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Did George Washington’s false teeth come from his slaves?: A look at the evidence, the responses to that evidence, and the limitations of history

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
October 19, 2016

Photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Link to original.

Photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Link to original.

George Washington’s false teeth were not wooden, as you may have heard. They were actually made from a variety of materials, including human teeth. According to the accounting record in Mount Vernon’s Ledger Book B, the teeth may have been pulled from Washington’s slaves.

I get a broad range of reactions to this fact when it comes up in conversation. At one end of the spectrum are those who accept my suggestion: stunned, they imagine George Washington riding around his plantation in search of an unlucky person from the fields, whose teeth he wrenches out. On the other side are those who immediately deny that George Washington would ever have done anything so horrible, and who quickly provide an alternative.

This is where the limitations of history come into play. The only documentation of which we are aware of George Washington purchasing teeth from slaves is a brief notation in his ledger books.1 The physical evidence, a pair of Washington’s dentures that includes human teeth, is part of the collection at Mount Vernon.2 As to the circumstances surrounding the creation of these dentures, the best historians can do is make an educated guess.  Like all historical theories, this conclusion should be grounded in historical context, supplemental primary and secondary documents, and sound reasoning. But without further documentation, it is impossible to describe the scenario in definitive terms. We are not even entirely positive that the teeth whose price is recorded in the Ledger Book are the same as those in the dentures.

Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.3

Wherever Dr. Le Mayeur practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads “Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.”4 While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated “slaves excepted.”5 That could explain why the price noted by Lund Washington was so low. Nine teeth sold for two guineas each would be worth almost nineteen pounds; Washington paid only slightly more than six pounds.

Without further documentation, we can only speculate on the sequence of events leading to the inclusion of human teeth in George Washington’s dentures. Perhaps Dr. Le Mayeur offered George Washington a deal in which Washington saved on teeth by buying them at a much-discounted rate from his own slaves rather than from Dr. Le Mayeur. It is also possible that George or Lund Washington forced one or more of their enslaved people to part with their teeth, paying them a drastically reduced price. Under Virginia’s laws at the time, no plantation owner would have faced legal consequences for such an action.

As the first president of the United States, George Washington set the standard for presidential leadership and the goals of the new country. He made difficult decisions, including the incredibly significant one to step down from office after two terms, setting an important precedent and preventing the new democracy from sinking back into monarchy. At the end of his life, George Washington also made the controversial decision, not condoned by his family, to free his legal portion of Mount Vernon’s enslaved people.

However, as a slaveholder, George Washington also followed the standards of his time. He condoned and even encouraged violence as a way to keep enslaved people subservient. He bought and sold slaves for economic reasons, sometimes separating families in the process. While president of the United States, leading a nominally free country, he actively prevented his enslaved servants from learning of their own natural right to freedom.

Without more documentation that might help us find the real story behind George Washington’s dentures, our reactions to the revelation that they included human teeth have more to do with our own worldviews, and even subconscious beliefs about our first president, than with historic reality. All history involves interpretation and personal bias, but with a subject as fraught as slavery and involving an icon like George Washington, responses can be all the more intense and emotional. Stories like this provide us with the opportunity to investigate the evidence, to notice our responses to that evidence, and finally, perhaps most valuably, to examine why we are responding as we do.

 

Notes

1. Ledger B, 1772–1793, p. 179, Library of Congress.

2. Etter, William H. in Mount Vernon’s Digital Encyclopedia, “False Teeth.”

3. Jean Le Mayeur to George Washington, 14 August 1784.

4. Advertisement, Independent Journal, (New York, NY), July 31, 1784, p. 1.

5. “Historical and Genealogical Notes and Queries,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 10 (1902): 312–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4242546. See page 325.