John M. Phipps: His 100th Birthday, 1912

Still another article about John Meshack Phipps, born 1812, son of Jesse Phipps and grandson of Samuel Phips, Jr. of Wilkes and Ashe Counties, North Carolina, appeared in an Iowa paper in 1912. The article contains some objectionable statements, but is presented as a historical record as printed.

The extensive discussion about slavery and about the cruelties of slave overseers on Virginia plantations makes one wonder how much of this came directly from John, and how much of this he had either witnessed firsthand or had heard from family members.

He appears to have been related to the John Phips/Fips of Lunenburg and Charlotte Counties, Virginia. That John seems to have been an overseer for Tandy Walker in 1748 and 1750 tax lists in Lunenburg County. How much slave ownership was involved in the family, and to what extent could family stories of such involvement – perhaps even involving the John of Lunenburg County – have found their way into John Meshack Phipps’s account?

The remarks about brotherly love and charity may seem incongruous considering John Meshack Phipps’s or Phips’s outlaw past. One article, however, referred to a “Methodist conversion” following his outlaw gang involvement.

From The Leon Reporter, Leon, Iowa, Thursday, February 22, 1912, pp. 1, 12:

Uncle John Phipps Completes a Full Century of Life. Still a Vigorous and Healthy Man.

[accompanied by photo captioned “JOHN M. PHIPPS – 100 Years Old Feb. 14, 1912 – and Grandson, ORTILLE PHIPPS.”]

At Shenandoah last Wednesday, Uncle John Phipps, the venerable father of Mrs. F. A. Gardner of Leon, celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth, a reception being tendered him at the home of his daughter in that city. Mrs. Phipps has many friends in Decatur county who extend congratulations, and on his birthday he received a large number of post cards and letters from old Decatur county friends, for which he is duly thankful. On Thursday Uncle John was initiated into the Elk’s lodge at Shenandoah, when their fine new home was formally dedicated, a large class of candidates being initiated, and it was a gala day with the Elks for they are mighty proud of having a hundred year-old Elk among their members. As the most fitting close to the services, Mr. Phipps was asked to address the lodge for a few minutes. Standing more erect than the average man of 50, with voice uncertain and breaking at times, yet capable of making itself distinctly heard throughout the room, shaking at times with earnestness and with thought and ability of expression truly wonderful, this old man, who was a babe when the war of 1812 was fought said:

“I haven’t but a few more days to be with you. I have always been more of a thinker than a walker, but I want to tell you that I am proud to be member of this grand lodge. I have found that your principles are brotherly love and charity, and brotherly kindness. If we live up to the commandments of this society we will make the world better. And we want to do that. We want to help each other; you must help me, I want to help you practice these grand principles of brotherly love and charity. When you are as old as I am, you will know that these two are the greatest things in the world. In the few days that I have left I want to do all the good things that I can. The practice of the principles of this society is the best way to do good that I know of. Let’s be true to them. I wish I could tell you of the peace that comes with brotherly love; I have always tried to do right; I don’t think I have an enemy in the world, and I don’t want to have. There won’t any of us have any if we just remember what we have talked about this afternoon, that charity and brotherly love and kindness are the greatest and grandest things in all the world.”

The following interesting sketch of Mr. Phipps’ life was written Miss Merze Marvin, of the Shenandoah Sentinel-Post, to which paper we are indebted for the use of his portrait:

Almost everybody in this corner of the state knows Uncle John M. Phipps who lives between Farragut and Shenandoah, and has for many years enjoyed distinction as the patriarch of the community. Almost everybody hereabouts has been awaiting with interest the celebration of his hundredth birthday, which will take place tomorrow. In fact, if you have not, on numerous occasions in the past, seen this white haired old man stepping briskly past on the street, or perchance driving his old white horse, and exclaimed to your less observant companion, “There goes Uncle John Phipps! He’ll be one hundred years old in February!” it is because you are a stranger in Shenandoah.

And every time you seen [sic;] him you probably paused a minute unconsciously to speculate upon the remarkable history of a man who has lived a hundred years, and then, thinking of your own numerous ailments, you said to yourself, “Gee Whiz! How did he ever do it?” Uncle John himself will tell you that he used very little medicine, has lived in the open air and has never used tobacco, liquor, or opiates. To this abstinence from harmful habits Mr. Phipps attributes in a large measure, his great span of life. He believes in the efficacy of cold water as a curative, and all his life long has been accustomed to bathe his feet in water, fresh and cold from the well, and in winter, in the chilly snow water. To cure his rheumatism he used to cut a hole in the ice and swing his feet in the icy water underneath.

John Phipps and his twin brother, Eli, who died a little more than a year ago at his Oklahoma home, were born in Washington county, Va., away back in 1812, Feb. 14, which was prior to the declaration of war against England, and prior to a whole lot of big events that most of us considered ancient history when we studied our books at school. He left Virginia when he was seventeen and came to the west. He first came to Iowa in 1836. He lived for a time in Nebraska and Missouri, and then came back to Iowa and settled on a farm near Farragut, where he has resided for more than thirty years.

