Ripley's Believe it or Not

The syndicated amazing trivia cartoon "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" featured Jeremiah Gleeson's tombstone in their daily panel in 1968.

The Morris Chapel Cemetery is one of the prettiest and best-kept country graveyards in Knox County. Located on Hyatt Road right off Old Mansfield Road northeast of Mount Vernon, the small cemetery was originally the graveyard for Morris Chapel, which is now a private residence.

Access is still provided, though, at the sign "Morris Chapel House," where a circular drive provides parking space for cemetery visitors. I ventured to this country graveyard in search of the mystery of an alleged 110-year-old man who was laid to rest there.

Claims of advanced old age are common, but they often fall apart on closer inspection. The case of Knox County's Jeremiah Gleeson (or Gleason, in some records) is unusual in that the numbers claimed for his life made it on to his tombstone and even into a Knox County history book.

Gleeson headstone

This up-close view of the original stone shows that the Ripley drawing must have been based on an actual photograph. The nature of the stone's style makes it hard to judge how old the stone itself is.

This legend appears to have grown up around him in his own lifetime, for state newspapers ran headlines saying "OLDEST MAN IN OHIO DEAD: Uncle Jerry Gleason, Aged 110 Years, Passed Away" when he died.

But a plunge into official paperwork fails to support the claim, and the full story suggests, rather, that the legend which grew up around Uncle Jerry Gleason may have arisen as a defense mechanism against a life of trouble and tragedy.

It is believed that Gleeson was born in England or Ireland, but we don't know for certain when. His family tombstone in Morris Township confidently asserts that he was born Dec. 27, 1793 and died April 23, 1904. If that's true, it's a tremendous span.

That would mean that when he was born, George Washington was still president of the United States, but that by the time he passed away, the Wright Brothers had flown the first airplane.

Cemetery sign

The historic graveyard dates back to 1831 and contains many old headstones.

Early records for this man, however, are elusive. Someone was looking for Jeremiah in 1847 and published this notice in The Boston Pilot, an east coast newspaper: "Of JEREMIAH GLEASON, from the parish of Burgessbeg, co. Tipperary, who left Ireland about eight years ago. In 1844 he was living in the state of New Jersey, and when last heard from was residing in the state of Ohio. Something to his advantage may be heard by addressing a letter to T. Lynch, Agent of Boston Pilot, No. 9 South 8th street, Philadelphia, Pa."

That's great information. But is it even our Jeremiah? Complicating matters is that census reports document a Jeremiah Gleason who lived in Cuyahoga County in Ohio, documented in one source as being born in 1791 and dying in 1868. One of those census reports lists his birth date as 1793, suspiciously close to the date given as the birth date of the Knox County Jeremiah Gleeson.

But the Cuyahoga Jeremiah can be solidly proven to have been born in Connecticut and lived in Rockport Township (which is today Rocky River and Lakewood, suburbs of Cleveland) for decades until his 1868 death.

Gleeson headstone

This up-close view of the original stone shows that the Ripley drawing must have been based on an actual photograph. The nature of the stone's style makes it hard to judge how old the stone itself is.

But what about "our" Jeremiah's tombstone? Well, headstones aren't always a reliable guide. In this case, it is a family marker that lists the names of five different family members, three on the back, two on the front. It is also set at a different angle from the other stones in the graveyard, perhaps marking the approximate center of a family plot.

This all suggests to the historical researcher that this stone was put up much later, very possibly to belatedly honor a family too poor to provide markers at the time of their deaths.

In 1968, a C.B. Montis of Chicago, Illinois, submitted a picture of the tombstone to the daily syndicated cartoon Ripley's Believe It or Not! On March 22, 1968, a drawing of the Gleeson tombstone ran nationwide, citing that Gleeson had lived in three centuries. But if you look at the surname of the submitter, Montis, you'll find that is the same name as Mr. Gleeson's wife, Lydia Montis, born 1817.

The marriage record for Jeremiah and Lydia dates from 1845, which would put the bride at the age of 28, which is not far off custom for the time, though arguably a little late. But if Jeremiah was, in fact, born in 1793, and there is no earlier marriage record, that would have him stepping up as groom for the first time at age 52.

