In 1835, circus magnate and sideshow pioneer P.T. Barnum began exhibiting a blind, elderly, and nearly paralyzed African American woman named Joice Heth. Barnum advertised that Heth was 161 years old, and that she had been the nurse of the infant George Washington.
“Joice Heth came on the scene just three years after the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s birth and nine years after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,” wrote historian May V. Thompson. “Americans were feeling the Revolutionary War generation slipping away, at a time when sectional differences leading up to the Civil War, were escalating. They were desperate to hold on to that earlier, ‘purer’ time, and thus were willing to suspend rational thought to believe that an elderly African American woman could actually be over 150 years old and the former nursemaid of an infant George Washington.”
Barnum profited handsomely from his exploitation of Heth. For seven months he worked her constantly, with hardly a day off, until the tired old lady finally died of exhaustion, in February of 1836. Ever enterprising, Barnum organized a public autopsy and 1,500 “viewers” paid 50¢ apiece to watch a doctor dissect Heth’s corpse. After the autopsy, Dr. Rogers determined Heth’s age to be between 75-80 years old. Barnum feigned outrage and declared publicly that he had been bamboozled into believing her seemingly absurd story.
From the 1850s to the early 1900s – a time in American history when the Indigenous population was rapidly diminishing – stories about unbelievably aged Indians became increasingly popular human-interest items for newspaper editors across the nation. These reports were usually, by design, part fact and part folklore. Like all tall tales, they were subject to some level of exaggeration, however one could not always determine which party was responsible for the stretching of the truth: the elderly subject, themselves; the author of the article about the elderly subject; or the newspaper editor, punching-up the piece for increased impact. As Barnum put it, “The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”
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On July 29, 1853, the Vermont Standard newspaper in Woodstock, Vermont, ran this item:
“A few remaining Indians in Carmel Valley are supposed to be the remnant of tribes that originally inhabited the place previous to the founding the mission in 1767 … in the fall of 1852, there died at the rancheria of his tribe, in Carmel, an Indian supposed to be 140 years old. An old settler in Monterey, informed correspondents of the San Joaquin Republicanthat the Indian was baptized in 1776, and was then, as shown by the baptismal register at San Carlos [the Carmel Mission], an old man. He was well known to most of the citizens of Monterey, his family deriving a handsome revenue from the liberality of visitors, who familiarly termed him ‘old uncle Ned.'”
The July 26, 1883, issue of the Richwood Gazette newspaper in Richwood, Ohio, printed the following notice: “Mariano Largo, a Carmel Indian, aged one hundred years, got on a big drunk at Monterey, Cal., the other day, made the town howl, and died of delirium tremens.”
The May 17, 1890, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper ran an article entitled Methuselahs of the Missions by Charles H Shinn:
“…The first old Indian I ever saw was named Masseano. He lived in a small adobe hut, and was said to be over 100 years old at his death in 1870. When the Mission San José, in Alameda County, was established in 1797, Masseano was a grown man, living in the Indian town of Oroysom [present-day Fremont, California], which was near the site chosen by the Franciscan fathers for the mission. He said that he listened to the preaching and helped build the church…
“Santa Cruz had an old Indian who claimed to be over a hundred. Monterey had old Casiano, of San Antonio [Present-day Jolon], who died a few years ago, aged one hundred and thirty-six, if traditions can be trusted. The best authenticated case, however, is that of Gabriel of Salinas.
“I have taken pains to write to ex-senator W. J. Hill, of Salinas, now city Mayor and owner of the daily Index of that place. He sent me copious notes and photographs of the old Indian. Gabriel was a chief of the Escalanes [sic] tribe of Monterey Indians, and was on an expedition to the coast when Father Junipero Serra landed in 1770.
“Mrs. Munras [Catalina Manzanelli], of Monterey, a Spanish lady now nearing her hundredth year, told Father Sorrentini many years ago that when she was a little girl, Gabriel was an old man, and went by the name of old Gabriel. Mrs. Castro [María Antonia Pico y Cota], a very old Spanish lady, who died seven years ago, added her testimony on this point. Both of these ladies remembered occurrences of 1809 and 1810, and were very careful witnesses. A mass of similar affidavits from old settlers of Monterey County were taken ten years ago and sent to the Vatican, with photographs of ‘the oldest Catholic in the world’…
“Mayor William J. Hill, Dr. S.M. Archer, W. S. Johnson, cashier of the Salinas bank, who cared for Gabriel for many year, and other leading citizens of that religion, agree in saying that the old man showed little change in the last forty years of his life. It is said that he had seven successive wives, to all of whom he was married by rite of the church, and that he had a son named Bartolo by his last wife when he was about a hundred years old. This son is now a man of fifty, living in Hollister.
“Gabriel was a small man of about 5’6”, and very agile in his youth. He was trained to be a mason and a bricklayer at the mission Soledad, and at that time, about 1820, was noted for his remarkable endurance of being able to ‘walk down any horse.'”
The February 18, 1891, Volume 64 issue of Youth’s Companion, published the following article by Clarence T. Umry, professor of vocal music:
“The death last year in Monterey county, California, of an Indian commonly known as “old Gabriel” has closed the career one who was, perhaps, the oldest man in the world. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but enough evidence has been adduced to satisfy the people who lived about him that he was 151 years old.
“It is well authenticated that old Gabriel was a grandfather at the time of the landing of Father Junipero Serra at Monterey, about 120 years ago. Admitting that Indian marriages sometimes take place at the age of 15, Gabriel could not have been a grandfather before he had attained the age of 32 years.
“Gabriel, the ignorant, was gentle and devout, and was much attached to the early fathers. He made adobes that were used in constructing the mission buildings at Carmelo, Soledad, and San Antonio.
“The Carmelo mission was erected about 1770, five years before the revolution of the 13 states. Not even the ruins of these old chapels were to be seen thirty years ago.
“Probably the best evidence of his extreme age is found in the fact that his son Zachariah, by his third or fourth wife, died some six or eight years ago at the advanced age of 114 years. It is perhaps doubtful if sufficient evidence can be obtained to prove the exact age of the son, but he is known to have been a very old man without a tooth in his head.
“If he was a son by Gabriel’s third or fourth wife, it would make the father 30 or 40 years older than the son. This, and to the seven or eight years which have elapsed since the son’s death, would make old Gabriel over 150, even if Zachariah were 10 years younger than he was supposed to be.
“Another fact which goes to prove the great age of old Gabriel is furnished by José Lauriano, a Christian Indian, who died about four years ago. Lauriano said he [himself] was 110 years old, and his appearance supported his claim to very great age.
“He said that Gabriel was a grandfather as far back as he can remember, and that when Gabriel was considerably advanced in life, he, Lauriano, was a little boy. Lauriano was a very conscientious and devout man, and his statements were always believed…
“He outlived all of his immediate descendants … He delighted in wearing a “stove-pipe” hat, and spent much time in sewing pieces of gaudy colored cloth up on his clothes.
“Old Gabriel was never known to take a bath – except the sun-bath. As he grew older the Indian characteristics seem to assert themselves with greater force, and he delighted to stalk abroad in native dignity, with very little clothing besides the stove-pipe hat.
“About nine years ago, a citizen of Salinas had the old man committed to the county hospital, where he died of pneumonia on March 16, 1890 …
“Old Gabriel knew no other than his native language … It was very difficult to communicate with old Gabriel except by signs; and almost all that is known of his life is what has been translated from his own lips by his friend, José Lauriano.
“If old Gabriel had been able to carry on an intelligent conversation, what interesting tales he could undoubtably have told concerning the early settlement of California, and that far off time when he was in the prime of manhood, fifty years before the rush of gold in the “days of 49.”
“A photograph of this aged Indian now hangs up on the walls of the Vatican in Rome, as the oldest man in the world.”
Around 1854, some two years before the founding of the city of Salinas, Old Gabriel (who was then about 100 years old) wandered to the home of William Smith Johnson in the town of Natividad (five miles northeast of present-day Salinas). Johnson, who later became the cashier of the old Salinas City Bank, knew him from his many visits to Monterey, where Old Gabriel was something of a local celebrity. Gabriel was well known to all the wealthy women and dressmakers in Salinas, who saved little scraps of brightly colored fabric for the old Indian. Gabriel’s hobby was sewing patches of silk, satin, and velvet onto his clothing.
