Charlotte and the Mercury Pills

As part of our ongoing effort to research the enslaved communities that once lived and worked at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we recently came across some very unusual information pertaining to a young enslaved woman named Charlotte who resided at Kenmore.

Charlotte, unfortunately, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. We know only a few things about her. She was about 11 years old in 1781, when Fielding Lewis died – her name appears as “Sharliot” in his probate inventory. She is also listed (along with her age) on a document called the Divvy List created by Betty Lewis shortly after her husband’s death and listing which slaves were to stay with her at Kenmore and which ones would eventually be given to her three youngest sons. Betty chose Charlotte to stay with her at Kenmore. Sixteen years later, Charlotte appears again on a list of slaves from the Lewis properties who were to be sold at vendu (public sale or auction). This document indicates that Charlotte worked as a seamstress in the Lewis household, and that she had both a young son named George, and a baby (although the baby was not identified by name or gender). One final reference to Charlotte in Kenmore’s manuscript collection is a notation that she was among 21 enslaved persons receiving textile rations sometime around 1796 (she received 5 yards of linen).

enslaved seamstress

Enslaved seamstress in the 18th century. Credit: Historical Images

As often happens in this kind of research, we can have very sparse detail about a subject’s life until we find a new document that provides incredible detail about a very specific moment in that person’s life. Such is the case with Charlotte. The new document is a list of charges for medical examinations and treatments “to Charlotte” submitted by an “R. Wellford”, a doctor, to Betty Lewis’s estate sometime after Betty’s death in 1797. It shows that from April through November of 1796, Betty Lewis paid over £10 to treat Charlotte’s unidentified ailment.

ms 850

Transcription of MS 850, Charges for Medical Expenses [1]

The Estate of Mrs. Betty Lewis
Dbt. To R. Wellford

1796
April 15th Examining Charlotte’s throat & advice for do . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
22nd Visit from the Courthouse to Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pills for 12 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Volatile discutrent Liniment @ 32 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.9.0

May 10th Visit from Frdbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. For one Galen of Sudorific decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

July 9th Volatile Linament @3, Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.4.6
30th Visit from Fredbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
31st Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills for 15 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.15.0

Aug. 2nd Visit to do from Courthouse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. As before for 1 Galen of decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0
24th Visit refd. From Fredbg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pill as before . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Ings. for decoction repeated . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.6.0
Sugar of lead for 4 discontent poultices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.3.0
Strong vitriolic astringent gargle @3 or . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

Novr. 10th Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.15.0

£10.11.2

What can this new document tell us about Charlotte’s life? First, we can take a look at the medications prescribed to treat what we assume to be a respiratory ailment…

To begin her treatments, Charlotte was given 12 doses of mercury tablets on April 15, 1796. When ingested mercury causes the body to sweat and salivate and, as was incorrectly believed at that time, to rid itself of excess moisture and any toxins causing the sickness. In reality, mercury is a poison and the sweating, salivating, and intense diarrhea is actually the the body trying to rid itself of the deadly mercury. Mercury can also stimulate the mucous membranes thus increasing congestion and actually making it more difficult for the body to expel the mercury.

In the 18th century, much of medicine was still heavily based on a theory dating back to ancient Greece when it was believed that an imbalance of the body’s liquids or humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) caused illness. While there were many medical voices in the 18th century who questioned the humors theory of illness, the idea persisted deep into the 19th century. Similarly, mercury in a drug called ‘calomel’ was still prescribed by doctors well into the 20th century.

On April 15, Charlotte was also prescribed a ‘Volatile discutrent Liniment’. This was basically ammonia suspended in some kind of oil that was spread on her chest or face to open up her airways. Think of this liniment as a very early form of Vicks VapoRub that smelled of urine. This probably would work pretty well to temporarily ease congestion if you had a nasty cold.

Then, on May 10, Charlotte receives a ‘sudorific decoction’ that, like the mercury tablets, was supposed to make her sweat a lot. If she had a fever, profuse sweating could possibly help bring down her body temperature by spurring the body’s natural cooling process of evaporating sweat from skin. The doctor may have been once again been trying to purge her body of supposed excess moisture. Regardless, with repeated purgings, Charlotte was in real danger of dehydration, a significant problem when you are ill.

On July 9 and 31, Charlotte is given even more ammonia liniment and mercury. By now, you can’t help but wonder if these treatments were making her feel far more terrible than her underlying disease.

Twice more in August, Charlotte is given more heroic amounts of mercury in addition to the ‘decoction’ to purge her system further. She is also given an ammonia gargle, probably for a sore throat, that would have tasted incredibly vile. For the first time, she is given sugar of lead poultices, which were placed on skin to dry up conditions that were ‘weepy’. Charlotte probably had some kind of sore that her doctor was trying to dry up. Perhaps it was a bed sore from being laid up for long periods by her treatments and by what we assume to be a prolonged respiratory condition?

