George Washington’s Troublesome Teeth

It’s probably the myth that is more enduring and widespread than any other about George Washington.  At some point from someone, you have heard that George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood.  It is not true.  In reality, his dentures and dental tribulations were more complex than the familiar myth says.  The true story, even when it is uncertain, reveals much more about his life and about life in general in the 18th century.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798)

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1798). Washington’s dental troubles are even apparent on his face. As the result of his dentures, he kept his mouth closed tightly and the false teeth caused the area around his lips, his lower jaw, and his chin to protrude slightly. Credit: Clark Art Institute

George Washington had a tooth pulled for the first time in 1756 at the age of 24.  Four years later, George Mercer described Washington’s appearance in a letter, saying “His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth.”   By the time of his first inauguration as president in 1789, George had only one tooth left.

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821)

John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1821) Credit: National Gallery of Art

The causes of George’s dental problems will never be known with certainty.  According to John Adams, Washington himself “attributed his misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth.”  Furthermore, Adams hints at one additional potential factor: the common use of mercury in medicine during the 18th century.  Adams described how his doctors gave him sizable quantities of mercury when he was inoculated for smallpox.  The result was, he said, “that every tooth in my head became so loose that I believe I could have pulled them all with my Thumb and finger.”  Adams complained that his doctors “rendered me incapable  …of speaking or eating in my old Age, in short they brought me into the same Situation with my Friend Washington.”

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

For what it’s worth, nineteen-year-old Washington contracted smallpox in November 1751 during a stay in Barbados.  Constantly attended by Dr. John Lanahan, he was sick for 25 days before finally fighting off the deadly disease.  We have no records to tell us precisely how Lanahan treated Washington.  If we consult pages 28-29 of A Rational and Mechanical Essay on the Small Pox published in 1735 by Dr. William Hillary, we find a three-phase course of treatment for pox sufferers. “The first, by bleeding in the first Stations of the Disease; when the Fever is violent: The second by introducing the Practice of Purging, (and Bleeding) in the most dangerous Circumstances attending the second Fever.”  The third phase was employing all known methods to reduce inflammation.  All phases were typical medical practice at the time.

The purging phase of smallpox treatment is when mercury may have become involved.  The most popular concoction to induce purging in the 18th century was called calomel.  It “was a white tasteless powder which consisted of mercury chloride. When taken in small doses calomel led to the evacuation of the bowels.  If taken over time or in heavier doses, calomel induced heavy salivation, bleeding gums, mouth sores, tooth loss.”  Again, in describing his own brush with smallpox, John Adams noted that his doctors “salivated me to such a degree” with “Milk and Mercury” that all his teeth became terribly loose.

Young Washington survived his smallpox attack but literally carried the scars of the illness for life.  Back at Ferry Farm in January 1752, Mary Washington twice purchased some ointment from Dr. Sunderland (Sutherland?) to deal with George’s pox-caused facial scars.  The same bill also included a “mercurial purging” for someone. [1]  We should not definitively conclude that medicinal mercury caused George’s life-long dental troubles.  Like most things in history, his difficulties probably had a mix of causes common to the 1700s, including diseases and  “ poorly balanced diet . . . as well as genetics.”

Regardless of the reasons for George’s defective teeth, Washington ultimately proved “very wise about the message an image can send, and knew that . . . he had to look the part of a leader… which meant at least having teeth.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Now Incomplete Set

A set of Washington’s dentures as once owned by the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, Dental School, University of Maryland. This older image shows both the lower and upper portions. Only the lower portion of these dentures is now present and on display at Baltimore’s Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry. Credit: National Museum of Dentistry

Baker's Ad in the VA Gazette

John Baker advertised his services as a Surgeon Dentist in the January 2, 1772 edition of the Virginia Gazette.

Accordingly, as he lost more teeth, George replaced them with partial dentures and then eventually full dentures.  Surgeon Dentist John Baker, who we first wrote about here, became George’s regular dentist in 1772.  Baker stayed at Mount Vernon in October 1773 and received two substantial payments of £8 total from Washington that same month.  Baker was the first to make false teeth for George, creating a partial denture of ivory for wiring to his natural teeth.

The tooth loss continued, however.  In 1783,Washington asked Baker “for some of the Plaister of Paris, or that white powder with which you take (in wax) the Model of the Mouth for your false teeth—and directions how to mix, & make use of it—When you have done this, I can then give you such a Model as will enable you to furnish me with what I want.”  It seems it was time for another new set of dentures.

