Archive for the ‘Slavery’ 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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Spartacus

June 11, 2013

Spartacus_-_1960_-_poster

Spartacus is a 1960 film that stars Kirk Douglas as the leader of the ancient Roman slave rebellion. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, which was based on a novel by Howard Fast. Trumbo had been blacklisted during the early fifties. (Trumbo and Fast were both former members of the Communist Party.) At Douglas’s insistence, Trumbo was given an on-screen credit, in violation of the black-list. Spartacus is widely credited with helping to end the black-list in Hollywood.

Because Trumbo was black-listed, many people tend to interpret Spartacus as being about the Red Scare. (I have a deep reluctance to use the liberal term, “McCarthyism”. I will have to discuss that at some other time.) This does seem to apply to the famous “I am Spartacus” scene. There is, however, another way of looking at this film, that is more relevant to our current situation. A large part of the story details how the Roman general, Crassus (Laurence Olivier), uses the uprising to persuade the Roman Senate to give him dictatorial powers, in much the same way the Bush and Obama have used the threat of Al Qaida to persuade Congress to give them virtually dictatorial powers. Some things never change.

Spartacus has some powerful moments. The battle scenes are well done. The final battle between Spartacus’s army and Crassus’s is impressive to watch. And it’s fun to watch Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov as a couple of scheming Roman politicians. I can’t, however, call Spartacus a great movie. It drags in some places and it is sentimental in others. A fight scene between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis towards the end of the film is contrived and unconvincing. And Alex North’s music score is repetitive and sentimental in places. Kubrick did not have complete artistic control over this film, which seems a shame to me. This could have been a truly great film.