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

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Washington House at Ferry Farm [Photos]

Washington House replica at Ferry Farm (2)

The Washington house at Ferry Farm is now open for tours! Using information from the probate inventory and archaeological evidence, the interpretive replica of George Washington’s boyhood home is currently being furnished with replica furniture and ceramics. You can read an in-depth post about the house here and below you will find photos that provide a glimpse of the house’s exterior and interior as well as the surrounding landscape.

Learn more about this comprehensive project here and here.

Please visit www.ferryfarm.org and www.kenmore.org for more information on two National Historic Landmark sites, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

Washington House at Ferry Farm Now Open for Tours

Exterior of Washington house front

The completed reconstruction of the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

The Washington house at Ferry Farm is now open for tours. The interpretive replica of George Washington’s boyhood home is an interactive and hands-on experience for all ages, where visitors can experience what life was like in the eighteenth century. Using information from the probate inventory and archaeological evidence, the Washington house is currently being furnished with replica furniture and ceramics of what was originally in the home. This allows guests the opportunity to sit on the furniture and handle the objects.

Corner Cupboard in Parlor

Corner Cupboard

Following a plan conceived by The George Washington Foundation’s Collections Committee and curators, noted cabinetmakers are crafting reproduction furniture using pieces from the time period of the Washington house as examples. Craftsmen from Colonial Williamsburg produced a corner cabinet in the joiners’ shop and a tea table in the cabinetmakers’ shop using examples from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s collection. Additionally, two dining tables, a set of twelve leather upholstered chairs, a “scrutore” – or desk with bookcase, a low-post bed, and a gaming table are currently on view in the Washington house.

Tea Table in Hall Back Room

Tea Table

The construction of the Washington house on its archaeological footprint is part of the first phase of The George Washington Foundation’s multi-year venture to physically develop George Washington’s Ferry Farm into an outdoor living museum. The first phase of the project will also include reconstructing the kitchen and outbuildings, and recreating the period landscape. Moreover, the Foundation is establishing a new entrance to the museum property, has erected a maintenance facility, and is completing necessary infrastructure.

Hall

Dining table, chairs, and “scrutore” in the Hall of the Washington house.

Employing building methods of the period, artisan masons laid the foundation for the Washington house using hand-cut Aquia sandstone in an oyster-shell mortar. Next, timber framers joined massive wood beams to create the frame of the home. Carpenters covered the roof with traditional, hand-prepared wood shingles and installed skillfully-crafted exterior doors and window sashes, as well as beaded weatherboard siding painted a traditional, deep red “Spanish brown” color.

Masons completed the brickwork for the three chimneys, each set in an English bond interspersed with glazed headers, while the carpenters fitted paneled doors with hand-wrought iron hardware and fabricating interior features such as an elaborate staircase in the center passage. Accomplished plasterers installed a traditional lime plaster, strengthened with animal hair, on wood lath across the walls of the Washington house.

Work Yards Behind the House

The work yards behind the Washington house.

Constructing the Washington house and the first phase of improvements at Ferry Farm is a funding priority for the Foundation as part of The Future of Our Past Campaign—a $40 million dollar comprehensive fundraising initiative in support of efforts across its two National Historic Landmark sites: Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

George Washington moved to Ferry Farm in 1738 with his parents, Mary and Augustine, his sister Betty, and their siblings, purchasing the site from William Strother III, a prominent colonial Virginian. Young George lived at the farm from age 6 to 22. Referred to as the Washington home house in George’s day, the property was later known as Ferry Farm—a historic ferry adjacent to the Washingtons’ house once linked it to the city of Fredericksburg via the Rappahannock River. The site was the setting of some of the best-known stories related to his youth, including tales of the cherry tree and throwing a stone across the Rappahannock River.

George was eleven when his father died in 1743. Augustine left Ferry Farm to George, for him to inherit when he reached majority. Mary Washington continued to live at Ferry Farm until 1772, when she moved to Fredericksburg to live closer to Kenmore and Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis.

View of Fredericksburg across the River

View from the Washington house of Fredericksburg across the Rappahannock River.

In 1996, Ferry Farm was saved from commercial development through the hard work and determination of the Regents and Trustees of The George Washington Foundation (known then as the Kenmore Association), a long list of individuals, and several organizations.

The Foundation announced on July 2, 2008 that its archaeologists had located and excavated the remains of the long-sought house where Washington was raised. To date, over 750,000 artifacts have been unearthed at Ferry Farm. Ongoing research suggests that George’s experiences at Ferry Farm were influential in shaping the man that he would become.