A month later, though, Washington took on a new dentist: Jean-Pierre Le Mayuer, who probably made him another partial denture.  Additionally, Le Mayuer practiced the relatively common 18th century dental technique of transplanting, in his words, “good living teeth in the Room of those which were broken or otherwise decayed.”  At first, Washington seemed skeptical about the practice.  He needed to replace his teeth but “(not by transplantation, for of this I have no idea, even with young people, and sure I am it cannot succeed with old).”  Eventually, his mind seemed to be changed somewhat by Richard Varick’s testimony of Le Mayuer’s skills.  That said, there’s little recorded describing the care Le Mayuer provided Washington.

Despite George’s skepticism, Le Mayeur’s use of human teeth in his practice was not unusual for the time. A patient’s own pulled teeth might be used in their dentures.  Teeth from other people, especially the poor and enslaved, were bought and even harvested from the dead for use in dentures or transplanting.  In fact, “Wherever Dr. Le Mayuer practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads ‘Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.’  While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated ‘slaves excepted.’”  Did this mean Le Mayeur would not pay for teeth from slaves or is it a Frenchman’s corruption of the word “accepted”?  It seems, in fact, he was willing to pay for the teeth of enslaved people for, in May 1784, Lund Washington, who was managing Mount Vernon while George commanded the Continental Army, recorded just over £6 “cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.”

Washington definitely used human teeth in his dentures but we do not know if they were teeth from slaves.  He probably did use his own in some dentures.  Back in 1782, when John Baker was still his dentist, George wrote to Lund Washington instructing him that “In a drawer, in the Locker of the Desk which stands in my Study, you will find two small (fore) teeth; which I beg of you to wrap up carefully, & send inclosed in your next Letter to me. I am positive I left them there, or in the secret drawer in the locker of the same desk.”  It is believed “Washington hoped that these original teeth could be used within new dentures that were being fitted for his use.”

George Washington - Full Dentures, Complete Set

Washington dentures made by John Greenwood. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

John Greenwood

Engraving of John Greenwood by Roy Peintre. Credit: Library of Congress

“The only complete set of Washington’s dentures that still survives . . . is made of animal and human teeth, lead, and ivory.”  John Greenwood, who served as Washington’s dentist throughout the 1790s, made them out of hippopotamus ivory, horse or donkey teeth, human teeth, gold wire springs, brass screws, and lead.  Greenwood left a gap in this set for the one remaining tooth Washington had left.  Inevitably, that tooth finally had to be pulled and Washington presented Greenwood with this tooth as a gift, which hung on his watch chain inside a glass locket.

 

George Washington suffered a lifetime of dental troubles.  The causes of those troubles and the attempted solutions were typical of the 18th century and teach us much about both Washington’s life and the lives of his fellow early Americans. The real story of Washington’s false teeth, even when uncertain, reveals more about his life and his times than any stale wooden myth.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 103.

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“Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”: Celebrating Independence

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel. Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y C. ca. 1859. Oil on canvas. Artist Johannes A. S. Oertel, working in the mid-nineteenth century, provides an imagined depiction of the destruction of George III's statue in Bowling Green, the first victim of New Yorkers' reaction to hearing news of the Declaration of Independence. Oertel places women, children and Native Americans among what eyewitnesses recorded as a rowdy crowd of soldiers and civilians. No true image of the statue itself survives. However, contemporary descriptions inform us that the King was sculpted in Roman garb, not the eighteenth-century royal dress shown in the painting. More accurate is the view of the statue reconstructed by Charles M. Lefferts at right.

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, NYC (ca. 1859) by Johannes A. S. Oertel. Painting in the mid-1800s, Oertel created a thrilling but historically inaccurate depiction of  New Yorkers destorying a statue of George III after hearing news of the Declaration of Independence.  The event did happen but much of Oretel’s painting is fanciful. Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia.org

Writing to wife Abigail following Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams famously outlined his vision for how future generations would celebrate the historic moment. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams wrote in an oft quoted passage. “It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams’ prediction was borne out immediately.  News of independence spread from Philadelphia across the new American states like a circle of ripples on a great lake.  By July 10, 1776, the first word arrived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, hometown of General George Washington and where his mother Mary still lived.  Indentured servant John Harrower, who served as tutor for Colonel William Daingerfield’s family at Belvidera plantation about seven miles downstream from Fredericksburg on a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock, recorded the moment in his journal. [1]

“Wednesday 10th. At 6 pm went to Mrs. Battaile’s & teach’d until sunset and then returned home & soon after hea[r]d a great many Guns fired towards Toun. About 12 pm the Colo. Despatc[h]ed Anthy. Frazer there to see what was the cause of [it?] who returned, and informed him that there was great rejoicings in Town on Accott. of the Congress having declared the 13 United Colonys of North America Independent of the Crown of great Britain.” [2]

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Young members of the Continental Army recreate a charge during Fourth of July at Ferry Farm!

