Paste Gems: It’s the Real Thing (Almost!)

The majority of what crosses my desk everyday as I catalog artifacts are items that would be difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe to any one person who lived on the land we call Ferry Farm. Architectural debris (brick, mortar, plaster, nails), food remains (oyster shell, animal and fish bones, eggshells (!)), broken household objects (glass bottles, wineglasses, dinner plates, storage crocks), and modern garbage (plastic – so much of it!), when found on site, are all interesting artifacts in and of themselves and can answer specific research questions. At the same time, they all attest to the mundane, collective aspects of everyday life on a farm that has been occupied off and on for over 250 years.  Every once in a while, however, an artifact is caught in the field sifting screen or the lab wash bucket that puts a smile on your face and causes you to excitedly announce to the rest of the crew, “Look what I found – a gem!” Then, you think “I wonder who it belonged to?”

sf1947

An oval, faceted red paste gem that probably came from a piece of jewelry. (SF 1947)

Gemstones and jewelry are definitely exciting finds on any archaeological site, but at Ferry Farm we are more likely to find bits of jewelry and clothing fasteners decorated with imitation or “paste” gems.  Paste gems are molten leaded glass pressed into gem-like molds and then polished to look like the real thing.  With the better quality pastes, the facets could even be cut and polished.  They were available in any color imaginable by adding metallic oxides during their manufacture. Their color could also be enhanced or changed by attaching colored foils to the undersides of the gem.   Paste gems were usually set in closed, versus open-backed, settings to protect the foil backing from tarnishing.

sf1948

This colorless paste gem is cut in a style similar to the “brilliant cut,” a popular diamond cut during the 18th century, and would have been set in a closed setting for either a piece of jewelry, a button, or a buckle. (SF 1948)

The use of paste gems was popular from the 17th through the early 19th centuries because they were so versatile and economical. Pastes were available in a wide selection of colors that imitated any precious or semi-precious gemstone.  Because they were created in molds, they also came in a multitude of sizes and shapes, such as circles, triangles, squares, octagons and hexagons.  The jeweler could then cut the gems to fit together in closely-set arrangements not always possible with real stones.  Improvements in the quality of the glass during the 18th century heralded gems with added brilliance and allowed greater flexibility in cutting and using the paste stones in detailed settings. Despite being imitations, pastes were highly desired in and of themselves by both the middle class and the wealthy.

sfs-212-215-230

Three similar rectangular faceted gems in blue and green. (SFs 212, 215, 230)

Just like real stones, paste gems were set in all kinds of jewelry and items of personal adornment worn by both men and women.  Necklaces, brooches, rings, bracelets, and earrings were all decorated with paste gems.  Clothing fasteners, such as buckles, buttons, sleeve buttons, were also set with pastes.  Buckles used to fasten a wide variety of clothing articles, such as hats, shoes, girdles, stocks, and gloves, were very fashionable items to be set with paste gems.  One advantage of using pastes over real stones is that it was certainly easier to replace a lost buckle set with pastes than one set with real diamonds!

mans-shoe-buckles-c-1777-1785

Pair of man’s steel and gilt wire shoe buckles, England, circa 1777-1785. Public domain. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Costume Council Fund / Wikipedia

Paste gems found at Ferry Farm have come in a range of colors – green, red, pink, aqua, blue, black, and colorless – as well as shapes.  Figure (SF#1947) is an oval, faceted red paste gem that probably came from a piece of jewelry.  Figure (SF# 212, 215, 230) shows three similar rectangular faceted gems in blue and green.  The colorless paste gem in Figure (SF#1948), cut in a style similar to the “brilliant cut,” a popular diamond cut during the 18th century, would have been set in a closed setting for either a piece of jewelry, a button, or a buckle.

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Sleeve button with its colorless glass inset. (SF 234)

Sometimes the paste gem is still found within its setting, such as the sleeve button with its colorless glass inset seen above (SF#234) but, more often than not, finding a paste gem in its original, complete setting is a rare occurrence. Figure (SF#1971) is a fragment of a copper alloy shoe buckle with two empty settings for paste gems.

sf1971

Fragment of a copper alloy shoe buckle with two empty settings for paste gems. (SF 1971)

Who did these gems and their settings belong to?  Distinctive style changes in gem shapes and jewelry settings help establish when certain pieces were in fashion.  Knowing changes in clothing fashions through time and recognizing when certain types of clothing fasteners, such as shoe buckles and sleeve buttons, were popular also help us focus our research.   We can assume that whoever was sporting these gems was trying to be stylish and fashionable in their time by adding a little “bling” and glitter to their wardrobe.  For as long as people have been traditionally adorning themselves with real gemstones in jewelry, there has always been that goal to create comparable imitations to swap out the real thing.  These special artifacts found at Ferry Farm are a reflection of these stylistic changes.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Pointon, Marcia. Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones & Jewelry.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

White, Carolyn. American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2005.

