Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

Despite issues of poor roads, lack of transportation, financial considerations and simply an absence of places to go, colonial Virginians fancied a summer vacation just as much as we do today.  In fact, getting out of the city, or away from hot, steamy climates and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer months was actually necessary for health.  In the late 1760s and right through the Revolution, Fielding Lewis and his brother-in-law George Washington joined a number of other Fredericksburg locals in making regular summer visits to one of the few getaways locales in existence at the time – the warm springs in (at the time) Frederick County.

Now known as Berkeley Springs in present-day West Virginia, the bubbling natural springs and their reputed medicinal powers have attracted visitors since long before Europeans came across them.  Native Americans visited the springs to take advantage of its healing waters, and told settlers about the spot, as well.  The site is labeled as “Medicinal spring” on the famed 1747 Fry-Jefferson map.

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, 1747

“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina”, 1747 (the Fry-Jefferson map) by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson. Credit: Library of Congress.

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

Enlargement of the Fry-Jefferson map showing the location of the Medicinal Spring frequented by the Washington and Lewis families. Credit: Library of Congress.

Sixteen-year-old George Washington made his first visit the following year, as part of Lord Fairfax’s wilderness surveying crew.  At that very early date, a visit to the springs really was purely for medicinal purposes, as there certainly were no other amenities to attract vacationers, and getting there was a feat in itself, being tucked away in the remote mountains.  To say that conditions were primitive would be an understatement, and young George was…unimpressed. In his diary, which he began on this trip and would continue for nearly the rest of his life, George wrote, “We this day call’d to see y. Fam’d Warm Springs. We camped out in y. field this night. Nothing remarkable happen’d…”[1]

Indeed, early reports about the situation at the “fam’d Warm Springs” conjur some interesting mental images.  Native Americans “took the waters” by simply hollowing out shallow pools in the sandy ground and squatting in them, allowing the natural spring water to bubble up around them.  They also built temporary saunas to steam in, and apparently allowed ailing white visitors to share.  Although, the shallow pits were eventually lined with stones found nearby to make them more or less permanent, one still pictures fully-clothed, wig-wearing colonists sitting miserably in tepid water, hoping their fever, cold or rheumatism would be cured.  As there were no structures built on the site, visitors hauled their own provisions, tents and even household staffs with them in wagons and camped out on the steep hillsides.[2]

And apparently, this state of affairs went on for quite a while, perhaps testifying to the desperation of the sick and injured in the 18th century for some sort of relief.  On a return trip to the springs in August of 1761, George Washington described a similar situation to what he had witnessed more than a decade earlier.  “We found of both sexes about 250 people at this place, full of all manner of diseases and complaints…They are situated very badly on the east side of a steep mountain and enclosed by hills on all sides, so that the afternoon’s sun is hid by 4 o’clock and the fog hangs over us till 9 or 10…I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt by their manner of lying, than the waters can do them good. Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and marquee from Winchester, we should have been in a most miserable situation here.”[3]

Yet, despite the less than ideal accommodations, George did return to the warm springs.  And so did many other members of the Virginia gentry, including Fielding Lewis.  They did seem to believe that the waters there had a positive effect, and so the trip was worthwhile…but, gee, it sure would be great if they could have a bit more fun while doing it!  And so they set about turning the place into a more comfortable spot, a resort really, where they could not only take the waters but enjoy entertainments, visit with friends, have good food and drink, and generally have a good time for a few weeks every summer.  By all accounts, they succeeded.

George Washington's Bathtub

“George Washington’s Bath Tub”, a monument constructed to represent bathing conditions in Washington’s time in present-day Berkeley Springs State Park. Credit: Warfieldian / Wikipedia

The first effort to civilize the warm springs was by Fredericksburg resident James Mercer, a good friend of both Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick.  He apparently was given permission by Lord Fairfax to build a rather large summer cottage at the site, and it quickly became the center of Fredericksburg’s summer social scene.  The group of Fredericksburg friends, all young men in their 30s and early 40s, along with wives and children, journeyed to Mercer’s cottage for vacation.  In 1769, George Washington brought Martha and Patsy to stay for several weeks, and described the many visitors in and out of the cottage, including Lord Fairfax himself and his family members, and several former military friends from Pennsylvania.[4]

With the building of a new road to the area in 1772, James Mercer got some neighbors.  Inns and taverns sprang up (including Washington’s favorite, Throgmorton’s Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag) other houses were built (although still mostly cabins and one room shanties) and the influx of vacationers increased.  It was a kind of hodge-podge, though, with no systematic plan for building or improvement.  The Fredericksburg friends (and associated relatives) saw an opportunity, though, and in 1775 they convinced Lord Fairfax to allow the laying out of a proper town, and Samuel and Warner Washington were put in charge of it.  Town lots were quickly bought up, mostly by the Fredericksburg contingent, and the building of cottages commenced.  The group decided to give their new town the rather aspirational name of Bath, after the popular spa resort in England.