Some days later, on July 26, when the Declaration was officially read out in Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital, the proclamation was made “amidst the acclimations of the people, accompanied by firing of cannon and musketry, the several regiments of continental troops having been paraded.”

One year later, Adams prediction continued to bear fruit, as the infant nation celebrated its First Birthday.  In Charleston, South Carolina, on July 4, 1777 “ringing of bells ushered in the Day” and “At sun-rise American colours were displayed from all the forts and batteries, and vessels in the harbour.”  There was a parade of military troops and then “at one o’clock the several forts, beginning at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, discharging seventy six pieces of cannon . . . and the militia and artillery fired three general vollies.”  The new state’s leaders gave a banquet with thirteen toasts and “double the number [of guests] that ever observed the birthday of the present misguided and unfortunate King of Great Britain.”  To end the day-long celebration, “the evening was concluded with illuminations, &c. far exceeding any that had ever been exhibited before.”.

Back north, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ships were also “dressed . . . with the colours of the United States and streamers displayed.” The crews climbed into the rigging and stretched out across the yardarms to salute the day and each ship fired thirteen cannons. On land, a banquet was held for Congress during which “The Hessian band of music taken at Trenton the 26th of December last, attended and heightened the festivity with some fine performances suited to the joyous occasion, while a corps of British deserters, taken into the service of the continent by the State of Georgia, being drawn before the door, filled up the intervals with feux de joie.” A feu de joie, French for “fire of joy”, is the firing of guns into the air in quick succession. It is sometimes described as a “running fire of guns.”. The dinner also included many toasts.  The late afternoon featured a parade of military troops and the ringing of bells. “At night there was a grand exhibition of firework, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets.”

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After flying for a year over Washington’s boyhood home, one U.S. flag is retired replaced with a new flag during the Patriotic Flag Retirement Ceremony at Ferry Farm’s Fourth of July celebration.

Whether in Virginia in 1776 or South Carolina and Pennsylvania in 1777, all of these acts of celebration were quite traditional and had been used for decades to celebrate the monarch’s birthday each year.  In 1727, Willliamsburg marked the king’s birthday.

“The colors were displayed at the Capitol and salvos fired from the cannon at the Palace, at the forts, and on board the king’s ships in Virginia waters at the time.  In the evening the Capitol, the Palace, the College, and ‘most of the Gentlemen’s and other House of Note’ were illuminated and bonfires were sometimes set in public squares in the city.  At the governor’s dinner the drinking of all the loyal healths consumed a great deal of time, a variety of choice wines and liquors, and a large store of gunpowder. The populace was sometimes treated to ‘plenty of liquor’ and drank the same healths outside the Palace or at one of the taverns. The day’s festivities closed with the governor’s ball for all the ladies and gentlemen in town.” [3]

More than two centuries later, we still celebrate the Fourth of July with decorations of red, white, and blue, ubiquitous American flags, military parades, cannon fire, large amounts of food, the enjoyment of spirited beverages, music, and fireworks.  John Adams vision was far-reaching indeed!

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Celebrate Independence Day where George Washington spent his boyhood years!

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See more photos from last year’s Fourth of July at Ferry Farm here.

This year’s theme, “We The People” focuses on The Declaration of Independence with a variety of activities and entertainment for young and old alike. Learn about archaeology at Ferry Farm, enjoy a patriotic flag retirement ceremony,interact with colonial and Civil War re-enactors as well as members of the Patawomeck tribe, listen to patriotic music, and participate in educational programs, crafts and games, and hands-on activities for the whole family.  Visit kenmore.org/events.html to learn more.

Cost: $1 per person
Parking: Eagles Lodge – 21 Cool Spring Road Fredericksburg, VA 22405
Shuttles will run between the Eagles Lodge and Ferry Farm.

[1] John Harrower, The Journal of John Harrower: An Indentured Servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773-1776, edited by Edward Miles Riley, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1963: xvi.

[2] Harrower, 158.

[3] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1989: 93.