On Feb. 15, 1960, The Vancouver Sun ran a front-page photo of an old lady puffing on a cigar.
“Definitely unimpressed by Swedish campaign against smoking is 102-year-old Mrs. Matilda Boynton, 4195 Fraser,” read the cutline. “She still smokes four cigars every day, (and) does her own housework.
” ‘Cancer?” she says. ‘If I got it I don’t know about it.’ ”
Eagland’s stark, black-and-white portrait is amazing. Matilda’s face is wonderfully wrinkled, like the lines on an old-growth tree. Her eyes are clear and blissful as she puffs on the cigar, which produces a swirl of smoke around her fingers.
But there’s an even better shot that didn’t run, which wound up in the Vancouver Archives. In the second photo, Matilda is looking directly at the camera, as cool as can be. The smoke has twirled back in on the cigar, exposing more of her fingers, which have gnarled with age.
Feb. 15, 1960, portrait of Matilda Boynton by Deni Eagland. Original cutline: “Definitely unimpressed by Swedish campaign against smoking is 102-year-old Mrs. Matilda Boynton, 4195 Fraser. She still smokes four cigars every day, (and) does her own housework. “Cancer?” she says. “If I got it I don’t know about it.” Her ambition is to better the family age record of 110. “She will,” says her 84-year-old husband, “as long as she gets the odd tot of rum.”
Christine Hagemoen discovered the second photo a couple of years ago, when she was working for the Vancouver Archives.
“It really struck me,” said Hagemoen, who is now an independent researcher after a decade at the Archives and the CBC. “(I thought) ‘Whoa! What’s this?’ Because you don’t expect (to find) something like this in the archives. It was a beautiful portrait, first of all, and then it turned into an interesting story.”
It took Hagemoen two years to put that story together, but last week, she wrote it up on her blog, vanalogue, which “celebrates the analogue in this digital world.”
Matilda turned out to be something of a local celebrity. The Sun and The Province did several stories on her after she was “discovered” in 1960, partly because she was over 100, but also because Eagland’s photo was so striking that it intrigued people, just like Hagemoen.
The newspapers’ archives have several more photos of the centenarian, including one with her husband, Edward.
She was born Matilda Picket in Marion County, Tenn., on Feb. 13, 1858. She was black, which meant she was born a slave — the U.S. Civil War didn’t start until April 12, 1861, when she was three. Her father was killed in the war, and her mother also died when she was young, so she was raised by her grandparents.
Hagemoen found a 1965 Canadian Press story in The Brandon (Man.) Sun that said one of her earliest memories was of being bit by a rattlesnake.
Fev. 11, 1965: Matilda Boynton, two days before her 107th birthday.
She told a reporter that her relatives took a chicken, beheaded it, gave Matilda “intoxicating liquor” and then stuck her arm inside the dead bird. She said she was “out” for eight days, but it worked.
In 1963 she told The Sun’s John Olding that she started working in the fields when she was young.
“I did the work of a man — plowing, hoeing and sowing,” she said in a southern drawl that was still “as thick as raw cotton.”
After her grandmother died at 110, she married a coal-miner in Tennessee, and had a son. But her husband died and she moved to Seattle. About 1904 she nursed a “seriously ill” Edward Boynton back to health, married him and moved to Vancouver. Their marriage was quite unconventional for the time — Matilda was 15 years older than Edward. He was also white, and she was black, which meant they were a mixed-race couple, in an era where city directories had separate lists for people by race.
Matilda and Edward lived in a small cottage at Fraser and 26th for several decades; he was a “pick-and-shovel” labourer, she was a housewife.
They both liked their tobacco — Edward chewed it, she smoked cigars. But on April 27, 1964, reporter Al Sheehan startled Sun readers with the news that Matilda had given up smoking, at age 106.
“I miss my cigars,” she said, “but I think anyone who has willpower can quit smoking.”
She had been smoking for 93 years when she quit. Edward died on Jan. 31, 1965, at age 92. Matilda died eight months later, on Oct. 26, 1965. She was 107.
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A Sept. 14, 1961, photo of centenarian Matilda Boynton and her husband, Edward. A story is affixed to the back by Province photographer Chuck Jones. “For a dry day, could be a good feature pic is taken right. About four years ago The Sun had a lulu of Mrs. Ed Boynton 4195 Fraser (house in rear). Mrs. Boynton is coloured, husband is white. Sun pic showed her dreamily smoking a cigar — a masterpiece. Mrs. Boynton is 104 years old — she has the birth certificate to prove it. Many years ago Mrs. Boynton nursed Ed through a serious illness and subsequently they were married. Ed is a character himself, used to have tobacco juice running out his mouth all the time — he is now 84, I believe. A few more specific details can be supplied if wanted — I have known them for all my life — particularly Ed, who was the pick-and-shovel man for my dad. Chuck Jones.”
The back of a Sept. 14, 1961, photo of centenarian Matilda Boynton and her husband, Edward.
Jan. 29, 1962: Bill Cunningham portrait of Matilda Boynton, who was about to turn 104.
Matilda Boynton at her 107th birthday party in 1965.
Vancouver Sun front page on Feb. 15, 1960, featuring 102-year-old Matilda Boynton smoking a cigar. Note that the newspaper printed the photo in reverse, so she would be looking into the page, rather than away from it.