Interlude: Ask a Sesquecentenarian

Most people who wrote about population in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries took the extreme longevity of the ancients — some of them, anyway — as a given. It was, after all, Scripture. There were debates about whether everyone before the Flood had lived for hundreds of years (969, in Methuselah’s case), or just the particularly blessed or virtuous. There were doubts — dismissed by an irritated George Hakewill, in Book III of his 1627 Apology of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World — about whether ancients had measured years in the same way as moderns. And, as later authors concerned with the empirical plausibility of the Bible paid more attention to the physical world of Genesis, there were new questions about the material aspects of the multi-centenarian lifestyles of the antediluvians. Were they freer from disease? Did they enjoy better air? Warmer temperatures? Less variation in the weather? Were they vegetarian? (Yes, thought Whiston; yes, yes, yes, and yes.)

Perhaps because they seemed like vestiges of a lost Earth, long-lived inhabitants of the modern world attracted similar scholarly fascination; Hakewill compiled instances from across the centuries, including the story of a recent countess of Desmond who, by the age of 140, had outlived three complete sets of teeth, and another of an Italian man who had been rejuvenated by moulting at 100, to live another fifty years. Moreover, such moderns could occasionally be directly observed, or even interviewed in person. I know of no book or article that examines this phenomenon (correct me if I’m wrong!), though it seems possible that a workable amount of source material might survive here and there, in print and in archives. This post looks at two instances, one from either end of the eighteenth century, both from New England. The first is the work of Cotton Mather (1663-1728) — Boston Puritan, champion of smallpox inoculation, amateur natural historian, unrepentant witch-hunter, terminal mope. The second is in the papers of the Jamaican-born English Unitarian, physician, radical MP, diplomat, and American Revolutionary sympathizer Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835), who chucked it all and moved to Maine in 1797.

Mather hinted at a predisposition to associate long years with virtue. In A Good Old Age, a 1726 sermon addressed to those at or near sixty, he noted that “Old Age carries in it a small and a faint Image of Him, The Number of whose Years cannot be searched out.” Yet he came not to praise the elderly, but to scold them. Having read Graunt’s demographic observations, he knew just how exceptional his aged hearers’ lifespans already were, and he made sure to let them know it. Those who “begin to Live unto GOD” at sixty, he wrote, might “suppose Three Years more of Life indulged unto you.” Big mistake: that would be “Thirty Months more than you have Reason to look for.” In case his audience found the point overly subtle, he drove it home with a dig: “You don’t imagine to Live like an Antediluvian!” Closing, he noted the “Custom among [the Jews], That they who had passed their Sixtieth Year, made a Feast of Thanksgiving…. Certainly, Syrs, you see enough to be Thankful for; Since, now at Sixty, you are come to what scarce one in Sixty comes to.” Best not to leave repentance to the far end of the life table.


Cotton Mather (by Peter Pelham): Persona non grata at retirement parties (PD-US)

But Mather’s interest in the elderly went beyond spooking them with statistics. As a biblical scholar and a natural historian, he was aware both of ancient and modern cases of longevity; and, as part of a bid for inclusion in the Royal Society of London, he sought in a letter written in 1712 to add colonial examples to the conversation.[1] Several neighbours served his purpose: Boniface Burton, now 112; a woman by the name of Moor, who kept track of her age “by this Token, that she was Twelve years of Age when King Charles I came to the Throne” in 1625; one Richard Everett, twelve years old in the Armada year of 1588 and still going strong in 1682, “tho’ he observd no Rules of Health in the world”; a Richard Lenten, who “lived in Wedlock with his wife sixty three years, and yett she was thirty five years younger than he”; and — perhaps the most touching — a 110-year-old Rhode Islander, Clement Weaver, and his centenarian wife of eighty-plus years, “in all which time they never had one word of Difference, and had this further odd circumstance of their friendship, that they constantly eat upon one Trencher at the Table.”

Old age in Mather’s New England wasn’t just a montage of shoe-buckled Werther’s Original moments, though. His final example was an unnamed man from Lynn, Massachusetts, hauled into court for some tantalizingly unspecified “Immoralities”. When the judges, with what Mather predictably thought “an agreeable piety”, reminded the man “of what the Scripture saies about, A Sinner an hundred years old”, they walked right into a sterling reply: “Please your Honours, I am one hundred & two.” But the man’s end was less amusing. “The poor man continued many years after this”, Mather recalled, but “forgott all affaires, and all faces,” becoming in time “insensible of any Relation between himself & his own children, which were alwayes about him.” Meanwhile the “strange & strong Remembrance of many matters & persons & places” he had known “in his youth” began to displace the world around him, so that “sometimes having stripped himself naked, he would make towards the seaside, & say he was going to such a Town, or such a Man, as he had [a knowledge of] in his childhood… before the first Nativity of these Colonies.” Not a fate to be envied, though one perhaps less remarkable today than in 1712.


