When Jeanne Calment passed away at age 122, little did she know her long life would cause such an uproar. The doubts about her supercentenarian age sparked a fierce debate across the world. Evidence has started to shed light on what many believe to be one of the grandest hoaxes in medical history, fueled by financial gain and a sense of French national pride. Behind that face, was she hiding a secret?
A Beginning, Far From Humble
Born on February 21, 1875 in the city of Arles in the south of France, Jeanne Calment was the daughter of a prominent shipbuilder. In her early twenties, she would marry Fernand Calment, her second cousin. His family owned a large department store in the town, and the couple was able to live lavishly in an expensive apartment above the store.
Calment never worked, but managed to keep herself entertained by playing tennis, hunting, and taking care of her daughter, Yvonne, born in 1898. Having been raised in the upper echelons of Arles society, she often looked down upon others. Unfortunately for Calment, France’s economy would be devastated by the First World War — spelling a big threat to her comfortable lifestyle.
The Dragon of Arles
Calment had a very strong and imposing personality. In the twilight of her life, she was often referred to as a “dragon” and as “la commandante” in her nursing home. She was very active and disciplined, but was not very well-liked. In fact, caretakers at the nursing home referred to her as “condescending”.
A formidable woman despite her petite frame, Calment was often referred to as a “tough-cookie.” In her last years of life, while at the nursing home, she demanded that her bed be made as is expected in a hotel. She adhered to an extremely strict schedule, even as an older woman, waking up early and doing exercise. Locals in Arles were both impressed by the woman — and terrified by her. It was for a good reason.
A Savvy Businesswoman
Not only was Calment disciplined with her lifestyle, but also her finances. In 1965, a notary public thought he’d hit the real estate jackpot when he offered to buy Calment’s apartment. Under a French law known as “en viager,” buyers must continue to make monthly payments until the seller passes away. Seeing that Calment was ninety at the time of signing, he figured it wouldn’t be long until the apartment would be his.
Little did he know that he was essentially paying Calment’s rent, and would never get the keys to the apartment. By the time the notary had passed away in 1995, Calment was still active and had been living rent-free. There, she became legendary for her stories about one of the best-known figures in modern history.
A Visit From Van Gogh
Calment, who would often tell interesting stories about her youth, sparked suspicion with her tale about having met the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. The artist, who spent time in the city of Arles, supposedly paid a visit to the Calment family store in 1888. While Calment had a vivid memory of him, maintaining he “was very ugly. Ugly like a louse,” the details about the encounter remained fuzzy, raising eyebrows.
Initially, she mentioned her father took care of the artist. This surprised researchers, because her father was a shipbuilder, and didn’t work in the store. In another recollection of the famous encounter, she mentioned her husband introducing the two. Again, researchers sensed a problem. Seeing as she had been a young teenager in 1888, Calment hadn’t married yet. Was it simply age-related forgetfulness on Calment’s part, or were the cracks in her icy veneer starting to show?
The Woman Who Defied the Aging Process
When Calment turned 100, as is customary for those reaching this important milestone, she received a visit from the mayor of Arles. The mayor, however, was shocked when he saw how lucid and lively the woman in front of him was. For him, her appearance came, in fact, as rather unexpected.
Not only did she not need much assistance getting around, she showed no signs of dementia. The mayor even remarked that she “seemed twenty years younger.” Her phenomenal shape began to have researchers wondering if the well-dressed and active woman really was the age she claimed she was. Something seemed peculiar.
More Mental Slip-Ups
The fateful encounter with Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t the only event that Calment couldn’t clearly recall. When asked about a devastating outbreak of cholera in her city in 1884, she couldn’t recall it, despite being nine years old at the time. When pressed about certain life events, Calment often confused her husband and father.
While some mistakes could be expected due to declining cognition as she aged, some omissions or mistakes seemed selective. These slip-ups, while seemingly benign, may have pointed to Calment starting to forget details of an elaborate lie. Could her blurred timelines be symptoms of an elaborate lie finally starting to show?
