A photo circulating online allegedly depicts a woman from the 1700s with her 69 children. Is this real or fake?
The photo has been popularized recently by internet “fact” pages such as “History in Pictures” on Twitter. Consider the tweet below which is captioned: “A Russian woman in the 1700s gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, 7 sets of triplets and 4 sets of quadruplets in just 40 years with the same man.”
The woman who had 69 children pic.twitter.com/ud9M5b1tyG
— History In Pictures (@LostlnHistory) January 13, 2015
Did a woman have 69 children, and does the photo below depict her?
Legend holds that Valentina Vassilyev and her husband Feodor produced 69 children together between 1725 and 1765. 67 of these children were said to have survived infancy.
It has also been claimed that Feodor Vassilyev fathered 18 more children with his second wife, bringing the total to 87 children, with 82 of those surviving infancy.
There are typically three sources cited as proof of this story: from 1783, 1834, and 1878.
The original source of this claim can be traced back to a 1783 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine, which cited its source as being dependable because it came “directly from an English merchant in St. Petersburg to his relatives in England, who added that the peasant was to be introduced to the Empress.”
The case was later referenced in 1834, in the Saint Petersburg Panorama (translated by Guinness).
In the day of 27 February 1782, the list from Nikolskiy monastery came to Moscow, containing the information that a peasant of the Shuya district, Feodor Vassilyev, married twice, had 87 children. His first wife in 27 confinements gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets. His second wife in eight confinements gave birth to six pairs of twins and two sets of triplets. F. Vassilyev was 75 at that time with 82 of his children alive.
The claim that 69 children were born to one mother has also been published by Guinness World Records:
The greatest officially recorded number of children born to one mother is 69, to the wife of Feodor Vassilyev (b. 1707–c.1782), a peasant from Shuya, Russia. In 27 confinements she gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets.
While Guinness cites three common sources, it does not mention that there has been continuous skepticism about the case.
In 1933, writer Julia Bell investigated the claim in a report published in Biometrika. The article entitled “Plural Births with a new Pedigree” reports that “this history was published independently – with a caution – by Hermann, writing on Statistics of the Russian population in 1790. My impulse was to reject the case as unworthy of serious consideration, as apparently the cautious Garthshore did in 1787.”
The writer noted that attempts by the Lancet in 1870s to verify the case were described as “superfluous” by the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. She concluded her investigation with the question, “Are we to accept this case as an established record?”
Later, Bell expressed skepticism about Vassilyev’s case when discussing a similar report of a man named James Kyrloff. “Surely both these Russian cases must be regarded as under suspicion,” she wrote.
Marie M. Clay, in her book Quadruplets and Higher Multiple Births, summarized research in the case by stating, “…this evasion of a proper investigation seems, in retrospect, to have dealt a terminal blow to our chances of ever establishing the true detail of this extraordinary case.”
The photo shown above actually depicts Latter-Day Saints President Joseph Smith with his family. Utah Historical Quarterly describes the photo as “Joseph F. Smith, president of the LDS church shown here with his wives and children,” while on Wikimedia Commons, it is captioned to show, “Smith surrounded by members of his family, including his sons and daughters, as well as their spouses and children.”
Modern photography did not exist until decades after Vassilyeva’s death, thus there are no photos of her. The earliest known photograph ever taken dates to the 1820s
It is possible that someone simply found an old photo of a large family to use as a visual for the story, but some fact pages have begun using the picture as if it actually depicts a family from the 1700s.
The photo which allegedly shows a Russian woman with her 69 children is actually a family photograph of Joseph F. Smith and his family, probably taken around 1904.
Valentina Vassilyev was reported to have given birth to 69 children in the 1700s, although the available evidence has not satisfied everyone who has researched the case.
Revised June 1, 2016
Originally published January 2015