The Oldest Man In New York
I am more of a believer in the accuracy of books, but I’ll admit it- bibliophile that I am, even books are wrong sometimes. Actually, more than sometimes. How often, I’ve wondered, does a mistake appear in a book, that book becomes the “authority” or “reference” material for other books and the mistake becomes gospel?
When something strikes me as unusual, amazing or inconsistent with what I know, I try and check the facts by going to the original or earliest source material. This is just my natural curiosity. This includes lots of history that is inconsequential in the greater scheme of things. But when I get fascinated and have to know more, I’ll take the time to look into it.
In an earlier post we noted we would return to the book, “The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City” by Edward Winslow Martin (pseud. James D. McCabe) published by Jones, Brothers & Co. 1868.
One short chapter entitled The Oldest Man in New York aroused my investigative instincts, two samples from that chapter are reproduced below (the full three page text can be found here)
Strangers visiting the Church of the Ascension, in New York, cannot fail to notice the presence of an old gentleman, who occupies an arm-chair immediately in front of the chancel, in the middle aisle, and who gives the responses to the service in a very loud and distinct manner. This is, perhaps, the oldest man of the entire million of New York City inhabitants. It is Captain Lahrbush, formerly of the British army, but for the last twenty years a New York resident. He was born in London, on the 9th of March, 1765. It is not extravagant to say, that his life has been more remarkable, embracing more various and extraordinary experiences, than that of any one now living, in any quarter of the globe. He entered the military service of Great Britain, October 17, 1789, and fought, under the Duke of York, with the Sixtieth Rifles, in Holland, in the campaign of 1793. Five years later, he was present when Humbert surrendered to Lord Cornwallis, at Pallinauck, in Ireland. In 1801, he was with Lord Nelson at the taking of Copenhagen. In 1806-7, he was an attaché of the suite of Lord Castlereagh, at Vienna; and on the 22d of June, of the latter year, he witnessed the memorable interview between Napoleon and Alexander, at Tilsit. During the next two years, he was with the Duke of Wellington, in the Spanish peninsula, and was knighted at Talavera, having received promotion for distinguished gallantry at Busace.
The story continues and I have cut to the chase
But the old man has lived on, to the present moment, in the enjoyment of unimpaired, and a truly wonderful degree of bodily health. In 1867, he celebrated his one hundred and first (sic – ed. should read 102nd) birthday, at a breakfast in the house of an eminent gentleman of New York, where many officers and citizens were invited to meet him. His appearance is that of a hale man, and, as seen in church, he looks the junior of many others in the congregation. The most surprising fact connected with the old gentleman’s prolonged life, is, that for many years he was in the habit of taking seventy-five grains of opium and, on one occasion, he took one hundred and fifty grains in a dose. Though he has long abandoned the use of the drug, he feels certain he could drink half a pint of laudanum with impunity. Captain Lahrbush is said to retain, with surprising freshness, the scenes and events of some of the grandest and most imposing of modern history of which he has been the eye-witness. He speaks of Blucher as having been very good company, but a heavy drinker, who swore terribly at Napoleon. Louisa, the Queen of Prussia, he thought the handsomest woman of her time, and Alexander, of Russia, the most elegant-looking man in Europe. As. for Napoleon, whose face he had an abundant opportunity to study, he declares that no likeness that was ever taken of him, conveys the proper idea of his features and their expression; The closest resemblance, he says, is that of the coins of the empire, especially the profile upon the five franc pieces.
Well that is some old man! An opium addict no less. And he drank Laudanum (which I had never heard of) which is an alcoholic tincture of opium that was popular in the 19th century. How long did Captain Frederick Lahrbush live for?
Captain Lahrbush was 103 in 1868 when Secrets of the Great City was written and the average age of death in the United States was around 47! Even by 1900 only 2.5% of Americans lived to age 65. This was amazing. I had to find out more because the book only describes him in those scant three pages.
I checked the New York Times and found this in the November 3, 1868 paper:
Indeed – Lahrbush was a very old man of 103.
He would eventually die. I kept searching.
In 1877, Lahrbush’s will is filed and noted in the New York Times. So the good Captain was 111-years-old when he died on April 3 1877!
I kept looking.
Finally, William John Thoms in his 1873 book “Human Longevity, Its Facts and its Fictions: Including an Inquiry into some of the More Remarkable Instances, and Suggestions for Testing Reputed Cases” disputes that Lahrbush was as old as he claimed.
This book which is fascinating reading, written while Lahrbush was living, has a significant section of a couple of dozen pages dealing with the inconsistencies of Lahrbush’s age. To sum it up if you don’t want to read it for yourself: it contests the veracity of Lahrbush’s story and says he is greatly exaggerating his age and several pages are devoted to debunking his tales. The conclusion is, is that in 1873 he had added at least 20 years to his age.
After Lahrbush died, The New York Times of May 13 1878 ended up covering the dispute about his true age, but never rescinded their story that he was as old as he claimed.
The paradox here is that The Secrets of A Great City book is probably wrong in claiming Lahrbush’s longevity. Does the oldest man in New York story get perpetuated in other books? Probably.
Yet the internet and the digitizing of rare, out of print books enables a person to check the accuracy for themselves if so inclined and see the arguments for both sides of any contestable story.
My only question is will people still investigate for themselves when strange claims are made? My fear is most won’t. But my hope is the thorough researcher and seeker of truth will.
They say history is written by the winners. 140 years ago in this case, there was no winner or loser. It came down to an old man trying to get some attention versus some discerning people who decided to question the facts that were presented. Let’s hope that critical thinking and questioning is something that will continue in the 21st century.
My conclusion based on the evidence? The old man was lying!