More evidence for Jeanne Calment’s identity theft hypothesis

(Note: To avoid work misattribution, please see the Authorship section at the end of this article)

If you haven’t read part 1 of the series on Jeanne Calment, it is best to start there.

Update: the ear analysis below is outdated. Please see this article for the current version.

In the comments to my Habr article on Jeanne Calment, user Rikkitik recommended that I look closely at her ears. After all, ear shape or even ear prints have long been used in forensic science for identification. So I did, and upon further observation, it turned out that the ears of old and young Jeanne do appear to look quite different!

It is a well-known fact that our ears continue to grow throughout life, so I am not talking about the obvious size difference. What I am talking about are the structural mismatches, especially in the top and bottom parts of the ear. At first glance, especially to an untrained eye, it is difficult to spot any critical differences, but once you know where to look, it would be difficult not to notice them. For ease of reference, here is more than you ever wanted to know about ear anatomy nomenclature:

Don’t be intimidated by the abundance of new unusual terms, we really need to look at just two of them: antitragus and antihelix. See how the antihelix has two legs (crura), upper and lower? Here they are highlighted in light blue for convenience (superior crus and inferior crus):

So the biggest difference between young Jeanne’s ear (two leftmost photos) and old Jeanne’s (rightmost photo) to me is in the legs of antihelix — young Jeanne has a more pronounced upper leg (marked by red dots), while in old Jeanne it is almost non-existent. Conversely, old Jeanne has a much more developed lower leg (green dots):

Also, in the bottom part of the ear we see differences in the antitragus:

Young Jeanne has a noticeable, pronounced antitragus while old Jeanne has virtually none. Also, the extra nodule in green in old Jeanne’s ear is not present in the ear of young Jeanne. In fact, young Jeanne has a clear open intertragic notch at that spot.

I am not sure the above differences could be explained away by aging. Generally, the ear seems to preserve its shape and distinctive features over time. Below is Queen Elizabeth at comparable ages to young and old Jeanne:

And here is Prince Philip:

It also seems that young Jeanne’s ear opening sits somewhat lower on the skull than that of old Jeanne:

However, I am not an expert on ear aging or matching, so I have contacted actual experts in this matter, and will update this article once new information emerges.

By the way, while going through Jeanne’s archival photographs, I was struck by how similar Yvonne looks to her maternal grandfather (and godfather) — Nicolas Calment. Just look:

Same big nose, big chin. Same long neck, same pronounced jugular skin flaps. Similar brows, cheekbones, lips, even eyelids. And that ear…

Interestingly, there is an obvious inconsistency related to the photo of Jeanne’s parents from which I cropped the photo of her father above. In the source book it is labeled as “Jeanne Calment’s parents around 1880”:

This is a clear mistake, as in 1880 Jeanne’s parents were no older than 43 years old (her dad was born in 1837 and mom in 1838). No way these are photos of 43-year-olds:

Nikolay Zak, the person who uncovered the entire potential fraud, has an interesting hypothesis as to the origin of the mislabeling. He thinks old “Jeanne” might have told her biographers that the photo is from a time when she was 5, when they asked her to date it. The true Jeanne was indeed 5 years old in 1880, but Yvonne was 5 in 1903, at which time the people in the photo would have been around 66 years old, which is much more believable given their substantially aged appearance.

There is another, diametrically opposite, photo appearance inconsistency. If Jeanne’s parents look too old in theirs, Jeanne looks too young in her ID card photo:

The document was purportedly issued in the 1930s, which would make Jeanne between 55 and 64 years old. Does this look like someone over 55?

Not to me. In fact, in this photo Jeanne looks much younger than in the photo with Yvonne:

Curiously, a nearly identical photo (almost certainly from the same photo shoot) is labeled “at age 40” on the Gerontology Research Group website:

GRG is the prime authority on supercentenarians. They helped validate Jeanne’s claim for the Guinness World Book of Records as the oldest human who ever lived. If this photo was indeed taken at age 40, this would place it at 1915, i.e. 15 to 24 years before the ID card was issued.

Meanwhile, in the photo with Yvonne, Jeanne looks 10–15 years older, and that photo must have been taken before 1934 (as Yvonne reportedly died on January 19, 1934). All this begs the question: why wasn’t a more current photo used for Jeanne’s ID card?

Also, the pose is somewhat unusual for an ID photo — almost all French ID cards of the pre-war period I came across have a front-facing photo rather than an artistic quarter turn with a gaze away from the camera. Why did the authorities allow using such an odd and outdated photo for an ID?

More interestingly, why does the ID card list her eye color as “black” when she herself says it is green in a previously unknown 1988 Paris Match interview:

I had a cousin, fourth degree. His name was Fernand and he was seven years older than me. He did not look at me: for him, I was the “little girl”. One day, he opened his eyes and I had become a pretty girl. Brunette with green eyes.

Also, why is the hair color listed as “noirs” (black) rather than self-described “brun” (brunette, brown)? Other ID cards did use “brun”:

Finally, why does she say that Fernand was “fourth degree” when he was her second cousin (and doubly so: their paternal grandfathers were brothers, while their paternal grandmothers were sisters)?