Johnson befriended the Indian and invited him to build a little cabin on the Johnson’s land. Gabriel lived there for about thirty years, supplied with clothing and other necessities by Johnson and his wife, Maria. While living on the Johnson Ranch, Old Gabriel kept a small vegetable garden. He also built himself a temescal – a traditional Indian sweat lodge. After a good sweat, steaming himself by pouring water on rocks heated in a firepit, he’d plunge into the cold stream.
As the years went by, Old Gabriel took to wearing less and less clothing. When he was more than 125 years old, he often walked around the Johnson’s farm clad in nothing but a loincloth and his stove-pipe hat. In 1881, Mr. Johnson decided that this eccentric and indecent behavior was too much for the female members of his family to bear, and Old Gabriel was sent to the county hospital.
The January 1, 1887, issue of the Salinas Democrat appears to be the source of the often-repeated misnomer that Old Gabriel was chief of a tribe of Tulare Indians. Dr. Samuel Milton Archer, who, along with James Keleher, was one of the owners of the hot springs in the Little Sur, was in charge of the county hospital in Salinas when Gabriel was admitted, in 1881. After delving further into the old man’s past, Doc Archer arrived at the conclusion that Old Gabriel was not from the Tulare tribe, but rather from Salinan tribe, who lived in “the San Antonio” – the “Jolon country” south of Salinas.
The September 14, 1889, issue of the St. Joseph Herald reported on the St. Joseph Exposition, which was taking place at that time, in St. Joseph, Missouri:
“An Indian called Old Gabriel, living at the Monterey county hospital, Cal., is believed to be 150 years old … Gabriel has a great-great-grandson at the exposition here in St. Joseph named Fight-a-Bear, who will be married to a dusky Indian maiden to-morrow on the grounds. Fight-a-Bear went to Clarke’s yesterday and bought a wedding ring for his prospective bride.”
In the last years of his long lifetime, when his lifeforce and awareness were finally diminishing, Old Gabriel became the unlikely poster-boy of the California tourism industry. The October 27, 1889, issue of the California printed this article by the chairman of the board of supervisors of Salinas, California, Mr. H. Samuels:
“Hon. J. D. Carr, who has recently returned from attending a meeting of the State Board of the Trade, tells us that in San Francisco at the headquarters of the State Board, where hangs a life-size portrait of Gabriel, the old Indian, that there has been more interest taken in him by tourists and others than in anything else the State has produced.
“Old Gabriel is an inmate of the hospital of this county, where he receives the best care, and while able to walk and get around himself is nevertheless very feeble. He has lost the power of speech but still seems to realize what is going on around him. A few months ago, he rode in to town, a distance of a mile and a half, got out of the hospital carriage himself and walked unaided to the photograph gallery, which is up one flight of stairs. On reaching the top the old man took off his hat and made a polite bow to the photographer as gracefully as could French courtier. There has of late been expressed in San Francisco a great desire to have old Gabriel removed to that city, that he might be seen, but the good people of Salinas would not bear to his being removed, owing to his feeble conditions.”
Gabriel was, in fact, apprehensive about having his picture taken by the photographer in Salinas, believing that he was being lined up for execution. After much reassurance and explanation, he finally consented to having his picture taken.
The following account of Old Gabriel was published by the Board of Trade of Salinas, shortly before his death, on March 14, 1890:
“Old Gabriel, in all probability the oldest man living on the face of the earth … Under the instructions of Junipero Serra he learned to cut and lay stone, so that he was one of the principal workmen at the building of the Soledad and San Antonio missions. When it came to the erection of the Carmelo Mission, he was so well skilled in the use of the tools of that day that those who knew him before he was robbed of the power of speech, which is now nearly gone, used often to speak of his ability as a stone-cutter during that work.
“At the time of the building of the Soledad mission, he had his second wife, and in this connection Father Sorrentini states that in 1845, when Bishop Amat and himself arrived at Monterey, they were met by a large number of the native population, the oldest of him was Gabriel, reputed as then having his sixth wife, but this wife has been dead for more than 30 years. In conversation with the oldest inhabitants at that time they all averred that Gabriel was more than 110 years of age.
