Ephraim Pratt, Shutesbury, MA, age 116. It's carved in stone, documented in the Shutesbury Town History, various Worcester Historical Society publications, the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, and even documented in a volume of Travels in New England and New York by Reverend Dr. Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale College, who personally interviewed Mr. Pratt. His death and a brief story of his life and his amazing longevity was reported in many newspapers. Over two hundred years later, the story of Ephraim Pratt's life is easily found on various Internet sites and many online family trees.
Ephraim Pratt was a remarkable man. He lived to a remarkably old age. It just wasn't 116 years.
He was a remarkable storyteller.
He fooled me for a couple of years, too. Then I visited the Shutesbury Town Hall and mentioned that his cemetery marker was one of my favorites of all time. The Town Clerk said something like "You know it's not true, don't you?". I lied. I said I knew. I was too surprised and embarrassed to ask for more information.
It didn't take a lot of research on the Internet to find the facts. I just had to filter out nearly everything that told of his great longevity.
I was struck by the persistence of this story. Many references still tout his longevity even though he died over 200 years ago. His entry at findagrave.com accepts the marker as fact. Searching ancestry.com produces many submitted trees that are incorrect. I am pleased to see that many more trees are correct these days. My earlier searches didn't produce as many correct results.
I was surprised to read Rev. Dr. Timothy Dwight's report about his interview with Ephraim Pratt. There were several statements that should have clued him in to the false story. Rev. Dwight was a child prodigy and a brilliant man who ultimately became the President of Yale College. He was known by his students as a man who had a great memory and a keen perception. I suspect that Rev. Dwight wanted to believe that he was interviewing the man who was said to be the oldest living person in the country. He apparently had read about Mr. Pratt prior to his visit.
As today, a strong belief seems to seek confirmation rather than questioning the facts. Intellegence doesn't seem to be as much of a factor as it should be.
There is some good documentation about the controvery regarding Ephraim Pratt's longevity, the writings of Rev. Dwight, the newspaper accounts, and a published correction to the newspaper.
I found two well-known and reliable sources that document the situation. One is Ward's Genealogical History of the Rice Family: Descendants of Deacon Edmund Rice and the other is Savage's A Genealogical Dictionary of The First Settlers of New England,
Before 1692. It so happens that Ephraim Pratt married Martha Wheelock whose mother is Lydia Rice, a descendent of Deacon Edmund Rice. Some online trees show that Ephraim Pratt's father, another Ephraim Pratt married an Elizabeth Rice, also a descendent of Deacon Edmund Rice, although this is questionable. The senior Ephraim Pratt would have live to the age of 122 which is unlikely making this ancestry questionable.
Rev. Dwight says that he saw an advertisment about Mr. Pratt that prompted his desire to visit him in person. There were plenty of clues that this was a fabricated story, especially the story about the engagement to a 22 year old young lady (which was never actually published) and the need for the writer to assert that this story is true.
The advertisement spoken of by Dr Dwight may have been the communication published in the Windsor Gazette Vt and copied into the Massachusetts Spy printed at Worcester August 5 1801 from which the following extracts are made.From Ward's book of Rice Genealogy, We find:
In Shutesbury in Mass there is now living a man by the name of Ephraim Pratt who was born at East Sudbury in that State on the first day of November 1687. At the age of twenty one he was married to a young lady by the name of Martha Wheelock by whom he had six sons and two daughters four of his sons are now living the eldest of whom is 90 and the youngest 82 years of age a few years since Mr Pratt received a visit from four young persons who were the grand children of his grand children. His diet has been chiefly bread and milk He has not made a meal of meat for more than forty years past, never taken physic, never was bled, nor did he ever consult a physician. He is now 114 years of age was a widower at the age 92 He has rendered himself famous of late for his attention to the fair sex made suit to many young widows. At the age of 105 he formed a connexion with a young lady of 22 years. They were published and the day of marriage appointed but owing to the fickleness of youth the connexion was dissolved. His love and affection has since been divided among a multitude of the Fair The public may rely on the authenticity of this sketch as the writer received his information from indubitable sources as well as from Mr Pratt who is a man of veracity clear intellect and the most retentive memory. That communication containing the foregoing and many other remarkable of Mr Pratt one of which was that he assisted in building the causeway in Sud[bury]... was signed A Traveller
