Christian Mortensen - 115 years, 252 days, Denmark and United States

Christian Mortensen’s birth in Denmark in 1882 is well documented in both official and church records. His validation reports (Wilmoth, Skytthe, Friou, Jeune) can justifiably claim to match the gold standard of the validations defined for Calment and also applied for Kimura [32,48,73]. However, he led a life of mostly solitude and travel. His record is an outlier in his country where no other male supercentenarians have been validated. His case therefore requires extensive scrutiny. With help from Per Hagemann we were able to carry out further searches in Danish archives for information about his life.

He immigrated to the United States, arriving on 8th Sept 1903 after completing a tailor’s apprenticeship. The ship’s manifest on his arrival shows that he had arranged to stay with Niels Hansen of Kenilworth Avenue, Oak Park, Chicago. His brother Anders Peter Julius Mortensen may also have been in Chicago working as a cobbler at around this time [74], but he must have returned to Denmark where he married in 1909. Jyllands-Posten articles from Oct. 3, 1992 and Aug. 10, 1995 say that Christian Mortensen went away unhappy with the tradition that a tailor apprentice should pay for his training, even though he made good money for the tailor master. It annoyed him that he couldn't become a soldier (he was too short) and that made him travel to the United States, where he initially took a job as a milkman.

International travel provides both opportunity and motive for an identity switch. In the US, Mortensen led an itinerant lifestyle for some extended periods of his life. We found the record of his marriage 16 Nov, 1916 with Mayne Carne, a childless widow of James W Carne whose birth name in 1886 was Slavins, while her step father’s name was Spaningberg. They were recorded living together in 1920 when Mortensen was working as a dairy teamster. It was a rather short and unhappy marriage with no children. After their divorce Mayne remarried to Carl J. Koepke.

Christian’s nephew Richard Mortensen said (Jyllands-Posten from Aug 15, 1997) that the family lost contact with him for 25 years until he sent a letter and communication was resumed. Since then he has visited Denmark four or five times, the last time in 1968. His niece Grethe Mortensen said (Horsens Folkeblad from  Aug 19, 1995) that he has been to Denmark four times, the first time in 1949. This agrees with his published photos from 1949, 1955 and 1962 and the statement that the visit in 1962 was his third visit to Denmark (Aarhuus Stiftstidende from 13 April 1962). However, in an interview with the validators, Mortensen said that he had returned home to see his mother. She died in 1924.  After world war two, Mortensen returned home to Denmark on multiple occasions until at least 1969 and must have seen family back home. We know he saw his brother Julius and nephews, but it is not clear how consistently his identity could be checked over time. In 1978 he moved into a retirement home to live out his last two decades in care.

We have searched the official records and newspapers for the US extensively and found a few other items that the validators seem to have missed. We can plug a gap in the record between about 1905 and 1918 with a 1910 census return from Los Angeles Assembly District 75, California where he was recorded as T. P. T. Cristian Mortensen working as a tailor in a shop and accommodated as a lodger. The three initials match his first given names at baptism of Thomas Peter Thorvald Kristian Ferdinand. His recorded age and year of entry are exactly correct and the circumstances are consistent with his testimony that he was in the Western U.S. at this time. He is also in the Los Angeles City Directory for 1914 as a tailor under the name Thorwald C Mortensen working for Charles N Van Pelt from Kansas. He later said that he ceased to work as a tailor in 1915 when mechanisation reduced demand for custom tailoring.

We discovered three reports in the Chicago Tribune from 1946 to 1947 mentioning his activities as a Sea Scout. The first reported on 21st July 1946 that he qualified as an adult leader. His name is given as Chris Mortensen and his address in Normal Avenue matches the 1940 census and WWII draft card. This is also consistent with his testimony that he enjoyed sailing and built his own boat after retiring to South Texas shortly afterwards in 1950.

To trace his whereabouts between 1950 and 1978 the validators were apparently able to look at his pension records (presumably from the now defunct Continental Canning Company.) It would have been helpful if these locations could have been listed. Perhaps it is not too late for details such as these to be published.