“Ex-Tax Collector Manuel Castro’s mother Mrs. Castro [María Antonia Pico y Cota], died about seven years ago, aged 95 years, and the old lady often spoke of knowing Gabriel when she was a child but he was then called “Old Gabriel,” and his grandchildren were older than she herself.
“An old layman Indian, who died years ago, aged 110 years, once asked by the Rev. Father how much older he was than Gabriel, laughed heartily and said, ‘Gabriel was an old man when I was a child.’
“The old man [Gabriel] has been an inmate of the county hospital of Monterey County for years. While, as would be expected, he is quite feeble, he is nevertheless able to get around and eats quite heartily. One of his most peculiar characteristics is that, unlike most Indians, he was never known to drink intoxicating liquors of any kind, but is and ever has been extremely fond of candy and sweet meats. He was never known to take a bath, but it is always been his custom to bask in the warm sunshine and with an old knife to scrape his body, sometimes until the blood shows itself through the skin. Like all Indians, he is fond of anything bright or gaudy, and his garments like Jacob’s coat are always composed of many colors all sewed on by his own hand.
“The old man never spoke any language (except it may be his native Indian) and for that reason it has always been difficult to understand him. Now, however his power of speech has almost left him, and he makes his wants known principally by signs. If this were not so what tales might he not tell of this fabulous land, of its changed conditions, its customs and its rulers!
“Through the days of the Spanish dominion; through the age of Mexican rule; through the war that brought the state under the stars and stripes; through the discovery of gold; through its age of prosperity and growth, he has lived and acted his little part, and in his extreme old age finds himself the living wonder of the people who would like to know every incident of his long, eventful life.”
Dorothy H. Vera wrote, in the November 16, 1963 issue of the Californian:
“Some records of the Catholic Church differ from those handed down by hearsay. They placed Gabriel’s age at 20, the year father Junipero Serra landed [in 1770].
“‘He had observed at the Portola expedition with Fr. Juan Crespi, which camped at the Rancheria site on San Jose creek below Carmel in 1769 [later the San Jose y Sur Chiquito]. This was the home of Gabriel at the time.’ So say those records.
“Interesting facts from the baptismal books at the Carmel Mission tell of the Indian’s life, first as a pagan, and then after his conversion to Christianity. The following is a free translation of baptismal entry:
“‘[Gabriel’s own father] mentioned in Gabriel’s entry was the 475th entry and was baptized on July 5, 1777. He was more than 50 years old and the father of five Christians. The mother of these children was Margrita de Cortona. She was about 50 years old when she was baptized in danger of death on July 6, 1774. Entry number 179. She was not the mother of Gabriel.’
“’It is of interest to note that Margrita de Cortona was the first of the family to be baptized. Next were the children of the two wives of Gabriel, who were sisters. The first of these to be baptized was Cresencia, entry number 469, baptized July 2, 1777, about 30 years of age, who bore Gabriel three children. The first named Maximo, entry number 236, and was about five years old when baptized on August 15, 1774, by [Fr. Serra]. The second, Matiana Maria, entry number 299, was about four when baptized February 16, 1775, by Fr. Juan Crespi. The third, Januario Jose, entry number 388, was a little more than six months old when baptized on March 4, 1775. By Fr. Serra. The mother of these children renounced Gabriel on her baptism.’
“’On the same day at the same ceremony at which Gabriel was baptized, his daughter Agueda Maria entry number 606 was about two years old when baptized.’
“‘The mother of Gabriel, Juliana Antonio, entry number 608, a woman of more than 50 years and the mother of three Christian children who would be the half brother and sister to Gabriel, was living alone and not married at the time of her baptism. As she was been living at the Rancheria down the coast, she must have left the father of Gabriel, who is from the Rancheria of Ichrenta and had Margrita Contona as his consort.’
“‘Romulda Maria, entry #609, was from the Rancheria of Excelen [in Carmel Valley] and had gentile parents. She had a Christian brother and sister. She was the actual consort of Gabriel, the mother of the child Agueda Maria, and was about 20 years of age at the time of baptism. She was the first Christian wife of Gabriel.’