The Comforts of Bath

“King Bladud’s Bath” from The Comforts of Bath series (1798) by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Credit: Wikigallery.

So what was daily life like for a colonial Virginian on summer vacation? By the 1770s, life in Bath had changed drastically from the early days of squatting in shallow pits.  In addition to sampling the local mineral water, vacationers could enjoy public balls that happened twice a week, tavern nightlife, gambling, horse racing, daily teas at 5:00 and a number of options for food and drink.  By 1784, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes the town as having five bathhouses, each with their own dressing rooms, an assembly room, and even a theater, where the travelling performance group The American Company of Comedians was expected to perform that summer.[5]

Noted early Virginia diarist Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of his visit to the springs in 1775, “In our dining Room Companies at Cards, Five & forty, Whist, Alfours, Callico-Betty &c. I walked out among the Bushes here also was—Amusements in all Shapes, & in high Degrees, are constantly taking Place among so promiscuous Company.” Fithian also goes on to describe the gentlemen of the village serenading the ladies from outside their lodgings until 4:00 in the morning, following a large ball.[6]

Fielding’s eldest son, John Lewis, and his cousin Warner Washington, who were in their 20s, were among the young gentry who suddenly found the springs interesting as entertainment opportunities increased.  The cousins eventually bought lots and built cottages, although it’s probably safe to say they weren’t there for the waters.  The little village had become so raucous in the summer months, a Methodist minister referred to it as an “overflowing tide of immorality.”[7]

But the curative properties of the springs were still the primary focus of visitors’ time.  Depending on the ailment that visitors were seeking to cure, they might “take the waters” up to three times a day at one of several actual bathhouses that had been built over the natural springs.  We have some description of these bathhouses from a French traveler, who vacationed at the springs in 1791, “…a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”[8]  Both men and women used the bathhouses, but they did so at separate times of day.  At European spas of the day, men generally went swimming in the nude, while women wore bathing gowns, so that was perhaps the convention used at the American Bath, as well.

Fielding Lewis made an annual visit to the springs every August for several weeks, as early as 1772 and possibly much earlier.  When the town lots were laid out, he purchased #45 which fronted on Liberty Street.  His next door neighbor was Charles Dick, and James Mercer’s big cottage was just a few doors down.  Fielding’s mentions of his visits are few.  We don’t know whether the entire Lewis family travelled with him, although due to mentions in Philip Fithian’s journal, we know that in 1775 son George was with his father (George had attended the College of New Jersey with Fithian years earlier and Fithian enjoyed the chance to catch up with an old friend).  Most likely Fielding was among the springs vacationers who was there almost entirely for medicinal reasons, as his health had begun its long decline, and already the stresses of wartime were weighing heavily on him.

So there you have it.  It was cold, muddy and filled with hordes of sick and injured people, but the company was good and the party never ended – it was summer vacation, 18th century style!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

[1] “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th. of March 1747/8,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 4, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0002.

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019, http://berkeleysprings.com/history-berkeley-springs/early-days-bath

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 68–70.

[4] Felder, Paula.  Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family.  The American History Company, 1998, pp. 186.

[5] Flexner, James Thomas.  Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Fordham University Press, 1992, pg. 67.

[6] Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal, 1775-1776: Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York. Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934.

[7] Mozier.

[8] Bayard, Ferdinand M. Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis: à Bath, Winchester, dans la vallée de Shenandoah, etc., etc., pendant l’été de 1791. As quoted in Mozier, ibid.

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Lecture – Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm [Video]

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm.” Mara explored a wide variety of beverage-related artifacts from teawares to punch bowls and discussed how cups and glasses reflected efforts by Mary Washington to demonstrate the family’s economic status and refinement.

Join us on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 for “Food in the Eighteenth Century” when Deborah Lawton, Park Ranger at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, will explore the new dishes and changing tastes that marked the foodways of the eighteenth century. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org.

The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].