Finally, on November 10, long suffering Charlotte is dosed once again with mercury. Presumably she still has some excess moisture in her respiratory system but as this is the only treatment given on that day and the last of the treatments recorded, she must have been recovering somehow.

Beyond the course of treatment that Charlotte underwent and clues to her what underlying illness may have been, the document also answers a few longstanding questions about the fate of many in Kenmore’s enslaved community at the end of the Lewis era. We have always wondered how many enslaved people Betty Lewis took with her when she left Kenmore and moved to Millbrook, the small farmhouse on the Po River south of town. It’s never been clear whether or not Millbrook was a large enough house to require much labor to keep it running, nor has it ever been clear how much of a farming operation Betty undertook on that land. And yet, the enslaved population that once worked at Kenmore went somewhere in 1795, when Betty left (a document in Kenmore’s collection shows that Betty paid tax on 17 slaves for the year of 1795[2]).

The bill submitted to Betty’s estate by Dr. Wellford answers at least a bit of that question. Charlotte was with Betty at Millbrook, showing that Betty felt she needed the services of a seamstress in her new home, which may indicate that Betty intended to keep up a robust household. Additionally, we know that Betty’s financial situation was precarious by the time she moved to Millbrook. The £10 that she spent on Charlotte’s medical treatment was a sizable sum for her at the time. The willingness to pay out so much money for repeated treatments may indicate that Charlotte held favored status in the household, perhaps because of her particular skilled trade, but also perhaps because she had been in the Lewis household since she was just a small child.

Interestingly, this document also tells us about the doctor prescribing Charlotte’s treatment. The “R. Wellford” shown at the top of the list of charges was almost certainly Dr. Robert Wellford, who was an interesting figure in American history. During the Revolution, Wellford began the war as a doctor in the British army, assigned to the care of American prisoners. Apparently, he was so moved by the plight of these prisoners, that he began advocating for more resources to better their living conditions. When his superiors refused, Wellford more or less “allowed” himself to be captured by the Continental Army. He informed his captors that he would provide intelligence on British movements if they sent him back to the British, which they did. Over the course of a year, Wellford spied for the Americans, smuggling out information to them, before he eventually fled to the American lines after his superiors began to question his loyalties.

Following the war, Wellford chose to stay in America, although as a former British officer he had difficulty in attracting patients to his practice in Philadelphia. George Washington eventually recommended that he move to Fredericksburg, where Washington’s family and friends would be happy to have his services. Washington even wrote a letter of introduction for him to some of the leading citizens of the area. Wellford and his family remained in Fredericksburg for the rest of his life, and he continued to be a family physician to all of the various Lewis and Washington households in the area.

Along with being a well-known physician to some of the most prominent families in Fredericksburg, Wellford seemed to take a special interest in the healthcare of the enslaved community in the area, as well. In addition to making the trip south of town to Millbrook to see Charlotte seven times over the course of his treatments, Wellford kept a diary detailing his treatments of various enslaved persons in Fredericksburg. One such treatment included a cranial surgery performed to relieve pressure on the brain of young man who had suffered a severe fall. [3]

Healthcare for the enslaved in the antebellum south is a complicated topic. While lack of proper nutrition and housing, as well as harsh working conditions, plagued enslaved communities, slave owners often thought of their enslaved workers as significant investments of money, and therefore had a vested interest in keeping them at least healthy enough to work. It was often the plantation mistress who provided the majority of healthcare to the enslaved people on the property. She mixed medicines, provided first aid, birthed babies and directed the re-housing of those affected with contagious disease (outbreaks were a constant worry in the crowded confines of slave quarters). Actual physicians were only brought in when an injury or disease was beyond the mistress’s skill. The receipt for Wellford’s services in treating Charlotte shows us that this was indeed the case on Lewis properties.

Remarkably, Charlotte survived both her ailment and the agonizing treatment for it. Unfortunately, in the 1798 document showing the final disposition of the Lewis family slaves put up for sale, we learn that Charlotte had to face another all-too-common occurrence in the lives of the enslaved. Charlotte was sold to Charles Carter for £103, while her son George was sold to Howell Lewis for £55. Carter resided in present-day Frederick County, Virginia at the time, while Lewis was still a resident of Fredericksburg, meaning that mother and son would probably see very little of each other again, and no mention is made of the listed baby. At the age of only 27, Charlotte had endured far more than horrendous illness and questionable 18th century medical treatments.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Surpervisor

[1] Account, 5 April, 1796 – 10 November, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 850.

[2] Receipt, 5 September 1796.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 423.

