Friday, December 16, 2016

Centenarians in Early Grinnell

According to published data, more and more Americans are living longer. If life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 47 for white men and 49 for white women, a hundred years later the corresponding numbers were 75 for men and 80 for women. African Americans have enjoyed a similar increase—black men's life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 33 but 68 by 2000; black women's life expectancy rose from 34 in 1900 to 75 in 2000. A consequence of this growing longevity is that increasing numbers of Americans are living to age 100 and beyond. If this cadre of the super-annuated was once small, the growing numbers have led various public agencies to count and honor centenarians. The State of Iowa, for example, has created a Department on Aging that solicits information on and organizes public recognition of Iowa's centenarians. As of October 2012, the agency counted 587 Iowans aged 100 or more, and the 2010 census (which did not insist upon consistent reporting of birth dates) reported 846 Iowa centenarians. More than 80% of this group is female.

But what about early Grinnell? If most men and women could expect modestly long lives, were there centenarians in town in the early twentieth century? And, if there were, did the locals remark upon the long-lived, and perhaps celebrate their longevity? The answer to both questions appears to be "yes." Although I found no systematic effort to identify and publicize the long-lived, early Grinnell definitely had centenarians whose great age attracted public attention, perhaps especially because in their time they stood out even more than today's long-lived Iowans. Today's post will examine a few of these early centenarians and how Grinnell marked their long lives.
Undated photo of Mumpford Holland (1825?-1916)
When Mumpford Holland, former slave and long-time Grinnell resident, passed away in July, 1916, the Grinnell Herald reported that Holland was "believed to have been about 108 years old." The front-page obituary was long and affectionate, if also colored by the language of racial difference. Perhaps most telling, however, was the public perception: "It almost seemed that Mumpford couldn't die. The years passed by and seemed to leave little impression upon him," the newspaper remarked.
Headline from page 1 obituary of Mumpford Holland, Grinnell Herald August 1, 1916
However, for many of his vintage (especially former slaves like Holland), reliable records of birth were out of reach, so that over the years Holland provided census-takers with conflicting data on his age, date of birth, and even place of birth. The 1870 census, for example, reported that Holland had been born in Kentucky and was 30 years of age, which implied that he was born in 1839 or 1840. The 1880 census confirmed place of birth, but identified Holland as being 35, just five years older than reported ten years previously. The 1895 Iowa census, however, indicated that Holland had aged rapidly, describing him as 64 years of age (and therefore born in 1830 or 1831); instead of Kentucky, the 1895 record gave Mississippi as place of birth. The 1900 census reported that Holland was 75 years of age—eleven years older than claimed just five years earlier—and helpfully provided a month and year of birth (January, 1825), the specificity of which seemed to invite credibility. The 1905 Iowa census maintained the Mississippi place of birth, but counted Holland as 80, maintaining consistency with the previous census. Five years later, however, the 1910 census judged Holland to be 100, but omitted place of birth, acknowledging that he was "formerly a slave with no records." The next Iowa census (1915) and the last one to count Holland before his death, repeated his 1910 age—100—but asserted that he'd been born in Kentucky as some of the earliest censuses had claimed.
Record for Mumpford Holland from 1915 Iowa Census
This welter of conflicting information is not unusual where written birth or christening records are rare or non-existent. Nevertheless, the contradictory evidence makes it difficult to determine whether Mumpford Holland in fact reached the remarkable status of centenarian, despite the 1910 and 1915 censuses.  Clearly he seemed old to the people around him. F. W. Thackeray, who completed the 1915 census form for Holland in which he claimed an age of 100, noted parenthetically that Holland was "probably older." If one assumes that the date of birth reported in the 1900 census—January, 1825—is correct, then at his death in 1916 Mumpford Holland would have been 91; if he were 100 in 1910, as the census claimed, then Holland would have been 106 in 1916.
Mumpford Holland (ca. 1890) (Digital Grinnell)
In other words, we can't know his age for sure. Whatever Holland's actual age, it's clear that Grinnellians of the time thought he was very long-lived. His life, begun in slavery, was long and hard. His wife had been sold away when the couple were both slaves, and Holland never saw her again. Once out from under slavery, Holland picked up odd jobs—waiting on tables, working as a gardener, and later doing just about anything to earn a living. Even the complimentary obituary printed in the Grinnell Herald had to admit that Holland had had to put up with a lot from men in town who mocked him. Never rich, he managed to buy his own, modest home, and somehow he kept going, demonstrating a resilience that few could match and which might well have helped him live many years.

