The grey house looks like the others around it, ordinary and unassuming. But a closer look at the walls of Fiskergade 82 in Aarhus, and you will find a plaque with a grand statement: “In this house, the world’s oldest sailor, Denmark’s oldest mariner and Aarhus’ oldest inhabitant, Christian Jacobsen Drakenberg passed away. Born 18th November 1626, died 9th October 1772. He reached an age of 146 years.”
The legend of Drakenberg has remained a mystery for decades. Did he actually live until the age of 146? It’s extremely unlikely, but Sophus Emil Johnsen, a Danish sailor and chandler, deeply believed that he did, and was so fascinated by Drakenberg, he spent many years of his life trying to spread the story of this remarkable man.
He certainly had a lot of material to work with: The tales surrounding Drakenberg are numerous and fantastic. Drakenberg’s intermittent career as a sailor in the Danish navy included three stints fighting the Swedes, being captured by pirates, and 15 years as a slave under various masters in the Mediterranean before he escaped and made his way back to Denmark. Once on Danish soil with tales to tell, he became a favorite of the aristocracy who enjoyed his stories and showed him off as a living curiosity. Word of this extraordinary, feisty old man got around and in 1735 he was presented to King Christian VI where he was thanked for his war services under three Danish kings and received an annuity.
In 1760, supposedly at the ripe age of 134, Drakenberg arrived in Aarhus and became a lodger at Fiskergade 82—the house in which he would spend his last years. At the time, most people genuinely believed his tales, and with his huge white beard, he certainly looked the part. Today, these claims are looked at with a more skeptical eye.
Drakenberg’s body was mummified after his death, and placed for several years on display in a closed—but easily opened—yellow casket in Aarhus Cathedral. It was customary for souvenir-hunting visitors to the cathedral to pluck hairs from his beard. This custom was stopped in 1840 when Queen Caroline Amalie visited the cathedral, saw the body, and demanded it buried under the cathedral floor. This sparked a tradition among local boys, who dared each other to throw rocks through a small opening in the wall yelling “Good Day Drakenberg!”
Inspired by his fellow sailor’s incredible life, Johnsen began to collect Drakenberg paraphernalia, and he claimed to have received permission to make a cast from Drakenberg’s mummified body. Johnsen had made his wealth as a ship chandler, but started spending more and more of his time on his obsession with Drakenberg. He built a house for his business and named it “Drakenberghus.” He published the periodical Drakenberg-posten, opened a Drakenberg museum north of Aarhus and introduced the Order of Drakenberg—a trophy in the form of a small brass cannon given to people Johnsen deemed worthy. Past recipients include Winston Churchill and Vera Lynn.
This obsession with Drakenberg would eventually drive him to ruin and madness. Johnsen himself became something of a legend, zealously defending Drak’s legacy in increasingly incoherent letters to the local newspaper, walking his pet goat through town dressed in his sailor’s suit and pretending to be captain of the town’s trams. He died penniless and his last remaining Drakenberg souvenirs were disposed of.
However, one of Johnsen’s contributions that remains is the plaque outside Drakenberg’s last house in Aarhus. It was installed on the November 18, on what would have been, if the stories are to be believed, the colorful sailor’s 300th birthday.
Know Before You Go
A portrait of Drakenberg can be found in the nearby open air museum 'Den Gamle By' in the living quarters of merchant's house. Drakenberghus can be found nearby, at Mindebrogade 2.