Jeanne Calment surpassed the age of 120 years, 237 days, in 1995 she was recognized as the oldest person ever. This is due to the fact that Japanese man Shigechiyo Izumi was still considered validated at this point. Izumi wouldn’t be retracted from most lists until the 2000s. Izumi worked as a farmer and would retire only as an alleged centenarian. While Izumi hasn’t been debunked officially, indications exist that what might have happened is that a younger brother was given the same name as his deceased older brother and thus added a potential 15 years to his listed age (Asahi Shimbun, 1987; Young, 2020). This led to him losing his status as the oldest verified man of all time. There are more issues with his claim, including that his wife also exaggerated her age, which makes the claim to 120 years seem far-fetched.

Matthew Beard (1870? – 1985)

Matthew Beard was at one point considered the oldest man ever. He claimed to have been born in Virginia and lived an eventful life, starting work at a young age and being a war veteran. Beard would settle in Florida and have several children. He supposedly built a house when he was a centenarian. Research by me some years back cast doubt on his claim. A “Mathew Baird” from Tennessee, with parents loosely matching those in Beard’s SS-5 application form, was listed as age 12 in 1880 and age four in 1870, it was possible that this was the person that was linked by researchers to the man that died in 1985. My research did cast doubt on this, especially since this child’s mother had an entirely different last name than what was listed in the SS-5 form. Instead, a match was found for a Matthew Beard born in Georgia in October 1886 with parents that had matching names to his application form. As is, there isn’t any documentation from before 1930 supporting him being a supercentenarian, which makes him disputed.

Media coverage of Carrie White’s “116th” birthday

Carrie White (1874? – 1991)

After the death of Florence Knapp in 1988, Jeanne Calment was briefly purported to be the oldest living person in the world. A Florida woman named Carrie White was however later declared as the oldest living person (Young, 2010). It was alleged that White was born in 1874 and that she had resided in a nursing home since the age of 35 when she was committed by her husband as a result of  “mental illness.” While mid-life census records did support her being as old as claimed, an examination of her 1900 census revealed that she was actually born in 1888 and only 11 years old. A realization was thus made that the wrong Carrie Joyner had been linked to the Carrie White that died in 1991.

Lucy Hannah (1875? – 1993)

When Hannah died in 1993, she was believed to have been the oldest woman to ever having died, being outlived by Calment by four years. Hannah was allegedly born in Alabama in 1875, although she claimed to have been born in 1874, and to have died in Michigan in 1993. She was likely validated based on a match where a four-year-old Lucy Terrell was living with her grandparents in Alabama in 1880. Research by me revealed that the names of the grandparents of the Lucy Hannah didn’t match these names. Further, a match for her parents in 1880 was found and there was no daughter named Lucy listed. Instead, a marriage record from 1943 was located, where a Lucille Brown (with parents with the exact same names as in Lucy Hannah’s SS-5 form) was listed as having been born in 1895. Given that there now didn’t exist any documentation supporting Lucy Hannah being a supercentenarian, her age was disputed.

Discussion

Supercentenarian research has advanced over the past few decades and the standards for age validation are increasingly more stringent than previously (at least within LongeviQuest). Many people have claimed to have been supercentenarians, but far from all have actually lived as long as claimed. The people listed above are only a few of all exaggerated supercentenarian claims known to exist. There is need for strict validation standards and for research to be re-checked by a fresh pair of eyes every now and then to ensure that the quality of the validation holds up as the amount of available documentation increases.

References

Asahi News Service. (1987).  Japanese Expert Debunks Idea of  “Village of 100-Year-Olds.” (April 6, 1987).

Charbonneau, H. (1990). Pierre Joubert a-t-il vécu 113 ans? Memoires de la Société génealogique canadienne-francaise, 41, 45–48.

Jeune, B., & Poulain, M. (2020). The First Supercentenarians in History, and Recent 115 + −Year-Old Supercentenarians. An Introduction to the Following Chapters. In: Maier, H., Jeune, B., Vaupel, J.W. (eds) Exceptional Lifespans. Demographic Research Monographs. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9_14

Milholland, B., & Vijg, J. (2022). Why Gilgamesh failed: the mechanistic basis of the limits to human lifespan. Nature Aging, 2, 878-884. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43587-022-00291-z

Schoenhofen, E. A., Wyszynski, D. F., Andersen, S., Pennington, J., Young, R., Terry, D. F., & Perls, T. T. (2006). Characteristics of 32 supercentenarians. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 54(8), 1237–1240. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2006.00826.x

Young, R.D. (2010). Age 115 or more in the United States: Fact or fiction? In: Maier, H., Gampe, J., Jeune, B., Robine, JM., Vaupel, J. (eds) Supercentenarians. Demographic Research Monographs

Young R. (2020). If Jeanne Calment Were 122, That Is All the More Reason for Biosampling. Rejuvenation research23(1), 48–64. https://doi.org/10.1089/rej.2020.2303

When we read in the news that a person has turned 110, we as supercentenarian researchers are naturally thrilled. But there is a need to have a critical mind from the very start because many supercentenarian claims turn out to be false, especially the older the person claims to be.