On Saturday, April 25, 2015, the Foundation broke ground on the Washington house and the first phase of construction at Ferry Farm, forever preserving this remarkable landscape and providing a powerful stage to tell the story of young George and his family. Doris Kearns Goodwin, renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was the keynote speaker for the Groundbreaking Ceremony.

Learn more about this comprehensive project here and here.

Please visit www.ferryfarm.org and www.kenmore.org for more information on two National Historic Landmark sites, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

David Muraca
Vice President of Museum Operations
Director of Archaeology

Washington, Smallpox, and the Fight for Independence

Living in Colonial America, disease and illness were defining challenges and perpetual threats of human existence.   At the time, there was no concept of infection or germ-theory, no vaccines, no really effective treatments for infectious disease and few public health measures that could reliably curb epidemics.[1]  For colonial Americans, it was not a matter of “if” you would get sick but rather when and would you be strong enough to survive.

George Washington contracted many of the epidemic diseases like malaria, dysentery, and smallpox that plagued colonists and survived despite limited medical intervention.  As a young man in the prime of his life, standing 6’2”tall and weighing over 200 pounds, his body fought a host of illnesses that killed most.  Still, these diseases had lasting effects on Washington’s body and one of the diseases he suffered led to a controversial decision that may have even saved America in its fight for independence.

Smallpox no longer terrifies humanity because it was eradicated in 1977 through a global program of vaccinations.  The devastation this disease caused through history is unrivaled.  By the 17th century, smallpox surpassed all other pandemic diseases as the swiftest and most deadly.[2]

The earliest conclusive evidence for smallpox dates back to 4th century China. It quickly spread through Asia and reached Europe around the 10th century. By the 18th century, it accounted for an estimated 8 to 20% of all deaths.[3] Upon its arrival in the New World, it decimated the Native American population, which had never faced the horrible and highly contagious disease.

Smallpox spread easily through overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  Symptoms include fever, intense headaches, pains in the back and legs, vomiting, and eruptions of seeping, smelly pustules on the body.  While left with immunity, survivors face debilitating after-effects like disfiguring scars and blindness.[4]

Smallpox pustules on hand

Smallpox pustules on hand. Credit: Centers for Disease Control

While smallpox was a reoccurring problem for larger coastal cities in British North America, it was less prevalent in more inland rural areas. Virginia experienced only minor outbreaks prior to 1747 when large outbreaks hit Williamsburg and Norfolk County causing panic, public unrest, and eventually public health proclamations.[5]

At the time, many offered advice on how to stave off or even cure the disease.  Recommendations in popular medical manuals, like Domestic Medicine, advocated rest, liquids, and various regimens of blistering, purging, and bleeding but not much more.[6] A particularly interesting remedy Virginian planter William Byrd II advocated included drinking large amounts of water “that had stood two days upon tar”.  These methods perhaps relieved symptoms but did little to prevent one from catching the disease.

Inoculation was the one way available to try and prevent smallpox.  A doctor took a bit of infected matter (i.e. pus from a pustule) from a person suffering from a mild case of smallpox and inserted it under the skin of a healthy patient.[7]  Theoretically, the newly infected patient would then develop a mild case of the infection and after recovery be immune to further breakouts.

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

Many physicians supported this new technique but inoculation had serious drawbacks.  One of the biggest was the mild case of smallpox in the newly infected patient could become a full-blown attack.  Additionally, people who were inoculated became carriers of the disease, capable of infecting individuals who had never had smallpox or who had not undergone inoculation.  This became a volatile issue because of a lack of understanding of population immunity and ineffective quarantine protocols.[8]

Anti-inoculation sentiments rose in Virginia after people recently inoculated returned to the community and outbreaks followed.  Full-scale riots and protests were seen in Norfolk County  and Williamsburg which led to petitions to ban inoculation. In 1769, Virginia prohibited inoculation unless specifically approved by the county courts.[9]

But how does smallpox and inoculation relate to George Washington, Virginia’s most famous son, and America’s fight for independence?

The connection began on November 2, 1751 when George Washington landed in Bridgetown, Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence. They had come from Virginia to the tropical island seeking relief for Lawrence’s tuberculosis.  Two weeks later, George wrote in his journal that he “was strongly attacked with the smallpox”.  He was confined to his sickbed for nearly a month being too ill to keep his daily journal.[10]  After his battle with smallpox, however, Washington became a major proponent of inoculation even though his support ran counter to most of his fellow Virginians.

