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August 8, 2013

Joice Heth: George Washington’s Nurse?


Original image created by Mark Copeland for the National Fairground Archive. The above meme, or "Weem" as we call them at George Washington's Mount Vernon, was created with permission of the National Fairground Archive.

Original image created by Mark Copeland for the National Fairground Archive. The above meme, or “Weem” as we call them at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, was created with permission of the National Fairground Archive.

In August 1835, circus magnate P.T. Barnum paid promoter R.W. Lindsay $1,000 for the rights to the story of Joice Heth. Heth, an elderly African-American woman, with an interesting claim to a piece of George Washington history. According to the story, Heth had been the nurse to the infant George Washington.

The story, Lindsay explained to Barnum, was that Joice was a slave owned by Augustine Washington (George Washington’s father) who was sold in 1727, at the age of 54, to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Atwood. Upon the birth of George Washington in 1732, Joice returned to the Washington family to serve as a nurse for the infant.

With this story at his disposal, P.T. Barnum paraded the blind and nearly paralyzed Joice Heth across New England from August 1835 to February 1836 advertising her as a 161 year old woman who was “the Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World.” Following her debut at Niblo’s Garden in New York City, huge crowds continued to touch the hands that held the baby George Washington. Adding to her story, Joice was known to recount stories of the First President as a young boy.

Advertisement for the Joice Heth exhibit. Courtesy Somers Historical Society, Somers, N.Y.

Advertisement for the Joice Heth exhibit. Courtesy Somers Historical Society, Somers, N.Y.

After 7 months on Barnum’s exhibition circuit, Joice Heth died in February 1836 after growing weak from the grueling schedule of being on display; however, this was not the end of Barnum’s exploitation of Joice Heth. A public autopsy was organized, with Dr. David Rogers, to determine Heth’s true age. Fifteen hundred viewers were charged $0.50 each to watch the doctor dissect the old woman. Upon completion of the autopsy, Dr. Rogers declared Joice Heth to be between 75-80 years old; and Barnum declared he had been bamboozled into believing her story.

Research Historian May V. Thompson commented on understanding the absurdity of this story, “Joice Heth came on the scene just 3 years after the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s birth and nine years after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Americans were feeling the Revolutionary War generation slipping away, at a time when sectional differences leading up to the Civil War, were escalating. They were desperate to hold on to that earlier, ‘purer’ time, and thus were willing to suspend rational thought to believe that an elderly African-American woman could actually be over 150 years old and the former nursemaid of an infant George Washington.”

Danie Schallom
Coordinator of Education Outreach and Leadership Programs
Education Department


Lengel, Edward G., Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory. Harper Collins: New York, 2011 (27-33).
Reiss, Benjamin. The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death and Memory in Barnum’s America. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2001.

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Category: Uncategorized

August 1, 2013

Night at Mount Vernon: After Hours Collections Care


Dusting objects removed to central passage

Last February we posted about the daily cleaning of the mansion in our Keeping House post. Today we go behind the scenes of the “deep clean” that our Collections Management staff undertakes bi-monthly in the mansion.

Surprisingly, two hours of daily cleaning is not enough to keep Mount Vernon in tip-top shape. Two rooms in particular, the Small Dining Room and the New Room, are more challenging to clean due to the number of objects on display, the intricate table settings, and the artwork that hangs high on the walls. In order to ensure both rooms and objects receive the care they need, three collections management assistants and a museum technician stay late one night, every other week, for a deep clean.

What exactly happens during a deep clean? On average it takes anywhere from 2-3 hours to clean the New Room, and about 1.5 hours to clean the Small Dining Room. During the restoration of the New Room, however, only the Small Dining Room requires the special attention of a deep clean. After removing the 9 chairs in the room to create more work space, each chair is meticulously dusted and vacuumed. While one member of the deep clean team vacuums the frames around the artwork, using a Nilfisk backpack vacuum and ladder, the rest begin moving objects from the table setting to a folding table in the Central Passage. Once the objects are safely removed and dusted, the linens, floor, and fireplace are vacuumed. Rather than use a vacuum to dust the delicate checkered floor cloth, the deep clean team uses a Swiffer, which is a less abrasive cleaning implement. To finish off the job, each object in the room, as well as the architectural features are dusted before the room is returned to its everyday appearance.

Diana Welsh
Collections Management Assistant
Historic Preservation and Collections

Category: Collections, Historic Preservation, Mount Vernon

July 24, 2013

What’s in a Name?


The birth of His Royal Highness The Prince of Cambridge is officially announced at Buckingham Palace on July 22, 2013 (Image The Washington Post)

The birth of His Royal Highness The Prince of Cambridge is officially announced at Buckingham Palace on July 22, 2013 (Image The Washington Post)

The birth of His Royal Highness The Prince of Cambridge, born on July 22nd, has left the world on pins and needles waiting for the announcement of the baby’s name. It is believed the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will choose a traditional name for their son, and high on the list of possibilities is a favorite here at Mount Vernon: George.

