Charlie Smith ~ America’s Oldest Man

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Charlie Smith - America's Oldest Man

I have run into, what I feel, are some amazing things while out on the road. Since I was going to be close to the area, I figured it was the right time to check up on a rumor a little bird told me…

The oldest recorded person to live in the United States was ex-slave Charlie Smith (also called Mitchell Watkins); who was reported to have died in the year 1979 at the age of 137… yes, you read that correctly… 137!!! Now that’s old!

I normally don’t take pictures of graves, but I felt this was definitely worth visiting to taking a picture of.

The Man… The Myth… His name is Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith (Mitchell Watkins) in 1976
Charlie Smith (Mitchell Watkins) in 1976. Photograph by Peggy Kehoe, courtesy of The Polk County Democrat, Bartow FL.

The stories of Charlie Smith vary (even in his own telling) and are considered by most to be what is known as a collective memory. Meaning his recollections from his life may be a shared pool of embellished memories, knowledge, and information from around that time.

During an interview with Charlie Smith on March 17, 1975, he states that he was born in Liberia in 1842, kidnapped at age 12 and sold into slavery to a Texas rancher in Louisiana.

After his life as a slave, he had joined the Union army and then moved out West where the stories of Charlie Smith become even more unreal. He was said to have become a ranch hand and professional gambler. This was when he ran with the (Jessie) James Gang, and also supposedly had chased Billy the Kid as a bounty hunter.

Smith raised a family and eventually ended up touring as a circus sideshow attraction and was prominently featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! He then became a minor celebrity in Central Florida after news articles were published about his alleged longevity and eventually, he was listed as a footnote in Guinness World Record Editions.

In 1972, he was invited to view the launch of Apollo 11, remarking that he did not believe they were actually going to the Moon. He amused reporters with his skeptical comments, asserting that “th’ ain’t nobody goin’ t’ no moon. Me, you, or anybody else” and, after the launch, “I see they goin’ somewhere, but that don’t mean nothin’.”

Charlie’s Age Investigations & Record Disputed by Guinness

In 1978, an investigation debunked Charlie Smith’s claimed age. His 1910 marriage certificate and 1910 census list him as age 35. Later, a 1900 census listing giving Smith’s age as 21 was located, leaving it unclear whether he was born in 1874 or 1879. He passed away in Bartow, Florida on October 5, 1979, at the age of 105 (according to researchers) or 137 (according to his own claim).

David Boehm, editor of Guinness, said that Mr. Smith would be dropped from its 1980 edition because of the marriage certificate that had been discovered which required a revised computation of his age.

Charlie Smith - America's Oldest Man
Charlie Smith – America’s Oldest Man

Though there was great debate about his actual age, in this 1975 recorded interview he states that he was “144 years old”. That would make him 148 years old at the time he died. However, based on the dates on his grave, he would have been 137. While Smith’s actual age remains unconfirmed, researchers do generally agree that he was a centenarian.

Three years after Charlie Smith passed away, the town of Bartow, FL purchased a tombstone for him and placed it locally in Wildwood Cemetery, complete with his self-proclaimed title: “America’s Oldest Man.


You can listen below to his recollections of what it was like to be kidnapped from Liberia, Africa and made a slave in the United States, and then of his life as a U.S. citizen afterward.

Charlie Smith Interview Transcript
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