The reasons for age exaggeration are many; a person can exaggerate their age from a very young age as a result of having married young or having become a parent early, there are also examples of a person exaggerating their age to both get into service, but also to avoid it (Wilmoth & Lundström, 1996; Poulain, 2010). Some people claim to be older in order to start collecting their pension early and others exaggerate their ages later in life in order to be noted by their community and media as especially long-lived individuals. Age exaggeration can also come in the form of identity theft, wherein a person assumes the identity of a parent or older sibling for various reasons (Wilmoth & Lundström, 1996).

It must also be noted that age exaggeration can be accidental, such as a person being mistaken for someone else, which can result in a person being attributed a much longer lifespan than they have actually lived. One example of this is the case of Pierre Joubert (1701? – 1814) where a father and son with the same name were mistaken for one another, resulting in this duo being recognized as the only “validated” supercentenarian for quite some time (Charbonneau, 1990; Desjardins, 1999).

From time to time there will also be examples of age deflation, where a person claims to be younger than they actually are. These cases are often not discovered since few of them actually live to be supercentenarians. One such example is that of Emma Isbell (1859-1969), who claimed to have been born in October of 1860 and died in December 1969, allegedly aged 109. However, she was listed in the 1860 United States Census as being eight months old as of June 1, 1860, meaning that it wasn’t possible for her to have been born in October of that year. Thus, in all likelihood she was actually a supercentenarian, something which was also supported by other early-life documentation.

William Thoms, the pioneer of age validation. Photo courtesy of: The Victorian Web

Age validation of exceptional longevity really originated with William Thoms and his rules for age validation (Thoms, 1873). Over the next century and a half many researchers have attempted to find the “golden rule” for age validation, with many different criteria being proposed (Poulain, 2010; Skytthe & Jeune, 1995; Rosenwaike & Stone, 2003). These criteria have been utilized and adapted for various purposes, with a supercentenarian claim being categorized as having various degrees of validation depending on how thorough their documentation is.

At the most basic level there exists proof that this person exists or existed and claimed to be a supercentenarian. This proof can come in various forms, such as a newspaper report, an obituary or a death record (Skytthe & Jeune, 1995). The next level is reached when there exists some sort of documentation supporting the age claim. Generally, the earlier a document is issued, the better the reliability of it actually supporting the correct age of the person. However, one document is not sufficient if a supercentenarian should be considered to be a validated supercentenarian. For most supercentenarians that are validated by organizations specializing in age validation there exist several documents that are in accordance with the person being a supercentenarian (Jeune & Poulain, 2021).

Some records, however, can be unreliable, especially documents issued when a person was older or when the person themselves wasn’t the respondent. Census records are generally such records that can be used to validate a person’s age with a lower degree of certainty, but they have been proven to be very unreliable, especially for claimants from the United States, where an age can fluctuate by several years from census to census. In order to achieve a higher standard of validation, birth or baptismal records are needed since they will generally contain an actual date of birth, something which is unfortunately lacking in almost all censuses or marriage records.

Still, it shouldn’t be considered sufficient that there are potential document matches for a person that is or was an alleged supercentenarian. Without doing a proper background check it is still possible for inaccurate attributions of identity to occur: especially mistaking a person for their earlier-born sibling is something that has occurred more than once for supercentenarian researchers.

Such is the case of Shigechiyo Izumi (1865? – 1986), who for a long time was recognized as the oldest man of all time (Matsuzaki, 1987; Glenday, 2010). Research later indicated that his extreme age was caused by his name given to him as a necronym for a sibling that had been born 15 years before him, thus making him only 105 years old at the time of his death.

Newspaper coverage of Shigechiyo Izumi’s purported 120th birthday. Photo courtesy of: Newspapers.com

For some supercentenarians a validation with the highest degree of certainty will not be possible. In many areas birth registration was not compulsory when they were born, leading to them not having any birth record. And family bibles, if they existed in the first place, have sometimes been lost. Therefore, there is a need for age validation to also accommodate for these instances. If the documentation is in accordance with the person being a supercentenarian, they should be recognized as such, but it should be noted that the validation was approved with a lower degree of certainty.