Six monarchs named George have ruled England; the first taking the throne in 1714. Perhaps best known in the annals of American History is George III, the King of Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution who was steadfast in his opposition to American Independence.

Though the Constitution is clear that titles of nobility cannot be bestowed on an American citizen holding office by either the United States government or any foreign government (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8) without the consent of Congress, it did not clearly define a title for the leader of the country. John Adams put forth “His highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same” as a title, while a joint Congressional Committee ultimately decided upon “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties.” Many felt these titles were far too monarchical for the new nation founded on democratic principles, and at the urging of James Madison and the House of Representatives, Washington took the title “Mr. President.”

The Constitutional ban on titles of nobility did not stop Americans from properly honoring the father of their country, however. The Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s own step-son and John Quincy Adams are among the men who chose to honor Washington by naming their sons “George Washington” after this great man.

George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington de Lafayette, George Washington Adams

George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington de Lafayette, George Washington Adams

If indeed HRH The Prince of Cambridge is named George, it is doubtful the inspiration of the name will stem from George Washington, but we can always hope. Until the announcement is made, we will be sitting on tenterhooks with the rest of world, and secretly hoping for a boy named George.

By George an Update!
Huzzah! Today, Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge announced the name of their son: George Alexander Louis. Welcome to the world George.
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Category: Classroom Connections, George Washington

July 11, 2013

Don’t Teach History in the Past


How do you make history that happened nearly 240 years ago relevant to today? This is a question that Mount Vernon’s Education Department is seeking to educate teachers about next week during our George Washington Teachers’ Institute Public Days.

On July 17th and 18th the education staff is hosting Ideas, Policy, and Practice: Looking Back — Looking Forward, a 2 day workshop that will explore the similarities in government from the 18th Century to the 21st Century. Building off a Distance Learning program hosted in January to celebrate the 2012 Presidential Inauguration, teachers attending this Institute will have the opportunity to hear from top scholars from around the United States who will showcase economic policy, women in political roles, diplomacy, and the role of the media politics (click here to see the full schedule). Attendees will also be treated to our signature “Mount Vernon Explorations” which include special tours of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington and a behind-the-scenes look at the restoration of Mount Vernon’s New Room.

Providing teachers with not only the resources needed to teach about George Washington and the founding of the United States of America, but also with resources that show students how that knowledge is relevant in today’s world is the foundation of our 2 day Public Institute. Teachers attending this program will be able to return to their classrooms this fall with a new outlook on the connections between the world of George Washington and the world today.

Want to Attend the 2013 George Washington Teachers’ Institute Public Days?
We still have a limited number of seats available for Ideas, Policy, and Practice: Looking Back — Looking Forward. For information on how to register, visit our Teachers’ Institute webpage. The date to RSVP is July 14th!

Category: Uncategorized

July 4, 2013

Collections Uncovered


Mount Vernon recently acquired a large collection of family papers from descendants of Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) and her husband Thomas Peter (1769-1834). As research on the collection continues, Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, Mary V. Thompson, will share the stories emerging from this treasure trove of information including information about the family, as well as topics such as life in the new city of Washington, DC; politics in the early republic; and, as discussed in this post, slavery.

As the owner of Mount Vernon following George Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington had to step into her late husband’s very large shoes in order to keep the plantation operating smoothly. This was not unfamiliar territory for Martha Washington who had taken over the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, following his death in 1757. Management of an estate such as Mount Vernon required oversight of the farms, the enslaved community, the household expenses, and the animals. In 1801, under Martha Washington’s management, a $72.64 bill was paid to the sheriff of Fairfax County for taxes owed on 138 slaves and 97 horses. Her account with a Dr. Hamilton shows that he made at least 15 visits to slaves on the estate between December 6, 1801 and September 6, 1802, during which he provided medicines and powders for those who were ill, bled several individuals, dressed wounds, assisted with one birth, and pulled one tooth.

Following Martha Washington’s death on May 22, 1802, Thomas Peter, her grandson-in-law, helped to manage her estate as one of the executors of her will.

One of the documents found in the Peter Collection that is most revealing about slavery is a receipt dated January 12, 1803. Written at nearby Woodlawn plantation, the home of Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis and her husband Lawrence Lewis, this receipt recorded that the sum of $50 was “received from Mr. Thomas Peter…in full for my Hire as a Smith on Mount Vernon Estate for the year 1802″.

The recipient of the payment was a blacksmith named George who signed his name with a simple cross; an indication that he could not write. Blacksmiths played an important role in plantation life where their skills were needed to shoe horses as well as to make and repair iron tools and equipment. This particular blacksmith, George, is undoubtedly the same blacksmith named George who was a member of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon freed by Martha Washington on January 1, 1801 in accordance with George Washington’s will. He had been hired back as a free person, because he had a skill Mount Vernon needed.

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington

Category: Mount Vernon, MV Historian Series, Research/Lectures, Slavery


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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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