Le Pouf: Sensational Hairstyle of the 18th Century

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Wig curlers excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

We’re pretty interested in 18th century hairstyles, wigs, and wig-styling here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.  As evidence, check out our most viewed blog post. It’s about wig styling.  Our interest stems from the hundreds of wig curlers archaeologists have excavated during digs at Ferry Farm.  While those wig curlers were used to style men’s wigs here in British North America, our research explorations into hairstyling of the 1700s sometimes range more widely.  The information we find may have no direct relevance to George Washington and his family here in Fredericksburg but it still helps us to understand the world in which they lived.  Sometimes the information is simply too fascinating not to share here on Lives & Legacies and it’s all thanks to those little wig curlers that keep popping out of the ground where George Washington’s boyhood home once stood.

One of the most sensational wig and hair styles of the 18th century – the pouf – was found among the women courtiers of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in France across the Atlantic from Ferry Farm.  The pouf was a hairstyle that became popular in the French court during the late part of the eighteenth century.  The pouf utilized everything from wire, cloth, gauze, wigs, animal hair, and the wearer’s own hair to create a voluminous coiffure that could be used as a canvas to express feelings (pouf à la sentiment) or commemorate events (pouf à la circonstance).[1]

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

The pouf’s creation has been attributed to two people: Madame Rose Bertin and hairdresser Monsieur Léonard. [2]  Bertin had a shop in Paris, close to the Palace, where she and Léonard began offering these unique headdresses to the wealthy noble women of the court including Marie Antoinette.

One of the first women of court to commission such a headdress was the Duchess of Chartres in April 1774.  The Duchess wanted to commemorate the birth of her son so she had Léonard create a unique coiffure.  It featured “fourteen yards of gauze and numerous plumes waving at the top of a tower…two waxen figures as ornaments, representing her son in his nurse’s arms.  Beside was placed a parrot pecking at a plate of cherries, and reclining at the nurse’s feet, a waxen figure of a little African boy of whom the duchess was very fond.  On different parts of the hairpieces were the initials of Duke of Chartres, of Penthievre, and of Orleans, formed with the hair of those princes – the husband, father, and father-in-law of the duchess.”[3]  The poufs popularity took off after the Duchess premiered this flamboyant bouffant and it became a must have fashion accessory for all aristocratic and wealthy ladies of France.

The Duchess of Lauzun hired Bertin to decorate her locks as bemused contemporary journalists reported with– “a stormy sea, a hunter shooting at ducks, a mill where a female mill worker was being seduced by a priest, and at the bottom, the mill-worker’s husband walking along with his donkey.” [4]

Young Marie Antoinette, France’s new queen, became the leader of all things fashionable in pouf décor.  One of her most written about headpieces was the “coiffure à l’Iphigénie” which was wound with black mourning ribbons, trimmed with a black veil, adorned with a wreath of black flowers and topped with a crescent moon.  She wore this on a night at the opera to support a friend Christoph Gluck and his Parisian debut of “Iphigénie en Aulide.”[5]

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Ever at the cutting edge not only in fashion but in medicine, she unveiled “pouf à la inoculation” to celebrate her husband’s recent small pox vaccinationThis pouf included a serpent belonging to the Greek’s god of medicine, Aesculapius, twined around an olive tree that symbolized wisdom with a great golden sun rising behind it as a nod to her husband’s grandfather Louis XIV, the much-loved Sun King.

Two other noted examples that caused a stir in the court were the Zephyr and the Coiffure a la Belle-Poule.  The Zephyr, created by Monsieur Léonard, was a moving garden of brightly colored flowers which was celebrated as a peak achievement for the hairdresser.  The Coiffure a la Belle-Poule was a nautical pouf that consisted of a ship sailing on a sea of thick wavy hair.  It was invented after the naval battle in which the frigate La Belle Poule was victorious.

