Christy is an award-winning storyteller and author who tells how to experience history in the upcoming podcast "History Road Trips."
Washington famously freed his slaves in his will. I say this not to apologize for owning slaves while simultaneously fighting for freedom—owning other people is bad. Full stop.
But people are complicated. Like the rest of us, he held conflicting values.
Washington was a slave owner who struggled internally. By late in his life, after discovering his slaves were actually human — thanks, William Lee !— he became convinced slavery was wrong and should be abolished.
Do you know else isn’t simple?
The people who weren’t his slaves but claimed they were.
The Guy Who Claimed a Pension
Imagine applying for a pension at the age of 114.
Imagine further that you’re doing it as Washington's former slave who served with him in the revolution.
Finally, imagine that Mount Vernon has never heard of you.
In 1843, Congress granted John Cary's pension (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1843). Cary claimed he was Washington’s body servant and was present with him when Braddock was defeated in the French and Indian War and also with Washington when at the Battle of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War. If true, his service nicely spans Washington’s full military career. (Um … not counting his ignominious surrender at Fort Necessity in 1754, but honestly, Washington would prefer we forget that one.)
That makes him legitimate, right?
Except that Washington never had a slave by that name.
I stumbled across his story in a footnote to the introduction to the journal of Robert Orme, aide-de-camp to General Braddock at the Battle of the Monongahela (Sargent, 1856). (See, I read these things so you don’t have to). As the wounded general lay dying, he bequeathed his servant to Washington.
It immediately struck me as odd, which sent me down the rabbit-hole of historical newspapers, congressional records, and books. I even reached out to the historians at Mount Vernon to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.
The footnote in Orme’s journal named him Gilbert. Could it be just a difference of name? Maybe.
Or his name is George. That’s the name that appeared in other newspapers.
All these guys have three things in common:
- They died as very old men: 112 for John Cary and Gilbert, 95 for George (the first time George died — that’s right … keep reading.) This is quite old even today, even more so for African American men with little to no health care.
- They all served Washington at Braddock’s defeat and at the Yorktown victory.
- The Mount Vernon historians have never heard of them. Not a one.
Okay, Number 3 isn’t exactly true. Mount Vernon historian Mary V. Thompson kindly responded to my email. She’s the author of The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (2019). It turns out she has heard of them; it’s just that they weren’t George Washington’s slaves.
Mount Vernon Slavery
Washington owned slaves throughout his adult life. He gained more when he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow. Some were slaves at Mount Vernon, others at his other estates and businesses in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Mount Vernon slavery database is an excellent repository of what we know about Washington's slaves.
Men like William Lee helped Washington see that all people are the same, black or white. By most accounts, he treated his slaves well. Better than other slaveowners did, anyway—I mean, they were still slaves.
The case of Ona Judge
“Oney” Judge accompanied the Washingtons to Philadelphia, which at the time was the national capital. Washington returned to Virginia with his slaves every few months to escape Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition act, which freed slaves who resided in the state for six consecutive months. (This rotation of slaves in an out to avoid six months of residency violated state law, but Washington didn’t care. He was the president!)
Oney escaped while the Washingtons were packing to return to Virginia. When she was later discovered in New Hampshire, Washington considered using the courts to return her. He had already signed the Fugitive Slave Law.
But he was warned the abolitionists would riot if he tried.
Washington Came Around Eventually
Mount Vernon also chronicles Washington’s gradual change. Over the years, especially during the Revolution, he began to see the dissonance in his words and actions: he couldn't profess to fight for freedom for all while he still owned slaves.
Meanwhile, his friends George Mason, Alexander Hamilton, and others continued pressuring him to turn against slavery. It wasn’t until a few years before his death that he rewrote his will to free his slaves after both he and Martha died. He couldn’t legally free all the slaves before Martha’s death because many belonged to her. George merely managed them on her behalf.
The conclusion? Washington was not a perfect man. He was inconsistent. He wanted to do the right thing, yet he wasn’t willing to take the hit to his wealth and privilege.
But what about those guys who claimed to be Washington’s slaves but weren’t?
But wait! They keep dying!
Mark Twain wrote about George’s death in “General Washington’s Nego Body-Servant” (1868). Newspapers reported that George died in Richmond in 1809. Then he died again in Macon, Georgia, in 1825. And again on the Fourth of July in 1830, 1834, and 1836.
