In 1936, family historian Alva Gorby published a book no one but her family was likely interested in reading. She called it The Gorby Family: Origin, History and Genealogy. It was, as she claimed in the introduction “a very enjoyable ‘labor of love’” that required many years of collecting family memories, photographs, and lore, chasing down records, and verifying claims.
Like any family genealogy project is bound to do, this one allegedly contains a few errors here and there, but it also includes something of great interest to the wider public beyond just the descendants of Samuel and Mary (May) Gorby. In its pages can be found a print of what is generally accepted to be the oldest living person ever photographed.
I should explain that further because there is a lot of confusion on the internet about just what is meant by such a claim. The photograph in question depicts a woman named Hannah Stilley Gorby, the second wife of Joseph Gorby, son of Samuel and Mary and it was taken around 1840, which would make it not the oldest photo ever taken by maybe about fifteen years or so.
If Alva Gorby’s records are correct, Hannah was born in 1746, making her in the neighborhood of 94 when the picture was snapped. Now, the woman was thirty when the US became a nation and ninety-four is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but there’ve been plenty of photos of people with more birthdays under their belts. Hannah wasn’t even old enough to get her picture featured on a Smuckers jar on the Today Show.
What Hannah Stilley Gorby can claim, however, is that of all the people ever photographed, she was first to have been born. Probably. Or at least maybe.
The problem is that the original daguerreotype of Hannah Stilley Gorby is lost to history and the most reliable support we have for the claim comes from the work of her amateur genealogist descendent who, let’s be honest, probably totally geeked out about her photographically famous aunt. I mean, who wouldn’t?
Because family history can be pretty geek-out worthy, like when you discover an uncle from five generations back who was a missionary physician with a pet orangutan and write a novel because no way can you make this stuff up yourself.
And family pictures are precious. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately because my oldest son is now a senior in high school and we recently had a series of senior photographs taken of him. Like a lot of photographs.
We haven’t had the opportunity yet to sit down with my photographer friend to look through the proofs, but the shoot was amazing. My son, who was a smushy-faced newborn like yesterday, cooperated with every crazy idea (some of which he volunteered) from donning a suit and tie for a professional headshot to leaning flannel-clad against a fence post with his acoustic guitar in case he someday needs a cover for a country album.
I can’t wait to see how the pictures all came out because no matter what, I know they are photos of my more-or-less grown son, and are technically the oldest senior pictures ever of any of my children. That may not mean much to the general public, but you know that guitar pic is going into a family genealogy book one of these days for the benefit of my descendants, who will probably attempt to verify that he was a famous country music star.