A realistic view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

A fairly realistic view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

Soon these new hairdos began to make their way out of the circles of aristocracy to the streets of Paris.  However, as cutting-edge fashion makes its way out into the streets, the distinctiveness is somewhat diluted creating more audacious and ostentatious copycats.  This was quickly picked up on by social critics and became a fertile subject for mockery and satire.

One critic lampooned the imitators saying, “they did not hesitate to embrace styles more ridiculous than sublime.  Thus spotting in the Queen’s pouf a la jardinière such implausible ingredients as an artichoke, a carrot, some radishes, and a head of cabbage.” [6] Another complained, “Frivolous women covered their heads with butterflies” and “Melancholic women went so far as to put crematory urns in their headdress.”  Even the hair dresser who invented the pouf began to decry the “prodigious folly of composite and fabricated coiffures, as pictures of towns, little models of Paris, a globe or the heavens.”

A satirical view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

A satirical view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

Some complaints seemed more valid than others.  Spectators at the Paris Opera petitioned the director, to refuse any lady whose coiffure blocked the view of the rest of the audience.    While enjoying the theatre might inconvenience others, getting to the theatre brought its own set of physical dilemmas for the pouf wearer.  Try squeezing a three foot bouffant into a small covered carriage or navigating a standard doorway with the additional height.

Luckily, for those who found the pouf a public nuisance, a silly fashion fad, or just a physical pain to wear did not have to wait long for it to fall out of favor spectacularly.  The huge grandiose styles began to represent a symbol of aristocratic excess in a society on the verge of political revolution.  It embodied the nobility’s unbridled lavishness in the face of public discontent.  This willful ignorance didn’t end well for the coiffured-court ladies who soon found they no longer had anywhere to put their elaborate headdresses.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, New York: Picador, 2006: 104.

[2] Weber, 104.

[3] Weber, 105; Olivier Bernier, The Eighteenth Century Woman, New York: Doubleday, 1982: 235; Will Bashor, Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution, Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2013: 65

[4] Weber, 105.

[5] Weber, 106; Bashor, 66.

[6] Weber, 111.

Photos: Building George’s House – First Week of Timber Framing

Expert craftsmen from Blue Ridge Timberwrights arrived last Tuesday, September 6 to build the frame of the Washington house.  This collection of photographs documents the first week of their work and begins with pictures of the finished concrete cradle and Aquia sandstone blocks ready to serve as the foundation for the timber frame. Over the past several months, the wood for the frame was carpentered in the Blue Ridge Timberwrights’ shop before being brought to Ferry Farm and pieced together to form the house.  Timber framing work will continue for another few weeks.

Learn more about constructing the Washington house interpretive replica herehere, and here.

Samuel Washington: George’s Brother and Wartime Confidant

Samuel Washington was born in Westmoreland County, sometime in November of 1734, the third child and second oldest boy of Augustine and Mary Washington.[1]  Aside from his relationship to his famous older brother, George Washington, there is relatively little known about Samuel Washington when compared to what is known about George.

In 1738, when Samuel was about four-years-old, the family moved to Ferry Farm, where he spent his childhood.  When Samuel was eight-years-old, Augustine died in April 1743.  According to Augustine’s will, his sons were to receive their inheritance when they turned 21-years-old.  Until then, Mary controlled their inherited property.

This property included enslaved men, women, and children.  Samuel received ten of his father’s slaves: Dick, Ralph, Tom, Merry, Rosa, Pegg, Milla, Sarah, Charles, Virgin, and Will.  Of these, only Dick is listed as one of the “Negroes at the Home House” in Augustine’s probate inventory, meaning that he came from the enslaved community living at Ferry Farm.

Samuel also inherited land from Augustine, namely Chotank Farm in Frederick County and a portion of land in Westmoreland County. [2]  When Samuel reached age of 21 in 1755, he sold the Westmoreland property and moved to Chotank Farm with his new wife, Jane Champe.[3]

augustine-washington-family-tree

The Family of Augustine Washington (click photo to enlarge)

Over the course of his life, Samuel married five times.  Each of his wives died from illness or during childbirth.  Similarly, several children of Samuel and his wives passed away.  Thornton Washington, a son Samuel fathered with second wife Mildred Thorton, survived to adulthood and fought in the American Revolution[4]  Samuel and Anne Steptoe Allerton, his fourth wife, had three children who survived childhood: George Steptoe Washington, Lawrence Augustine Washington, and Harriot Washington.[5]