Not impossible, but certainly not common. Nor is the supposed age difference between husband and wife.

Gleeson family marker

A single stone serves as grave marker for five members of the Gleason family, including patriarch Jeremiah, who claimed to be 110 years old at the time of his death in 1904.

I wondered at first if C.B. Montis was an enthusiastic but reckless amateur genealogist who, unfortunately, got the Cuyahoga County Jeremiah Gleeson mixed up with their own relative, and had a headstone made with erroneous dates. But contemporary newspaper reports show the legend of Uncle Jerry Gleason already firmly in place by the time of his death.

What we need to answer this is good documentation.

The first census report I was able to turn up was from 1900. In it, Jeremiah Gleeson is listed as living in Monroe Township as the head of household, with son Mathew, 46, and daughters Selina, 54, and Hanna, 45. Jeremiah's age is listed as "unknown," and his birthplace is shown as "Ireland."

In the 1880 census, Jerry's age is listed as 76, but in a notation very unusual for census reports, the taker has put that age in parentheses, as if he was writing down what Gleason told him, but that he didn't believe it. That age would put his birth in 1804, not all the way back to the legendary 1793, but certainly headed in that direction.

But if we go back to the 1850 census, Jeremiah and Lydia, living in Monroe Township, are both 37 years of age, which would put them both being born around 1813. He was born in England, according to this census, and Lydia was born in Pennsylvania.

It is worth pointing out that, at that time, Ireland was controlled by England, so this actually doesn't contradict the other indications we find about Ireland.

At this time, Jeremiah worked as a farmer, and the couple had three children: Salina, John, and Sarah A. The 1850 agricultural census for Knox County says that Gleason had 30 improved acres and 10 unimproved acres on his farm. The family had two horses and two milch cows (as the German word for "milk" was still in use on farms in this area at that time), nine sheep, and eight swine.

In the previous year, he had raised 350 bushels of Indian corn (the typical feed corn of the time, as opposed to sweet corn), and 250 bushels of wheat.

Fast forward to the time of the Civil War, and Gleason is listed in the U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records as being born in 1820, having served in the 32nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and being discharged in 1862 for disability, after only a year of service. Moreover, the official Ohio Soldier Grave Registration lists Gleason as having been born in 1819 and dying in 1904, and they even identify his grave as being at Morris Chapel.

That makes a lot more sense then him having been enlisted in the army at age 68.

And speaking of military records, there is, in fact, a record for Jeremiah Gleason in the Mexican War in 1846. And what does it say about his glorious service there? That he deserted.

Far from being a 110-year old war hero at the time of his death, these records prove that Jeremiah Gleason was actually about 85, and his war records were anything but heroic. So, what is the truth?

Well, these dates make it seem likely that the Boston newspaper article was, in fact, referring to this Jeremiah Gleason. This would set his birthplace as County Tipperary, Ireland, and that he immigrated to the United States around 1839. This means he came to America as a young man of about 20 for opportunity, not as a refugee from the Irish Potato Famine, which didn't hit until 1845.

We have no idea if the person who placed the ad ever found Gleason or not. The fact that he wasn't in touch with them suggest a family split of some sort or other.

After living for a brief spell in New Jersey, Gleason married Lydia Montis, and they moved to Knox County. Children were born, and Jeremiah tried his hand at army life during the Mexican War, and again during the Civil War, but did not thrive.

On the 1871 county plat map, Jeremiah Gleason's farm is indicated as being the north side of Allen Road, in Monroe Township, right where it intersects with Wooster Road (Ohio Route 3), just north of the township fire department garage.

In the 1870 ag census, Gleason is shown with three horses, two milch cows, two other cattle, 11 sheep, and 15 swine, and having raised 66 bushels of wheat, 300 of corn, 100 of oats, and 8 of buckwheat.

It's in the 1870s that we begin to see glimpses at personal tragedies that may have weighed heavily on Uncle Jerry Gleason. It's not clear what exactly happened that required him to register with the court as his daughter Selina's legal guardian. She was the first-born of Jeremiah and Lydia's children, actually predating their marriage by a few months, which would have been a minor scandal in those days.