[3] Diary of Robert Wellford (Mss1 W4599 a6), Wellford Family Papers (1794-1940), Virginia Historical Society.

Family Leaders Guiding a Younger Generation: George and Betty’s Letters

George Washington was the oldest of Augustine and Mary Washington’s five children. The next oldest was daughter Betty, who was born 14 months after George and was his only sister.

George and Betty are immensely important to us at George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore. They spent their formative years at Ferry Farm and Betty called Kenmore home for two decades.  As main characters in our historic sites’ stories, we often ponder what their relationship as siblings was like.

The only way to gauge George and Betty’s relationship is through two dozen letters they wrote to each other between 1779 and 1796.  As we saw in our first post about the two letters Betty wrote to George during the Revolutionary War, theirs was a complex relationship of sibling love and camaraderie strained by intermittent conflict.  The wartime letters revealed a sadness over extended absences and stress from the tensions and difficulties of George’s wartime position as the new nation’s leader.

This second post in our multi-part examination of George and Betty’s sibling relationship deals with their roles as leaders of the Washington and Lewis families.  They were the eldest of the Washington siblings and, after 1781, Betty was the widowed matriarch of the Lewises.  In these roles, Betty and George both cared for and guided a brood of children, grandchildren, step-children, nieces, and nephews.  In fact, of their twenty-four surviving letters, thirteen of them deal substantially with the life of some younger member of the extended Washington-Lewis families.  Most of these 13 letters focused on niece Harriot Washington, whose saga we’ve previously written about here and here.  The others dealt with Robert and Howell Lewis, both sons of Betty and nephews of George, who each became his secretaries for a time.

Robert Lewis was 20-years-old when Uncle Washington was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789.  Robert saw opportunity in George’s position and apparently requested, through Betty, that he might work for the new president.  Uncle Washington replied to Betty with an offer for Robert to be one of his secretaries, writing “I have thought it probable that I may have occasion for a young person in my family of a good disposition, who writes a good hand, and who can confine himself a certain reasonable number of hours in the 24 to the recording of letters in books.”  George warned that Robert’s pay “cannot be great as there are hundreds [of others] who would be glad to come in)” but, if he was okay with a relatively small salary, George would “be very glad to give him the preference.”  In fact, Robert was paid $300 per year, the smallest amount among Washington’s secretaries.  Since Robert was family, however, he could reside with the Washingtons in New York “at no expence (except in the article of clothing) as he will be one of the family and live as we do.”  George desired to know immediately if Robert would accept the offer and, if so, would his nephew accompany Martha “(and at her expence, as she will want somebody to accompany her) when I send my horses back [to Virginia] after I am fixed in New York.”  Robert himself enthusiastically replied to this offer, writing “I shall ever consider myself under a thousand obligations for the proffered post, and think the confinement you speak off rather a pleasure, and hope from my assiduous attention to merit that station.”  Robert Lewis worked as secretary for George until early 1791, when he returned home to get married.

Roughly a year and a half later Robert’s younger brother Howell Lewis, who was at that time also age 20, was offered a secretarial position by President Washington.  George wrote to Betty on April 8, 1792, proposing…

If your Son Howell is living with you, and not usefully employed in your own Affairs; and should incline to spend a few months with me, as a writer in my Office (if he is fit for it) I will allow him at the rate of Three hundred dollars a year, provided he is diligent in discharging the duties of it from breakfast until dinner—Sundays excepted.

This sum will be punctually paid him and I am particular in declaring beforehand what I require, and what he may expect, that there may be no disappointment, or false expectations on either side. He will live in the family in the same manner his brother Robert did. If the offer is acceptable he must hold himself in readiness to come on immediately upon my giving him notice.

I take it for granted that he writes a fair & legible hand, otherwise he would not answer my purpose; as it is for recording letters, and other papers I want him. That I may be enabled to judge of his fitness let him acknowledge the receipt of this letter with his own hand, and say whether he will accept the offer here made him, or not. If he does, & I find him qualified from the specimen he gives in his letter I will immediately desire him to come on which he must do without a moments delay, or I shall be obliged to provide another instead of him.

Betty replied to George, reporting that Howell was away at the time but that she had dispatched George’s offer to him and expected an answer in two weeks’ time.  She worried that Howell’s “very Slender Education” and “his Fathers Death at so Early a Period has been a great disadvantage to him” for he was “left without any Person of Age and Judgement” to guide him.  Howell, Betty said, had to rely on only himself to improve his lot in life and was “not very well informd.”  She closed by praising her son’s “exceeding Good disposition,” felt that “the employment you have design’d for him not difficult,” and he could serve George satisfactorily.