More reliable confirmation of having reached centenarian status comes from Susannah Law Kingdon, who was born in Peckham, England in July 2, 1829, and christened at Camberwell parish October 1, 1829—both dates having been entered in the parish register.
Cumberwell parish register of baptisms, 1829
(Susannah Law's christening is no. 15, 2nd from bottom)
In 1851, when she was just 22, she crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship that encountered disaster just off Long Island. Susannah made it safely to New York where her brother resided, and where soon she made the acquaintance of William H. Kingdon. According to her obituary, when she and Kingdon decided to marry, Susannah returned to England in 1855 to acquire her trousseau, then crossed the ocean another time, culminating in her 1856 New York marriage. The union resulted in the birth of six children, two of whom died in infancy. In 1870 or 1871 (sources differ on the date) the family came to Iowa, first settling in Malcom, then later moving into Grinnell where William Kingdon operated a small shoemaker's business. Although William was five years Susannah's junior, he died first: William Kingdon was only sixty years of age at the time of his 1894 death. Thereafter, Susannah Law Kingdon lived with one or another of her children. For some years she lived with her daughter Harriet Goodrich, first at 633 Main, then a few blocks to the north at 1033 Main, and then finally at 1221 Broad. When Harriet died in 1928 (she, too, was only sixty years of age), her "aged mother" (as the obituary put it) moved to 1008 High Street to live with her son, Frederick S. Kingdon (1863-1953) (who, his own obituary later noted, had hoped to live as long as his mother).
William H. Kingdon (1834-1894), husband of Susannah Law Kingdon
Consequently, when Grinnell took notice of Susannah Kingdon's one-hundredth birthday, the Grinnell Herald allocated two columns of page one to what the newspaper called a "quiet" observance at her son's home. According to the newspaper, "Many cards and telegrams have been received from various points all over the land to commemorate the occasion"—and on her birthday "more than one hundred messages...were received before noon." Eighty-two people signed the guest book, and Kingdon's photograph was taken "with her birthday cake bearing 100 candles" (if it survives, I could not find this photo). Another photograph captured the centenarian with her five great-great grandchildren." Among the most enjoyable parts of the day, the newspaper observed, was the broadcast of birthday greetings from Des Moines radio station WHO and the next day from a radio station in Shenandoah—this in an age when radio was still in its infancy.
Photo of Susannah Law Kingdon (ca. 1923)
Grinnell Herald July 2, 1929
How much Susannah Kingdon enjoyed all the attention is impossible to know. Certainly her long life had included many sorrows, not least the early death of two infant children, her husband's death in 1894, and then the demise of adult children: Caroline Kingdon Bahrenfuse in 1906 (1865-1906); Charles Henry Kingdon in 1915 (1856-1915); and Harriett Kingdon Goodrich in 1928 (1867-1928). But the town's centenarian was clearly made of sterner stuff, these household crises seemingly unable to slow her march to exceptional life span. With passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, Mrs. Kingdon—then already past 90—vigorously and regularly exercised her newly-won right, conceding nothing to age or to the trials thrown up before her. An Episcopalian all her life, Susannah was, her obituary affirmed, "a religious individual," perhaps the source of strength that helped her ford the rivers of adversity she had faced.  Like all other mortals, however, Susannah Law Kingdon did finally have to confront death, which came in relatively short order after her one-hundredth birthday.

When she died in February, 1930, at the age of 100 years, seven months and 19 days (as the obituary pointed out), she died in hospital, having suffered serious illness for most of the last two months of life. She was famous for her embroidery which she continued to produce until her final days, bestowing pieces of her handiwork upon all her numerous surviving descendants—only one son outlived her, but eight grandchildren, twenty-two great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren remained to carry the memory of their remarkable ancestor.
Born in Wayne County, Kentucky, Rachel (sometimes "Rachael") Williams was one of seven daughters to whom her mother gave birth. In 1853 Rachel married another Kentuckian, Benjamin Adkins, and to this couple were born nine children (four of whom died before she did). The Adkins family came to Iowa "a few years after their marriage," and as pioneers settled in the eastern portion of Jasper County, near Kellogg, where her husband farmed until his 1887 death. Rachel later lived in Grinnell with her daughter, Mrs. George Cooper, then with her son, Morris Adkins (1854-1922). She died in Grinnell March 31, 1924, her obituary announcing, "Mrs. Rachel Adkins Closes Long Life."

