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July 2012
Samuel "Old Uncle Sam" Shepherd had a hard but interesting life. He was a slave who managed to buy his freedom, and lived on until 1909. But it's his birthdate that generates more interest than the date of his death.

His grave marker in Oak Hill Cemetery (Lawrence, Kansas) lists his birthdate as 1784. This would make him 125 years old when he died. If true, he would potentially be the oldest person ever to have lived.


According to wikipedia, Jeanne Calment of France holds the record for the oldest unambiguously documented human lifespan. She died at the age of 122 in 1997. Christian Mortensen, who died at the age of 115, holds the record for the oldest male lifespan (again, unambiguously documented). Samuel Shepherd, at 125, would have beaten both of them.

However, the documentation for Shepherd's birthdate is incredibly ambiguous. There's just his word for it, and he seems to have guessed at the date. This disqualifies him for consideration as the Oldest Person Ever.

In fact, Shepherd seems to offer an example of the phenomenon of age exaggeration, which I've discussed on the site before. It's the tendency for people to lie about their age (or, more charitably, to grow confused about it), exaggerating it upwards as they near the centenary mark. They do this because being perceived to be very old makes them feel special and gives them higher status in the community.

The most famous example of this phenomenon is the Ecuadorian town of Vilcabamba, which briefly gained a worldwide reputation as the Town of Supercentenarians, until anthropologists realized that large numbers of people in the town were misrepresenting their age.

I've also posted about the case of Buster Martin (who claimed to be a 101-year-old marathon runner), Mariam Amash (who claimed to be 120), and the Chinese village of Bama (which, like Vilcabamba, is supposed to be full of supercentenarians).
Categories: Death, Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 09, 2012
Comments (3)
Bethel, Alaska is a small town. Travel writer Harry Franck, writing in the early 1940s, offered this description of it:
Sidewalk lounging New Yorkers would mistake Bethel at the mouth of the Kuskokwim for the end of the earth. But I found it interesting. For one thing I saw there my first Eskimos, at least in their native habitat. Bethel has a truck, too, and maybe a mile and a half of road... Then there is Bethel's boardwalk, a resounding wooden sidewalk that runs the whole length of the single-row town -- and beyond, vaulting a minor stream by transforming itself into a bridge, reverberating on into what I suppose Bethel calls its suburbs.


Bethel is on the left-hand side of the map, near Kuskokwim Bay


Bethel residents, circa 1940

Bethel isn't much bigger today. It currently has a population of around 6000, many of whom aren't permanent residents. And there are no roads connecting the town to the outside world. You've got to fly, walk, or travel by boat to get there. All of which makes Bethel an unlikely location for what's shaping up to be the most-publicized hoax of 2012.

At the beginning of June, fliers appeared around Bethel announcing that a Taco Bell restaurant would be opening there in time for July 4th. The flier said that positions were available at the restaurant, and listed a phone number for those seeking employment.

Bethel has only one fast-food restaurant, a Subway, so the news that Taco Bell was coming there created enormous excitement. Hundreds of people phoned the contact number -- only to discover they had been taken in by a hoax. The number connected them to a (very annoyed) local resident who wasn't affiliated in any way with Taco Bell.

The fliers turned out to be the result of what local police described as a feud between two Bethel residents. (The names of the two haven't been released... or, at least, I haven't been able to find them.) One of the feuders posted the fliers, listing the other guy's phone number, as a prank. The Anchorage Daily News described it as an "evil hoax."

There was great disappointment in Bethel when everyone realized Taco Bell wasn't opening there. But the story of the taco-loving town made national news, and thereby came to the attention of Taco Bell, whose PR people realized they had a great publicity opportunity on hand.

So Taco Bell arranged for a food truck to be flown into Bethel, and on July 2 gave away over 6000 free tacos to the townsfolk. Most people in the town seemed to appreciate the publicity stunt. Though one resident suggested Taco Bell might try adding some Alaskan-themed ingredients, such as moose or cariboo taco, to its menu.


The Taco Bell food truck arrives by air in Bethel


Bethel residents get their tacos

Taco Bell, of course, is no stranger to hoax-themed publicity. See the Taco Liberty Bell hoax of 1996.

Links: kyuk.org, ktuu.com, Washington Post.
Categories: Food, Places
Posted by Alex on Tue Jul 03, 2012
Comments (4)
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