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

With the Revolutionary War, smallpox increasingly became a deadly complication for the new United States in its fight for independence.  Where soldiers go plagues follow and when Washington took command of the Continental Army in summer of 1775 he wrote to the president of the Continental Congress that he had been, “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Smallpox” and he would “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy”.

Outbreaks were particularly common when there was a large buildup of troops in an area like during the Siege of Boston in 1774 or after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.[11]  Epidemics also broke out in Boston and Philadelphia in summer of 1776 and the attempt by American forces to take Quebec was greatly hindered by smallpox among the soldiers.

In the winter of 1777, Washington decided to have all troops and new recruits inoculated.  As stated in his letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., “finding the Small pox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated.  This Expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.  Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with it usual virulence we should have more to dread from it than the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington understood the great risk he was taking in instituting mass inoculation and effectively incapacitating large numbers of soldiers while they recovered.   The operation was kept secret and done during the winter in the hope that his forces would be healthy and ready to fight in the anticipated summer campaign. Despite some setbacks, Washington’s efforts to eliminate smallpox in the army were largely successful.  While the disease continued to affect soldiers, there were no further epidemic outbreaks among the troops.[12]

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown NHP

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, where the Continental Army quartered for the winter of 1776-77 and where a large portion of Washington’s troops were inoculated. Credit: National Park Service / Steve Santucci

George Washington’s insistence in these preventive health measures and his belief in the effectiveness of inoculation helped the Continental Army conquer smallpox and become a more reliable military force.  Additionally, the success of mass inoculation within the fledgling nation’s military helped encourage the civilian population to use these preventative measures. Inoculation began to gain popularity with Virginians and all of the American people.  So, young Washington’s trip to Barbados when he was nineteen was unsuccessful in helping his brother’s tuberculosis but it did end up giving him a greater appreciation for preventive medicine and the devastating power of epidemic disease.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “The Perpetual Challenge of Infectious Diseases”, Anthony S. Fauci and David M. Morens, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2 February 2012.

[2]  Kotar, S.L., and J.E. Gessler. Smallpox: A History. McFarland, 2013. pg 11

[3] The Seat of Death and Terror: Urbanization, Stunting, and Smallpox by Deborah Oxley, The Economic History Review, November 2003,  pg 5, 627

[4] Kotar, pg 4; Oxley, 628

[5] Kotar, 41

[6] Domestic Medicine, William Buchan, 1769

[7] Oxley, 629

[8] Kotar, 13

[9] Kotar, 41

[10] Kotar, 40

[11] Kotar, 42

[12] “Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War”, Ann M. Becker, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No 2. (Apr. 2004), pg. 424-430

When Washington Wanted to Know the Weather

Snowing at the Washington House

Snow falls on the Washington house at Ferry Farm in the midst of construction late last winter.

Winter is coming.  For the next three months or so, we face cold temperatures, blustery winds, chilly rains, occasional snow and ice storms, and regular frosts.  Living in the 21st century, accurate foreknowledge of unpleasant or dangerous weather is available at our fingertips.  It was decidedly different in the 18th century.

Just like we are today, people in the past were captivated by the weather and urgently wanted to know what it was going to do. George Washington was fascinated by the weather.  His preoccupation stemmed, of course, from his occupations as a surveyor, soldier, and planter.  Washington’s lifetime of diaries are filled with meteorological observations like this one from December 13, 1799.  “Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.”  This particular weather observation by Washington would also prove to be his final diary entry.  He died about 24 hours later.  Given his passion for the weather, it actually seems quite fitting that among the man’s last documented words there would be a weather report.

Accurately predicting the weather certainly would have helped Washington in his surveying, soldiering, and planting and weather forecasting was not completely impossible in the 18th century.  People in Washington’s time had some primitive tools, skills, and knowledge that they could call upon to help them guess what the weather was about to do for a relatively brief amount of time within the limited geographic area around them.

Weather vanes were one common tool used by colonial Americans to help divine the weather.  The direction and intensity of the wind can indeed provide a general idea of weather ahead.  Breezes from the south typically bring warm temperatures and increased humidity.  Winds from the north can mean colder temperatures and drier air.  A sudden shift in the wind direction with strong gusts coming from the west may mean a storm is approaching.