Gravestone for Rachel Williams Adkins, Antle Cemetery, Kellogg, Iowa
Certainly her life was long, but whether it totaled 100 years is unclear. Her gravestone in the Antle Cemetery in Kellogg reports her as having been born in 1823, adding that she had lived "100 YS 4 MS 20 DS" when she died March 31, 1924. Her obituary, composed, one must assume, at about the same time as the gravestone, presents a different birth date and therefore a different life span. Reporting that the woman had been born in 1824 (not 1823), the newspaper account therefore totaled her life as having lasted "99 years, four months and twenty days."
Undated photo of Rachel Williams Adkins (1824?-1924)
Apparently Adkins herself was uncertain about her year of birth. Like Mumpford Holland, in succeeding censuses Adkins reported her age inconsistently: the September, 1850 census described her as 26 years old (meaning that she would have been born in 1823 if her birth in fact occurred in November, as reported elsewhere); but the June, 1860 census lists her age as 32 (meaning she was born in 1827 or 1828); the July, 1870 count—almost exactly ten years later—counts her as twelve years older (44, and therefore born in 1826 or 1827), which corresponds well to the following census (July, 1880) in which Adkins is described as 54. Thirty years later (April, 1910), however, she told the census official that she was 87 years of age (and therefore born in 1823 or 1824). In 1915 she reported herself as being 90, an age that was at least consistent with the 1920 census, according to which Adkins was 95 years old. These last two reports would place her birth in 1825 or 1824.

A reliable birth or christening record could clear up this confusion, but I was unable to locate any documentation that reliably recorded her exact birth date, so the question of whether Rachel Adkins was in fact a centenarian remains open. All the same, it's clear that she was very old at the time of her March, 1924 death. Like Holland and Kingdon, Adkins had weathered some difficult moments. Her mother had died when Rachel was very young, and all her six siblings had preceded her in death. Of her own nine children, four died before their mother, including one who died in infancy. And when her husband succumbed in 1887, she began a widowhood that lasted 37 years. All these events played out against the inevitably difficult circumstances that attached to pioneering in central Iowa.

Like Susannah Kingdon, Rachel Adkins was religious, having been an active member of the Baptist church for almost 70 years, so perhaps her faith helped her deal with adversity. Nevertheless, her final years were apparently difficult; according to her obituary, when "her usual vigor" failed and "when the infirmities of old age caused her life to be a burden to herself," she "longed for her last rest," which came with pneumonia.
So far as I could learn, Rachel Adkins did not receive the sort of adulatory celebration that had attached to Susannah Kingdon's 100th birthday. But there can be little doubt that she, like Mumpford Holland, had enjoyed the attention implicit in very old age. Some other Grinnellians seem to have lived lives almost as long, but apparently none lived any longer than these folk. When Daniel Hays, age 95, attended the centenary celebrations of Susannah Kingdon, the newspaper described him as "the oldest person to call upon her" and "probably the oldest man in Grinnell." Hays's November, 1930 obituary categorically labeled the dead man, by then 96 years old, "Grinnell's oldest citizen." And when George Washington Cooper (d. 1941) passed away, the newspaper headline reported that "One of Grinnell's Oldest Men" had died; he was 92.
Grinnell Herald April 17, 1941
Consequently, whatever the exact age of Mumpford Holland and Rachel Adkins, they, like Susannah Kingdon, were among early Grinnell's most senior citizens. Elsewhere some others lived even longer lives. Delina Ecker Filkins, for example, was born, lived and died in Stark County, New York, reaching the "super-centenary" age of 113. By comparison, James Sinclair Hunnicutt, who died in nearby Tama in September, 1923, was practically a youngster, his life span having measured 101 years, five months, and one day. But in early Grinnell Susannah Kingdon, Rachel Adkins, and Mumpford Holland seem to have lived the longest.

Their advanced age understandably attracted the attention of townsfolk, most of whom could not expect to enjoy lives anywhere near as long. Having survived slavery, like Holland, or having ventured to sail across the Atlantic several times, like Kingdon, or having put down pioneer roots in Iowa's prairie, like Adkins, this trio had seen plenty of hardship. Yet they had lived long. If no office of state government sought to identify and celebrate them as today's Iowa centenarians can expect, fellow townsfolk nevertheless adorned their lives with respect and marked their passing with regret.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if any of these folks have family still residing in Grinnell?