There’s a new meme about George Washington’s teeth circulating on cable television — I’ve heard it twice in the past couple of days. It once was commonly held that Virginia’s most famous son had a mouth full of wooden teeth. But recent archival research indicates that he wore dentures made of carved hippopotamus ivory — and slaves’ teeth.
Wow. Sounds horrible. What an evil slave owner. I can just imagine him riding around his plantation looking for slaves with fine sets of teeth. “I’ll take one of his, and a couple of his.” Tear down the statues. While we’re re-naming the Redskins, let’s rename Washington, D.C.!
The truth, of course, is more complicated than our imaginations. The main source of evidence about the origins of Washington’s dentures is an entry in a 1784 Mount Vernon ledger book noting, “By cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire (aka La Mayeur).” This Lemoire probably was Washington’s dentist, Jean Le Mayeur.
It turns out that Washington paid his slaves for rendering up their teeth. That sounds really gruesome. But the 18th century was a gruesome era. According to the Washington Papers, selling one’s teeth is a thing that people did — presumably when they found themselves in extremis, like people selling their kidneys today. Le Mayeur advertised in New York newspapers his willingness to pay two guineas apiece for good teeth. Presumably, he had takers.
Researcher Kathryn Gehred suggests that the founding father paid his slaves about one-third for their teeth for what they would have cost in New York. That implies an element of exploitation. But the historical evidence doesn’t allow us to draw firm conclusions. As she says, “All history involves interpretation and personal bias.”
So, if you hear the slave-teeth meme, know that it is true. But know also the context, the limits of the evidence, and the uncertainties of our interpretations.
— JABThere are currently no comments highlighted.