Saturday, November 19, 2011

George Washington Took His Slaves’ Teeth

I have always been told that George Washington had false teeth which were made of wood. Not true. Some were made of a variety of materials including elephant or walrus ivory which darkened over time and appeared to be wood. However nine of his teeth were taken from some of the 300 human beings he and his wife Martha owned, his slaves.

"The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed "Negroes," presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, "on acct. of the French Dentis[sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic]," almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington's payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure--"I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion," he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784--and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves."

I'll remember this fact the next time I'm told about honest Abe, I mean George. Whatever.

I hasten to add that even if the slaves were paid, the transaction could not have been made on an equal basis. I have been afraid to say no bosses who actually paid me for my labor. Besides, what would be the point of owning people if they actually had the right to refuse anything.

I can't write this without thinking of the pain these people endured, the physical punishments, separation from family, and as if that weren't bad enough they had their teeth yanked out too.