Tragedy Hits the Calment Family
During the 1930s, Yvonne, Calment’s daughter, fell ill with tuberculosis. At the time the disease also carried social stigmas, and it is rumored that she was sent to sanatorium outside of Arles. As her daughter’s health declined, a new problem emerged: a wave of inheritance taxes. Reeling from the death, and the high taxes that followed the deaths of Jeanne’s father and mother-in-law, the family was struggling.
At the time France’s economy was suffering, and inheritance taxes had risen to astronomical levels, from around 5% to around 25%, causing financial devastation for many. If Jeanne died, her husband would be forced to pay a hefty tax. If Yvonne died, however, the family would be taxed because she didn’t own the property. The stage was set.
More Bad News
Sadly, 1934 spelled the beginning of a wave of losses that would leave Calment lonely. After a lengthy battle with tuberculosis, her daughter Yvonne died, likely from complications of the disease. Despite medical records showing Jeanne also contracted tuberculosis, she strangely remained unharmed and healthy.
Jeanne and her husband took in Yvonne’s son, caring for him as if he were their own son. Tragedy struck the family again, less than a decade later, when her husband passed away — from a strange cause. He’d consumed cherries tainted with a poisonous substance. Joseph, her son-in-law moved in with Jeanne, until his death in 1963. And then, that year, Yvonne’s son passed away — and she was truly alone. Now, more secrets from her past emerged.
A Series of Strange Burials
As interest in the Jeanne Calment story grew, more interesting details emerged regarding the burial of her daughter Yvonne in 1934. Despite generations of the Calment clan being buried in the same family grave in Arles, Yvonne’s name is strangely absent from the family tombstone.
Arles locals argue that there was no foul-play, and that the missing name was simply a case of the tomb being redone during the 1960s. Still, some researchers are not convinced. It was later discovered that Yvonne’s death wasn’t the only strange circumstance; despite promising to donate her brain to science after her death, Jeanne Calment was buried so quickly, and with “violent haste”, that her brain couldn’t be used. Was the haste an attempt to conceal something?
A Mysterious Paper Trail
Researchers were intrigued when they realized that not only was the family tombstone missing Yvonne Calment’s name, but the 1931 census fell strangely absent of it as well. While some French officials believe it was a technological error during the transition from handwritten to typewriters, some believe she’s missing from the census because she’d assumed her mother’s identity.
Another important document raising suspicion was Yvonne’s death certificate. Recorded as deceased on January 19, 1934, it was validated by a woman in her seventies without any medical background. Not only was it uncommon to not have a coroner or medical professional serve as a witness on a death certificate, but the woman was a random stranger from a village far away, adding a strange twist. So what about Jeanne’s own death?
From Russia, With Suspicion
Calment’s death in 1997 fueled an interest in this supercentenarian’s lengthy life. Despite allowing herself to be examined by doctors, and providing ample interviews, some still couldn’t be convinced. A team of researchers from Russia, including mathematician Nikolay Zak, geriatrician Valery Novoselov, and genealogist Yuri Deigin, began collecting information that could disprove Calment’s recorded age of death.
Using sophisticated math models and databases, they claimed that it’s statistically highly unlikely a person could reach this age, particularly being as active as Calment was. Zak then made waves when he came up with a controversial theory: it was Jeanne Calment who died in 1934, not Yvonne! He declared Yvonne had been impersonating her mother for more than 60 years. Now, he and his team had to find the hard evidence.
A Picture Says a Thousand Lies
Fueled by his desire to prove that Calment was far younger than 122 at her death, genealogist Yuri Deigin began combing through old photographs, comparing to modern photographs, looking for evidence of a possible switch-up. Deigin noticed the facial structure, nose shape, and eye structure seen in pictures of Jeanne Calment as a young woman, seeing they didn’t match those seen in pictures of her as an older woman. Naturally, it intrigued him.
While aging can alter our looks, certain physical features such as proportion, hairline, and nose shape do not change. Deigin compared pictures of Yvonne before her death, and found that her features were much more similar to the older Jeanne Calment. To him, it was clear that something didn’t add up.
The Suspicion Keeps Growing
Jeanne Calment’s active lifestyle may have impressed many, but it also left some doctors feeling skeptical. Geriatrician Valery Novoselov studied many photographs and videos of the late Frenchwoman. In an interview, he mentioned that he believes there is more to the story regarding her recorded age.
