Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Shadrach Nugent (ca. 1790-1891)
MSA SC 3520-16176

Biography:

Born ca. 1790 near Rockville, Maryland. Son of Mary Nugent and Bob [last name unknown]. Three siblings: Eli Nugent, Millie Nugent, and Nellie Nugent. Married Rebecca (ca. 1805 - before 1880) in the early 1830's. Six children: Shadrach Nugent Jr. (ca. 1833 - ca. 1864); Meshach Nugent (b. 1836); Elizabeth Nugent (b. 1840); Alice (b. 1843); Rebecca Nugent (b. 1846). Died 1891 in Washington D.C. 

Shadrach Nugent was a free black man who lived most of his life in Washington D.C. and became a well known figure among its free black community. He was a founder of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, the first black church in the nation's capital. After the Civil War, Nugent was best known for his longevity, which he exaggerated by some thirty years. Reports of his alleged age gained wide attention in the national press and among the Washington elite. Nugent used this notoriety to sell meteorological predictions based on the lunar cycle, earning the title "The Moon Man."1

Nugent's early life is largely clouded with untruths, which were propagated by Nugent himself to substantiate his claims of extreme old age. He probably was born near Rockville, Maryland around 1790.2 Either his father or grandfather was a slave from Guinea in Africa. Nugent's mother was an Irish indentured servant named Mary Nugent. It is not clear if he was born free. According to Nugent, his mother gave him away as a child to another woman who then planned to sell him into slavery. However, a local landowner, George Graff intercepted the plan and took custody of young Shadrach until he was of age. The veracity of this story is questionable since it is interspersed with false anecdotes about his dubious service in the Revolutionary War.

However, there is a good deal of Nugent's autobiography that seems quite plausible. By the time he was nineteen, Nugent had moved north to Brookeville, Maryland to join his sister Millie. Founded around 1800, Brookeville was a town of about fifteen homes and several manufacturing mills. The leading citizens were Quakers, and the neighborhood had a comparatively large free black population for the county.3 By 1810, Nugent found employment quarrying stone for the construction of Triadelphia, a neighboring cotton mill complex.4

Nugent stayed in Brookeville and lived among the Quakers throughout the War of 1812. When James Madison fled the capital during the burning of Washington in August of 1814, he sought refuge in Brookeville. Many other citizens of Washington escaped to Brookeville, both black and white. Nugent's brother, Eli escaped with his family and successfully found his brother and sister among the throng of refugees in Brookeville. In later years, Nugent claimed to have seen Madison during this episode. Shortly after the war ended, Nugent relocated to Washington.5

The Shadrach Nugent that arrived in Washington was fairly well educated. He could read and write and had good knowledge of the Bible. It was probably at this time that he began to make astronomical observations of the moon.6 The source of Nugent's education is unknown, but it seems likely that it stemmed from his time among the Quakers who had a long tradition of high levels of education. The Sandy Spring Meeting, which served Brookeville, proposed establishing a school for free blacks while Nugent was living there.7

Shortly after arriving in Washington, Nugent joined the congregation at the Montgomery Street Methodist Church, the first one of its kind in the city. The church that Nugent found was undergoing significant internal turmoil. The preceding years had seen a steady rise in the number of black parishioners, until by 1816, as many as half of all church goers were black. However, despite their wide attendance, these members faced segregation and discriminatory treatment from the white members. Nugent arrived in the midst of a schism and immediately rose to a leadership position. By 1816, he and six other members had convinced 125 black members of the Montgomery Street Church to break away and found their own congregation. Thus, in that year, Nugent and his fellow dissidents founded the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church: the first congregation in the District of Columbia to specifically serve the black community.8

Around 1830, Nugent married a woman named Rebecca and began to raise a family. Between 1833 and 1846, he fathered six children.9 His second son was named Meshach after the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego taken from the Old Testament. Clearly, Nugent had knowledge of the origin of his name and intended to honor that by naming his son from the same source. He worked several odd jobs in mills, a hat shop, and finally driving a cart.