Phipps was one of a family of ten children, two girls and eight boys, of which he is the only surviving member. His father was Scotch and his mother English. At the time of his earliest recollection New York City was very small. There were no railroads and very few wagons. Most of the freight was carried on horseback. There were no schools. The young Phipps received their education from the Bible, Pike’s arithmetic and the speller. Even the whites were very illiterate. Onlly about one out of every twenty could read or write. All news came by letters, which were transported at a cost of 25 cents postage each.

Uncle John Phipps has many thrilling recollections of childhood scenes back in old Virginia. Slavery was in its prime in that distant day. Slaves were imported and shipped to the southland as horses are now. Negroes were imported to Virginia and set to work in the mills. Later, when they were becoming civilized they were sent south, down into South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana to work on the cane plantations. Many atrocities were committed by these uncivilized negroes, even to the killing and eating of two white children on one occasion. The law required the execution of a bond before a negro could be imported. When young Phipps was about fifteen years of age, Virginia passed a law prohibiting the importing of negroes. Many Virginia traders raised negroes for the southern market. A good negro, twenty years old, capable of taking an overseer’s position, sold for about $1,000. A good woman twenty years old brought about $500. Boys of fifteen years were worth from $300 to $500. Girls of fifteen were valued at $250. The mullatoes [sic] brought higher prices. A good man was worth $1,000 to $1,500, and a woman $700 to $1000. There were few legal marriages among the negroes. The traders were very unscrupulous, and treated their slaves as mere animals. They frequently sent their own children to the southern market.

Sometimes a slave would make a [p. 12:] break for the mountains, but capture was almost certain. The captors were paid liberal rewards, and the captured were severely punished. On the large plantations there was a regular negro whipper. A whipper was also furnished by the county. the culprit was tied hand and foot, and the whip, which was of cow hide, was wielded vigorously. The punishment varied from ten to seventy-five lashes acording [sic] to the severity of the crime and the state of the master’s temper. Sometimes a negro was whipped to death before his owner’s rage was appeased. When only twelve years old young Phipps saw a slave whipped to death, and the scene has never faded from his memory. Sometimes the negro criminals were executed by hanging by the county as a warning to others.

John Phipps was married in Decatur county, Feb. 27, 1842, to Miss Mary E. Long, who was a sister to O. S. Long’s father. They had ten children, but only four are now living. One son Matthew, lives in Oklahoma and is very prosperous, A. S. resides on the home farm near Farragut. One daughter, Mrs. Gardner, lives in Decatur county, Mrs. Mary Winfrey, in Richardson, Neb. He has eighteen grandchildren and forty-two great-grand children, and is proud of them all.

In Missouri, uncle John Phipps lived near the James boys, and the Younger brothers, and knew them well, Teh James boys, Frank and Jesse lived only fifteen miles away. Their raids and depredations began after Phipps moved north to Iowa.

Just before the war, Mr. Phipps says he owned 1200 acres of land east of Kansas City, and was living there when the war began. He found it impossible to live there without joining the army, on one side or the other, and not wishing to ally himself with either side, he packed up what goods he could haul with two teams and drove up to Harrison county, this state, where he staid [sic] until the war ended. A part of his land he fooled away, he said, and then traded 500 acres to Jim Kaster for 320 acres near Farragut, where he has since resided.

Mr. Phipps’ fame was spread broadcast through the land some years ago, when the Chicago and other metropolitan dailies devoted considerable space to the story of his life and sought to prove that he was the father of John D. Rockefeller. In the history of the Standard Oil company, Miss Ida M. Tarbell stated that William Rockefeller, father of John D., was living under an alias near a small town in the middle west. Clues pointed to the Shenandoah vicinity, and star reporters for the metropolitan dailies hit the trail to Shenandoah, believing Uncle John Phipps to be the man. They sought him at all hours of the day and night, routed him out of bed before daylight to answer their questions. They were unable to prove their desired story. Uncle John, however, is a great admirer of John D., and emphatically states that were he the father of the illustrious magnate, he would have the best son in the world.

Uncle John Phipps is an uncle by marriage of O. S. Long, of this city, and is an occasional visitor at the Long home. Several years ago Mrs. Long looked up from her work in the store, and then rose and extended her hand to the approaching visitor. “Hello, Uncle John” said she, and invited him down to the house. He accepted the invitation, made a call or two, and then left for Farragut. A few days later Mr. and Mrs. Long were invited to the Phipps home for dinner. When they entered the dining room two “Uncle Johns” as like as two peas in a pod, greeted her astonished gaze. Her visitor of a few days before had been Uncle John’s twin brother, Eli, from Oklahoma, whom she had never seen before. He died at his home in Oklahoma last year, upwards of ninety-nine years of age.

The relations are gathering home to celebrate the birthday of this famous old centenarian. At the family re-union, Wednesday, his children will all be present, and most of his grandchildren. Several nephews and nieces, children of his brother, Eli, will come from Oklahoma. Uncle John looks forward to the occasion with as much glee as a little lad in his first trousers. After his big family dinner, at the A. S. Phipps home, there will be an informal reception, and the neighbors and friends may call between 2 and 5 in the afternoon.

On Thursday afternoon, Uncle John is to be initiated in the Elks lodge at Shenandoah, following the dedication of their new building. Thereafter the greeting “How do you do, Uncle John” must be changed to “Hello Bill.” A few weeks ago, the centenarian made a trip to Shenandoah, and was shown through the Elks’ Club House, and expressed great pleasure over the honor about to be conferred upon him.


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