In 1770, Samuel moved his family from Frederick County to a new home called Harewood (now in Jefferson County, West Virginia).[6]  At Harewood, he was situated far from the Revolutionary War.  Samuel was sickly for much of his life, most likely with tuberculosis, which precluded him from actively fighting in the war. He still joined his local militia in 1771 and eventually became a colonel.[7]  He also played a role in local politics, both before and during the Revolution. In 1766, he signed the Leedstown or Westmoreland Resolves [PDF] against the Stamp Act.  The same year, Samuel was named a justice in Stafford County[8], and in 1769, was appointed by the governor as a member of the new Commission of the Peace.[9]

harewood

Harewood as it appears today near Charles Town, West Virginia. Credit: Acroterion/Wikipedia

Although Samuel’s direct involvement in the war was limited, George Washington saw his brother as a confidant. For much of the Revolution, George sent Samuel many letters describing the war’s course and hardships. He even included sensitive information such as troop movements. Multiple times, George wrote to his brother to tell him the news of the front, frequently describing the battles and their outcome, lamenting the lack of troops and supplies, and once even sent Samuel a list of the names of prisoners taken.  George could express to Samuel his uncertainties about the war and the future of the country he was fighting to create. In 1776, George confessed to his brother; “We are, I expect, upon the Eve of something very important; what may be the Issue; Heaven alone can tell, I will do the best I can, and leave the rest to the supreme direction of Events”

In 1780, George wrote his brother in frustration, saying “We are always without an Army—or have a raw and undisciplined one, engaged for so short a time that we are not fit either for the purposes of offence or defence, much less is it in our power to project schemes & execute plans which depend upon well-disciplined and permanent Troops—One half the year is spent in getting Troops into the Field—the other half is lost in discharging them, from their limited Service, & the manner & time in which they come and go.” This expression of doubt shows how comfortable George was with telling his brother the bleak truth about what was happening in war.

Since there are no surviving letters from Samuel, it is necessary to rely on what George wrote to his brother to get an idea of their relationship. On a personal level, the two men seem to have been close given the level of trust George showed by sharing his innermost thoughts about the war and the state of the army with Samuel.  Beyond affairs of state, at times, George simply missed Samuel, telling him in 1772 that “I was in great hopes to have met with you at Fredericksburg, or seen you at this place on your way up but it would almost seem as if you had foresworn this part of the Country.”  There were other letters similar to this, asking Samuel when he would visit George at Mount Vernon. During the Revolution, there was little opportunity for visiting and travel, but the brothers were able to stay in touch, up until Samuel’s death.

Samuel did not live to see the new country that his brother was fighting to create. In 1781, shortly before the Battle of Yorktown, Samuel’s health declined sharply and he died in September.[10] It is believed he died of tuberculosis.  Thornton Washington, Samuel’s eldest son, died in 1787, leaving George Steptoe, Augustine Lawrence, and Harriot to be cared for by Samuel’s siblings. Betty became the main caretaker of Harriot while Charles and George had many disputes over the welfare of their two nephews, mainly arguing over money.

Samuel left many debts unpaid after his death. In 1783, an exasperated George pondered in a letter to his younger brother, John Augustine, “How did my Brothr. Saml. Contrive to get himself so enormously in debt? Was it by purchases? By misfortunes? Or shear indolence and inattention to business?”[11] Whatever the reason, there was little that remained to pay off Samuel’s debts, his children were nearly destitute. Samuel’s wealth was most likely tied up in land and that land was sold off to pay his debts. Because neither his will nor any probate inventory have been found, it is nearly impossible to discover what his assets were before his death. Charles, John Augustine, Betty and George all pitched-in over the next several years to make sure that Samuel’s children were well cared for.  In his will, George Washington exonerated the debts that were owed him by Samuel and said that he did not expect Samuel’s children to repay him for their education or anything else that may have been given to them.

Madeline Fanta
Summer Fleming-Smith Scholar

[1] Felder, Paula S. Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, American History Company, 1998: pg. 4

[2] Ambler, Charles Henry, George Washington and the West, Historic Pittsburgh Text Collection, 1873- 1957: pg. 32 http://bit.ly/2cpnGgO [Accessed 8/17/16].

[3] Bedinger Family History and Genealogy Website, http://www.bedinger.org/col-samuel-washington.html [Accessed 8/17/16].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Grizzard, Frank E. Jr. George! A Guide to All Things Washington, Charlottesville, VA: Mariner Publishing, 2005: pg. 337

[7] Bedinger Family History and Genealogy Website, http://www.bedinger.org/col-samuel-washington.html [accessed 6/15/2016].