From a clinical perspective, he felt that her skin and muscular system were in much better shape than is usually seen in people of that age. Her ability to move around, and to sit up despite not having support, were also perplexing. He agreed to share his research with other skeptics in order to solve the mystery, launching a full-blown investigation.
While Yuri Deigin was analyzing Calment’s personal articles, he happened across a copy of an official identification card, taken in the 1930s, when Calment was supposedly in her fifties. Upon inspection, Calment looked far younger. Not only did she look to be decades younger: her eye color was listed as black or dark-colored, a startling contrast to those green eyes at the time of her death.
Deigin was also interested in her height. On the I.D. card, her height is listed as 152 centimeters, yet at her death she was recorded as being 150 centimeters, having not lost a significant amount of height that is usually seen in people of that age. Researcher Nicolay Zak also noticed another discrepancy: the way she wrote the letter ‘J’ in her signatures. Were there any concrete conclusions to be drawn?
Who Else Could Have Been Involved?
If, as some skeptics believe, Yvonne Calment was impersonating her mother until her death, what would be the reason, and how could they keep it a secret in a close-knit community? The answer is in the French book on the insurance industry, Insurance and Its Secrets, written by Jean-Pierre Daniel. He alleged that the insurer paying Jeanne Calment’s life annuities was actually aware that it was really Yvonne collecting payments, having assumed the identity of her mother.
He adds that this type of fraud was not uncommon because “members of the same family may be tempted to replace themselves in order to continue to collect the money.” Not only did the insurers know that the mother and daughter were committing insurance fraud, but that they were encouraged to keep the lie under wraps because of Calment’s status as a “national hero.” But something kept investigators going.
Why Are Scientists So Interested in Solving the Case?
For the medical community, Jeanne Calment represents a key to unlocking the secrets behind aging and health. Her ability to continue being active, riding a bicycle even at the age of one-hundred, has astounded scientists. Researchers are also intrigued about Calment’s seemingly unbelievable ability to have not succumbed to age-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
Despite her active lifestyle, Calment was a lifelong smoker, only quitting at age 117. She also frequently indulged in chocolate and a nightly glass of sweet wine called port. Scientists wonder if Calment’s DNA could offer explanations behind her immunity to these illnesses — and shed light on the mysterious science of aging.
The Fight Over Calment Goes International
As news of Jeanne Calment’s passing in 1997 made headlines, it also sparked an international debate over facts related to her life. Teams of Russian researchers publicly sparred with their French counterparts over discrepancies they feel should be investigated. Pushes for an investigation into Calment’s DNA and blood sample quickly gained attention.
Adding to the mixture is controversial scientist, Dr. Aubrey De Grey, a character in the field of anti-aging, who believes Calment’s blood sample should be tested in order to help save lives and learn more about the aging process. Dr. De Grey joined genealogist Yuri Deigin for a conference, in which the two presented detailed information supporting their theories that Yvonne had become Jeanne. There were some who were far from pleased.
The Fight Gets Personal
A close community, the residents of Arles, France felt that the sudden interest and accusations surrounding their beloved matriarch was a personal attack. Feeling that they had to protect the woman known in French as the “Dean of Humanity,” a Facebook group was launched called The Counter-Investigation of the Jeanne Calment Investigation.
The online group consists of over 1,500 people, including even researcher Nikolay Zak. Sharing personal anecdotes and family photographs, they’ve accumulated what they believe is ample evidence proving Calment really did live to 122. One important detail the members have shared was that Calment was not well-liked, meaning it was unlikely the townspeople would cooperate with such an elaborate hoax, or wouldn’t notice if she and her daughter swapped identities. And then, it all went up in smoke.
Calment’s Story goes up in Flames
The new research, conducted decades after Jeanne Calment’s death in 1997, reveals even more mysterious twists. It emerges that before entering a nursing home in 1985, Calment had a rather strange request, instructing that all of her personal photographs and documents be burned. The unique request was particularly odd given the context, and only adds fuel to the theory of a switch-up.