Nugent continued to claim a position of high regard in his community for the next several decades. In the 1850s, he purchased a few houses in his neighborhood and thus increased the value of his real estate by five hundred percent.10 By 1860, his eldest son, Shadrach Jr., had become a sailor. Shortly after, the Civil War began and in 1863, Shadrach Jr. was drafted into the military. He did not return home alive.11

It was about this time that Nugent began to propagate stories of his extreme old age. He claimed to have served in the Revolutionary War while he was an adolescent. His fame quickly spread among the white community until one paper claimed that he had been a body guard of George Washington. According to Nugent, this claim prompted President Lincoln to pay him a visit at which time Nugent denied ever meeting Washington but used the opportunity to solidify his notoriety.

After the Civil War, Nugent's fame grew steadily in and out of Washington as reporters came to meet with the supposed centenarian. He sold cards with his meteorological predictions based on the moon. For this reason, he became known as "The Moon Man." It has been theorized that Nugent's interest in the moon came from his supposed Muslim grandfather who might have measured time based on the lunar calendar.12 It is also possible that Nugent fostered an interest in the moon and created the Moon Man persona because of the origin of his first name, a Babylonian word meaning "The Command of the Moon God." Since he had knowledge of the biblical story from which his name appeared, it is not unreasonable to think that Nugent discovered its derivation.

The New York Herald proclaimed Nugent "the oldest man on earth," and although he did not live to be 130 as he claimed, Nugent did live a remarkable 101 years.13

Jackson Gilman-Forlini, DAR Research Fellow, 2012

Notes:

  1. The majority of what is known about Nugent comes from two different newspaper articles that were written in 1879 and 1885. Most of what they reveal was taken from Nugent's own testimony. The accuracy of these articles is suspect because of Nugent's proclivity for falsifying some details and also because of the prejudices displayed towards African Americans in the white press of the time. However, there is reason to believe that a good deal of his story is true when cross-checked with contemporary sources such as the Federal Census: "A Montgomery County Negro 119 Years Old," Maryland Sentinel, 1879, in John Thomas Scharf, History of Western Maryland (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1882), Vol.1, p. 683-684;  "The Moon Man" Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1885 (syndicated from the New York Herald).
  2. The best evidence for Nugent's actual age comes from: Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Population Schedule, Washington Ward 1, WashingtonDistrict of Columbia; Roll: M653_102; p. 287. 
  3. Third Census of the United States, 1810, Population Schedule, Montgomery County, Maryland, Roll: 14 p. 974.
  4. Maryland Sentinel, 1879.
  5. Ibid.
  6. "One Hundred and Eighteen Years Old," The Elk County Advocate, 26 February 1880; Although purely speculative, there is a chance that Nugent obtained his interest in astronomy from his Brookeville employer, Isaac Briggs, who was also an accomplished astronomer in addition to being a surveyor and engineer of great renown.
  7. William Cook Dunlap, Quaker Education in Baltimore and Virginia. Yearly Meetings with an account of certain meetings of Delaware and the eastern shore affiliated Philadelphia, Based on ms. sources, (Philadelphia: n.p.) 488; Sandy Spring Monthly Meeting: Women's Meeting Minutes 1810-1815 [MSA SC 2978, SCM 667-3].
  8. Pauline Gaskins Mitchell, "The History of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church and Mt. Zion Cemetery," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 51 (Washington D.C.1984) pp. 103-118. 
  9. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Population Schedule, Washington Ward 1, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: M432_56 p. 11B. 
  10. Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Population Schedule, Washington Ward 1, WashingtonDistrict of Columbia; Roll: M653_102; p. 287. 
  11. Consolidated Enrollment Lists, 1863-1865 (Civil War Union Draft Records) Washington D.C.: National Archives [ARC Identifier: 4213514; Archive Volume Number: 3 of 5].
  12. James H. Johnston, From Slave Ship to Harvard, (New York: Fordham University Press 2012) pp. 153-155.
  13. "The Moon Man" Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1885; "Screenings," Philadelphia Enquirer, 1 December 1891; The Washington Law Reporter, Vol. XX No. 3, 21 January 1892. p. 46.

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