Howell accepted the position, writing to his Uncle Washington that “I consider myself extremely favour’d by your proposal of a birth in your family & shall chearfully accept it provided my probation is deemed satisfactory—I lament that I have not been more attentive to the improvement of my writing tho hope that I shall soon be qualified to do the business for which you mean to enploy me.”

Howell soon set out to join the President in Philadelphia, the national capital since late 1790, carrying another letter from Betty for George with him.  She wrote

You will receive this by Howell, who seems Very happy In the thought of becoming One of your family,1 I sincerely wish he may be Equal to the task you desire for him, he has Promis’d me to Indeaver to Please, and by Close application to improve him self, it is with Infinite Pleasure to my self that he has a Prospect of geting in a Place where he may receive so much advantage to him self, his Fortune being very small there is little Prospect of happiness in this world without thay Can get into Busness of some sort.

In a letter to Charles Carter of Ludlow, Washington revealed that, in actuality, he had “no real want . . . of Howell Lewis” but had offered him the work because “he was spending his time rather idly” and was very slenderly provided for by his father.”  George thought that “by taking him under my care, I might impress him with ideas, and give him a turn to some pursuit or other that might be serviceable to him hereafter.”  Howell worked as secretary until July 1793, when his uncle tapped him to be manager at Mount Vernon.

So, as might be expected between the eldest siblings of a family, much of the correspondence and relationship between Betty and George Washington focused on their respective and extended families’ offspring.  George and Betty were the family leaders and propriety dictated that they work together when necessary to provide for and guide these children, grandchildren, stepchildren, nieces, and nephews to success in life.  As we have seen, earlier with Harriot, and now with Robert and Howell, nearly half of Betty and George’s surviving letters and thus their relationship dealt in some fashion with matters concerning the Washington and Lewis families’ younger generations.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Where Are the Human Remains?: Fielding and Betty Lewis

You might remember the discovery of Richard III’s grave under a Leicester parking lot back in 2012 and how shocking it was that a former King of England’s gravesite had been lost. For archaeologists, missing gravesites aren’t that uncommon.

When put into perspective, it’s not surprising that we can’t locate the graves of many famous Virginians, including some members of the Washington and Lewis families. In Fredericksburg fires, flooding, war, and neglect have all contributed to the loss of historic graves and other important sites during our nearly 300 year history.

Professional and amateur researchers alike have dedicated years of their lives to gathering the lost history of Fredericksburg, including lost graves of famous Virginians. Thanks to this dedication, we have saved possible sites for the future. This includes George Washington’s Ferry Farm itself. Can you believe there was almost a Walmart built directly on top of the Washington house cellar before it was discovered?!

In the Washington edition of “Where Are the Human Remains?” we talked about Mildred Washington, George’s youngest sister who died before the age of 2.  She is the only known family member to be buried somewhere at Ferry Farm. In this edition, we will discuss the remains and burial locations of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

The approximate location of Betty Lewis’s grave is actually known.[1] She struggled financially after Fielding’s death in late 1781 and, following the Revolutionary War, it was especially difficult for Betty to keep Kenmore afloat. Eventually, she went to live on small farm outside Fredericksburg called Millbrook where she spent the rest of her life. Betty passed away, however, while visiting her daughter, Betty Carter in 1797.  She was buried at her daughter’s home, Western View Plantation in Culpeper County, Virginia. The gravestone in the photograph was added later, so the exact location of the Betty’s burial site isn’t known for sure, but it is somewhere on the property.

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies Association
Betty Washington Lewis’s grave stone. Credit: Trice Glancy / FindaGrave.com
Burial site of Betty Washington Lewis. Credit: Marvin Sport / FindaGrave.com

So, what about Fielding Lewis? The short answer, again, is that we aren’t sure. We have an idea but it may not be what you think or may have heard! Local lore mentions St. Georges Church as the location of Fielding’s grave, as he was a vestryman there. However, he is most likely NOT buried in this location.

Portrait of Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755.

St. Georges Episcopal Church in downtown Fredericksburg is a local icon, seen in several paintings as one of the tallest buildings in our town’s skyline. The church’s first structure was built in 1730, and the Lewis family would attend services in this wooden structure. Then, with the major fire in Fredericksburg in 1807, the replacement of the original church building with a more substantial brick building in 1815, and further alterations to the layout of the church over the years, it’s understandable that burial sites and other features around the church were lost.

St. George’s Episcopal Church. Credit: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Furthermore, if you have taken any local ghost tours of Fredericksburg, you may have heard the story of Fielding and three of his grandchildren being buried “under the church steps”. This particular tale came from a book called The Ghosts of Fredericksburg… and nearby environs by L. B. Taylor, Jr.  Over 30 years ago, this book was used to create the script for Fredericksburg’s annual Ghostwalk sponsored by the University of Mary Washington Historic Preservation Club. While it’s clear that the author spent a great deal of time collecting stories about ghostly Virginia locations, it should be noted that there aren’t any sources or citations listed in the book.  Taylor was a storyteller, and his main focus was ghostly tales, not historical facts. As a result, we now have this chilling, but likely untrue information, intertwined with the Lewis family history.