But on a court document in 1879, Selina is described as an "insane person" and her father as her legal guardian. This follows fast on the heels of some kind of court case where Selina was awarded $214.36 in damages from an Edna Zerrick.

That's a considerable sum of money in those days. Was this other person someone who was taking care of Selina in lieu of having her sent to the county infirmary or a state lunatic asylum?

We don't know.

Receipts in the Knox County Probate Court file show that Jeremiah regularly used money from that fund to purchase clothes, shoes, fabric, and sewing supplies for Selina over the next few years. But the 1880 census proves that by that time Selina had been admitted to the state hospital in Columbus.

It is not known how many years she remained there as a patient nor specifically why she was admitted. The 1880 census simply marks her "insane," as it does all the other patients.

By 1900, she was back in Knox County with the family.

On Sept. 9, 1887, just six months after Jerry's wife Lydia had died, something else horrible happened to the family. That day, the Gleasons' fourth child, Mary, had been suffering from stomach discomfort all afternoon and evening. She shared a bed with her sister that night, and a little past midnight, she woke her sister and said that she was going to go get something warm to allay the pain.

Wearing a night dress and a chemise, Mary walked into the kitchen of the house. As she later told it, her clothes suddenly and inexplicably burst into flame. She ran outside, screaming and calling for help, but no one heard her. After her clothes had burned completely and the high- intensity flames died down, Mary crawled back into the house in shock and into bed.

This woke her sister, who discovered that Mary's skin was severely burned from her calves to her chin. Some of the skin had peeled off completely, other parts were charred "as hard and stiff as sole leather," as the following day's newspaper coverage put it.

A doctor was summoned. He did what he could to allay Mary's suffering, but she remained conscious and awake. She claimed to be mystified by the fire but said that she must have caught fire from the stove in the kitchen. There was little the doctor could do. Mary died at 4 a.m.

What a bizarre scenario this tragedy was. Is it truly possible that Mary could have run out of the house on fire, screaming, without anyone being awakened by the commotion?

Would a fire even have been going in the stove on a night in a late summer that had been notoriously hot and dry?

Could this be "explained" as one of those legendary cases of so-called spontaneous combustion?

Or is the real answer something that lies in Mary's stomach distress?

It's only speculation, but one can't help but wonder if the concealed story here involves a secret pregnancy and a suicide attempt. After the young woman's death (the newspaper said she was 24, though census reports lead me to think she was actually 33), the doctor made no further inquiry into what had happened, most likely for sake of the family who had just lost their mother a few months earlier.

When Jeremiah passed away in 1904, the probate court papers indicate that he had a total of six living children. Selina, Mathew (the informant), Harrison, Hannah, and Bruce all lived in or near Mount Vernon at that time. The oldest son, John, was thought to still be alive, but his P.O. address was unknown, an interesting detail that suggests further dysfunction within the family.

Gleason's obituaries claimed that he had fought in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. One even claims he "fought Indians with Gen. Jackson."

What the cold, hard facts actually suggest is that Gleason wasn't even born when the War of 1812 broke out; that he wasn't even in the United States when Native Americans were still fighting with settlers in Ohio; that he served briefly, then deserted, in the Mexican War; and that he served only a year in the Civil War before being sent home on disability.

Were the trials and disappointments of life such that Jerry Gleason started spinning tall tales so convincing that he was even listed as the real thing in Fred Lorey's 1976 History of Knox County, Ohio, 1876-1976?

Lorey includes some nice details about Gleason's avid walking, including a walk to Mount Vernon to celebrate his supposed 100th birthday in 1893. Alas, the facts don't prop up the legend.

Uncle Jerry Gleason must have been a colorful, charming man who spun stories to distract from the often bitter and sad reality of his life. The least we can do is give him the benefit of the doubt, and smile.

After all, he came from southern Ireland, less than 100 miles from the castle where, according to legend, you can obtain the gift of gab by kissing the Blarney Stone.

We'll never know if Uncle Jerry ever went to Castle Blarney. But we know that he most certainly had the gift of gab.

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