To achieve a very high-level of validation, a full family reconstruction is necessary (Skytthe & Jeune, 1995; Poulain, 2010). When performing a family reconstruction, each family member that can be considered relevant is investigated in order to rule out identity-theft, accidental mix-ups, and other potential scenarios that could result in the person not actually being a supercentenarian. Each member is therefore researched, and their vital information is noted in order to paint a complete picture of a supercentenarian claimant’s biography. Often this information can be extracted from the claimant (Poulain, 2010) or their relatives. In other cases, this information can be traced from vital documents such as a death file.

The need for a claim to be objectively reviewed by more than just one researcher to eliminate bias has been addressed in various ways. LongeviQuest, for example, has a Global Validation Commission consisting of researchers that review the research that is presented to them and analyze a claim by how well it adheres to the validation standards that have been postulated by the organization.

To show how age validation works in practice, it should be noted that some countries have better documentation than others. The Nordic countries especially are among the best in the world with their system based in church records and a personal identity number that allows for a person and their family members to be traced throughout their life. This will usually easily rule out wrongful claims.

Carl Mattsson, Swedish supercentenarian, the day he became the oldest Swedish man ever. Photo taken 18 July 2019 by Helena Erlandsson.

One such example of a very high-level validated supercentenarian is Carl Mattsson (1908 – 2019) of Sweden who possesses over 30 documents supporting him being a supercentenarian. Still, even in a country such as Sweden issues can exist in ascertaining how old a person actually is. Mattsson claimed to have been born on March 7, 1908, something which is supported by all documents except for his earliest document, a christening record which states that he was born on March 9, 1908. This discrepancy is, however, minor and doesn’t change the fact that he was a supercentenarian. A full family reconstruction could be performed and confirmed his identity (Appendix 1).

In conclusion, age validation of supercentenarians can take many forms and can vary from being very unreliable to having a high standard of validation, which is something that all researchers should strive to achieve in order for their data to be as accurate as possible.

 

References

Charbonneau, H. (1990) La Rubrique du P.R.D.H.: Pierre Joubert a-t-il vécu 113 ans? Mémoires de la Société généalogique canadienne-française, 41, 45–48.

Desjardins, B. (1999). Validation of extreme longevity cases in the past: The French-Canadian experience. In Jeune, B. & Vaupel, J. W. (Eds.), Validation of exceptional longevity, Odense Monographs on Population Aging. Odense: Odense University Press.

Jeune, B., & Poulain, M. (2021). The First Supercentenarians in History, and Recent 115 + −Year-Old Supercentenarians. An Introduction to the Following Chapters. In H. Maier, J. Vaupel, & B. Jeune (Eds.). Exceptional Lifespans. Springer. Demographic Research Monographs. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-49970-9_14

Matsuzaki, T. (1987). Characteristic of centenarians. In Transactions of the General Assembly of the Japan Medical Congress.

Poulain, M. (2010). On the age validation of supercentenarians. In Maier, H., Jeune, B., Robine, J-M., & Vaupel, J. W. (Eds.). Supercentenarians. Springer. Demographic Research Monographs. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-11520-2_1

Rosenwaike, I., & Stone, L. F. (2003). Verification of the Ages of Supercentenarians in the United States: Results of a Matching Study. Demography, 40(4), 727–739. https://doi.org/10.2307/1515205

Skytthe, A., & Jeune, B. (1995). Danish centenarians after 1800. In Jeune, B., & Vaupel J.W. (Eds.), Exceptional longevity: From prehistory to the present, Odense Monographs on Population Aging. Odense: Odense University Press.

Thoms, W. J. (1873). Human longevity, its facts and its fictions. John Murray, London.

Wilmoth, J. R., & Lundström, H. (1996). Extreme longevity in five countries: Presentation of trends with special attention to issues of data quality. European Journal of Population, 12, 63–93. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01797166

 

 

Appendix 1 – Family tree reconstruction of Carl Mattsson (1908-2019)

Parents
Rutger Mattsson (11.10.1877 – 26.11.1943)
Agda Elisabet Berndtsdotter (7.12.1877 – 7.9.1961) m. 25 Oct 1906
Siblings
Bror Magnus (16.12.1906 – 7.6.1993)
Otto Ragnar (30.7.1909 – 18.10.1985)
Erik Valdemar (12.1.1912 – 24.11.2004)
Ingrid Maria Eriksson (9.4.1915 – 5.12.2007)
Sigrid Alfrida (12.10.1918 – 20.4.1919)
Spouses
Sonja Juleida Margareta Behrendt (22.8.1907 – 20.4.1990) m. 12 Nov 1932, d. 7 Nov 1955
Ella Birgit Viola Andersson (21.10.1929 – 27.3.2010) m. 16 May 1964
Children
Berit Irene (8.3.1939 – 23.3.1984)