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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

Just How Old Were They? – Two Butler County Centenarians

Butler County Centenarians.png
Poplar Bluff Republican, issue of July 9, 1931, page 2. 
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“When Uncle Tom Kemp, 118, and Uncle Ben Hodge, 118, Butler county centenarians-plus, met one another a few days ago, and it was their first meeting, although they have resided in the same county nearly 50 years. This shows them greeting one another at the Hodge home, near Hendrickson, where Uncle Tom went to pay a call. Both men seemed to have recovered from a recent illness.”

On January 17, 1926, newspaper readers throughout Missouri were surprised to read the following: “Benjamin Hodge today celebrated his 109th birthday. Records at his home near here show that he was born in New York Jan. 16, 1817.” By August 20, he was 111. An article in the Tipton Times, Tipton, Missouri, stated: “The family Bible … has faded so badly it is impossible to tell just exactly whether he was born in 1815 or 1817, but ‘Uncle Ben’ remembers his parents telling him he was born in 1815, he says.” Reporters then began regular visits to Hodge in subsequent years, usually around his birthday. He rode his horse to vote for a new Butler County Courthouse in 1927, his age then reported at 114. However, articles the following two years both reported on his 114th birthday celebration, and he turned 119 in both 1930 and 1931, according to reports. He celebrated in 1930 by going rabbit hunting, and still lived alone on his farm.

Not to be outdone, another Butler County man, Thomas Kemp, also claimed to be a few months older than Hodge in an interview from the Poplar Bluff Republican in December 1929. Kemp had been born in Carroll County, Tennessee, and came to Butler County by 1876. He continued to farm on a small acreage while living with one of his daughters. Kemp also provided commentary on how the world had changed, including observations on women’s fashion, “…some of them, don’t have enough clothes to whip the flies out of a sugar barrel.” The two men eventually met to exchange stories in July 1931.

Today, it is easy to check such claims using federal censuses. Hodge first appears on a census in 1850 in Chemung Co., New York, in the household of Aris (Arvis) Hodge, aged 3. His age advances roughly 10 years per census until 1900, when he added 6 years and reported 59. Subsequently, his age was 84 in 1910, 94 in 1920, and 118 in 1930. His birth state is New York, although he was telling reporters by 1930, he was born in England.

Considering his mother was born after 1800 according to censuses, his birth this early is unlikely. Censuses point toward about 1847, making him 85 to 86 at the time of his death. Kemp’s age follows a similar trajectory: age 9 in 1850, 35 in 1880, 64 in 1900, 78 in 1910, 93 in 1920, and 110 in 1930. He was probably age 85-90.

Neither man lived long after the final newspaper articles. Kemp had lived with his daughters for years, while Hodge lived alone until his health worsened by 1930. Both men still claimed they could do a full day’s work in the interviews. Benjamin Hodge had a leg amputated August 29, 1933, and died of complications on October 1. His death certificate says he was 120 years, 9 months, and 8 days old, born December 23, 1812. Kemp succumbed to heart problems September 28, 1932, and his death certificate says he was 120 years and 18 days old, born September 10, 1812.

Why did these men inflate their ages so greatly? Possibly they craved attention. Maybe they did think they were that old—memories fade or blur over time. There is also a history of rural residents telling credulous reporters either what they think they want them to hear or relating a tall tale. However, both men had convinced their children or grandchildren of their advanced age.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.