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Sunday, March 26, 2006

The World's Oldest Liar

The Gerontology Research Group is keeping an eye on the world's supercentenarians—those people who've neglected to check out by age 110. The group's website has a number of tables with data on current and past supercentenarians, but my favorite is the one listing False And Exaggerated Claims of Longevity.

Charlie Smith claimed to have been born in Liberia on July 4, 1842, and died Oct. 5, 1979, in Florida at the whopping age of 137. The July fourth birth date was chosen by Smith himself—"Out of loyalty to his country" reported Time in 1967. He may have chosen the year of his birth as well, if a Boston Globe article on Guinness World Records is correct:

A record search in Arcadia, Fla., showed a marriage record in which Smith claimed he was 35 years old in 1910. He apparently exaggerated his age by at least 33 years. ["Eat a Tree, but Never a Bicycle," Feb. 11, 1982]
His exaggeration was perhaps even worse. A partial marriage index for DeSoto County (county seat Arcadia) shows a marriage for Charlie Smith and Bell Van on Jan. 8, 1910. The couple was living in Lily, DeSoto County, in April of that year, at which time Charlie's age was 32. His place of birth was given as "Georgia."

If a liar, Smith was a very talented one. He said in interviews that he came to America in 1854, and lived in slavery until freed by Lincoln. No one seems to have doubted him. On its Emancipation Proclamation page, the National Archives links to an audio clip of Smith saying he was "21 years old when freedom was declared." A 1975 conversation with historian Elmer Sparks may be read or listened to at American Memory. At one point in the interview, Smith pushes the year of his birth back even further.
I'm a hundred and forty-four, last, last year, fourth of July. A hundred and forty-four years old now. My birthday, I gets a birthday card, I'm a hundred and forty-four last fourth day of July, last year. I'm a hundred and forty-four.
It's hard to consider Smith truthful when you read the other stories he told of his life. A few years ago, a screenplay titled 'Long Came Charlie was optioned by Dustin Hoffman's production company.
Described as "a black Little Big Man," 'Long Came Charlie is the incredible true tale of the world's oldest man, crusty codger Charlie Smith, who on his 134th birthday shares his poignant and often hilarious life story, which includes a disasterous [sic] cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail, a brush with death at Gettysburg, an encounter with Abraham Lincoln, Charlie's travels with the Jesse James Gang, his gunfight with Jesse himself and how he apprehended the man who shot President Garfield. [Link]
According to the Sparks interview, Smith's partner in apprehending Garfield's shooter was none other than Billy the Kid.

Throw in Mark Twain and Queen Victoria and that'll make a great movie.

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