George’s First Job

When visitors come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm, they can stand in what were once the fields of the Washington family’s farm, where they grew tobacco and other crops. While living here, Augustine Washington, George’s father, taught his sons – George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles – to see opportunity in land.

Ferry Farm Aerial View

Aerial view of the present-day Washington house replica, work yard, hen yard, and archaeological digs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Joe Brooks, EagleOne Photography

Growing up at Ferry Farm, George Washington learned that land was wealth. He learned how to run a plantation and to manage the enslaved workers who lived and toiled on his family’s farms. He learned what crops to grow and livestock to raise, how to care for them, and how to put them to use.  George Washington was many things at different points in his life – diplomat, politician, general, president –  but, throughout his sixty plus years, he was always a farmer.

To George and the other Europeans who settled in British North America in the 1700s, land and its natural resources were privately owned commodities or raw materials to be bought or sold. Land was used to create goods for market or was sold for profit.  In other words, land was valuable and owning a lot of land made you wealthy.

Before growing anything on a farm, Washington and his fellow colonial-era farmers had to own land and the land they owned had to be defined legally. It had to have boundaries, so they and other people knew it belong to them.  If land was wealth, it was vitally important to know how much land you owned.

Creating these boundaries was the job of a surveyor and being a surveyor was, after his lifelong work as a farmer, George Washington’s first job.

Young George Washington, Surveyor

An ink sketch from 1956 imaging a young George Washington surveying. Credit: National Park Service / Wikipedia

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines surveying as “determining the area of any portion of the earth’s surface.”

Today, surveyors use the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite imagery, lasers, and other advanced digital equipment to do their work more quickly and more accurately. When George Washington was a surveyor, he used simple tools compared to today but, 200-years-ago, these simple tools were as advanced technologically speaking as today’s surveying equipment.  Indeed, in the 1700s, surveying was relatively brand new.  The word itself first appeared only in 1682.

Although a relatively new science, young George Washington was probably familiar with surveying from an early age.  His father Augustine owned “1 Set Surveyors Instruments,” according to the probate inventory made of Augustine’s property after his death in 1743.

The state-of-the-art instruments of a surveyor in the 1700s included a surveying compass on a tripod used to figure out the bearing and direction of a proposed boundary line.  A surveying compass included “sighting vanes” used to point “the compass by peering through the slit in one of the vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other vane with a target or object” along boundary line.  These targets were often just trees (sometimes marked in some fashion with a hatchet), boulders, steams, or any other landmarks.

Surveyor's Compass

Surveyor’s compass by David Rittenhouse, believed to be given to George Washington in 1782. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

Measuring the distance between these targets set the property’s boundaries as well as its acreage. These distances were measured using chains carried by the surveyor’s assistants known as chainmen.  A full surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long and 100 links and eighty of these chains equaled one mile. “Dragging a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia’s forests was impractical.” These long chains snagged on trees and other vegetation so surveyors in the colonies used a chain that was only 33 feet long with 50 links.

Surveying Chain

Surveyor’s chain, c1830. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

George Washington began a survey by choosing a starting landmark as well as a landmark to travel towards.  He recorded the direction of the line using his surveying compass.  Then, to measure the distance, the rear chainman held one end of the chain at the starting point while the lead chainman walked a straight line toward the ending target.  As the surveyor, George constantly checked the compass to make sure the chainmen followed his line.  Keeping the line straight sometimes meant the lead chainman hacked his way straight through brush and undergrowth.  Once the he reached the end of the chain, the lead chainman pinned it to the ground and the rear chainman brought up the other end. They then repeated the process until the ending point of the line was reached. The rear chainman picked up the pins as they walked.

Fifteen-year-old George Washington made one of his first surveys on February 27, 1747 when he measured out his older half-brother Lawrence’s turnip field at Mount Vernon. According to Ledger Book Zero, Washington bought a Gunter scale, essentially a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to solve the trigonometry problems common to surveying, from his cousin Baily on September 20, 1747.

Thirteen months later, on March 11, 1748, George accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, the Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Virginia’s frontier to survey land for Thomas, Lord Fairfax.  Young Washington kept a journal of his experiences.

In 1749, at age 17, George was commissioned the surveyor of the new county of Culpeper by the College of William & Mary, which appointed all county surveyors in Virginia This was unusual for someone this young to be appointed.  A year later, he began a two-year period of off-and-on trips throughout Virginia’s Frederick County, which at the time encompassed a vast swath of frontier land that today makes up nine separate counties in two states“By 1752, Washington completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres.”

