Grave of 'America's Oldest Man' – Bartow, Florida - Atlas Obscura
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Bartow, Florida

Grave of 'America's Oldest Man'

Charlie Smith was almost certainly not 137 years old when he died, but why let that get in the way of a great story? 

Author Daniel Wallace once wrote that “when a man’s stories are remembered, then he is immortal.” In the unusual case of Charlie Smith, while his stories may have fallen short of granting him immortality, they did make him exceedingly old.

Accounts vary (even and especially his own), but the version that he seemed most fond of telling puts his point of entry into the world in Liberia in 1842, and 12 years later he was kidnapped and brought to the United States where he was sold into slavery. From there he was bought by a Texas farmer named Charlie Smith, who treated the young boy as his own.

Upon Smith senior’s death, as requested, the boy assumed his name, joined the Union army, and then moved out West where his adventures become increasingly improbable, from serving as a ranch hand to becoming a professional gambler, falling in with the James Gang, chasing Billy the Kid as a bounty hunter, raising a family and eventually ending up as a circus sideshow attraction.

It is this version of events, more or less, that is captured in the 1978 episode of the television series Visions, titled “Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree,” in which Smith narrates his tale to a nursing home orderly through a series of flashbacks. (The title comes from Smith having allegedly been lured to America by the promise of fritters growing on trees.) 

While Smith’s actual age remains unconfirmed, researchers do generally agree that he was likely a centenarian. A marriage certificate for Smith and Bell Van issued on January 8th, 1910, lists his age as 35 and his place of birth as Georgia. Further research has uncovered census documents listing a Mr. Smith as being 21 in the year 1900. Both of these documents would make him roughly 105 when he died, which, if not a record, is still nothing to scoff at.

Whether you consider his stories the entertaining embellishments of a quirky local character or something more malign, his neighbors in Bartow, Florida were evidently amused or convinced enough of the authenticity of his tall tales. Three years after his passing the town purchased a tombstone for him in the local cemetery, complete with his self-proclaimed title: “America’s Oldest Man.”

Know Before You Go

His tombstone is in row 28 of Wildwood Cemetery, second from the wall and near a large tree.

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