His validators dismissed the switch possibilities because he was able to recall stories from his youth and also because he was often seen by his Danish family. However, both his parents had died by 1924, and his brothers by 1967 so the period of testimony from younger relatives must be shown to overlap. His memory of events was not always good. For example, he could not remember the name of his wife (Jyllands-Posten, Aug 16, 1997) and the name of the village where he was born (Jyllands-Posten, July 15, 1997).  It is true that he gave a remarkably detailed account of his life to validators and reporters during interviews at his retirement home. These match the documentary record well.


Mortensen1949.png

Figure 10 - Christian Mortensen age 67 (left) and his brother Julius age 71 (right) in Skanderborg, 1949.

Date

Event or occupation

Place

Source

16 Aug 1882

Birth

Skaarup

Birth register

26 Dec 1882

Baptism

Fruering

Church register

1890

7 years old

Skaarup

Census

27 Sep 1896

Confirmation

Fruering

Church register

1 Jan 1900

Certificate issued

Skaarup

Conscript register

17 Apr 1900

Death of brother Hans Johan

Skaarup

Death record

1901

Apprentice tailor (res. from 1898)

Skanderborg

Census

3 Mar 1903

Issued, tailor

Immigration record

26 Aug 1903

Emigration

Copenhagen

8 Sep 1903

Immigration

New York

Passenger list

27 May 1904

Death of father

26 Mar 1905

Danish brotherhood

Chicago

Document

1908

Travel west

Testimony

1910

Tailor

Los Angeles

Census

1914

Tailor

Los Angeles

Directory

1915

Ceased to be tailor

Danish newspaper

16 Nov 1916

Marriage to Mayne Carne (Slavin)

Indiana

Marriage registration

12 Sep 1918

Milkman

Chicago

WWI Draft card

1920

Teamster in Dairy

6034 Union Ave, Chicago

Census

15 Jun 1922

Became US citizen

Chicago

Naturalisation record

1923

Joined Masonic Lodge

Chicago

Testimony

Before 1924

Visited Denmark

Testimony

10 Jun 1924

Death of mother

Death register

23 Mar 1925

Master Mason

Chicago

Masonic transfer

1926

Ex-wife remarried

Marriage registration

About 1928

Wrote to family

Testimony of nephew Richard Mortensen

7 June 1929

Hired by Can Company

Clearing Illinois

Pension record

Oct 1929

Wall Street crash

Historical

23 Dec 1936

Issued social security

SSA card

1940

Laborer, tin can factory

Normal Blvd, Chicago

Census

1942

Continental Canning Co.

6236 Normal Blvd

WWII draft card

21 July 1946

Qualified as Sea Scout leader

Normal Ave

Chicago Tribune

25 Mar 1949

Departs for Denmark

Passenger list

1949

Pictured with Julius and Andersen

Skanderborg

Danish newspaper

31 July 1950

Retired from canning

Clearing Illinois

Pension record

1950

Moved to South Texas

South Texas

Testimony

Mar 1951

Death of brother Anders Julius

Testimony

16 June 1955

Visiting Denmark

Denmark

Danish newspaper

7 Sep 1955

Arrived back in US

New York

Passenger list

11 Sep 1961

Boat destroyed by hurricane

Texas

Testimony

13 April 1962

Visiting Denmark

Denmark

Danish newspaper

Before 1962

Lived mostly in San Francisco

Danish newspaper

14 Nov 1962

Returned to US

New York

Passenger list

9 Nov 1967

Death of brother Carl Emil

Testimony

Aug 1968

Issued Operator License (car?)