In reality, like wife Betty, Fielding died far away from Fredericksburg on a property he owned located in what is Frederick County around Winchester, Virginia today. In a letter written by one of his children, Robert, to his sister Betty Carter, Robert tried to convince his sister to move to the area, stating; “You would be in the neighborhood where the venerated remains of our dear decd. Father lie.”[2] While this indicates Fielding’s burial is in Fredrick County, the exact location was never recorded.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director / Archaeology Lab Technician


[1] Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 26 May 2020), memorial page for Elizabeth “Betty” Washington Lewis (20 Jun 1733–31 Mar 1797), Find a Grave Memorial no. 22154, citing Western View Plantation, Culpeper, Culpeper County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave.

[2] Letter from Robert Lewis to Betty Lewis Carter, 1826 quoted in Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, American History Company, 1999: 300n10

Bad Medicines: Mercury and Self-Medication in the Civil War

During the Civil War, George Washington’s Ferry Farm was the site of Union Army encampments that included some defensive works like a trench dug into the crest of the ridge overlooking the river.  In that trench and throughout Ferry Farm’s landscape, Union soldiers lost and threw away a wide array of military gear and personal belongings, which our archaeologists frequently excavate.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm and showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This blog post highlights an intriguing artifact excavated from the trench: a diminutive glass bottle.  This bottle is not so much interesting because of what it is – it’s a very common medicine style bottle for the mid-19th century– but rather what’s inside.  Clearly visible within the bottle is a hard black substance and for years we’ve wondered what the substance may be.

Medicine bottle containing mercury residue

Medicine bottle excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and containing an mystery residue.

Enter Ruth Ann Armitage, our amazing chemist friend from Eastern Michigan University.  Over the years, she and her colleagues have generously used their extremely fancy equipment to analyze many of the residues we’ve recovered archaeologically. So we chipped off a little fragment of the substance in the bottle and sent it to her lab.

The sample was analyzed using scanning electron microscopy (SEM).  SEM works by shooting a beam of electrons at the sample, which gives you an image of its surface topography.  Backscattered electrons (BSE), collected in a different detector, tell you about the elemental composition.  In a BSE image, the contrast in the image is related to the atomic number of the material, with brighter areas showing high number elements (usually metals) and darker areas representing low number elements (like carbon). X-rays are also produced when the electron beam hits the sample, so an x-ray detector allows the chemist to do energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to map out specifically what elements are present in the sample.  To put it simply, all of these techniques are good at alerting the chemist to the elements within a residue.

Our sample was also run through DART (direct in real time) mass spectrometry.  This technique is good at detecting organic components within a substance.  It’s important to note here that this is not an episode of CSI and a reading does not automatically tell you what is in the bottle.

Mercury residue analysis 1

A magnified image BED of sample, which is clearly stratified with darker low atomic number elements such as carbon at the top. The brighter areas represent higher atomic number elements, in this case, mercury.

That being said, almost immediately, Ruth Ann responded and we weren’t disappointed: “Did you know there’s mercury in this?”  Nope, we did not.

However, this discovery was not too surprising given the use of mercury in many medicines for thousands of years.  Now a days it’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t drink mercury…or touch it…or inhale it.  Believe it or not many people did not accept mercury’s dangers until well into the 20th century.  Some people born in the 1980s and before might even remember playing with the little balls of mercury from a broken thermometer, am I right?  As weird as it seems this wasn’t that dangerous because mercury is not toxic in such small concentrations.  However, if you were born a little further back you may remember a substance called calomel (mercury chloride), which was marketed as a cure all. Perhaps most tragically, it was as a common teething medication for children until the 1950s.  For a long time, mercury was seen as a potent healing metal and it was readily rubbed on skin, consumed, and vaporized for immediate effect on the lungs.

And while all of these treatments using mercury did little to address the body’s medical problem, mercury still caused an immediate bodily response, which convinced people it was working to cure their ailments.  When applied topically, it burned. When introduced into the body, it caused a person to sweat, salivate, and have diarrhea. The mucous membranes also went into overdrive, leading many to believe that the bad stuff in your system making you sick was being purged by the mercury.   The reality, of course, was that the body was trying desperately to rid itself of poison, the mercury.  That being said, mercury does actually have a place in the medical world and can be useful, it just took a little while for people to learn how to properly utilize it.

