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Wednesday, March 3, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Census records cast doubt on whether man was 114

The Washington Post

In the week since William Coates' death, his family has been immersed in arranging a funeral befitting a man purported to have lived for 114 years, making him the oldest man in America.

But in a final twist to a long life that is largely shrouded in questions, U.S. census records indicate that Coates — who had been celebrated for his advanced age in news stories and public proclamations — was no older than 92 when he died Feb. 24 in Prince George's County, Md.

"It was not a legitimate claim. He was not 114," said L. Stephen Coles, a physician and co-founder of the Gerontology Research Group, a nonprofit organization that keeps what it says is a carefully documented roster of "supercentenarians," people 110 or older.

"We're not saying that anyone in the Coates family was trying to deceive anyone," Coles said.

A researcher for the group found a census register on the Internet that lists Coates, his seven siblings and their parents in Prince George's County in 1930. The census-taker noted that William Coates was 18.

None of Coates' relatives, who gathered for his funeral in a Washington, D.C., church yesterday, claimed he was 114 when he died. Rather, they have said they knew few details of his life. And they reacted to the census records with the same exasperation they expressed over the attention given to him upon his death.

"I'm leaving it as it is," said Ann Hazel, 67, a niece. As for her uncle's purported age of 114, Hazel said, "Everyone who was older than me said he was about that age."

It is unclear who initially asserted that Coates was born in 1889. He was mentioned in The Washington Post in a 1999 article about 33 honorees at the Celebration of Centenarians, a party sponsored by Prince George's. The story said Coates was 110. And in later years, his supposed age was cited several more times in The Post.

Irving Smith, director of a Prince George's senior center and host of an annual celebration for centenarians, has asserted for several years that Coates was the county's oldest citizen. He said he based this on conversations with Coates' relatives and on records at a nursing home where Coates spent his last years. The home confirmed that its records list Coates' birthdate as June 2, 1889. But it's not clear where that information came from.

Smith also said he was able to unofficially confirm Coates' birthdate as June 2, 1889, with the Social Security Administration. However, a spokesman for the agency said no one named William Coates is listed in its records as having been born on that date.

"I stand by my research," Smith said, although he acknowledged that Coates' true age when he died is not definitively known.

"To be honest," Smith said, "about the only fact we know for sure is that he's dead."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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