Florida

After 1968

Exchanged letters with the family

Testimony

1969

A month in Denmark

Passport

14 Jul 1970

Freemason transfer

Texas

Dimit

1978

Entered retirement home

California

Testimony

25 Apr 1998

Death

California

Death record

Table 2 – Evidence timeline for Christian Mortensen

An obituary in Horsens Folkeblad from May 9, 1998 states that he exchanged letters with the family - one niece in Horsens, one niece in Klovborg and two nephews in Aarhus. This evidence is useful to rule out a late life switch, but they did not know him before his departure to United States.  Aarhus Stiftstidende of 13 April 1962 reported on his return home for a year-long stay after his boat was destroyed in hurricane Carla of 1961. He is said to have spent his time visiting his friends and relatives including his nephew Viggo Mortensen. It was surprising that he said nothing of his time in Chicago and said that most of the time he lived in San Francisco but otherwise his interviewed account is consistent with the records we have found. The article included a picture which despite being unclear did bear a resemblance to the man seen at the end of his life. Another paper in Jyllands-Posten had a report from the same day with a different picture. Similar report in Aarhus Stiftstidende for 16 June 1955 tells about an earlier visit home. This also had a picture that appeared to be the same person in as far as it was possible to tell.

A photo from 1949 where Chris is pictured with his brother Julius shortly before his death was published in Jutland Post of 16 Aug 1995. In this photo Christian looks somewhat younger. His assumed age of 67 does not seem to match his appearance. Tailor Andersen living in Borgergade 11 (Chris was counted on the same street in 1901, named Lillegade back then)  and the fourth man in the photo are mentioned as old acquaintances from Skanderborg. The other brother Carl Emil lived elsewhere than Chris in their youth, and we do not know whether they met in 1949.

If an identity switch took place between 1969 and 1978 his replacement must have spent significant time with him, heard his life story in detail and managed to cheat the family in Denmark while earlier switch should have been missed or approved by his brother Julius and several other people, but for the most extreme cases of longevity such as this we must allow for the possibility of improbable scenarios. Although he had not spoken his native tongue for much of his life he was still able to speak some rusty Danish when interviewed for the Jyllands-Posten (Aug 10 1995). Danish reporters confirmed that he spoke with an indelible “East Jutland accent”.  This reduces the probability for a wide range of potential switch scenarios but it does not rule out the possibility of a swap with a family member.

Mortensen is said to have lived and worked in 28 states (Jyllands-Posten from Aug 16, 1997) so our timeline (Table 2) remains very incomplete. There are indications from his interviews that he worked as a tram repairman in San Francisco during the Great Depression. One positive reason to suspect a switch at some point is that his height barely changed between his twenties and his final years [32,73]. It is typical for people to lose about 8cm in stature over the course of a long adult life. This is not conclusive, but it does make additional checks necessary.

He was the youngest brother in his family, so sibling switches can be ruled out. He or his brother could have had a son whose presence is not visible and he had cousins [32], so the possibility of an in-family swap remains. A DNA comparison with living relatives would have been completely deterministic by ruling out plausible switch options. Since he had no identified children of his own this test is no longer possible unless samples have already been taken and kept, or if a forensic study to find traces of his DNA is performed. It would be useful to have a more extended record of his family history to identify named family contacts. Publication of transcripts of interviews with validators and other evidence would be helpful for this important longevity case.

Christian Mortensen said that he was a scout when he was a boy and was restless since then, travelling to the places with a climate which suits him best. He attributed his longevity to clean lifestyle, drinking 18-20 glasses of boiled water a day and following vegetarian diet (Jyllands-Posten, August 1995). His lifestyle was probably influenced by famous doctor Hindhede, who was a physician in Skanderborg, Denmark, where CM lived at that time [73]. He also smoked cigars as mentioned first in Aarhuus Stiftstidende from 13 April 1962 and most of the later sources about him. His poor vision was mentioned in his WWI draft card and he seems to wear glasses in the 1955 photo as well as in later photos from the nursery home.

In summary we find his validation reports to be good compared to many others. The wealth of additional evidence including photographs, testimony and official records brings his validation very close to the standard that we hope can be achieved for future lists.

Mortensen’s case underlines the rule that DNA of supercentenarians should always be preserved and sequenced for the purposes of validation. If his DNA from after 1978 matched correctly to relatives in Denmark he would achieve a cast-iron validation.

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