So, if the residue inside our bottle was medicine, what medicine was it?  Initially our archaeology lab thought it was calomel but the chemical analysis didn’t show any chlorine.  The most interesting components were mercury and sulfur, which could possibly indicate cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is obtained.  The image below is a close up of the mercury and shows the sulfur (dark circles) surrounded by the brighter mercury.

Mercury residue analysis 2

Other elements detected include carbon, oxygen, and trace amounts of iron, silica, and aluminum.  A closer look at the DART analysis suggests that the mercury compound might be in the dried remains of a fat or oil based on the presence of substances that form when fats decompose over time.

What does all this mean?  Unfortunately, without more research, it’s hard to say what was in the bottle other than the basic components already detected.  Because it’s a medicine bottle, our assumption is that the residue it contains was a treatment of some sort in which case we’re dealing with a soldier who had an ailment.  Common Civil War-era uses for mercury-based medicines were treating skin sores and lacerations, internal and external parasite infections, syphilis, and constipation, to name but a few.

What is even more interesting is that a nearly identical bottle which also contained a hefty amount of mercury was recovered across the river just a few years ago by Dovetail Cultural Resource Group from another Civil War context.  Read more about their discovery here.

Soldiers throughout history are known to have carried their own medicines with them so it’s very cool to see actual physical evidence of that.  As to the exact medicine, perhaps we’ll know someday but for now let’s just say it was definitely bad medicine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

The Unlikely Curator: What a Rodent’s Nest Reveals about Historic Kenmore

Rodents are usually seen as one of a museum’s greatest enemies. They damage valuable artifacts and buildings, leave a mess wherever they go, and frighten unsuspecting visitors. Like most museums, Historic Kenmore does its best to make sure no pests make their home in the 18th century plantation house. But, before it became a museum in the early 20th century, Kenmore was not always rodent-free.

Kenmore's East Portico

The east portico of Historic Kenmore shows some neglect to the house and its surroundings. The Howard family, who lived in Kenmore for a long period following the Civil War and was perhaps living in the house when our rodent of interest built its nest, invested a lot of money in refurbishing the house.

In 1989, archaeologists found a mouse or rat’s nest during an investigation of Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. In a recent video, our archeologists and curators carefully picked apart the nest found so long ago and made a cursory analysis of its parts.  This blog post delves more deeply into the history revealed by this rodent – Kenmore’s unlikely curator – and its nest.

The “indoor excavation” at Kenmore in 1989 provided present-day archaeologists at the Foundation a unique opportunity to study artifacts that rarely survive in the elements. Whatever rodent built this nest was a skilled architect in its own right, tightly weaving together bits of cloth, paper, and miscellaneous fluff from around the house to create a soft, structurally sound home of its own. The material came from dozens of sources, each giving insight to life at Kenmore in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Fabric

Patterned fabric from the nest

When it comes to fabrics, both the people living at Kenmore and the rodent had pretty good taste. While most of the cloth from the nest was a neutral white, beige, or brown, several scraps featured patterns popular from the late 19th through the early 20th century, like a red cloth with cream specks, and another with red and yellow flowers. Most of the cloth in the nest probably came from sheets, towels, or rags, but the few patterned scraps may have once been part of a dress or apron. A few threads are woven around a stiff, curved string, perhaps as part of an eyelet or fastener on a piece of clothing.  Other fibers came from webbing used in upholstering furniture. The rest of the threads, yarn, and fibers are too small to tell where they came from, but it’s clear that the resident rodent had plenty of textiles from which to choose.

Newspaper 1

A series of newspaper ads includes a date of September 6, 1877.

Newspaper 2

A scrap of a cartoon features an old man carrying what appears to be a baby.

A few other gnawings in the nest were less comfortable than threads and cloth. A bit of nutshell, wood splinters, tiny rib bones, and even two insect wings were part of the rodent’s eclectic collection. While these finds make up a small portion of the nest, it appears that the rodent had quite a literary bent. Over a hundred tiny scraps of paper lined the nest. About half of them were marked, while the others have print from books and newspapers. Some of the pieces are so small that not even an entire letter can be seen, but a few are large enough to make out some sentences, determine date of publication, or even identify the book from which the scrap came.

Newspaper 3

A section entitled “Recent Inventions” includes a convertible handbag and seat patented in 1915.

Newspaper 4

An advertisement on the opposite side of the newspaper discusses Christmas Savings funds from Farmers and Merchants State Bank.

One newspaper scrap advertises Christmas saving funds from the Farmer’s and Merchant’s State Bank. On the other side under “Recent Inventions,” Katherine Minehart’s “Combined Hand-bag and Seat” from 1915 is described. A much earlier bit of newspaper announces the opening of a store on September 6, 1877. The scrap from a book may be even older. The words on both sides are Christian lyrics, and were compiled into a book called Union Hymns by the American Sunday School Union. The book and several editions were published in 1835, 1845, and 1860.