In the later 1750s, George began to focus his work life more on soldiering (the French and Indian War) and farming. He never completely stopped surveying or acquiring land, however. In 1771, he surveyed Ferry Farm in preparation to sell the property and he surveyed for the last time in 1799, the year he died.

In the colonial age, land was wealth and was how many colonials, including George Washington, made their living.  As such, early Americans wanted to know what land they owned as well as how much they owned.  Surveyors, like George Washington, measured the land and created boundaries so ownership would be clear.  “At one time, Washington owned nearly 70,000 acres between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.”  Surveying was Washington’s first job and allowed him to begin to build vast amounts of land holdings and thus wealth. This wealth, in part, propelled him to the heights of colonial American society and politics.  He began this journey as a surveyor while living at Ferry Farm.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

George Washington’s Taphophobia: The Fear of Being Buried Alive

On December 14, 1799, as George Washington lay in his final moments on his death bed, he told his secretary Tobias Lear what were likely his last words. Tobias recalled later:

“About ten o’clk he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said,–‘I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.’ I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, ‘Do you understand me?’ I replied Yes. ‘Tis well’ said he”.

George Washington on His Deathbed by John Meister

In his 19th century painting, John Meister imagines “George Washington on His Deathbed”. Credit: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum / Wikipedia

Why did George feel the need to state this on his death bed? These were his last known words, and must have been a thought of importance to Washington. Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, may, in part, explain his final words.

The medical field advances constantly and surprises us every day with new knowledge of the human body. DNA testing, cancer screening, vaccines, bionic limbs… I could go on forever about how the world of medicine has evolved. Today, it’s hard to imagine life before these advances when something as simple as detecting death was not even clear cut.

Technological and medical advancements in the mid-20th century brought us machines that could detect even a very faint heartbeat – the surest sign of life – and, by that time, people were no longer as concerned with accidentally being pronounced dead. Certainly, after embalming became standard, people were even less worried about waking in the grave because one could not survive the embalming process.

In earlier centuries, however, being incorrectly pronounced dead and accidentally buried was a real possibility and a common fear.  George Washington wasn’t alone in taking precaution to ensure he was not buried prematurely.  Several historical figures, the best known being Edgar Allen Poe, were taphophobic, as were some other members of the Washington family.

 

A Brief History of Being Buried Alive (Vivesepulture)

Have you heard the tale of Margorie McCall, whose tombstone in Lurgan, County Armagh in Northern Ireland reads “Margorie McCall, Lived Once, Buried Twice”?  As her story goes, in 1705, poor Margorie fell ill with fever (fever being a catch-all term for illnesses not yet identified). Her husband, a doctor, was sick with worry as many people during the time rapidly succumbed to now treatable ailments. When Margorie died, her husband, aware of how rampantly sickness could spread, had her buried quickly.

Margorie Mccall Gravestone

The gravestone of Margorie McCall in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. Credit: Charlie Hintz / cultofwierd.com

As soon as the dirt settled, grave robbers aware of Margorie’s wealth decided to loot her grave. She was buried with her wedding ring, which was of considerable value. The grave robbers could not pull off the ring due to swelling, so they used a knife and began to remove the finger. The moment she was cut, a confused Margorie awoke, presumably giving the grave robbers the fright of their lives. They fled, and she wandered back home to make a full recovery, have children, and outlive her husband.

While the grave of Margorie McCall is real, the legend may be just that – a legend. “Lady with the ring” tales existed in several European countries from the 14th through the 18th centuries and continued into American folklore. The place, names, and dates were different, but the fate of the lady remained the same. But why would people believe it? Why was it passed on for centuries?

Well, in part, this and similar stories were spread by anti-premature burial activists (Yes, this was a thing.) in European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some authors even sold pamphlets on the subject of premature burial, and used “lady with the ring”-style stories to agitate fear on the subject. Dr. Franz Hartmann, published a pamphlet entitled Buried Alive: An examination into the occult causes of apparent death, trance and catalepsy in 1894, that was filled with gruesome (and mostly untrue) tales of premature burial. These kinds of stories resonated and instilled taphophobia in everyday people.

 

How to be Sure that Someone is Dead

Taphophobia was a fear with some validity. Indeed, for most of history, the only sure way to determine that life was extinguished from a person was noticeable decomposition.