The request came shortly after the archives department of the city of Arles requested the personal artifacts. What was even more surprising was that Jeanne enlisted her heiress, Madame Bigonnet, to carry out the deed. While it is not uncommon for people who have outlived their friends and family to go to such great lengths to relieve themselves of memories, Nikolay Zak believed it was “a result of cold calculation and acute necessity instead of an emotional act.”
More Mix Ups and More Suspicious Circumstances
In addition to Van Gogh, Jeanne Calment also couldn’t keep track of how old Marthe Fousson, the family’s maid, was. She recalled being walked to school by Fousson, yet upon further investigation, Fousson was actually ten years younger than Calment, making it impossible. Given Fousson’s age, it was more likely that she accompanied daughter Yvonne to school.
Another interesting detail that geriatrician Valery Novoselov noticed through his research was the fact that Yvonne’s husband never remarried. A widower at just 42, Joseph Billot remained single, and strangely began to share a home with Calment, his mother-in-law. Researchers argue that the two got along so well because it was really Yvonne, his wife, masquerading as Jeanne Calment. And there’s yet another theory.
Could She Have Been Coached?
Despite her advanced age, Calment astounded doctors and researchers with her memory of certain life events and people from her past. When asked, Calment could recall the names of her piano teacher, where she took said lessons, her dressmaker, and even the makers of her wedding cutlery. To the surprise of the French team validating her record-breaking age, all of the people and events she mentioned could be found in old records. Nickolay Zak wasn’t convinced.
He refers to the fact that the French investigators themselves admitted that they sometimes “re-injected” certain details during their conversations with Calment, hoping to jog her memory or “activate dormant memories.” Zak believes that Yvonne, posing as her deceased mother, was coached to remember these pertinent details.
The Russians Continue Their Fight
Despite the backlash that the Russian researchers have received from Arles locals and French government officials, they continue to fight against what they perceive to be a huge hoax and grand medical cover-up. Nickolay Zak believes that the French refuse to entertain his theory because they feel as attached to Calment as they do to, say, Joan of Arc.
Zak and the other Russian researchers’ restless battle against the claims of French officials has spread not only across the world, but even throughout France itself. In France, there is a growing demand to test the blood sample of Jeanne Calment — or even exhume her body. What’s stopping them?
The Controversy Over Testing Calment’s Genes
As proud as the nation was of her, Jeanne Calment naturally captured the attention of the French medical community. In the 1990s, she donated a blood sample to a French research group, Foundation Daussant. While the sample is believed to still be in storage, the testing of it raises ethical questions by many scientists.
Some feel that it is necessary to prove once and for all the real identity and age of Jeanne Calment, while others feel that she consented to donating her blood for only “certain purposes.” Fearing the blood sample could find itself in the wrong hands, or used for nefarious purposes, the scientific director of the foundation, Jean-François Deleuze, refuses to release the sample for testing. And Jeanne’s own doctors have something to say on the matter.
French Gerontologist Doubles Down
As Jeanne Calment continued to inexplicably avoid death, she was followed closely by a team of French researchers. For years, she was monitored by her personal doctor, Victor Lèbre, gerontologist Michel Allard, and demographer Jean-Marie Robine. Robine, part of the team who worked to validate her real age before her death in 1997, took great offense to the insinuation that a hoax was at hand.
Robine not only called the attacks on his team’s research ridiculous, but published his own scientific paper as a rebuttal. He maintains that because Calment was so well-known and even disliked figure, it would be outlandish to assume all of Arles would participate in such a complicated cover-up. Robine also vehemently rejected the idea of testing her DNA, saying: “These people are caught up in magical thinking – that the secret of longevity is in her genes.”
Détente in Sight?
While the French and Russian researchers continue to spar, one thing is clear: whether she died at 99, or 122, Jeanne Calment lived a full and exciting life. From watching technology change the world, to witnessing two World Wars and the rebirth and rebuilding of her country, Jeanne Calment was truly an icon.
In an interview with The Guardian, Arles local Cécile Pellegrini remains positive that there is more to be discovered, remarking, “If it’s actually true, she was really something!” As her story continues to spread across media outlets, the world has become fascinated at how Jeanne Calment was able to evade death for so long. The mysterious and inexplicable facets of her life will continue to grip researchers and the public for years to come.
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