I thought Twain’s piece was just humor, something made up in the comical mind of an American genius. Clearly, this is tall-tale stuff of jumping-frog-of-Calaveras-County proportions.
But I was wrong.
All those newspaper articles — and Robert Orme’s journal — were written years before Mark Twain came to Washington and stumbled across the story himself.
Twain castigates these men as frauds, but, in all fairness, we should distinguish the level of fraud. After all, Cary said he was at the Battle of the Mongahela and the Battle of Yorktown. But George wasn’t nearly so ambitious. He wasn’t present at the Mongahela.
The Tall Tale Grows
Well, not the first time he died. He wasn’t there until at least his fifth death, in 1864. That time, he made up for his slacker former deaths by claiming that, not only was he present at Braddock’s defeat, but he personally witnessed George Washington chopping down that cherry tree.
All this, seen by one man who died at the age of 95.
Oh, yeah, that’s another consistent thing about old George. Every time he died, it was at the ripe old age of 95. Never mind that 1864 was 109 years after the Battle of the Monongahela. It’s also 244 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620.
Because, yeah, this time, 95-year-old George was even present when the Pilgrims landed.
Twain ends his piece saying that he believes the 1864 death must be the last one — or sort of ends it. He follows it up with a postscript. The papers have just announced that George has died again, this time in Arkansas.
“Let him stay buried for good now,” writes Twain, “and let that newspaper suffer the severest censure that shall ever, in all the future time, publish to the world that General Washington’s favorite colored body-servant has died again.”
Sorry, Mr. Twain. You’re gonna be disappointed.
All the Way to 1912
The writer Roy K. Moulton personally witnessed 20 or 25 surviving body servants of George Washington in the early 1900s. The first was a young (not old!) man operating a hotel elevator (Moulton, 1912).
His name was Abraham Lincoln Jones.
Moulton thought he had him there. If this man was young enough to be named after Lincoln, how could he have been a slave of Washington?
Easy! The young man inherited the title from his father, who inherited it from his father. And when Abraham Lincoln Jones died, he expected his own son to become Master Washington’s personal body servant.
Moulton estimated there were at least 85 to 100 only-surviving-body-servants in the city of Washington, but God only knew how many were scattered throughout the south.
It Had Become a Meme
These days, say “meme” and people think of Grumpy Cat or Russian bots, but the word isn’t restricted to internet memes.
A meme is a discrete unit of gossip, humor, or style that spreads among people in a group or culture. The word comes from ethnologist Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins said memes “are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes” (1976).
In Washington, DC, in the 19th and 20th centuries, African-American men boasted that they were George Washington’s only surviving body servant. In most cases, they knew it wasn’t literally true, but it was something they could share with a nod and a wink. Spreading that meme was a form of bonding.
Participating in the meme gave the young elevator operator a chance to bond with other African American men of multiple generations. It also allowed him to bond with Roy Moulton, a white man whom he met only one time in his life. Together, they shared something special.
Memes can also be used for harm
In The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, Thompson tells the story of Hammet Achmet, who died at the age of 114, after a career making and selling drums “by George Washington’s waiter” (2019). Like John Cary, he was granted a Revolutionary War pension.
Thompson also tells about Joice Heth, who claimed to be the infant Washington’s nurse. She was hired by P.T. Barnum to swindle people with her fake story until she was proved a fraud (2019).
It's the Best Meme Ever
Regardless of the perpetrators’ intent, the story is fascinating. No meme — innocent or self-serving, Russian or otherwise, on Facebook or in real life — is as interesting as the one that began in the 1800s.
LOLCats, roll over.
The Most Interesting Man in the World, we’ve found someone better.
Mark Twain, we’ve … no, sorry, we’ll never top Mark Twain. Nevertheless, the greatest meme of all time is the generations of African American men appropriating the title of George Washington’s only surviving body servant.
Especially the ones who were still running elevators in 1912.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Moulton, Roy K. “George’s Body Servants.” The Brisbee Daily Review. February 23, 1912.
Muller, John. Mark Twain in Washington, D.C: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2013.
Sargent, Winthrop. The History of an Expedition against Fort Du Quesne, in 1755; under Major-General Edward Braddock. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1856.
Thompson, Mary V. The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019.
Twain, Mark. “General Washington’s Negro Body-Servant.” Galaxy, February 1868. Reprinted in The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain. 1st Da Capo Press ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
United States Congressional Serial Set. 1843rd ed. Vol. 426. United States: U.S. Government Printing Office, n.d.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.