Just before Hannah Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s sister-in-law, died two years after George’s death, she made a specific request regarding the treatment of her body after death. She wrote in her will that since:

“no physician in the world can possibly tell whether or not a person is dead until putrefaction takes place and many have most assurdly been buried before they were dead…..  I therefore most earnestly pray that I may be allowed to remain in my bed just as I did whilst living until putrefaction by every known sign Justifies my being put into the coffin…” [PDF]

For several reasons – spread of disease, the smell, etc. – not everyone was comfortable with or had the means to allow a corpse to decompose above ground.

So, how did people in earlier centuries make certain that they didn’t bury a living person? One way was to remove the heart of the deceased. Some instances exist of people putting in their will to have their heart removed or to even be decapitated before burial. For those that didn’t want to accidentally have their still-beating heart removed, as this may have been an even worse fate than the premature burial itself, there were other options to be sure that a corpse was really a corpse. Pouring liquid ammonia into the nose, burning the bottoms of the feet with an iron, and pricking needles underneath the fingernails, for example, were ways to rouse a person in a death-like state. As cringe-inducing as all of these options are, it’s not surprising that they would indeed wake someone who was only unconscious. Additionally, tobacco pipe enemas were considered another useful way to rouse the dead. Putting a light source behind the fingers to look for signs of circulation, or a “diaphanous test”, was a less painful way to look for life.

Washington's 'Old' Tomb at Mount Vernon

The Old Tomb where George Washington was originally buried in 1799 before ultimately being moved to the New Tomb, which Washington had ordered built in his will, in 1831. Credit: Sarah Stierch / Wikipedia

Why They Mistook the Living for Dead

Ideally, one just waited the customary three days before burial, but that was not always feasible. During epidemics before the spread of disease was fully understood, hasty burial of the sick was common.

Today, with medical advances and a much better understanding of the human body, the likelihood of misidentifying death is minimal, but it is not unheard of even in the modern era when people suffer rare conditions that cause them to appear dead. There are many death-like conditions that can fool us. Catalepsy, a condition that can leave you unresponsive and immobile for minutes, days, or even weeks was rare and unknown to past physicians. Catalepsy can accompany a variety of mental disorders, which themselves were not well understood, even into the 20th century. “Sleeping sickness”, or African Trypanosomiasis, was a very real condition caused by the bite of a tsetse fly that caused a coma-like state that led to people being presumed dead in the 19th century. Several other conditions that result in unconsciousness even today like seizures, diabetes, dehydration, and low blood pressure could have been the culprits in people being presumed dead before the modern era.

Being shot in the head would also constitute as a condition that could lead doctors, even today, to believe you were dead. But, in May of 1799, about 7 months before George Washington’s death, an article was published in a Philadelphia newspaper telling of a soldier who had been shot in one temple, the bullet exiting the other temple. Even today most would assume death of the victim was imminent.  A grave was even being dug and the soldier prepared for burial. However, a fellow soldier “thought that he noticed symptoms of animation” in the man. Unbelievably, the man was miraculously alive and gaining consciousness. The lucky soldier was attended by a surgeon and made nearly a full recovery, suffering later only some weakness in his eyes.  Had George perhaps heard of this, and possibly have been startled by the fact that this man was nearly buried alive?

 

How to Not Bury Someone Alive

When burial couldn’t wait, or when the deceased or the family of the deceased were really taphopohbic, there were avenues to ensure an escape from the grave, if the dead returned to life. The use of bells was perhaps the most affordable way to watch for premature burial.  Bells were tied to the body and hung on the ground surface above the grave. The bell would ring if there was movement below ground. This is where the term “dead-ringer” originates.

Other inventions required a bit more expense, so not everyone had access to them. “Safety coffins” were gave piece of mind to the loved ones of the deceased. Some featured an air pipe AND an alarm system that indicated movement if a buried person became conscious. Air pipes would be removed once the smell of decomposition set in or a sufficient amount of time had passed.

US371626-0

Patent drawing for a safety coffin. Credit: U.S. Patent Office

The first “waiting mortuary” or Leichenhaus, was designed in Germany in 1792. A worker, called a Leichenhäuser, would be expected to sit vigil at the window of the corpse room and await movement. Workers were not allowed to leave the “patients” for any period of time, and were required to have equipment to resuscitate a person if they stirred.

Similarly, a special vault was once built in Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania that featured air flow and hand wheels on doors for those who awoke in the vault to help them escape. It was used as a safe holding area to give the deceased time to revive before being removed to their grave in another part of the cemetery.

