Born as Sarah Deremer Clark, she is the second ever supercentenarian validated to have lived beyond her 118th birthday. Her case was originally researched in 1997 by genealogist Edith Rodgers Mayer for Phoebe Ministries  but the original documentation is no longer available. The GWR announced her record that year, and then in November 1998 a team of gerontologists (Perls, Robine, Wilmoth, Jeune) visited her and announced that “Her age will now be thoroughly validated” . Some details of the validation were given in 2002 (Robine, Vaupel) , and a further article was published in 2010 . The most complete report available on the evidence for her validation was provided by Robert Young, also in 2010 .
According to her longevity claim, Sarah was born in Hollywood, Luzerne, Pennsylvania on 24 Sept 1880, but civil birth records were not taken there until 1906. Furthermore the crucial 1890 census returns were destroyed after a fire (but see below) and her church baptism records have not been found. According to the validation reports, the earliest records confirming her year and month of birth are the 1900 census and her marriage in 1901, i.e. nearly two decades later. A 20 year gap in the record from birth makes the validation of such an extreme longevity very unconvincing. Taking a sceptical stand, the possibility that she could have been a few years younger than claimed must be considered. Perhaps her age could have been exaggerated to make an underage marriage respectable or for other reasons. A picture of her on her wedding day shows her to have been very young looking.
An opposing argument advanced by Young is that she had younger brothers whose baptisms were recorded in the church records after the family moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. If she was younger, she had to be at least 9 months separated from their births, but even assuming that she was born in the month of September there are slots in 1881, 1882, 1883, 1886 and 1887 where she could be born. If her birth place was Hollywood as claimed then we can understand the lack of baptism record because not all the registers from churches in the area have been found for that time. A better argument for her age is therefore that if she were born after they moved to Bethlehem, then her baptism would have been recorded there, whereas a baptism record from before the move could easily be lost.
We know from an article we found in a news archive search that they still lived in Hollywood on 21st December 1881 when the Hazleton Sentinel reported that “Bertie” the five year old son of Walter Clark died of membranous croup (diphtheria). A report on the 115th birthday of Knauss in The Morning Call said they moved when Sarah was 18 months old. If Sarah was much younger, her baptism would have been recorded in the same church records as her younger brothers Walter and Edward. This constraint would mean that she could only be one or two years younger than claimed, but this is based on testimonial evidence for the date of their move which may be unreliable. Further corroboration is needed.
Sarah Clark’s middle name Deremer is the married name of her aunt who was also born as Sarah Clark. Sarah and her husband Abile Deremer lived beyond their 65th wedding anniversary celebrated in 1928, but no children were recorded from their union. After they both died in 1931 a notice in the Wilkes-Barre Record of 17 June 1931 indicates that Sarah Knauss was given a 20th share of their inheritance, as were Knauss’s daughter and grandchildren. Less was left to other surviving members of Walter Clark’s family. This favouritism can easily be explained by a special friendship, or if Sarah Deremer was her godmother, but another possibility that cannot be ignored is that Sarah Deremer was in fact the real mother of Sarah Knauss. She could have given her into the keeping of her brother’s family due to hardship. Such informal adoptions could be hidden.
There is a mystery surrounding the Clark family’s sixth child who first appeared with the name Earl on the 1900 census. There is no record of his baptism in the church register despite the baptism of his older brothers and younger sister being found. From 1910 his name changes to Foster Earl. Was he given the nickname Foster because he was adopted? In carrying out our validation review we could see that more evidence was needed to refute adoption scenarios.
Our searches have uncovered an extensive genealogy for Sarah Knauss’s family. Her father Walter Clark had a brother and two sisters, plus two additional half-sisters from his step father Benjamin Miller. Local news reports show that in adulthood, some of their families led troubled lives. Crime rates were increasing and record keeping was poor, a common feature for areas with misrepresentation of longevity . Notable cases are Emma J Deremer (b. 1865), niece of Abile Deremer who married Dr. S. L. Good in 1888 and died in 1891 and Mary Alice Miller (b. 1864), half-sister of Walter Clark who married G. A. Ueberroth in 1882, and then Charles M. Hinkle in 1891 after the death of her first husband in 1890. Sarah’s mother Amelia also had numerous siblings and there were other relatives who could have had children at this time. Informal adoptions within families were historically common and can often only be uncovered by DNA testing. If this were the origin for Sarah Clark then there might be less certainty over her birth date. She could have been born to a different mother at the same time as her brothers and could have been baptised anywhere.
While trying to find more information on Sarah Clark, we became aware of reports on supercentenarian internet forums of a claim that there is a church record of her religious confirmation in 1895, but with no age or birth date recorded. Confirmations in most Christian churches are made from age 14 onwards, so this would be a good indication that her birth date is roughly correct, but in some churches the sacrament can take place at a younger age. We searched for this record in the registers of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where some of the later Clark children had been baptised. We found a record from Easter 1895 for Sarah Clark. It is most likely the right person because she is listed after a Mrs A Clark who would be her mother (page 266 of the register for 1888-1912). The entry is listed under communions rather than confirmations but communion can happen at the same time as confirmation. Although Sarah’s age is not given, earlier records from just a few years earlier did record age and showed that confirmation in this church could be conducted at an age as young as 11. The conclusion from this evidence is therefore not as strong as others were claiming but it does suggest that she was probably born no later than 1884.
