World’s oldest eel dies at 155 in Swedish well

Sweden is in mourning today over the death of the world’s oldest eel. Åle the eel was around 155 years old when he left a country bereft, a prodigious age for the European eel Anguilla anguilla which in the wild typically lives around seven years in fresh water before returning to the ocean to spawn and die. They can be very long-lived, though. The oldest recorded wild eel was 85 years old.

Åle was put in the well in the fishing village of Brantevik on the southeastern tip of Sweden by eight-year-old Samuel Nilsson in 1859. This was a common practice in a time when running water was rare (Stockholm only got public water mains in the 1850s; it took more than a century after that for waterworks to be installed in smaller towns) and a good eel could keep the home’s water supply free of bugs, worms, eggs, algae and any other number of critters. European eels will even eat carrion, so they’re extremely helpful additions to a well.

This particular eel has been a star for close to a hundred years, garnering articles in the paper, TV news stories and documentaries, even making an appearance in the Swedish Tom Sawyer, Bombi Bitt and I written by Fritiof Nilsson Piraten in 1932. Thomas Kjellman, current owner of the cottage, remembers Åle from when he was a boy. His family bought the house in 1962 with the understanding that the eel came with the property.

Last Tuesday, Kjellman lifted the lid off the well to show his famous eel to guests when he discovered Åle was no more. He had fallen apart, in fact, which must have put a bit of a damper on the annual crayfish party. They had to drain the well in order to recover the delicate remains which are being kept in the freezer until eel expert Dr. Håkan Wickström comes to pick them up. He will then take them to a laboratory in Stockholm for a necropsy.

Although the body is in pieces, the entire spine is intact and the family is hoping to send along the head as well. Rings in the otolith, or ear stone, of the eel would reveal its exact age.

The Kjellman family will have to take solace in the fact that they have a backup superannuated eel. Their other well eel, currently unnamed, is only about 110 years old.

You can catch a glimpse of Åle in his rather depressing well home/dungeon at 2:39 in the following video. You can see him in all his big-eyed glory (reportedly a result of a century spent in near constant darkness) when they bring him up into the light starting at 4:00.


12 thoughts on “World’s oldest eel dies at 155 in Swedish well

  1. Is this an April Fools Joke? What the heck is with an 150 year old eel in a well? Has our fearless history blogger been drinking tonite?

  2. Blame it on the ‘Surströmming’. What we know since the post from yesterday is this: A well can serve to preserve an etruscan can well. Even if you have a full 150 years, one cannot make a lot of history while in solitary confinement, or -I dare say- while commenting historical blog entries. Moreover, if you drag e.g. 150 year old swedish pensioners down a well (in order to put that on Youtube, of course), they probably would not survive this stunt as well. Did anyone see that story about the 80 swedish skeletons in IKEA bags (information from that ‘’ link given above in the post) ? – ‘The body is in pieces, the entire spine is intact and the family is hoping to send along the head as well’.

  3. Considerable social history included in this story. I found this story fascinating. Granted, one has to get past the unusual nature of it (I admit it is quite different from the usual fare here), but when one thinks about it, it opens all kinds of wonderings about Swedish rural cultural history. I am in awe. But perhaps I am unusual in that respect.

  4. I’m with Annie. For instance, I didn’t know why eels were put into wells, which is a historical/cultural lesson. It’s certainly an unusual story, but nonetheless fitting.

  5. Hope no one thinks I am ridiculing the article. I was just shocked at such a practice I have never heard. I can’t imagine living alone at the bottom of a well for 150 years as if, yes, doesn’t everyone? Be assured I love “The History Blog”

  6. Theres a Swedish writer – Fritiof Nilsson- who mentioned the eels in one of his best Selling novels. He was sort of the “pg woodehouse of sweden”/(Writing very strange and witty novels) This was in the 1960ies….

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