Mount Vernon Weathervane

Weather vane atop the cupola at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson / Flickr.

Along with wind direction, early Americans also got an idea of what might happen with the weather simply by watching the sky.  Over the centuries, folk knowledge from this sky watching was distilled into weather lore, sayings meant to forecast the weather based on these observations of the local sky.  Indeed, some weather lore can be explained scientifically, is actually valid, and does provide an idea of what the weather will be for the short-term.

Let’s examine three example sayings (PDF)

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning

Red sky marks where high pressure is located. Dust and soot captured in the high pressure dome scatter more of the sunlight’s red wavelength while regular air molecules scatter sunlight’s blue wavelength.  An evening red sky in the west indicates an approaching high pressure bringing calm weather.  A red sky in the morning in the east means a high pressure has passed and a low pressure with unsettled weather is likely following behind.

Red in the Morning

Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

When halo rings the moon
Rain’s approaching soon

At night, high thin cirrostratus clouds can create halos around the moon. These clouds forecast approaching rain.

When clouds look like black smoke
A wise man will put on his cloak

Thick clouds contain a lot of moisture which helps block sunlight and creates an appearance of black smoke in the sky.  The moisture in the clouds will often fall as rain, of course, necessitating the need for a cloak to stay dry outdoors.

In the 18th century, many weather sayings once shared through oral tradition were finally recorded in almanacs.  The 1700s was a boom time for almanacs and none was perhaps as focused on weather prediction as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which first appeared in 1792 when George Washington was president.

Robert B. Thomas, The Old Farmer’s Almanac original publisher, created long-term weather forecasts based on a theory developed by Galileo in the 1600s. Galileo and Thomas believed that an 11-year cycle of sunspots influenced the Earth’s climate and weather.  To this day, science has not ruled out a connection although sunspot impact on weather is thought to be relatively minor.  Nevertheless, a farmer who wanted to know the best day to plant a certain crop and if that day would have good weather consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The last tool available to 18th century weather prognosticators was the barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure. Generally speaking, a rising barometer means high pressure is approaching and thus good weather is likely ahead while a falling barometer means low pressure is on the way and so is bad weather.  While they were over 100-years-old by his time, it does not appear that Washington owned barometer.  He definitely owned a thermometer but the many weather observations he recorded in his diaries do not include observations taken on a barometer.

twelfth-night-2017-for-blog-1

A snowy evening at Historic Kenmore.

With these primitive tools, skills, and knowledge, weather forecasting in the 18th century was possible but immensely flawed.  One could not know anything with certainty.  The error rate was substantial to be sure.  Forecasting was really little more than making a guess based on some vague general rules of thumb.  The advent of telegraphy in 1835 sparked the current age of modern weather forecasting with its collecting and sharing of both observations and data across large distances and its ever-increasing warning times about weather changes.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

When George Washington Almost Joined the British Royal Navy

Not long ago, we explored Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington and the influence that Lawrence Washington and his wartime service played in stoking George’s interest in military matters.

Lawrence fought with the British in the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the early 1740s and spent time aboard the flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon, who commanded British forces during the Battle of Cartegena de Indias.  Lawrence returned to Virginia with stories sure to spark his 10-year-old brother George’s imagination and desire for adventure.  Lawrence’s military service and George’s interest in military things had a fascinating, if perplexing, practical outcome when, late in 1746, Lawrence proposed for 14-year-old George to join the Royal Navy.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

This is a relatively little known and rather mysterious incident in the life of young George Washington.  Few documents survive that address the matter directly.  There are no documents written by George, Lawrence, or Mary Washington that reveal their actions or motivations in the matter.  The three letters that do address the incident were all written by secondary figures involved.

It all began in the fall of 1746 when Lawrence sent two letters — one each for George and Mary respectively – to Fredericksburg via Colonel William Fairfax.  George was to deliver Mary’s himself and keep the one to him a secret from her.  We do not know what either of these letters said.

What we do know is only what William Fairfax told Lawrence in a report dated September 9, 1746 and sent to Lawrence at Mount Vernon.  Fairfax wrote:

“The weather being so sultry, and being necessarily obliged to go about this town to collect several things wanted, I have not yet seen Mrs. Washington.  George has been with us, and says He will be steady and thankfully follow your Advice as his best Friend.  I gave him his Mother’s letter to deliver with Caution not to shew his.  I have spoke to Dr. Spencer who I find is often at the Widow’s and has some influence, to persuade her to think better of your advice in putting Him to Sea with good Recommendation.”[1]

The Dr. Spencer mentioned may have been William Spencer, who often was involved as a witness for land transfers to Lawrence.  The secretiveness of George hiding his letter from Mary and of Lawrence apparently enlisting his business partners to argue in favor of the proposal for George to go to sea emphasize the conspiratorial nature of Lawrence’s efforts.

