Archive for the ‘George Washington’ Category

George Washington’s Dentures and the Reliability of Sources

May 5, 2014

Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_Washington

Like millions of Americans, I was taught as a child that George Washington had wooden teeth. Like so much of American folklore, this story conceals a sadder truth.

Over the past several days, several of my Facebook friends have linked to an article titled “George Washington Had Teeth That Actually Were Yanked From The Heads Of His Slaves And Fitted Into His Dentures” on a website called Reunion Black Family. The article starts out in a plausible vein, but then I came to this sentence:

    Consider, for example, his December 19, 1786 vow to never again purchase another slave from Zionist corporations that invaded Africa villages with guns and kidnapped people.

Zionist corporations? This has the stench of crankery about it. I decided to find out more about this website. From what I have been able to gather, it is owned by a man named Kola Afolabi, who apparently lives in Nigeria. He is a pan-African nationalist. He likes Gadaffi and Mugabe. He dislikes Christianity and Islam. Last year he got into a dispute with Gallery Ezakwantu, a website devoted to African art. They accused him of using copyrighted images from their website without their permission. One of the articles on Afolabi’s site is titled “On 9/11 about 4000 Jews who work in WTC were on leave. So where were they all gone just on that Day? Think about it” Yeah, think about it. I will spare you any quotes from this article. The title says it all.

So, Reunion Black Family is not a reliable source. This leaves the question: did Washington use teeth from his slaves in his dentures? I consulted several sources on this topic. They all said that Washington’s dentures were made from human teeth, animal teeth, and teeth carved from ivory. (The ivory teeth tended to turn brown over time. This may be the origin of the story about Washington having wooden teeth.) They did not say where the human teeth came from. Then I came across an article titled “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves” on PBS’s website. In it I found this:

    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.

“The going rate advertised in the papers” refers to the fact that in those days dentists sometimes advertised in the newspapers for people willing to sell their teeth, which were then used to make dentures. (It appears that the idea of professional ethics in dentistry was still in its infancy.) One can only speculate as to whether Washington’s slaves who sold their teeth did so “voluntarily”. It should also be borne in mind that this was before the invention of anaesthesia.

So, George Washington did use teeth from his slaves in his dentures. I just wish people wouldn’t use a crank website to make this point.

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