Ephraim Pratt: The Oldest Man Alive?

The longest unambiguously documented human lifespan is that of French woman Jean Calment.  She met Vincent Van Gogh in 1887 when she was a girl of twelve or thirteen, and died when she was 122, only four years short of seeing the Twenty-first Century.  The longest definitively documented lifespan of a man, a record held by Danish-American Christian Mortensen, was far shorter, at 115.  Today, in the year 2012, the oldest human being alive is American Besse Cooper, who was born on August 26, 1896, and is now one hundred and fifteen years old.  There are only seventy verified super-centenarians, people who are older than one hundred years old, alive today.

In the early years of the 19th Century the famed academic and former president of Yale University, Dr. Timothy Dwight travelled throughout New York and New England collecting stories of American lives”.  In 1785, Dwight published The Conquest of Canaan, which is widely regarded as the first American epic poem.  In November of 1803, the fifty-one year old Dr. Dwight set out for the rugged farmland of Shutesbury, Massachusetts.  The object of the journey was to see a man, Ephraim Pratt, whom Dwight believed to be the oldest man alive at the time.

Dwight believed that Ephraim Pratt had been born in Sudbury, Massachusetts in 1687, and, that in less than a month from his visit with this ancient man, Ephraim Pratt would celebrate his 117th birthday.  Dr. Dwight and his travelling companion reached Pratt’s home in the late afternoon.  The man that Dr. Dwight encountered was far from the withered relic that he had expected to find.  Pratt, according to Dwight, was of a medium height for the day, firmly built, and plump but not fat.  Pratt had the appearance of a man of about seventy years old; his handshake was firm and his voice was strong and steady.  That year his sight had diminished to a point that he could not distinguish one person from another, and his hearing was impaired so that it was difficult for him to follow someone speaking in conversational tones.  But, at 116 years old, he still had a sharp mind, a vigorous memory and a keen understanding of the world around him.

Ephraim Pratt held Dr. Dwight’s hand as he answered all of the doctor’s inquiries.   He surmised that, from listening to Dwight’s voice, he must be at least forty-five years of age.   “I must look very old to you,” said Pratt, “but I know that there are men who have not passed their seventieth year who look just as old.”  Dwight agreed with the old man’s sentiment, but was amused at the idea of someone of seventy years old being thought of as “young”.

Pratt had been a laborer all of his life, and he had mown grass every year for one hundred one years consecutively.   As late as the summer of 1802 he could easily walk two miles and mow a small quantity of grass.  In 1803, on one of his walks, he had tripped over a log a fell.  Immediately after his fall, his hearing and sight began to deteriorate, and walking half a mile took considerable effort.  His mowing days were behind him.

Dwight asked the old man about his habits.  Pratt said that he had stayed away from “ardent spirits”, but that he would occasionally drink cider, in moderation.  As a younger man, he had eaten meat, but far less than those around him, and milk, which had always been a great part of his diet, was now the entirety. 

Dwight found Pratt to be naturally cheerful and humorous, free of any sentimentality, and not inclined to serious thinking.   He had only been seriously ill at one time in his life, when he had suffered through a period of fever and chills. Pratt had professed his religious faith publicly over seventy years ago, but none of his acquaintances found him to be a particularly religious man.   Dwight, a theologian and Congregationalist minister, noted, “It is scarcely necessary to observe, that a man one hundred and sixteen years old, without religion was a melancholy site to me.”

Almost eighty years before, Ephraim Pratt had married Martha Wheelock, and they had six sons and two daughters.  His longevity had allowed him to see many of his great-, great- grandchildren, and a newspaper article from the late 1790s claimed that he likely had fifteen hundred living descendants at the time.

In 1803, at 116 years old, Ephraim Pratt was almost certainly the oldest human being alive.  When he died in 1804 the Worcester newspaper The Massachusetts Spy noted the death  of Mr. Pratt of Shutesbury, “on the 22d (June), aged 116 yrs, 5 mos. and 22 days.”  It is remarkable that Ephraim Pratt’s longevity did not create more of a sensation during the man’s life.  The death notice in The Spy did catch attention of the Rev. Dr.  Sumner of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.  Rev. Dr. Sumner wrote to the newspaper that when Pratt was married on July 9, 1724, he told the town clerk that he was twenty-one years old.  According to Sumner, that would have made Pratt about 101 years old at the time of his death, a remarkable age, but far short of 117 years.   The town records of Sudbury, Massachusetts give the birthday of Ephraim Pratt, son of Ephraim and Elezabeth, as November 30, 1704, which would have made him 99 years, 5 months, and 22 days old on the day of his death.

Had Timothy Dwight been mislead about Ephraim Pratt’s seemingly incredible longevity?  Had he known that he could not possibly have been talking to a man who had been born more than a eleven and half decades before?  Once again, if Ephraim Pratt had been 116 years old, he would have surely been the oldest man on the face of the Earth.  But wouldn’t Dwight have been able to see through any hoax?  Timothy Dwight, the former president of Yale College, had been a child prodigy, learning the alphabet in a single lesson, and reading from the Bible before he was four years old. He had graduated from Yale at the age of seventeen.   He had served in the Massachusetts legislature, and was known throughout the country as an accomplished poet and lyricist, and he was an innovative educator who had opened schools for boys and girls, and had campaigned to rid schools of the corporal punishment that was common during the time.   How could Dwight have fallen for a ruse perpetrated by a backwoods laborer like Ephraim Pratt?  Perhaps Dwight’s impressive accomplishments had made the otherwise unlikely feats of those around him seem plausible.  Dwight’s reputation had been firmly established, and he had little to gain, and much to lose, by publishing a sensational story that might prove to be false.

Did Ephraim Pratt truly believe that he was 116 years old when he met with Timothy Dwight? Could someone with an otherwise clear mind be mistaken about his own age by eighteen years?  It is unlikely that Pratt thought that he was going to gain in any material way by making false claims about his longevity, but maybe the old man was looking for attention and a degree of notoriety.   Regardless, Ephraim Pratt was witness to nearly every year of the 18th Century.  He was born shortly after the Witch Trials in nearby Salem and lived to see the colonies separate from England and become the United States.