MEET FORMER SLAVE CHARLIE SMITH, OLDEST AMERICAN
He's Either 135 or 139, But He Enjoys Life to the Hilt
By Del Schrader
Former slave, Charlie Smith, the oldest person in the United States, will be marking a birthday on Monday, July 4th, but he's not sure of the exact number. He'll be either 139 or 135.
The Bartow, Fla., man will be 135 this Independence Day, according to Social Security records, but there are those who insist that Washington field men, who didn't "discover" Smith until he was well past the century mark, made a mistake.
Descendants of white Texas rancher Charles Smith, who purchased the black youngster of 12 in 1850 on the New Orleans slave auction block, claim the original receipt for his purchase was mislaid, but the receipt dated 1855 and in the posession of Social Security officials could be a bogus document.
Jesse James III, former Glendale resident, grandson of the outlaw and coauthor of the book, "Jesse James Was One of His Names ($8.95, Santa Anita Press, Arcadia, Calif.), said, "My cousin Roscoe James dug up a bill of sale made out at New Orleans in 1850 when Charlie was 12. Charlie was born in Liberia in 1838 when Martin Van Buren was President of the United States."
Charlie remembers the "fritter tree" ruse slave traders used to get him aboard a slabe ship on his 12th birthday in the West African port, but the man who was 25 years old at the time of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, in 1972 told reporters, "I didn't need to be freed. I've been treated like a white man all my life."
When the Texas rancher who gave Charlie his name freed him in the latter days of the Civil War, the ex-slave went to work for Jesse Woodson James. On Oct. 13, 1972, Life magazine did a piece on Smith which told of his years as a cowpuncher, gamble, bootlegger and outlaw.
What confused historians was Charlie's statement that he had worked for Jesse James "off and on" for 50 years. History claims Jesse was only 35 when he was shot and killed at St. Joseph, Mo., in 1882.
Smith had an answer for that, too. Life quoted him as saying, "Ain't nobody ever shot Jesse James. He's dead now, but nobody ever killed him."
This coincides with James clan record which claim Jesse died on Aug. 15, 1951, and that the St. Joseph incident was a hoax planned by Jesse. In April, 1950, special investigator George Mc Grath wrote in the Police Gazette that the famous outlaw was not killed in 1882, but was still alive in 1950.
Jesse's grandson corresponds regularly with the oldest man in the nation. Charlie doesn't write, but a neighborhood teenager does it for him. Jesse III holds great affection for the super senior citizen.
He said Charlie worked as a cowboy on Jesse James' Big Diamond ranch in West Texas, the Three Ford ranch in Montana and Charlie had charge of all horses used in the grading contract for what is now the Southern Pacific railroad between Los Angeles and Yuma, Ariz.
Charlie often visited Jesse James in his Van Nuys house, torn down 20 years ago to make way for a commercial venture.
More startling is Jesse III's disclosure "that unless there is some Indian yet alive, which I doubt, Charlie Smith is the last man still on earth who watched Custer's demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Charlie at that time was employed as a gunman by Jesse James who was busy running 44-40 caliber Winchester repeating rifles to Sitting Bull's Sioux, watching the slaughter from a hill along with Tim Capps, Frank Curtis and Cole Younger."
Charlie always reminds reporters that he helped Billy the Kid capture Charles Guiteau, the demented lawyer who killed President Garfield in July of 1881. Historians shake their heads at this information, pointing out that William Bonney or Billy the Kid was killed on July 14, 1881, at Ft. Sumner, N.M.
Now historians are taking a second look at Billy the Kid's "death" in 1881 and are checking Smith's story that The Kid dropped dead of a heart attack at 91 in Hico, Tex.
It has never been adequately explained, but the Negro race in the United States appears to have an edge when it comes to longevity and many of Jesse James' employees were inclined to live a long time. In May, 1971, Sylvester Magee marked his 130th birthday at Columbia, Miss. Magee had been an overseer on a James-owned plantation.
Jesse's "black bodyguard" was John Trammel, a former "slave fighter" in the ring, who lived to be 121 in Oklahoma. A famous black mystic, Mother Rebecca, was a James clan slave who was given her freedom prior to the Civil War. She helped bring order out of chaos in the turbulent postwar years and was reported still alive after World war II and living in a cabin along the Red River in Jefferson County, Okla., "at an age beyond 120."
As the years roll by, Charlie's daytime naps are longer and perhaps occur more frequently, but time has not blunted Smith's sense of humor or his penchant for speaking his mind.
In 1972 he was at cape canaveral to witness the final Apollo lift-off. Looking up at the sky, Charlie said bluntly, "If they (astronauts) brought rocks back (from the moon), they carried them up there with 'em. There ain't no rocks in the sky!"
Charlie is not one to put down cigarettes or liquor to justify his longevity. He told reporters recently, "You see, I been drinking abour 122 years--which makes me kind os expert."
During his 1973 Los Angeles visit, Charlie showed a strong dislike for doctors and medicine, saying, "My mornings start with breakfast and a drink, which is Coca-Cola spiked with gin or rye."
How does he feel about gun control? Charlie chuckled, "I carried a .44 caliber pistol until a few years ago, and I can still use one--if I have to." He tells all who will listen that it was Jesse James who taught him to shoot.
In 1972 the Liberian government invited Smith to visit his birthplace, but the old man balked, saying, "I ain't gonna ride on nobody's airplane!" The trip was cancelled and Charlie continued to praise the horse as the most dependable transportation.
Even when he was 130, Charlie Smith could still appreciate looking at pretty women. Los Angeles newsmen in 1973 repeatedly photographed Charlie with Mary Branch, an attractive black teacher.
Finally, in response to pleas for "just one more," Charlie wagged his finger at the lensmen and said, "Hold on their--you gonna get my coals ablazin?"
So whether Charlie Smith on July 4th celebrates No. 139 or No. 135, he's taken his birthdays one at a time and employed all the days in between.
[12 Jun 1977, Valley News]