How old Cary Grant?

It’s an obviously apocryphal story, but immortal nonetheless.  An editor is supposed to have cabled the Hollywood legend to inquire, in compact telegramese, “How old Cary Grant?”  Grant responded, “Old Cary Grant fine.  How you?”  Asking a star his age would have been like asking my mother.

My mother may have been the most honest person on the planet, but since she considered her age to be in a category of matters that were nobody’s business, she sometimes indulged in a harmless fib.  When it came time to file the paperwork for Social Security, her birth certificate gave away the fact that she was a year older than she claimed to be.  She was three years older than my father, not two, and she was sensitive about that extra year.  Two years older was acceptable.  It would have been more like eighteen months, anyway.  Their birthdays were six months apart.  A three-year age difference was beyond the pale.  The subtraction of a few months made no difference.

Birth certificates should not always have the last word.  My mother’s said that she was born nearly a month before the date she had always celebrated, and on the twenty-fifth of the month, not the seventeenth.  The document also gave her official name as “Logan Baby.”  The old, overworked country doctor had probably filled out the certificate from memory, months and many more deliveries after the blessed event at the Logan household.

The census can be a useful tool for pinning down an ancestor’s actual age, but a wary approach is needed.  Thomas Lovewell’s daughter, Julia McCaul, is described as twenty-four years old in the 1880 Carbondale, Kansas, census.  Five years later she had aged only four years, calling herself twenty-eight when the Kansas census-taker came knocking.  So was she born in 1855, as the 1880 census suggests, or is the 1885 figure correct, making her birth year 1856?  Neither.  She was born in 1857.  The 1860 census lists her as a two-year-old Iowan, and a two-year-old cannot be mistaken for anything else.

Julia McCaul’s half-sister, Cora Alice Farrar, quizzed by pension examiners in the 1920’s, hemmed and hawed before admitting that her own birth year must have been 1874  or 1875.  A quick check of the 1875 Carbondale census reveals that Cora Alice apparently shared my mother’s attitude on the subject of a woman's age.  In 1875, Cora was already five years old.

Depending on which census one sides with, Thomas Lovewell’s brother Solomon was either Thomas’s younger brother, his older brother, or his twin.  On the other hand, the evidence for Thomas Lovewell’s age is remarkably consistent.

In 1850 he was a twenty-four-year-old Illinois farmer.  1860 found him a thirty-four-year-old prospector, sharing a miner’s shack with three partners in Virginia City.  One year later, when he enlisted in the Army, he told the recruiter that he was thirty-five.  The 1870 census is bizarre, a fit subject for its own blog entry, but in 1880 Thomas was back on track, fifty-four years old and now a stone cutter.  In years of a federal census, when answering the question, “How old were you on your last birthday,”  Thomas’s answer always ends in a “4.”  In the Kansas census, taken in years ending in “5,” Thomas’s age ends in “9.”  In December of 1895 he dropped by the Belleville Telescope newspaper office and announced that he had just celebrated his 70th birthday.  In the summer of 1902, a Topeka newspaper proclaimed him to be seventy-six.  There is no doubt that, from his twenties to his eighties, Thomas Lovewell believed he had been born late in 1825.

Anyone who has watched the slideshow on one of the pages of this website may notice that the birth year engraved on his tombstone is 1826.  Why the discrepancy?  Perhaps owing to a clerk’s error, an 1893 pension document does give his date of birth as December 20, 1826, and his age as sixty-six.  However, earlier that same year, Thomas had testified under oath that he was sixty-seven.  My mother gave out one birth year to her friends and the correct one to the Social Security Administration.  Thomas may have done the opposite.  Once in the system of the Bureau of Pensions as a man born in 1826, for official purposes, that one was gospel.

But you and I know better.

© Dale Switzer 2023