V0007314 Petratsch Zortan, aged 185. Engraving by S. Springsguth, 181

Petratsch Gortan (or Zortan), aged 185 [This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom]

Benjamin Vaughan’s world was in many ways different, not least because “these Colonies” were independent by the time he fetched up in Hallowell. Yet his own brief notes on longevity, written circa 1811, have a familiar ring.[2] Like Mather — and, as we shall see, Ezra Stiles — Vaughan collected and commented on mortality data, though these could now be supplemented with census data. Like Mather, and indeed like Hakewill a century earlier, he began his consideration of longevity with list of impressively long-lived persons. In Vaughan’s case these were likely taken from Sir John Sinclair’s 1807 Code of Health and Longevity, but they were by then well-known instances: “Jean Rovin aged 172, Sarah his wife aged 164”, “Petratsch Gortan [elsewhere Zortan], aged 185”, “Thomas Parr, aged 152 & 9 months. His grandson Michael Michaelstone lived to be 127”. Sinclair drew on a range of earlier learned sources, but cases like Zortan’s featured in more popular print as well, with a fair amount of background description. Thus volume VI of William Granger’s New, (Original and Complete) Wonderful Museum and Magazine Extraordinary (Being a Complete Repository of all the Wonders, Curiosities, and Rarities of Nature and Art, from the Beginning of the World to the Present Year) (1808) reproduced a picture of Zortan and information from what it called the Dutch “Algemeen historisch Woonderbok” (an optimistic slip for Woordenboek) describing how he had weathered the Ottoman siege of Temesvár (Timisoara) in 1552; it noted that “his hair and beard were of a greenish-white colour, like mouldy bread.”

Like Mather, however, Vaughan added his own observations. These came in the form of an interview with an Irish-born resident of Kennebec, John Gilly, who “Thinks himself 122 years.” Owing something perhaps to Vaughan’s medical training, the notes proceed in orderly fashion, starting with basic biograpical facts: “Left Ireland at 30 odd. Went to Newfoundland. Brought up a Catholic.” At some point in the 1840s or ’50s — the numbers given don’t add up perfectly — Gilly had come to Maine, later to marry and have ten children (his wife, still with him, was now about 60). Vaughan gave a detailed physcial description: “Five feet, three inches high, before he stooped. Weighed 110 pounds lately. Has five teeth. Small hands, & small frame. His hair grey, & close on his head. Formely light-colored. Shaves once a week. Was probably once fair.” Still active, he’d walked “7 or 8 miles” to talk to Vaughan in April 1811, which testified to his vitality, as did the fact that he’d “reaped & bound an acre of wheat” the year before. But age had started to tell. “His hands & head shake” and he’d “muddied himself, by falling 2 or 3 times” on his way to Vaughan. Naturally, the doctor was curious about Gilly’s habits (he’d been a great swimmer) and diet, which was moderate; though he “Always loved a little spirits, & tobacco”, his regular fare was “fish, potatoes, tea, milk, coffee &c. Cannot bear much meat.” During a second interview in June, Vaughan tested Gilly’s memory, quizzing him on major events of the past century-plus. The results tallied with what Mather had observed of the aged sinner of Lynn. Gilly remembered the “Reb’n 16” (apparently the Jacobite rebellion of 1715) as a “Great fight”, but had no recollection of the ’45 — though, to be fair, he may have been in Newfoundland at the time. Vaughan’s glib conclusion: “Hundred years ago, better than last week.”

What should we make of this? If we focus on what Mather and Vaughan had in common, and with what both shared with accounts of old age from Hakewill through Granger’s Wonderful Museum, we see two moments in a long history of learned as well as popular fascination with senescence, with the powers of marvellous age and with its mundane price, reckoned in memories and their loss as well as in physical resistance and decay. It would be wrong to dismiss this naive wonder at natural prodigies; but it is worth wondering how naive it really was — and how natural they were. For Mather the Puritan and scholar, the spectacular longevity of his neighbours likened New England to the biblical world and differentiated it from the sordid, morbid metropole Graunt’s life table described. Even if the longevity was in a sense “environmental” — and we’ve heard enough about these oldsters to discard the idea that it was a reward for good behaviour — the structure of the environment itself was, in the age of Whiston, a Providential instrument. For Vaughan the physician we might imagine a more purely scientific framework, in which Gilly’s interest lay in generalizable dietary or health advice. And yet Vaughan the radical was well aware of the political use to which demographic comparisons between the flourishing colonies and the decaying mother country had been put, not least by two old friends of his, Ben Franklin and Richard Price.

These arguments had, if not always a precisely theological, then certainly a strong moral dimension. Of course, prodigies had always served agendas: consider the Lutheran appropriations of the Pope-Ass or the Monk-Calf. What Mather’s and Vaughan’s observations might suggest are some of the particular ways in which the providential or moral significance of demographic anomalies could be turned to political purpose at the dawn of the statistical era, and, conversely, the ways in which political arguments that leaned on flashy new forms of social science perhaps unwittingly drew on much older strains of providentialism, biblicism, and sacred history at the same time.

A thread to be picked up in Part 3 of “Return to Penis Island”….

[1] Mather to Richard Waller, Esq. (Secretary of the Royal Society), Royal Society Library, EL/M2/33. A much abridged version appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1714. I have written at greater length about Mather’s demographic interests here.

[2] “Old Age”, American Philosophical Society Library, Benjamin Vaughan Papers, B V46p.

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