by Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
November 17, 2016
“Thank god we are all tolerable well,” Martha Washington wrote in missive after missive. She worried in nearly every letter—was anyone ill? How were her friends doing? When were they going to come and visit?
Martha persistently asked about her loved ones because she kept losing them, one by one. Her son, Jacky, wrote to her after his little sister died: “I am confident she enjoys that Bliss prepar’d only for the Good & virtuous, let these considerations, My dear Mother have their due weight with you…”1 Martha heard variations on this sentiment her entire life. She heard it when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died; when each of her children passed away; and the times when she lost her parents and siblings. Hundreds of mourners wrote her after she watched George go to the grave.
No one knew better than Martha that life was fragile. And so, nothing was more important to her than investing in her family and in her religion.2
In the eighteenth century, Bibles physically united religion and family. Families passed them down for generations, writing births, deaths, and marriages into their pages. Martha, who gave her life to serving God, family, and country, would have cherished her Bible. In fact, nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspaper articles imply that Martha owned more than one.
George had bought Martha one of them, which I will call the Lewis Bible. He obtained it on Aug. 18, 1789—right at the beginning of his first presidential term. Martha had been distraught that George, once again, was taking up a public mantle; perhaps he bought it for her in an attempt to alleviate her anxiety.
The Lewis Bible is a high-quality item. Printed in 1783, it has a brown leather calf binding, and the pages shine gold with gilt. It boasts six fold-out maps and 300 expensive copperplate engravings. Martha clearly cherished it—she signed the book three times.3 Her granddaughter Eleanor Parke “Nelly” Custis Lewis evidently inherited it.
Nelly’s Bible lay quietly with the Lewis family for almost a hundred years. Then, in 1889, H. L. Dangerfield Lewis had it displayed in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House for the Washington centennial celebration4—apparently less out of patriotic duty than from a desire to increase interest before selling it. In 1890, a newspaper article appeared saying that, “because of the repugnance of the administrator of the last effects of George Washington to sell a strictly family relic, Martha Washington’s Bible does not appear in the catalogue of the sale. Mr. Lewis has at last, however, decided to dispose of this book.”5 In other words, while Lewis had not reconsidered his intent to sell, he had determined that a low-profile transaction might be prudent. He likely understood that, by selling it, he was changing the Bible’s meaning. Once, it had been Martha’s greatest comfort; then it had been a cherished family heirloom. Now, he was offering it up as a collector’s trophy.
The Bible sold for $760 to New York bookseller A. J. Bowden.6 The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was present at the auction and probably bid on the lot, but lost. Bowden’s firm, Mitchell, promptly sold the Bible at a handsome profit, for $5,000, to a Chicago collector named C. F. Guenther.7 It was sold again in 1923 to an E. D. North for $3,700.8
Curiously, after that, the Bible somehow made its way back to the Lewis family. Mount Vernon credits Esther Maria Lewis with having donated the Bible in 1951, and it remains at the home of George and Martha Washington to this day.
Another Bible that Martha may have owned is the Custis Bible, although the evidence of her ownership is mostly circumstantial. To me, though, it seems likely she had it, if only because she must have owned at least one other Bible prior to 1789. Plus, it has a record of her first marriage, and Martha had inherited other books from Daniel Parke Custis’s family—her mother-in-law’s recipe book being one of them.
The Custis Bible has a black leather cover and was printed in London in 1702. While it does not include a record of Martha’s marriage to George, it does have an entry for her marriage to Daniel Parke Custis.9
Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, or “Washy,” appears to have ended up with it after Martha’s death, perhaps even against her wishes. In her will, Martha states that Washy would inherit “all my books of every Kind except the large bible and the prayer book.”10 In any case, though, the Bible descended into the Lee family—for Washy’s daughter married none other than Civil War general Robert E. Lee. The Lee family clearly treasured the Custis Bible and made it part of their daily lives. An article reports that the family pressed flowers and leaves into it.11 But their lives were thrown into disarray by the start of the Civil War.
