Samuel "Old Uncle Sam" Shepherd had a hard but interesting life
. He was a slave who managed to buy his freedom, and lived on until 1909. But it's his birthdate that generates more interest than the date of his death.
His grave marker
in Oak Hill Cemetery (Lawrence, Kansas) lists his birthdate as 1784. This would make him 125 years old when he died. If true, he would potentially be the oldest person ever to have lived.
According to wikipedia
, Jeanne Calment of France holds the record for the oldest unambiguously documented human lifespan. She died at the age of 122 in 1997. Christian Mortensen, who died at the age of 115, holds the record for the oldest male lifespan (again, unambiguously documented). Samuel Shepherd, at 125, would have beaten both of them.
However, the documentation for Shepherd's birthdate is incredibly ambiguous. There's just his word for it, and he seems to have guessed at the date. This disqualifies him for consideration as the Oldest Person Ever.
In fact, Shepherd seems to offer an example of the phenomenon of age exaggeration, which I've discussed on the site before. It's the tendency for people to lie about their age (or, more charitably, to grow confused about it), exaggerating it upwards as they near the centenary mark. They do this because being perceived to be very old makes them feel special and gives them higher status in the community.
The most famous example of this phenomenon is the Ecuadorian town of Vilcabamba
, which briefly gained a worldwide reputation as the Town of Supercentenarians, until anthropologists realized that large numbers of people in the town were misrepresenting their age.
I've also posted about the case of Buster Martin
(who claimed to be a 101-year-old marathon runner), Mariam Amash
(who claimed to be 120), and the Chinese village of Bama
(which, like Vilcabamba, is supposed to be full of supercentenarians).