Wildwood Cemetery Vault

Wildwood Cemetery’s special vault in Williamsport, Pennsylvannia as featured in the July 1921 edition of Popular Mechanics.

There were many normal reasons for relocating a family member’s body, just as George Washington’s body was moved into the new vault at Mount Vernon 32 years after his death. What wouldn’t be considered normal, would be to find that the deceased had rolled over, pulled out their hair, or scraped off their fingernails on the interior of the coffin lid. Opening a burial vault for the first time in years to relocate a body, or to inter another family member, only to come to the realization that the person was clearly not dead when they entered the grave, was a common fear. Stories existed of family finding the skeleton of a deceased relative inside a vault but outside of their coffin, having apparently starved to death in the mausoleum. No doubt some of these stories were fictional, but some were probably true as well.

Finally, glass windows allowed people to see into the grave vault. They weren’t always installed just for fear of premature burial. Families have been known to install grave windows for other reasons that have to do with the mourning process. They were a useful tool, however, in being able to make sure the dead had not woken up. Some famous examples of grave windows still exist today.

Grave Window

A window into the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith in the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont. Credit: Vermonter.com

Upon his death in November of 1829, Bushrod Washington, Hannah Bushrod Washington’s son and George Washington’s nephew, requested a special coffin to be placed in for a while before burial on top of a waiting period to be sure he was actually dead:

“My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides–particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place.”

Bushrod Washington

Bushrod Washington was George Washington’s nephew, the son of John Augustine Washington, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Depicted in an engraving made in 1830 by James Barton Longacre from a portrait by Chester Harding. Credit: New York Public Library.

A “phobia” is a word used in terms of an irrational fear. But was taphophobia really irrational in the 18th and 19th centuries or was it simply justified caution? Ultimately, we will never know how many people tragically succumbed to vivesepulture. What we do know is that George Washington made certain that he would not.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Introducing Caty: More Than “Merry Laugh…and Lively Wit”

Editor’s Note: At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we are always interested in reexaminations of accepted history.  Archaeology is creating new and more complete understandings of George’s Washington’s youth as well as of Mary Washington as a person.  Mary has been both revered and reviled by history but archaeological discoveries at Ferry Farm are painting a more complex picture of her as an independent and intelligent woman facing the world on her own after her husband’s death. Inspired by Mary, Lives & Legacies asked Carin Bloom, Museums Program Associate at Middleton Place Foundation in Charleston, South Carolina and a friend of the blog, to re-examine another independent, intelligent woman in the Washington family’s orbit: Catharine “Caty” Greene.

George Washington is considered the Father of the United States of America, but long before he and his wife Martha became the parents of the nation, they were parents, both real and surrogate, to several prominent patriots and revolutionaries. For example, much is known of the relationship between General Washington and his Aide de Camp, the Marquis de Lafayette – the affection of a father and son are clear in their communications, both during and after the American War for Independence.

Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene (1783) by Charles Willson Peale

The Marquis was not the only one to enjoy the mentorship, tutelage, and friendly affection of the great General Washington. So too did the only other man to hold the rank of General for the duration of the American Revolution: Nathanael Greene. Promoted from the rank of Private in the Kentish Guards, a militia unit raised in his home county in Rhode Island Colony, Greene became the Brigadier General of all three Rhode Island regiments of the Continental Army in the spring of 1775. He quickly became (in turns) a close friend, advisor, and student of General Washington. The two commanders’ relationship is perhaps less well-known outside of academic circles, but it is still well-documented.

Those relationships aren’t what this blog post is about.

This blog post began in very much the way that stories from the past often begin – with the great men of the Age and what they did, or how they interacted. Their wives are secondary (if mentioned at all) and are supporting characters in a drama of great ideals and noble causes. In reality, these women were so much more, and their stories are important. While Women’s History and Women’s Studies programs in academia became prominent around the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, there has been relatively little advance or innovation in the study of feminine experiences of historic eras. Now, however, modern social and political climates are bringing women’s stories into focus again, allowing the women of the past to be re-examined once more. Conspicuous among the women of the Revolutionary era being re-examined are the same names we’ve all heard since elementary school – Abigail Adams, Peggy Shippen, the fictional Molly Pitcher, and of course, Martha Washington.

Incomplete Portrait of Martha Washington (1796) by Gilbert Stuart

An unfinished portrait of Martha Washington begun in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart.