Civil War looters wreaked havoc in libraries, courthouses, and family homes. Union soldiers occupied Arlington House, the Lee family home that today overlooks Arlington National Cemetery, in 1861. Mary Custis Lee, Robert’s wife, had to flee, leaving behind many treasures —among them, the Custis Bible. After that, it vanished for forty-three years, perhaps taken by a soldier.
When it resurfaced in 1904, the Custis Bible was in the hands of George W. Kendrick, a South Carolina collector who claimed to have purchased it twenty-two years earlier from a man identified only as “Stein.” Kendrick refused to recognize the Lee family’s claim to the Bible, declaring that he would turn it over to Mount Vernon or to the Smithsonian. He reasoned that the public deserved access to the book and that the Lee family didn’t have any more claim to it than any other Martha descendent.12 It seems to me, though, that they did actually have a right to it, since it had been in their family for generations. After battling for two years, Kendricks finally agreed to return the Bible. It probably has stayed at Arlington House ever since and is thought to be the same one on display for public viewing in the Lee family parlor.13
It’s interesting to note the contrast between the newspaper coverage of Martha’s will, versus that of her Bibles.14 People were furious that the finance giant J. P. Morgan owned her will—yet, the public didn’t seem to mind that much when Martha’s Bibles were passed around from collector to collector.
Maybe people just despised J.P. Morgan.
More likely, though, the difference lies in the fact that wills are property of the state while Bibles are family relics. The public felt enough of a claim to the Bibles to clamor for information when they were bought and sold—but not enough of a claim to want to affect what happened to them. The guardianship of such items is left to family members.
Families disperse over generations, and their ties weaken. Memories are lost, and heirlooms are sold. Some people stop caring about things that used to mean life-and-death to their ancestors. Sometimes, though, family members will protect their heritage and fight to keep it intact. Martha is lucky she had descendants with such values. Her Bibles ended up back where they belonged, serving as testaments to her faith and family.
1. John Parke Custis to Martha Washington, July 5, 1773. Library of Congress.
2. For more on Martha’s faith, see Mary S. Thompson, In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
3. “Martha Washington’s Bible.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. http://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/collections-holdings/browse-the-museum-collections/object/w-1659/#-
4. “Valuable Relics.” The Evening Bulletin, Maysville, Ky., April 18, 1889. Newspapers.com.
5. “Martha Washington’s Bible.” The Times, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 9, 1890. Newspapers.com.
6. “The Washington Relics.” The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, Md., Dec. 12, 1890. Newspapers.com.
7. The Times, Philadelphia, Pa., July 19, 1881. Newspapers.com. Some newspaper articles say that Mitchell bought it for $1,000 and sold it for $4,000. It was sold at a substantial profit, whatever the exact numbers.
8. “Martha Washington’s Bible Brings $3700.00,” The Chronicle, Shippensburg, Pa., Sept. 13, 1923. Newspapers.com
9. “Martha Washington’s Bible,” The Valley Falls New Era, Valley Falls, Kan., May 17, 1906. Newspapers.com. The only description of the Bible I have been able to find is in newspaper articles like this one. I realized that Martha owned more than one Bible because this description does not match that of the Lewis Bible.
10. Transcript of Martha Washington’s Will. Fairfax County Courthouse. http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/courts/circuit/pdf/mwtranscript.pdf.
11. “Martha Washington’s Bible,” The Valley Falls New Era, Valley Falls, Kan., May 17, 1906. Newspapers.com.
12. “Martha Washington’s Bible,” Keowee Courier, Pickens, S.C., March 16, 1904. Newspapers.com.
13. I called Arlington House to see whether this Bible was ever owned by Martha Washington. The curators weren’t sure. It seems likely to me, though, that she did own it. See: “Religion at Arlington.” Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. https://www.nps.gov/arho/learn/historyculture/religion.htm.