“As for the actual baptism of old Gabriel, despite claims that he was first to have been so honored by the arrival of Fr. Junipero Serra, that revered priest entered this in the Carmel Mission buckskin tag in the notation number 607, ‘Baptism Noted:’
“’On 7 February 1780, in the church of this mission of San Carlos de Monterey, I baptized solemnly a male adult of about 30 years of age or a little more, son of Homobono José named in the preceding entry and the mother who until today was a gentile and was baptized the same day.’
“’They said Gabriel was the father of children of two sisters, Cresencia and Maria… in entering number 469 and also 470, and also his present wife and his daughter Agueda Maria, mentioned in the preceding entry. He was from the Rancheria de Ion Renta Alisal San Jose and I gave for his name Gabriel Antonio. His godfather was the Master Blacksmith Fernando Chamono of this Mission. – Fr. Junipero Serra’
“… Francisco M. Soberanes, Sr., who was appointed administrator of the missions after their secularization, handed down anecdotes to his sons. Soberanes later became owner of the Soledad mission properties, and employed old Gabriel. Records in hearsay put him well along in life.
“Landlord Soberanes recalled that the Indian ‘was noted for his ability to dodge arrows,’ and while he was far from being an expert horseman, his stamina was terrific. He reportedly was known to travel all day on foot, keeping pace with the horses…
“Seemingly Gabe’s years at the county farm were happy ones. All the while the county hospital was in Santa Rita (until about 1886) he walked to church each Sunday, a round trip of six miles. Donning his plug hat and his Jacob’s coat of many colors, he sometimes even walked to the county seat on weekdays. Despite his gaudy attire and strange appearance, children seemed to sense his age and were respectful rather than taunting him. They, and their elders, soon learned of old Gabriel’s love of the ‘dulce,’ or sweets, and kept him supplied with candies or cookies.
“When he first went to the hospital, despite his extreme age, he kept himself busy pulling weeds and sweeping sidewalks. As the years rolled by, he kept more and more to himself, spending long hours in his room. It was filled with sacks and rolls of bright bits of cloth, which he continued to sort and fondle. Until two years before his death, but he had never worn glasses, he was able to thread a needle and keep his bright patches intact.
“Habits of old Gabe might well be copied in this day of sensitivity to calories and diet. He ate lightly. He abstained from smoking and drinking… even tea or coffee. He enjoyed a cup of hot water to which is sometimes added milk and sugar.
“In addition to his sweets, old Gabe craved fruits, though his mainstay was ‘atole,’ a Yankee minute [roasted barley] pudding . He rarely ate meat, probably partly because of his lack of teeth.
“The old Indians habits were exemplary. He went to bed early, slept like a baby, pulling the blankets over his head Indian fashion if he were called. He arose early, as soon as the sun warms the earth, and was out for his sunbath.
“Long hours of the day were spent ‘cleaning himself.’ That he never bathed after he left his sweat house, he was meticulous and keeping his pores open. To do this, he used an old case knife, carefully scraping every exposed portion of his body, from his fingertips to the soles of his feet. Until his death he had a heavy head of hair…
“In all of his years at the county hospital, only twice was old Gabe sick enough to receive treatment. In both instances he was obedient, responding to orders from the doctor, receiving his medication and recovering rapidly.
“A few days before his death, the feeble old man, for he was fading fast, refused medication and food. Instinctively he seemed to know his time had come…”
Old Gabe’s was no ordinary death. The word spread rapidly, and the press in all countries wanted to know something about the old man who had so long outlived his allotted “three score years and 10.”
Because of his advanced age, two well-known local physicians, Drs. Dorris Brumwell and John Parker, wanted to perform an autopsy on Gabriel’s body. Each Indigenous tribe had their own long-established and well-respected traditions surrounding the handling and interment of the deceased. Many cultures strictly prohibit so much as the touching of the corpse of a tribe member by a non-tribe member, let alone the maiming or dissection of the dead. Failure to strictly adhere to tribal traditions and procedures could adversely affect one’s passage to the next world.