It appears that, for a time, Lawrence’s manipulations may have worked.  On September 18, 1746, Robert Jackson, a Washington family friend, wrote to Lawrence that “I am afraid Mrs. Washington will not keep up to her first resolution.”  This seems to indicate that she wasn’t against the idea immediately but she did change her mind.  Jackson reported that Mary “seems to intimate a dislike to George’s going to Sea and says several Persons have told her it’s a very bad Scheme.”  He condescendingly dismisses her concerns as “trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers naturally suggest” and expresses frustration that “one word against [George’s] going has more weight than ten for it.”

Jackson noted that William Fairfax was inclined to visit Mary and, moreover, Jackson noted that he himself would “take an opportunity to talk with her and will let you knew her result.”[2]  While Jackson may have let Lawrence know the result, no document has been found to let us know the result of these specific discussions two centuries later.

Action Between Nottingham and Mars, 1746 by Samuel Scott

“Action Between Nottingham and Mars” (1746) by Samuel Scott depicts a British-French naval battle in October 1746 when the Washingtons were debating whether George should join the Royal Navy. Credit: Wikipedia/National Maritime Museum.

At some point, perhaps feeling outnumbered, Mary decided to solicit the advice of her brother Joseph Ball in England.  Dated May 19, 1747, his reply, which is a disdainful rejection of the entire proposal, is worth quoting at length.

“I understand that you are advised and have some thoughts of putting your son George to sea.  I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from ship to ship where he has fifty shillings a month, and make him take twenty-three, and cut and slash and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog.  And as to any considerable preferment in the navy, it is not to be expected, as there are so many gaping for it here who have interest, and he has none.  And if he should get to be master of a Virginia ship (which is very difficult to do), a planter who has three or four hundred acres of land, and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, many live more comfortably, and have his family in better bread than such a master of a ship can . . .  He must not be too hasty to be rich but go on gently and with patience as things will naturally go.  This method without aiming at being a fine gentleman before his time, will carry a man more comfortably and surely thought the world than going to sea, unless it be a great chance indeed.”[3]

Mary must have ultimately and definitely rejected Lawrence’s plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George, of course, did not pursue a career at sea but turned to surveying instead.

Like many incidents in young George Washington’s life, the historical record is elusive and often raises more questions than it answers.  What prompted Lawrence to make the suggestion in the first place?  What were George’s views on the proposal and the debate?  What were Mary’s specific objections?  None of these questions may ever be answered.  Of course, the greatest question raised by the incident is the also unknowable counterfactual one.  Would history have unfolded differently if the man who was supposed to have been the commander of the Continental Army ended up spending his life on the King’s ships?

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] William Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, September 9, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 238, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[2] Robert Jackson to Lawrence Washington, September 18, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 239-40, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[3] Joseph Ball to Mary Washington, May 19, 1747 quoted in Marion Harland’s The Story of Mary Washington, New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1893: 79-80 available at https://archive.org/details/storyofmarywashi00harl [accessed August 26, 2017].

George’s Hometown: Kenmore

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

Fredericksburg remained important to George Washington throughout his life. It was the home of Mary Ball Washington, his mother, until her death on August 26, 1789 at the age of 80 from breast cancer. It remained the home of Betty Washington Lewis, his sister, until 1795 when she was forced by financial circumstances to leave the grand house she and husband Fielding Lewis, a wealthy merchant, had built to live at Mill Brook, a farm in Spotsylvania County.  Washington visited his mother as well as his sister and brother-in-law regularly but, as the years passed, these visits became more and more infrequent as the Revolution and Presidency required all his time and attention.  George Washington visited Betty and Fielding at Kenmore once in 1784.

George's Hometown 5

Historic Kenmore

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house!

Ferry Farm opens to visitors at noon on Saturday, October 7.

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The reconstructed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

PLEASE NOTE: PARKING for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm—traveling from the VRE lot to Ferry Farm on a regular schedule from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Bus transportation will pause during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The last bus will depart Ferry Farm at 5:15 p.m. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm.