The Truth about George Washington’s Choppers

What survives of George Washington’s denture.

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.

— JAB

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14 responses to “The Truth about George Washington’s Choppers

  1. Did he pay the hippos?

  2. Does anyone believe slaves had a choice in the transaction?

    Could slaves voluntarily sell their teeth to anyone for “spending money”?

    what could slaves actually spend money on and from who?

    I don’t think the Virginia SOLs cover much of this.

    • Well, believe it or not, slaves earned money quite a bit, perhaps not from their owners, but often, they were allowed to take side jobs. Often, they used the money to buy their freedom. From the late 1600s until the Revolution, slavery underwent some really bizarre changes, especially here in Virginia.

      You may sometimes hear people say that Jefferson was conflicted over slavery. It’s very true, but most of his conflict was a result of his relationship with Wythe (a slave owning abolitionist). From what I remember from high school Virginia history, TJ became a burgesses member and in his first year submitted two bills on slavery, one draconian on exiling freed slaves, and the other to permit owners to free slaves in their Will without prior government permission. Both were soundly defeated. It was something like 20 years before he waded into the issue in legislation again.

      • I don’t think I knew that slaves could earn “side” money. I thought any work they did – the proceeds went to their owner.

        And in the South – slaves were not even allowed in most stores unless they were picking up goods for their master -no?

        Sounds like your school taught a lot more about slavery than mine.

        • Not the school, the teacher. Like Mr. Whitehead, a long lineage Virginian.

          BTW, she could’ve been filling us with myths. But she was a big TJ fan. Arranged my first Monticello field trip.

        • Yes, some slaves did get to earn side money. Many learned carpentry and other skills that their masters allowed them to ply in their free time. This was especially common in cities, where slaves had remarkable free reign. I have heard it said (not confirmed) that farmers let their slaves work in Midlothian coal mines and share in the wages. A considerable number of slaves were able to buy their own freedom. Most slaves lived and worked on farms and plantations, but not all did. In Virginia, quite a few worked on the barge lines on the James River. There were even a few free blacks who owned slaves. The phenomenon of slavery was far more complex than commonly realized.

          • I thought slaves were owned 24/7. No time off… the slave owners wanted every bit of productivity that they could get – and were known to get rid of them when they were no longer useful.

            People like George Washington consider the slaves as valuable property than could be passed down to his heirs, no?

          • Nancy_Naive

            Yes, on the property, hence TJ’s attempt at removing a bar to freeing slaves with a Will. Because of the chattels laws, freeing a slave in a Will was deemed “directing from the grave”, a no-no even in 18th century. Thus, one had to obtain prior permission from the Colony for this, and damned few did get the permission. Most likely it resulted from a lawsuit.

    • The daily lives of slaves differed greatly depending upon who “owned” them, where they lived, what type of work they were trained/required to do and how capable they were.

      Some slaves were permitted to take side work and earn their own money. Others were no doubt controlled 24/7 by their “owners” and, while they may have been lent out for side work, any/all wages belonged to him. Some slaves were treated well, although obviously only within the confines of the idea that one person can own another person, while others were savagely and brutally abused.

      Some of us were discussing Frederick Douglass last week. If you have never read his autobiographies I strongly recommend them, particularly the first two. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” paints a vivid picture of his life as as slave in Maryland and of his escape to freedom. “My Bondage and My Freedom” delves deeper into his mindset and his personal development as he transitioned himself from a slave to a fugitive and then to a free man and abolitionist.

      • I also was under the impression that Slaves were not allowed to learn how to read and thus even if they had side work, would not be allowed to buy books or other items….

        I do not know for sure. I was never taught much about slavery in school other than vague implications that many felt protected and safe on the plantations – as slavery was the only life many ever knew.

        see: Happy slaves? The peculiar story of three Virginia school textbooks

        https://www.richmond.com/discover-richmond/happy-slaves-the-peculiar-story-of-three-virginia-school-textbooks/article_47e79d49-eac8-575d-ac9d-1c6fce52328f.html

        never seen that discussion on BR……….

        Perhaps one of the things that would help now and would have helped prior so that many white folks would better understand the continuing racial issues is if we actually were taught and did learn the treatment of black people in this country from slavery on to today…. lynchings, Jim Crow , rampant discrimination in places of accommodation, “separate but equal” schools, etc,

        A lot of what is going on right now – is based on ignorance, willful ignorance, and a refusal to accept the reality that more than a century of terrible and wrong treatment has seriously harmed black people for generations and now we have too many who say “it’s not my fault, I never did anything to them”. Nope, but our fathers and forefathers and our government did… and the damage done has not been repaired yet and those who say this are called “social justice warriors” and “leftists”

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    One of the best places to visit and learn about George Washington is the Masonic Temple in Alexandria. They have a terrific GW museum. Closed at the moment but you can take a free virtual tour. Many unique artifacts. My favorite is the lancet used to bleed the illness out of Washington’s body. Dr. Craik got a little carried away. A simple tracheostomy would have saved the “Indispensable Man”.
    https://gwmemorial.org/pages/virtual-tour-gw-museum

  4. Using inflation from 1790 to today and today’s GBP to USD conversion rate I get 2 guineas to be worth about $80 today.

    $80 for a tooth? No thanks.

    • but if you were a slave……… ?

      • Well … now you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves. I have no idea what the daily life of a slave was like or what a slave might have done with $80. The reason I have no idea is that history is taught almost exclusively from the perspective of the leaders and the wars. Everybody knows that Washington had false teeth but almost nobody knows how important $80 (in today’s money) would have been to a slave in the 1790s. I’ve been told that it would cost about $80,000 for a slave to buy his or her freedom (or have somebody else buy it for them) in today’s dollars. So, what good is $80? So, why would anybody sell a healthy tooth for $80? And if it wasn’t voluntary why go through the charade of a minor payment?

        I feel like there’s a whole lot about antebellum life that people don’t really understand. How did things really work on the grounds of a plantation in 1790?

        I’ve been working with some IT services companies using Microsoft Hololens (augmented reality technology w/ headsets) to help potential customers take virtual tours of delivery centers in the COVID-19 era of no travel. The technology works much better than I thought. Wouldn’t it be educational for today’s students to see the world as it would have looked and sounded to a slave using the Hololens? I’m certainly not saying that a deep understanding is possible but people need a better “ground level” view of history rather than just being taught that George Washington had false teeth and Andrew Jackson’s nickname was Old Hickory.

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