Drs. Brumwell and Parker easily obtained permission from bank cashier W. S. Johnson, Father Sorrentini, and Mr. H. Samuels, the chairman of the board of supervisors. Their time was short – only 90-minutes was allotted for the autopsy on the morning of the funeral, Monday, March 18, 1890. The physicians thought their findings were nothing short of remarkable.
Although Old Gabriel was presumed to have died of pneumonia, the autopsy revealed the fact that he died of heart failure. His heart showed fatty degeneration and aneurysmal enlargement of the aorta. The artery was in a state of marked calcification and in one instance was nearly broken.
The doctors performing the autopsy discovered an almost total absence of blood in his body. Gabriel’s spleen and kidneys were atrophied: his liver was 40% its usual size, just 24 ounces. All his teeth were gone except for one in the upper jaw and five in the lower. His gallbladder was distended, with very little bile, and was crowded with nineteen “huge gall stones, worn perfectly smooth by attrition”. His lungs were smaller than their normal size – their bases were in a condition of long-standing hypostatic congestion, and their apexes were in a complete state of emphysema – a mark of extreme old age. Age had reduced his stature of six feet by several inches and he weighed only 100 pounds. He had a full head of white hair and no baldness. After the autopsy, the physicians agreed that, if not for the heart troubles, old Gabriel might have lived even longer.
The funeral was held on March 18, 1890, at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, in Salinas, and hundreds of people attended. Father Sorrentini, the Parish Priest in Salinas, conducted the service. Gabriel’s obituary was published in the Tuesday, March 18, 1890, issue of the Californian newspaper:
“At the conclusion of the ceremonies at the church, the remains were taken to the Catholic cemetery, where they were laid to rest in consecrated ground. Many beautiful flowers sent by the school children and old citizens covered the coffin in rich perfusion and now mark the tomb of him who lived through the high noon of manhood, passed the twilight of declining years and further into the night of old age than perhaps any man in this country. The actors who appeared with him on the stage dropped off one by one, disappeared and have been forgotten, old Gabriel’s exit was at the very last scene of the play without one of the audience were present at his entrance, to witness his departure. The deep wrinkles furrowed by more than a century and a half upon his knitted brow, the tottering footsteps under more than twice the scriptural allotment of years, of constant reminder to us or knew him but here was a relic of the mighty past head down to the present generation of men…
“For a long time Gabriel’s room-mate at the hospital was another Indian by the name of Lauriano, who died a couple of years ago. He was the only living person with whom Gabriel could converse in his own language and it said that Gabriel was never known to smile since Lauriano’s death [in 1886]. Lauriano and Gabriel were great friends and invariably attended the funerals of those dying at the hospital. They always performed a certain funeral service understood only by themselves, Lauriano repeating the service in the Indian tongue and Gabriel assisting; as it was not an uncommon thing to see Laureano smite Gabriel on the cheek with the open hand for some slip made by the latter during the ceremonies. Lauriano died at the age of 115, as nearly as can be ascertained, and was often heard to say that Gabriel was an old man when he was a boy.”
The following day, the newspaper announced:
“By request the Journal has opened books for the reception of subscriptions to erect a monument of the last resting place of Old Gabriel. The fund just received a good start, those already seen subscribing liberally and enthusiastically.”
For 73 years, Old Gabriel lay in the Cavalry Catholic Cemetery on Castroville Road (present-day highway 183). The November 9, 1963, issue of the Californian printed the following report by Dorothy H. Vera:
“[Gabriel’s] remains were disinterred here in the presence of the Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Earley, V.F., of Sacred Heart Parish, and few others. They had a little hope that there would be much to place in the new terra cotta casket, but, as in life, Gabriel was ‘indestructible in death’. There were some few bones of the aged Indian who helped build the missions of this area, and some of his religious metals. These, carefully removed, were carried by a procession to his new grave in the courtyard of the mission. There he lies among more than 3,000 other old… but not nearly so old… Indians of former mission days.”
Old Gabriel’s final resting place is in the cemetery at the Carmel Mission on Rio Road, in Carmel, California, close to the grave of Father Junipero Serra, the man who baptized him in 1780.