Given the short lifespan of most rodents (around 1-7 years), it’s most likely that the nest builder lived in the early 20th century, and scampered off with bits and pieces of discarded old paper and fabric. Except for a few newspapers, this rodent tended to use items with a past. The absence of any plastic in the nest indicates that it probably wasn’t built much past the early 1900s.  Indeed, since the latest scrap found in the nest dated from 1915, the nest itself would have been built in that year or thereafter, just a few years before the house began its transformation into a museum focusing on the lives of 18th century patriots Betty and Fielding Lewis.

The stories of those who lived at Kenmore after the Civil War are not as detailed, but thanks to an unlikely curator, we are given a glimpse into the wardrobes and literary tastes of Kenmore’s late Victorian-era inhabitants.

Abby Phelps, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

An Unlikely Curator: Inside a Historic Rodent’s Nest [Video]

In this video, we pick apart a rodent’s nest discovered by archaeologists investigating Historic Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. Like most museums, we take extensive pest prevention measures today but, back when it was an actual home, Kenmore was not always rodent-free. This nest revealed some fascinating history and told us a bit about Kenmore itself.

(NOTE: The video was filmed long before COVID-19 physical distancing requirements.)

Fielding and Betty Lewis Married 270 Years Ago Today

Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis were married on this date in 1750 and would have celebrated their 270th wedding anniversary this year. In honor of their anniversary, we’ve taken some creative liberty and have created a fictional newspaper announcement of their nuptials.

At the time of their wedding, Betty Washington was sixteen years old, almost seventeen, and Fielding was twenty four, a widow and father. Save for the date on which it occurred — May 7, 1750 — we have no other historical details about the ceremony nor who actually attended. Still, it’s an auspicious date we like to remember in some fashion each year.

For a general historical discussion of 18th century weddings, read “A Colonial Wedding”.

Betty and Fielding wedding

All That’s Fit to Buy: Shopping in the 18th Century

It seems we are all pre-occupied with the subject of groceries lately – how we’re going to get them, which store has what, which items are hard to find at the moment.  The current shopping situation is an alien one to us in our modern world of on-line ordering and nearly instant delivery.  The stress of not being able to get something we need or want at a moment’s notice causes us anxiety, makes us worry about future procurement and how we’ll find what we need.  However, this new reality wouldn’t be at all unusual to those who lived here in Fredericksburg in the 18th century.  In fact, it was their daily way of life, and in some ways,  a form of entertainment and a social outlet.

Empty bottled water shelves

Shelves at a store in Ohio emptied of bottled water on March 15, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Dan Keck / Wikipedia

To get into the mind-set of someone like Betty Lewis, who was shopping for her own immediate family, a household staff of enslaved labor, and probably her aging mother, as well, we must take a look at how shopping has evolved in America.  Much of what we do today has its roots in the colonial period.  In the early 18th century, shops were few and far between.  In fact, the concept of a free-standing building purpose-built to be a shop didn’t really exist.  The first places where locals could find various goods for sale were really private homes.  These makeshift shops might be a single room in a house, or goods for sale might be found in various storage spaces throughout the house.[1]  Customers, usually neighbors and acquaintances, might come in on social calls and peruse the goods while taking tea and visiting.

Without formal supply chains or reliable access to any one kind of good, early merchants did not specialize in anything, but rather sold whatever they happened to come across. Their customers rarely arrived with a list, but rather decided what would be useful to them once they saw what was available.  And what was available could really run the gamut.

The contents of one such in-home shop in rural Virginia in 1728 was described by an inventory taker as being arranged between a small storage building on the property and “in the dwelling” itself.  A shelf in the storage building held hose, hats and fabric, while underneath it on the floor were books, shoes, various tools, beads and spectacles.  A single crate on the floor held stoneware, glassware, and pewter vessels, as well as needles, combs, sugar and more books.  In the house, the inventory listed more hose, gloves, 2 boxes of smoking pipes, chaffing dishes, chamber pots and punch bowls.[2]  Not only is there no real theme to the goods for sale, they appear to be heaped together in a jumble, leaving the customer to dig through it all.

As the 1700s progressed, colonial American shops became more formal affairs with their own dedicated buildings, purpose-built as commercial structures, often sporting identifiable features like large display windows in front, and a large counter inside, separating customers from the merchant and more expensive goods.  While the wide, and sometimes bizarre, variety of goods available did not decrease, their arrangement on shelves and tables began to have a bit more thought behind it.  It was the first inkling of visual display and marketing in America, and as the number of shops increased, it was more and more necessary to attract customers.