By the way, this could be a minor point, but something interesting had happened to Jeanne’s signature over the years. Here it is on her 1896 marriage certificate:

For the next 5 years it seemed quite stable, but then changed drastically sometime before 1926 (of course, this date needs to be further verified):

The ID card signature is similar to the one in 1926:

In isolation, the signature change is probably inconsequential, but given the myriad other questions, it might also turn out to be relevant.

By the way, that 1988 Paris Match interview contains several previously unnoticed curiosities. For example, Jeanne claims to have flown at age 40. This would mean that she had flown in 1915, in the midst of World War One. This is quite a claim, as there were no passenger planes until well after WW1. This would be much more plausible if it was actually Yvonne’s age 40, i.e. 1938, when there actually was considerable civilian air traffic. But oops, Yvonne was supposed to have died at age 36.

Also, when Jeanne describes Van Gogh’s visit to her future husband’s store in that interview, she says “I was not yet married when Van Gogh came to the store to buy some canvas”, whereas just a year later in a 1989 interview, Jeanne claimed that her husband introduced her to Van Gogh in the store by saying: “Mr. Van Gogh, this is my wife!” Considering that in 1988 Jeanne says that her future husband never paid her any attention until she had grown up, it is hard to imagine that he would refer to her as his wife in 1888, 8 years before their marriage.

Another oddity in the interview was that Jeanne made mistakes in the ages of her mother and father at death: “Mom died at 90, Dad at 87 and my brother at 98.” In actuality, Jeanne’s mother died at age 86, father at age 93, and brother at age 97.

Then there is the odd bit about Frédéric Mistral, whom I already wrote about in part 1:

“Mistral had come to inaugurate the museum of Arles. I was just married. It was a very beautiful festival presided over by the Provencal poet. Everyone had to wear [an Arlesian] costume. I chose a red dress because I was dark and I had hair up in a bun with small strands around the face to not be too severe. I wore around my neck the shining necklace of my mother. Then we danced to “Les Folies arlésiennes”. It was a kind of casino with a circular gallery. It is a parking lot today…"

The Museon Arlaten that Jeanne refers to, according to its website, was inaugurated by Mistral in 1899. By that time Jeanne not only had been married for 3 years, she also has had a baby daughter. The festival that she describes in the interview sounds like the annual national costume festival which was created by Mistral only in 1903, and which indeed took place in the circular Ancient Roman Theater.

Finally, I want to close with some additional evidence that Jeanne’s (or, more accurately, Yvonne’s) identify fraud was actually uncovered over a decade ago by an employee of an insurance company. However, when he alerted his bosses of his discovery, they chose not to make it public. Here is a recent quote from Jean-Pierre Daniel who originally described the fraud in his book Insurance and Its Secrets:

Jean-Pierre Daniel stated that a controller of insurance companies, looking into the life annuity paid to the centenary, had already uncovered the fraud.
“But at the time Jeanne Calment was already considered a national idol.This official alerted his superiors, who replied that it was necessary to continue to pay the annuity.There was no question of making a scandal with the dean of French,” he told AFP.

Now that a substantial amount of inconsistencies in Jeanne Calment’s story had piled up, I really hope the French authorities would be much more willing to investigate this potential case of identity fraud. So should Jeanne’s longevity record validators, as their scientific reputation is at stake. Did the self-described rascal of a tomboy take all of them for fools? If so, would she get away with it or would her lies be ultimately exposed?

PS: There is now an online petition to extract Jeanne’s and Yvonne’s DNAfrom their remains to conclusively establish whether the identity switch hypothesis is true or false.


Read part 3 of my Jeanne Calment series here.


PPS: Another bit of info I found interesting in the 1988 interview relates to the death of Jeanne’s husband. In virtually all known sources he is said to have died of “cherry poisoning”, but it turns out, he actually died of liver cancer a whole 4 months after the cherry incident:

My husband, he is dead, we can say by greed. It was in 1942. Guests invited us to their homes in the countryside. There were cherries. My husband ate a lot. Me, one or two. But they had been sulphated. That evening, my husband was sick. I told him, “Fernand, you are yellow.” The doctor came, then a specialist. They called me away “It’s very serious”. In fact, he died four months later of a galloping cancer of the liver.

This revelation is obviously tangential to the identity fraud hypothesis, but it should definitely prompt a revision of the “died from cherry poisoning” claim.


Acknowledgements: I am extremely grateful to Habr user Rikkitik for first alerting me to the ear differences between young and old Jeanne, and then for exploring them with me in further detail.


Authorship: This article is mainly based on my own research. In particular, on the ear shape difference and the 1988 Paris Match interview which I have uncovered. However, some mismatches described here were originally noted by Nikolai Zak:

  • The eye color and photo mismatch in Jeanne’s ID card
  • The incorrect dating of Jeanne’s parents photo
  • Jeanne’s signature change

Update: Here is a detailed overview of how I became interested in Jeanne’s story, what my role was in the investigation and what were my research contributions: