Savannah’s Methuselah, sloppy mind or stonecutter’s mistake?

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Claims to amazing longevity are not only legion, they go back thousands of years. Methuselah is noted in the bible for having lived 969 years; Jimmu, alleged to be the first emperor of Japan, was said to have survived more than 125 years; and the Soviet Union claimed that as of 1960 it had 100 citizens between the ages of 120 and 156.

Science, though, recognizes France’s Jeanne Calment (1875–1997), who lived to the age of 122 years and 164 days, as the longest-lived person, at least that can be verified. She lived three years longer than the runner-up, Sarah Knauss of the US, who died in 1999 at 119.

So it was some skepticism that I read the wording on the tombstone of Laurence Dunphey, located in Savannah’s Catholic Cemetery:

“Sacred

to the Memory of

Laurence Dunphey

A Native of Clonmel

County of Tipperary Ireland

who departed this life

December 17th 1834,

aged 145 years”

Were the information on Dunphey’s gravestone correct, it would mean he had been born in 1689, the year before the Battle of the Boyne, fought between English King James II and the Dutch Prince William of Orange. William and his wife Mary had overthrown James in 1688.

The battle, fought near the town of Drogheda on the east coast of Ireland, about 100 miles from Clonmel, resulted in a victory for William, curtailed James’s bid to retaken the English throne and aided in ensuring the continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. It is still a point of pride today with Protestants in Northern Ireland, the more low brow of whom use it as occasion to attempt to whip up anti-Catholic feeling.

Box vault of Laurence Dunphey in Catholic Cemetery, Savannah, Ga. Note Southern Cross of Honor in front of grave, apparently depicting belief that Dunphey, who died in 1834 at the purported age of 145, also managed to fight in the US Civil War (1861-65).

Box vault of Laurence Dunphey in Catholic Cemetery, Savannah, Ga. Note Southern Cross of Honor in front of grave, apparently depicting belief that Dunphey, who died in 1834 at the purported age of 145, also managed to fight in the US Civil War (1861-65).

Georgia itself wasn’t established as a British colony until 1733, when Dunphey would purportedly have been 44 years old.

Of course, it’s almost a certainty that Dunphey was not 145 when he died in 1834. It’s possible Dunphey was old, even very old when he died, but it’s more likely that a mistake was made by someone somewhere along the line.

While some Irish immigrants had moved into Georgia from South Carolina in the 18th century and there were Irish who came with founder James Oglethorpe when he arrived in Savannah in 1733, the first wave of Irish immigration directly into Savannah came in the 1830s, with the arrival of individuals to help build the Central Rail Road and Canal Co., later the Central of Georgia Railway.

Had Dunphey immigrated with the very earliest settlers to Georgia, he probably would have been recognized as such as his death; it seems implausible that he chose to leave his homeland and come over with the first major wave of Irish immigrants at the age of 140-plus.

A writer for the Catholic Diocese of Savannah speculated that Dunphey’s age was probably inscribed on his gravestone by “bored Union soldiers” during or just after the War Between the States.

However, the lettering appears identical across the marker, meaning that unless the Federal soldier-turned-mischievous stonemason opted to remake an entire marble slab, it’s almost certain that the grave marker was made shortly after Dunphey’s death.

Two possibilities:

  • Dunphey was very elderly, but uncertain of his age, and he or his family either really believed that he was 145, or, in his family’s case, did so to humor him. In an era when time was much more fluid, mistakes regarding age, even of several decades, weren’t unheard of;
  • There is also the possibility that the stonemason working on Dunphey’s marker simply made a mistake, carving “145” instead of, say, “45.” And given that there’s no “reset” button when you’re working with stone, you get what you get.

Whatever the real story behind the age of Laurence Dunphey – County Tipperary native, US immigrant and long-dead Irish Catholic – he’s managed to achieve a small bit of immortality, no matter how long he really lived.

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9 thoughts on “Savannah’s Methuselah, sloppy mind or stonecutter’s mistake?

  1. After 145 years I’m sure he was so tired and weary from iron-poor blood that no amount of tonics or potions could pep him up. He was no doubt plenty ready to “go home.”

  2. There are a number of headstones in the old cemetery near my home that have incorrect information on them, including getting the year the person died incorrect, according to obituaries published at the time.

    One thing I noticed in looking at the “slave schedule” from the US census is that the ages listed tend to be very young, up through middle age, and then there is another spike of persons who are listed as being 90, 100, or more years old. Of course they lived in a world mostly devoid of calendars and written records, and many enslaved persons really had no exact idea of how old they actually were. (Frederick Douglass mentions this in the introduction to his autobiography.) So it’s entirely possible that this Irishman believed he was 145 years old, or something close to it, and there would be no way to refute that, or even to cite demographic data to show that was extremely unlikely.

    Notably, right around the time this man died, PT Barnum was making his first great fortune in New York City exhibiting an elderly African-American woman named Joyce Heth, who claimed to be 161 years old, and having been the wetnurse of George Washington.

    • I was unaware of Joyce Heth, but not surprised in reading about her that P.T. Barnum had a role in the exhibition.

      I’ve long heard that slaves – and others who for whatever reason didn’t have access to or didn’t rely on written records or calendars – often used seminal events to date their births, such as the “big flood” or the “big storm” (hurricane). Obviously, this would be imprecise and could leave an individual’s age open to interpretation.

      And I have no doubt that many of those who said they were well over 100 actually believed it, whether it was true or not.

  3. Obviously, the date on the tombstone is incorrect. Dunphy lived to be 1,145, not 145; ask anyone in Clonmel. 🙂
    Very interesting post and comments.

  4. Not to ruin the dream, but Savannah, GA, Vital Records, 1803-1966 (available through Ancestry.com) show Dunphey’s (“Dunphie”) age as 47 at the time of his death. He was listed as a shopkeeper and also, presumably, a drunk, as his cause of death was listed as “intemperance.” Burial was listed as December 17, 1834. Folks didn’t wait around back then to get ’em in the ground, I guess.

    Dunphey was apparently a financially successful drunk, though, as indicated by the ledger on his box tomb (which was almost surely carved by John White of Charleston) and the fact that the Georgia Property Tax Digests show he owned six slaves in 1831 and a total of eleven slaves in 1833, as well as a city lot with improvements valued at $2,000–a sizeable sum for the time.

    • Very interesting. Just the fact he had a box tomb indicates he had money. I reckon the stonecutter charged with inscribing Dunphey’s slab may have some issues with “intemperance,” as well.

      Thanks for the detailed information.

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