[8] Bushong, Millard Kessler, A History of Jefferson County, West Virginia, 1719-1940, Westminster, MD: Heritage Books Inc. 2007: pg. 308

[9] Felder, pg. 152.

[10] Bedinger Family History and Genealogy Website http://www.bedinger.org/col-samuel-washington.html [accessed 6/15/2016].

[11] Grizzard, pg. 337

Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It: Tobacco & Politics in the 1700s

Colonial American.  Think about that term.  What does it mean to you?  It refers to citizens of the American colonies prior to the Revolution.  In the minds of many of us in the present-day United States, however, it might denote a unique American identity, probably because our own identities as Americans are firmly set and celebrated.  But what if I told you that most of these colonial Americans considered themselves to be loyal British subjects for much of the colonial period and proudly displayed objects that confirmed their loyalty?

One such object discovered at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is a small fragment from a white clay smoking pipe bowl.  The design on this tiny fragment includes a small harp and the letters “Mon D…”.

Pipe Bowl Fragment

Pipe bowl fragment excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Sometimes in archaeology we have genuine ‘Ah Ha!’ moments and, for me, this was one such instance.  I grew up with a suncatcher – a gift from an English family friend — in my bedroom that featured a rearing unicorn above the words ‘Mon Droit.

Suncatcher

I loved that suncatcher and, when I saw the pipe fragment, I recognized the design was right away.  It was the British royal coat of arms!

On pipe bowls like the one unearthed at Ferry Farm, the coat of arms wrapped around three quarters of the circular bowl. A lion, shield, and unicorn each filled their own quarter of the bowl above the full French phrase “Dieu Et Mon Droit” or “God and my right,” a claim that the right of the British monarch to govern was divine in nature.  This phrase has a long history in England.  It was first used as a battle cry by Richard I in the 12th century and picked up as a royal motto by King Henry V, who lived from 1386-1422.  The use of the French language for an English motto may seem odd but French was very fashionable and the official language of the English court.

British Royal Coat of Arms

The British royal coat of arms from 1714-1800 during the Hanover dynasty. Credit:  Sodacan/Wikipedia

It is doubtful that anyone living at Ferry Farm after the America Revolution wanted to advertise their loyalty to the British crown so we can safely say this pipe was probably used between 1714, when the Hanover dynasty began under George I, and, at the latest, the 1770s. During most of this time period, the Washington family lived at Ferry Farm.The royal coat of arms is full of important symbols.  Grasping the center shield is a lion signifying England and a unicorn representing Scotland.  On the shield’s lower left is a harp symbolizing Ireland. The harp is clearly identifiable on the pipe fragment excavated at Ferry Farm.  The lower right section of the shield includes a columned monument and another lion. These symbols were added during the House of Hanover’s reign.  Monarchs regularly changed the coat of arms as each new king or queen sought to make their mark on the official emblem.  The monument and small lion were included on the shield to denote the Hanovers’ rule over their territory in what is now Germany.  The fragment found at Ferry Farm also contains these elements indicating that it was manufactured between 1714 and 1800.

139_Masonic_pipe_NO_SCALE

Pipes featured more than political symbols. This is a 3D image of another smoking pipe bowl excavated at Ferry Farm decorated with a Masonic symbol. The pipe was probably made in the northeast of England between 1770-1810. You can read more about this pipe here.

Why is this pipe fragment a big deal?  During the 18th century, smoking a pipe with a political symbol like the one we’ve found was the equivalent of slapping a candidate’s bumper sticker on your car, placing a political party’s sign in your yard, or sharing a favorite political meme on social media. The act was public, deliberate, and did not go without notice. The practice continued well into the 1800s when groups such as the Irish employed smoking pipes to advertise their support for causes such as a free Ireland.  It was a way to signal identity to others.

During most of the colonial period in America, aligning yourself with the crown was not at all radical but rather what was expected of most subjects.  In fact, this pipe bowl fragment is not the only artifact excavated at Ferry Farm to hint at past occupants’ loyalty to Britain.  As noted in a previous blog, we have found several drinking vessels exhibiting the initials ‘G.R.’ for ‘George Rex’ or King George.  In another blog, we also discussed an artifact uncovered at Ferry Farm that points toward a growing resistance to the British crown. This mid-18th century sleeve button depicts William III, who, although he died decades before the button was manufactured, came to represent the right of subjects to resist a king who was abusing power.