Martha and George Washington are revered for many reasons, but little is spoken about their personal nurturing and encouragement of young patriots, the men and women with whom they were surrounded. In fact, they occupied the parental pedestals for both Nathanael and his wife Catharine Greene – but perhaps especially for “Caty”. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a somewhat eccentric aunt, Caty was 19 and newly married when the Revolution broke out. She was tutored and educated in the 18th century society that befit her station, but it seems she wasn’t ready to be a General’s wife. For tutelage she looked to Lady Washington.

Their mother-daughter relationship blossomed quickly, and Catharine seemed to flourish under Martha’s indulgence. Caty is most often described in terms of her appearance and temperament, “She was a small brunette with high color, a vivacious expression, and a snapping pair of dark eyes.”[1] Her biographer adds, “To men her appeal, like that of her Aunt Catharine, was not simply a matter of flirtation that fed their masculine vanities; deep emotions were touched as well.”[2]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (3)

The blog post’s author Carin Bloom portraying Caty Green reading from Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum (1739) in the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

With a description like that, I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about the young Catharine Greene? She was called Kitty as a girl, was known to her husband’s equals and subordinates as Lady Greene, and to her devoted husband as Caty – and no matter what she was called, she became a force to be reckoned with. Her biographers make careful note that she would have grown up in the cradle of the Revolution, listening to the great minds gathering in her uncle’s library discussing politics, self-governance, and eventually open rebellion. An enigma equal to her fighting Quaker husband for her indifference to religious leanings, she is described as a balm of good morale for dour officers and aides: “she laughed, danced, sipped Madeira wine and played cards and parlor games. She engaged in repartee…with perhaps a burst of unladylike glee at a slip of the tongue or double entendre that would have horrified her female counterparts but delighted their husbands.”[3]

Many of these attributes came naturally to Caty or were self-taught, but her refinement as a true lady of the 18th century came from her time spent with her equals and betters. Specifically, she was looked after by Lady Washington; when other young officers’ wives felt threatened by Caty’s beauty, and exuberance, “Martha was secure in her place in her husband’s heart. Although she knew that the general looked at the beautiful Caty with deep male appreciation, she found no cause for disapproval. Caty was like a daughter to them both. She was accepted for what she was…”[4]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (2)

Caty Greene (Carin Bloom) pens a letter to husband Nathanael on the escritoire desk in the Hall of the Washington house.

From the his occasional service as a personal courier for Caty and Nathanael’s letters to one another, to his own assurance of her safe arrival in camp during the Siege of Charleston early in 1782, General Washington’s own words and actions belied his affections not just for his best General, but for Caty as well. Likewise, Martha Washington opened her home at Mount Vernon to Caty, as well as to both Ladies Stirling, Lucy Knox, and a few other officers’ wives, when they could not be with their husbands. It was at these gatherings, presumably around a copious amount of tea, that Caty would have come to understand feminine refinement that would have served her well into old age, and long after Lady Washington was gone.

Though only one nonfiction biography of the remarkable Catharine Greene has been written, she comes to life with alarming effervescence in its pages. Her abilities to both navigate her world as a cog in the wheel of 18th century society, as well as to stand apart from it and maintain utterly her own identity, were enough to cause me to delve into her world for over a year. As a young woman she was the subject of much gossip; everything from accusations of turning her husband from his Quaker faith in disgrace, to extramarital affairs with his subordinates – none of it managed to stick to her. In her later life Caty was a financier (and now suspected to have been a partner in design) of Eli Whitney and his Cotton Gin, as well as a property-holding single woman until she chose of her own accord to remarry.

Catharine Littlefield Greene

Catharine Greene (1809) attributed to James Frothingham

All in all, this was a woman whose life could be the stuff of Hollywood legend, and yet, in every living history scenario that manages to feature a woman, she is always a Martha Washington, or an Abigail Adams, or a Molly Pitcher – and always in a vacuum. Surely Martha did not spend her days with only her husband and his men, or alone by herself? The past is populated with scores of women, and yet, we rarely see the majority of them come to life. That is my aim in portraying Catharine Greene – to use her life as a vehicle for an immersive experience of a multifaceted past, so much more complex than what we currently understand. George and Martha Washington, Nathanael and Catharine Greene, they weren’t so different from us; as we understand their stories, both individually and as participants in a community, a nation, and a world, we may find new enrichment in our own lives.