Figure 1 – Earliest known record of Sarah Clark, c. 1888
We looked again at the church registers for Bethlehem and we found another helpful record that other researchers appear to have missed. In the index of the volume for the period 1862 to 1888 the entire Clark family as it had been at that time is listed with parents first, followed by the children in age order: Walter, Amelia, Charles, Sarah, Walter and Edward (Figure 1). The last two died as infants and had been recorded as baptised and buried, but this index gives us a place where Sarah is mentioned before her communion. It records that she had been baptised. The record for this baptism must be elsewhere (possibly a church near Hollywood.) It is plausible that the rector in Bethlehem would have checked it but we can’t be sure. The exact date when this index was written is not noted. If it was after 1893 the younger sister Emily would be included. Edward was buried in 1890 and the record for this seems to have been added. We think the index was probably written when a new volume was started in 1888. This then is the earliest known record of Sarah’s name and it confirms that she was born before Walter in July 1884. Since she is not in the 1880 US census, this implies that she was born in the interval from 1880 to 1883.
On the 28th August 1901 Sarah Clark married Abraham Knauss in the same church where she had been confirmed six years earlier. She was a few days short of her 21st birthday if her claimed birth date is correct. The Rev Gilbert H Sterling presided and entered the age of 20 in the parish register which he had been signing since at least 1892. He had arrived there as the new rector in June of that year from a previous calling in New York. He would probably have known the family well by the time of Sarah’s marriage. He had baptised her youngest sister in 1893 and could have encountered Sarah and her mother at bible classes in preparation for their confirmation. He may have checked that she was baptised in order to ensure that confirmation could go ahead, but birth date is not always recorded on the baptism record so there is no guarantee that her birth year was correct. He would not have known the family before 1892 when he was elsewhere so he might not spot an age discrepancy of one to three years.
Later identity switch opportunities for Knauss must also be considered. The families of her daughter Katherine, brother Charles and sister Emily would be expected to be aware of any switch. There are photos of Sarah starting from 1897 where some resemblance is apparent. There is enough information on Sarah’s social activity in newspaper reports to give confidence that she did not switch at least until her husband Abraham’s death in 1965. Later the presence of her family makes a switch improbable. We therefore do not consider a post-marriage switch to be a viable option on current evidence.
Before completing our review we made one last search online for missed early records of Sarah Clark, and we had a lucky break. As stated earlier, the 1890 census returns were lost after being damaged by fire. Before that in 1891, Joseph H. Werner made an index of the returns for the area of Northampton County including Bethlehem where the Clark family lived. This has been preserved and a copy of its contents are available at http://www.bethlehempaonline.com/beth1890/abc.html. Here we found a copy of the returns for the Clark family as follows : Clark Walter 41, carpenter--Amelia 33, Charles H 12, Sarah D 10, Foster E 1. 524 Broad. This clearly shows the members of the family living at the time, including Sarah D Clark with an age of 10. The 1890 census was taken in the month of June so her correct age should have been 9, but this is good enough to rule out a later age exaggeration for the purposes of marriage. It is worth mentioning that archive.org shows this web page to have been in existence since at least 2008. It would be worthwhile to find a copy of the original publication to verify the authenticity of this record.
We approached the age claim of Sarah Knauss with some scepticism due to her being a year and a half older than the next placed supercentenarian. The previous validations were weak because of the lack of early birth records. Alternative scenarios were considered and could not be unambiguously ruled out. The new records that we found for Sarah herself show that she reached the age of at least 116 and there is a good probability she did indeed live to over 119 years of age. These discoveries have strengthened the validation. The high level of consistency in her story and records is impressive, yet because of the missing baptism record and no confirmation of birth date before 1890, we could not completely rule out the error of up to three years. It has to be taken into account that she is an outlier in the longevity lists. For a cast-iron standard we consider it necessary to have evidence of date of birth from the earliest years of life. Without such evidence there is no solid argument against alternative birth scenarios where origins are uncertain, or age exaggeration for early school entry or other motives.
There is still hope that her baptism record might be found. Some church records from near her place and time of birth have not been scanned or indexed. In Bethlehem they attended an Episcopal church which suggests that St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Hazleton is one place where the family could have gone to worship when they lived in Hollywood. Unlike other churches in the town, its records have not been published. The original parish registers are held at the University of Pennsylvania library requiring permission from the church for access. However, we made enquiries through a church official who kindly checked the registers for us and informed us that the Clarks were not recorded there. Another possibility is St. Paul United Methodist Church in Hazleton where Emma Deremer married in 1888. The records for this church are held at the Historic St. George Museum and Archives to which we have made a request and hope to get the information soon.
The most likely candidate for Sarah’s baptism venue seems to be St. Paul United Methodist church in Drums, a small town near Hollywood. According to the obituary of Walter’s stepfather Benjamin Miller, the family bought Tinney Farm near the Methodist church in Drums in 1880. It seems likely that the Clarks living nearby would have joined Walter’s step-family for worship. We have made contact with the church and have had helpful responses even from the Methodist bishop. Unfortunately, the church informed us that they have not preserved the old records. There is still a hope that the records could be found elsewhere.
As for other validations, once again DNA evidence could have been used to rule out the alternative adoption hypothesis and other potential identity switch scenarios. This could still be possible using the DNA of her descendants and relatives if they are willing to participate in tests.