What we may be seeing in these three types of artifacts present at Ferry Farm is a fundamental shift of views within the Washington family as the political climate changed throughout the 1700s.  The objects hint at a swing from loyal British subjects to revolutionaries and the beginning of our identity as independent Americans.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

In Memory of Mother Washington

2016MaryWashingtonMounment

The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Today, August 25th, marks the 227th anniversary of the death of George Washington’s mother, Mary.   Mary lived to be 82 years old, and suffered from breast cancer during her final years.

Few biographers have been neutral in their treatment of Mother Washington, a woman of great significance in George’s life.  Some writers have offered overly sentimental descriptions of this matron, whereas others have been critical, and even harsh in their evaluation of her role as George’s mother.

Mary Ball married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731.  Their marriage produced six children: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred.  When Augustine died twelve years later, a significant portion of the family’s property went to Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage.  Mary raised their five surviving children at their Ferry Farm home, keeping the family together.  In 1772, at the insistence of her children, an aging Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Betty.

In the summer of 1789, Mother Washington’s health was rapidly deteriorating.  Betty wrote to her older brother George,

“I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad.  …she is sensible of it and is perfectly resigned…  …the doctors think if they could get some hemlock it would be of service to her breast.”

Hemlock in Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen

19th-century illustration of hemlock or Conium maculatum (from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant that “affects the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle and causes death through respiratory failure,” was a traditional treatment for breast cancer in the early 1700s. Although doctors in England had largely abandoned this treatment by the late 1780s, when Mary Washington was suffering from this disease, it is evident that local doctors were not up-to-date on the most recent treatments.

It seems likely that hemlock was indeed administered to Mary.  Burgess Ball wrote to George on the 25th of August, 1789:

“The Cause of her dissolution (I believe) was the Cancer on her breast, but for about 15 days she has been deprived of her speech and for the five last days she has remained in a sleep.”

These symptoms that Mary experienced in her final days, such as loss of speech and prolonged unconsciousness, seem consistent with hemlock poisoning, which attacks the nervous system and can cause comas.  Side effects include loss of speech (Steger 1972:71; http://www.webmd.com/).

George publically recognized his mother’s role in his life at a 1784 event where he addressed the citizens of Fredericksburg, when he referred to her, “…by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led to Manhood”.

After his mother’s death, himself recovering from surgery to his left thigh (Abbot et al. 1992b, pp. 75-77), George consoled his grieving sister Betty Washington Lewis in a letter dated September 13, 1789:

“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.  Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator….” 

On August 28th, Betty Lewis and her children buried Mary Washington near a rock outcropping known today as “meditation rock” (Hetzel 1903:5).  The letter conveying the news of her death had still not reached her son George (Hetzel 1903:1), preventing him from attending the ceremony (cf. Rejai and Phillips 2000:15).  The burial site was part of the Lewis family’s Fredericksburg plantation.  This was a favorite spot of Mary’s, to sit, read the Bible, and spend time with her grandchildren.

For some time, Mary’s grave had no permanent marker.  An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon stirred concerned local residents into action (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 21) and an effort was begun to place a marker on Mary’s final resting place in 1826.  While a cornerstone for a marker was laid in 1833, construction failed to materialize a suitable memorial before 1893 when the Mary Washington Memorial Association brought this effort to fruition (NRHP 2002 Section 7 p. 16, Section 8, pp. 22, 27).  In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, as well as his Vice President, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, a senator from Virginia, and thousands of citizens attended the dedication of the completed memorial (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 28).

1903MaryWashingtonMonument copy

The Mary Washington Monument as it appeared in 1903. Library of Congress photo.

This Saturday, August 27th, you can commemorate Mary Washington’s death with the Washington Heritage Museums at the grave of Mary Washington.  A reception (cost $10) at the Mary Washington House on Charles Street follows.  For event details, visit washingtonheritagemuseums.org.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Abbot, W. W., Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Beverly H. Runge, Beverly S. Kirsch, and Debra B. Kessler
1992  The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Volume 1.  University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Hetzel, Susan Riviere
1903  The Building of a Monument Press of Wickersham Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

NRHP
2002  National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District,
http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Fredericksburg/1115262_Washington_Avenue_HD_2002_Final_Nomination.pdf (accessed August 11, 2016).

Rejai, Mostafa and Kay Phillips
2000  The Young George Washington in Phychobiographical Perspective.  The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, New York.

Steger, Robert E.
1972  Native Plants Poisonous to Humans.  Journal of Range Management 25(1):71-72.