This was the Ephraim Pratt of Shutesbury mentioned in Dwight's Travels Vol 2 page 858 viz Rev Dr Dwight President of Yale College he visited Pratt at Shutesbury Nov 13 1803 and of the interview he had with him remarks, "He was born at East Sudbury Mass in 1687 and in one month from the date of our arrival would complete his one hundred and sixteenth year He was of middle stature firmly built plump but not encumbered with flesh less withered than multitudes at seventy possessed of considerable strength as was evident from the grasp of his hand and the sound of his voice and without any marks of extreme age About two months before his sight became so impaired that he was unable to distinguish persons his hearing also for a short time had been so imperfect that he could not distinctly hear common conversation His memory was still vigorous his understanding sound and his mind sprightly in its conceptions The principal part of the time which I was in the house he held me by the hand cheerfully answered all my questions readily gave me an account of himself in such particulars as I wished to know observed to me that my voice indicated that I was not less than forty five years of age and that he must appear very old to me adding however that some men who had not passed their seventieth year probably looked almost or quite as old as himself We were informed partly by himself and partly by his host that he had been a laborious man all his life and particularly that he had mown grass one hundred and one years successively the preceding summer he had been able to perform this labor During this season his utmost effort was a walk of half a mile in this walk he stumbled over a log and fell immediately afterwards he began evidently to decline and lost in a considerable degree both his sight and hearing in the summer of 1802 he walked without inconvenience two miles and mowed a small quantity of grass Throughout his life he had been uniformly temperate ardent spirits he rarely tasted cider he drank at times but sparingly He is naturally cheerful and humorous and not much inclined to serious thinking According to an account which he gave his host he made a public profession of religion near seventy years before our visit to him When he was ninety three years old he made a contract with his host who told us the story that he should support him during the remainder of his life for 20 [pounds]. Three or four years before this time I saw in a newspaper an advertisement written by a person who professed and appeared to be acquainted with him and his concerns in which it was said that his descendants some of whom were of the fifth generation amounting probably to more than 1500."
Ephraim Pratt's death was reported in the Spy newspaper and a correction was published in the next week's edition of the Spy.
The Spy of June 6, 1804 published the death of Mr Pratt at Shutesbury on the 22d ult aged 116 years 5 months and 22 days who repeated to a gentleman a short time since a part of a sermon he heard 90 years ago and the 55th Chapter of Isaiah and two Psalms.Repeat something loudly and often and it will have led others after a lapse of more than 30 years to adopt as true and give renewed publicity to an error that has occasioned long and unavailing researches to reconcile.
The Spy of the next week contained a communication from the Rev Dr Sumner of Shrewsbury addressed to the printer in which he says, "In your paper of the 6th inst we are told of the death of Mr Pratt of Shutesbury aged 116 years 5 months and 22 days. We conclude it was Ephraim Pratt of whom we were told in your paper of Aug 5 1801 that he was then 114 years of age, that he at the age of 21 married to Martha Wheelock by whom he had six sons and two daughters. "
"As to his age at the time of marriage the person whom he married and the number of his children the account is doubtless correct. It agrees with the information of the family in this town from which he married his wife, the Rev Job Cushing's record, and the town record of Shrewsbury show that that marriage was solemnized July 9, 1724. His eldest child Tyrus was born Oct 1, 1725, Silas Dec 28, 1726, Ephraim Feb 7, 1728, Noah Jan 19, 1729, Micah April 5, 1731, Abel July 10, 1732, Rachel April 24, 1735, and Olive April 16, 1739.
"He was probably born 1703. He removed from Shrewsbury to Shutesbury about 1753 and was 101 or in his 102d year when he died."
This account of the matter given by Dr Sumner more than 50 years ago I [Ward] have recently seen for the first time and of which I had no previous knowledge. Had Dr Dwight have known of it when he published his Travels he would not have given credence to what he had been informed of Mr Pratt's age. His Travels in that particular have led others after a lapse of more than 30 years to adopt as true and give renewed publicity to an error that has occasioned long and unavailing researches to reconcile. It with their knowledge of other things Mr Pratt may not at that interview have himself deceived Dr Dwight respecting his age yet it is difficult to believe that he did not upon discovering that the Dr considered him to be much older than he really was connive at his mistake and confirm him in his error by not undeceiving him.
He was b. at Sud[bury] Nov 30, 1704 and was 99 years 5 months and 22 days old when he d. May 22, 1804
The right wing propaganda methodology circa 1804.