The contents of a free-standing shop in 1801 Virginia was inventoried for tax purposes and shows quite a transition.  One entire wall of the shop was covered with shelving and cubby holes.  The cubbies held buttons separated by size, 124 types of “paper”, razors, knives and forks (each wrapped in individual paper packages) and ribbons.  The shelves held fabrics by the yard and books.  A series of three trunks arranged under the shelving held glassware, while creamware was housed in 3 crates.  Barrels of dry goods that needed to be measured and weighed sat at the end of the counter, where a set of scales was at the ready.[3]  This shop was clearly a general mercantile, offering a bit of everything, but by the end of the 18th century, shopkeepers did tend to specialize.  One might be known for fabrics, while another sold furniture, and another was more of a grocer.[4]  Even so, almost every establishment always had an assortment of odds and ends for sale, and so a customer might come away with fabric and lace for a new dress, and a bottle of castor oil, since it was available.

So this was the shopping world that Betty Lewis operated in.  Many of her receipts and accounts with local Fredericksburg shops still survive in the Kenmore manuscript collection, as do a few shop accounts from the Lewis store.  They show that Fredericksburg was typical of the 18th century evolution in shopping.  For instance, William Potter’s account at the Lewis store for the year 1744 (before Fielding Lewis took over the operation from his father) shows that the Lewises were offering the “jumble” approach to goods for sale.  Potter purchased hanks of silk, buttons, yard goods, pipes, sewing notions, butter, a trunk, rum, soap, wig curlers, and finally, bacon.[5]

Lewis Store in Fredericksburg, Virginia

Historic Lewis Store in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: George Barnick / Wikipedia

By 1766, Fielding had obviously expanded his mercantile operation to carry a more streamlined assortment of housewares, many of which reflected his ability to procure high end products from England through his trade ships.  James Winn’s account with the Lewis store in that year shows purchases of a set of 10 glass tumblers, creamware plates, soup spoons, brass sconces and amazingly, a “turkey stript” which is not a reference to poultry but more likely to a striped Turkish rug, which would have been an exceedingly hard thing to find in 18th century Virginia.  While the Lewis store seemed to be catering to its urban clientele, they were also carrying that ubiquitous assortment of odds and ends that changed week to week.  On the same day that Winn purchased his striped Turkish rug, he also bought a ladies’ hat and 12 pounds of coffee.

ms 109 excerpt

An excerpt of James Winn’s account with Fielding Lewis, showing his purchase of “turkey stript”

The surviving accounts also show that Betty was a shopper of her time, picking up a thing or two on every outing, debating what would be useful to her, and what might come in handy down the road when it was no longer available in the shops.  By the end of the 18th century, Callender & Henderson was the primary general mercantile store in Fredericksburg, while Andrew Parks ran a shop selling luxury goods and housewares.  Betty Lewis did business with both.  From October of 1796 through January of 1797, Betty purchased sugar cones, a purple shawl, and quite a few pieces of nice fabric from Mr. Parks, as well as “1 wire sifter” which was noted on the account to be from Baltimore, as all good wire sifters should be.[6]  Betty’s purchases with Callender & Henderson in 1794 ranged from snuff to limes, turpentine to mustard, grammar lesson books to molasses.[7]  An account with the same store in 1796 showed what items Betty purchased on each shopping trip.  On January 5, she procured both a pair of shoes and Spanish Brown pigment for paint.  On May 26, she came away with a cask of cut nails and molasses.  And on June 27, Betty had a banner day at the shops, purchasing a dozen buttons and 2 barrels of pickled herring.[8]

ms 856 excerpt

An excerpt of Betty Lewis’s account with Callender & Henderson, showing a range of purchases in 1796.

Back here in our modern world, suddenly feeling very reminiscent of the 18th century, I myself recently bought eggs from the barber shop, toilet paper from a local restaurant and yogurt from the butcher.  All odd sources to our minds, but Betty Lewis wouldn’t have batted an eye.  You buy what you can find where you can find it, and if you can’t get what you need, change the plan.  Did Betty go out on June 27, 1796 with the intention of buying two barrels of pickled herring? I highly doubt it, but I’m willing to bet that the Lewis household had fish for dinner that night, even though the menu may have originally called for game hens.

[1] Hodge, Christina J. Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America. Cambridge University Press, 2014; pp. 122.

[2] Martin, Ann Smart. “Commercial Space as Consumption Arena: Retail Stores in Early Virginia.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 8, 2000, pp. 204. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3514414. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hodge, pp. 130.

[5] William Potter in Account with John Lewis, 1744.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 102.

[6] Betty Lewis in Account with Andrew Parks, October, 1796 – January, 1797.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 426.

[7] Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.

[8] Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 856.