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After brief reign, oldest known person dies

Emma Faust Tillman, whose life spanned three centuries and 21 U.S. presidencies, died Sunday night at an East Hartford nursing home, the facility’s administrator said. At 114, she was the world’s oldest known living person.
Emma Faust Tillman, Majorie Tillman
Emma Faust Tillman rests as her daughter, Marjorie Tillman helps prop her head back, at the Riverside Health and Rehabilitation in East Hartford, Conn. on Jan. 24.Jessica Hill / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Emma Faust Tillman, whose life spanned three centuries and 21 U.S. presidencies, died Sunday night at an East Hartford nursing home, the facility’s administrator said. At 114, she was the world’s oldest known living person.

Tillman, the daughter of former slaves, was born during the administration of President Benjamin Harrison. Her four-day reign as the world’s oldest person was the shortest on record, said Robert Young, senior consultant for gerontology for Guinness World Records.

“She went peacefully,” Karen Chadderton, administrator of Riverside Health and Rehabilitation Center, said Monday. “She was a wonderful woman.”

Messages seeking comment were left Monday with members of her family. Chadderton said several family members were with Tillman when she died shortly after 10 p.m. Sunday.

Tillman assumed the title Jan. 24 with the death of 115-year-old Emiliano Mercado del Toro of Puerto Rico. The shortest previous reign was 13 days by Mitoyo Kawate, who was 114 when she died Nov. 13, 2003, in Hiroshima, Japan.

Young said Monday he was trying to confirm that the next person on the list of oldest living people is Yone Minagawa of Fukuoka, Japan, who is 114, born Jan. 4, 1893.

‘A lot of faith’
Tillman, who lived independently until she was 110 years old, was deeply religious since childhood and always attributed her longevity to God’s will, friends and family members said.

“She has a lot of faith and says, ‘Whatever the good Lord wants is what will happen,”’ Chadderton said recently, after Tillman was recognized as the world’s oldest known woman.

Tillman’s great-nephew, former Hartford fire chief John B. Stewart Jr., has said she never smoked, never drank, didn’t need glasses and only reluctantly agreed to wear a hearing aid.

Although Tillman tired easily in recent years and started sleeping most of the day soon after reaching 114, family members said her mind remained sharp and she occasionally still indulged in corn on the cob, a lifelong favorite food.

Tillman was born Nov. 22, 1892, on a plantation near Gibsonville, N.C., where her father had been born into slavery and where her parents and grandfather were sharecroppers, according to interviews she gave the Glastonbury, Conn., Historical Society for a 1994 newsletter.

She was one of 23 children in the family, some of whom died at birth or in infancy.

‘Just like everybody else’
Many of those who survived displayed longevity almost as notable as Tillman’s, including a brother who lived to be 108, a sister who reached 105 and two others who reached 102.

Seeking to escape Jim Crow legislation and the economic havoc that the boll weevil had wreaked on the region’s cotton crops, the Fausts — who had taken the name of their former masters — moved from North Carolina to Glastonbury in 1900.

Her father and some of her brothers got jobs on local tobacco and milk farms, while Tillman and her mother cooked, picked and sold berries and did housework for several local white families.

Tillman was christened at 13 years old and sang in her church choir — an activity she continued for about 80 years, long after she moved out of town and into Hartford.

She was the only black student in her high school when she graduated in 1909, but said she never experienced discrimination there whether she was in class, churning butter for a local family or playing shortstop on a town baseball team.

“In Glastonbury, I didn’t know if I was white or black,” she said in 1994. “People were just fine, even way back then, to me. They treated me just like everybody else.”

‘Mother of the church’
Despite her training in business and bookkeeping during high school, however, Tillman could not find work in an office in the Greater Hartford region after graduation.

Instead, she took jobs as a cook, maid, party caterer and caretaker for several wealthy Hartford-area families. She later ran her own baking and catering service whose regular customers included Dr. Thomas Hepburn, a noted Hartford Hospital urologist and father to actress Katharine Hepburn.

She married Arthur Tillman in 1914, and they raised two daughters in Hartford before his death in 1939. One of her daughters is deceased and the other, Marjorie, was her caretaker and a constant presence with her at the nursing facility.

Before moving to Riverside at age 110, she lived alone in a Hartford apartment for years. She also was a longtime member of the A.M.E. Zion Church in Hartford, where the Rev. Terry L. Jones has said they regarded her as the “mother of the church.”

Family members said she often told them that her faith was the most important thing in her life. As a child, Tillman’s mother prohibited sports, cards and similar activities on Sunday because she wanted her children to observe it as a day of rest, as ordered in the Bible.

“We were to keep the Sabbath holy. I guess I’m the only one that got that imprinted in me deeply,” Tillman told an interviewer. “I still don’t like to take part in activities on Sunday.”