A Couple of Centenarians?
Reaching 100 years of age is a rare achievement, so when I heard that there was a married couple in my husband’s family tree – Mr. and Mrs. John Pratt – who had BOTH passed that milestone, I was intrigued. If their longevity wasn’t enough to capture my interest, family stories about their marriage sounded like something out of a movie script. Supposedly, they had been young sweethearts in England, but had gone their separate ways and each married someone else. Years later, after they were both widowed, they serendipitously met again – thousands of miles away in Michigan – and were soon married!
All I knew about the couple initially was that Mrs. Pratt was the mother of Elenor (Baker) Shippy and that the Pratts had followed Elenor and her husband, Berzail Shippy, from Michigan to Kansas. In the Lyona Cemetery, north of Woodbine, Dickinson, Kansas, I found a single grave marker memorializing both Mr. and Mrs. Pratt. Their names appear on opposite faces of a square stone column. The information on the stone seemed to confirm the story that both had lived past 100 years. One side of the stone read, “John Pratt Died Aug. 3, 1900 Aged 105 years” while the other side read “Mrs. John Pratt Died Sept. 20, 1889 Aged 103 Years”. Based on this information, I calculated that Mr. Pratt was born about 1795 and Mrs. Pratt about 1786.
It was a bit surprising that Mrs. Pratt would be nine years older than her husband, especially given the story of young romance. This birthdate would also mean that Mrs. Pratt was about 46 years old when her daughter Elenor was born – not impossible, but rather unusual.
I turned to census records to try to verify the ages of Mr. and Mrs. Pratt. The latest census in which they both appeared was the 1885 Kansas State Census. I found John and Mary Pratt in Dickinson County, Kansas. Both had been born in England. John was listed as 85 and Mary as 105! If that age was correct, Mary would have been 109 when she died and 50 when her daughter was born – both rather unlikely. I decided to go back to earlier census records, since ages of younger people tend to be reported more accurately. I knew Mary’s daughter’s maiden name was Baker, so when I found a William and Mary Baker (both born in England) listed immediately after Elenor Shippy’s family in the 1860 Lapeer County, Michigan census, it seemed likely that they were her parents. It also appeared that William and Mary had several children besides Elenor (both older and younger), although this is an assumption since census records before 1880 don’t actually list the relationship to the head of household. I then found what seems to be the same family in the 1850 Lapeer County, Michigan census (this took some creative searching, since their last name was incorrectly recorded as Parker). At that time, Elenor was still unmarried and living with the family, strengthening the argument that William and Mary Baker were her parents. As for the question of age, Mary Baker was listed as 46 in 1850 and 52 in 1860. If the earliest age was the most accurate, Mary was born about 1804 and would only have been about 85 when she died. This age is also compatible with the birthdates of children in the household, which ranged from 1830 to 1844 (meaning Mary would have been between 26 and 40 when they were born).
Since the reported ages of Mary Baker and Mary Pratt were so different, I was concerned that they might not actually be the same person. But then I found a marriage record from Lapeer County Michigan for John Pratt and Mary Baker. They were married on 27 Jul 1866. This record gives John Pratt’s age is sixty-something (the second part of the number is not clear) and Mary Baker is listed as sixty-seven. Mary’s age is several years older than would be predicted for the Mary Baker of the 1850 census, but much younger than would be predicted for the Mary Pratt of the 1885 census. I won’t go into the details of Mary’s age in every record I found, but suffice it to say it was consistently inconsistent! The following chart shows Mary’s expected age in a particular year based on her age in the 1850 census (in red), and the actual recorded age in that year (in blue). After her marriage in 1866, her reported age took a huge jump.
I made a similar chart for John Pratt. His age did show some fluctuations, but was overall was much more consistent than his wife’s.
In the early 1880s, the supposedly advanced age of the couple began to attract attention. An item in the Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot from 6 Sep 1882 said, “Mrs. John Pratt, who lives four mile [sic] north of Lapeer, is alleged to be over 102 years old, and her husband is past 93.” This item was reprinted in newspapers around the country! The couple must have moved to Kansas sometime in late 1882 or early 1883, because on 16 Jun 1883, the Junction City Union reported that “Davis County [the former name for Geary County] has a centenarian – Mrs. Pratt, 104 years old on the 12th of this month.” In 1887, the Junction City Union again printed an article about the couple that said Mrs. Pratt was in her 108th year [meaning 107] and Mr. Pratt in his 90th year [meaning 89]. The article reports that “while driving somewhere near Skiddy, the old man was thrown from his wagon and his shoulder dislocated, while the wife who was laying down in the wagon was unharmed. Dr. Daugherty fixed him up. They say the old man is a terror on the drive.”
I have not been able to find a notice of Mary Pratt’s death. However, John Pratt’s death was mentioned in several Kansas newspapers. On 4 Aug 1900, the Abilene Daily Chronicle reported that he died at the home of Frank Shippy at the age of 101. According to the death notice, John was born in Lincolnshire, England and had lived in the United States for fifty years. A few weeks later, the same newspaper reported that “Robert Stuart & Son have a contract for erecting a monument at Woodbine on the graves of John Pratt, aged 105 years who died a few weeks ago and also on that of his wife aged 103 who died about 11 years ago.” Those ages match what I found on their grave marker. I had hoped that the mention of Lincolnshire, England in John Pratt’s death notice would lead to additional records in England, but I have not been able to locate anything yet.
So were the family stories true? Looking at all the available information on John and Mary Pratt, I believe that John Pratt may have actually lived to be 100 or more. However, I seriously doubt that Mary Pratt was even close to 100 when she died. I don’t know why her reported age increased so much in the last few years of her life. Maybe she enjoyed the attention that came with her supposed longevity. Perhaps there was some other reason she felt the need to exaggerate her age. I also haven’t been able to verify the family story of young love rekindled. Other than the fact that both John and Mary were born in England, there is no evidence yet to indicate whether they had been previously acquainted or not. I will keep searching and hope to uncover more clues about this fascinating story.
Noah Boyles, Travel Writer
Teresa is the the owner of KinSeeker Genealogy Services. She has a Ph.D. in Biology and a lifelong fascination with genealogy. She been researching her own family history for over 20 years and loves helping others "find their stories."
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