Carin Bloom
Museums Program Associate
Middleton Place Foundation

Trained as an archaeologist specializing in the American Revolution, Carin plans and executes programs at Middleton Place National Historic Landmark in Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a BA (University of Delaware) and two MAs (University of Pennsylvania and Temple University), all in Anthropology with a concentration in Historical Archaeology, and has been working at non-profit historic sites for over a decade.  She has studied Catharine Littlefield Greene extensively and enjoys bringing Caty to life at living history events up and down the east coast, as well as working in classroom settings with school programs and summer camps.

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (4)

[1] 1871 – Greene, George Washington. The Life of Nathanael Greene, 3 vols, Cambridge. Vol 1, pg. 72.

[2] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 8, University of Georgia Press.

[3] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 26, University of Georgia Press.

[4] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 58, University of Georgia Press.

Happily Ever After at Happy Retreat

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, most of our thinking, research, and writing is focused on the best known and most significant of all Americans, George Washington.  But George was not the only Washington to live at Ferry Farm nor was he even the only Washington boy to grow up on this land along the Rappahannock River.  Indeed, three other sons of Augustine and Mary Washington called Ferry Farm their boyhood home.  They were Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell. Public domain.

As two native West Virginians transplanted to Virginia, we feel a special affinity for Charles Washington.  Charles Town, a present-day city in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, bears his name.  Charles’s life is admittedly less documented than older brother George’s but it is no less interesting, even with several frustrating gaps in his story.  Being that it is the season for June weddings as well as the very day West Virginia declared its statehood 155 years ago, we thought it fitting to briefly examine one of the more interesting (and better documented) incidents in the life of young Charles Washington.

In 1757, 19-year-old Charles Washington and 18-year-old Mildred Thornton wanted to marry.  Charles, however, was underage from a financial standpoint.  He could not receive the inheritance promised to him by his late father Augustine until he turned 21-years old.

Frances Thornton, Mildred’s widowed mother, apparently expressed concerns to Mary Washington that if Charles died before he turned 21 then his property as well as any property that Mildred brought into the marriage as part of her dowry would all go to George Washington and leave Mildred with nothing.

In a letter that has not been found, Mary wrote to George about Mrs. Thornton’s worries.  On September 30, 1757, George replied “that if there is no other objection than the one you mention, it may soon be removed.”  He seemed hurt that Mrs Thornton apparently believed him “capable of taking these ungenrous [sic] advantages.” He scathingly criticized her as knowing “little of the principles which govern my conduct.”  In the next sentence, however, he granted that Mildred’s mother was probably “actuated by prudent Motives.”  In the end, George told Mary that if Mrs. Thornton, “will get any Instrument of writing drawn I will sign it provided it does not effect me in other respects than her Daughters Fortune, if my Brother dies under Age.”  In other words, even though offended, he promised to observe Mildred’s rights as a widow.

It’s not clear why but it seems that George’s resentful and reluctant promise did not actually settle the matter.  Perhaps he was unhappy with the ‘instrument of writing’ presented to him and refused to sign?  Perhaps Mildred Thornton was not satisfied with his begrudging promise?  Regardless, a couple of weeks later, Charles’ uncle Fielding Lewis and Mildred’s uncle John Thornton appeared in court to be named guardians of their nephew and niece respectively.  Each man posted a bond of £2,000 as a measure of security for the couple (Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 132-33).

Mildred and Charles finally married, and in 1760, they moved into a house in Fredericksburg on what is now Caroline Street. They had four children, George Augustine, Frances Ann, Samuel and Mildred.

Ultimately, in 1780, Charles moved his family to western Virginia, where he built a home called Happy Retreat.  The town that bears his name was founded on his land in 1786 and it was there he died of unknown causes in September 1799 at the age of 61.  While not as well-known as George, Charles left behind an important legacy in the form of Charles Town and Happy Retreat.

HappyRetreat_CharlesTownWV

“Happy Retreat,” the home of Charles Washington, as seen in present-day Charles Town, West Virginia. Public domain.

Happy Retreat was privately owned by a descendant of the Washington family for a number of years. However, it was recently sold to the City of Charles Town and a board of citizens was created to oversee the preservation and restoration of the property and to plan and present programs and events at the site. Among the sitting board members is Washington family descendant Walter Washington. Some of the rooms within Happy Retreat have been restored and an archaeological dig is currently underway to discover more information about the family and land. In the near future, Happy Retreat will be a gathering place used for education and special events in the community of Charles Town and surrounding areas.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs