My short fantasy story “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” appeared this month in Fireside Fiction magazine. A bit below on the history, and speculation, that inspired it.
The illustration for the story (above) is by the artist Odera Igbokwe
“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire” –Lund Washington, Mount Vernon plantation, Account Book dated 1784.
You can find that little notation in Ledger B, 1772-1793 p. 179, part of the financial documents making up the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. It was written by Lund Washington, distant cousin of George Washington who oversaw the Mount Vernon plantations as Estate Manager from 1764 to 1785. The small sentence is jotted down beneath a payment for a repair of windows in Washington’s Alexandria house (a small dwelling he built back in 1769 for short stays), and compensation to a Captain Jones for some Nankeen–a cream or yellow durable cotton cloth imported from China. The windows cost 19 shillings and 8 pence while the Nankeen cost 1 pound. The teeth, giving an idea of their relative importance, were a full 6 pounds and 2 shillings. The payment was made to the man who had acquired them–Dr. Lemoire, which historians believe is most probably a transliterated spelling of Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur, the first president’s dentist.
George Washington’s dental problems are part of the American popular narrative. Yet as Kathryn Gehred, a Research Specialist with the Washington Papers, informs, the first president’s teeth weren’t wooden (as folklore suggests) but instead made from “a variety of materials.” Some of those included the teeth of slaves. This tidbit, located in that ledger so innocuously between rather banal quotidian mentions, was rooted out (all puns intended) by another research specialist at the Washington Papers, Mary V. Thompson in the late 90s. Since then, the history has taken on a life of its own. Personal blogs, and even some news sites, conjure up images of enslaved people having their mouths pried open and their teeth yanked out. In comment sections, others wedded to the sacredness of the first president try to the deny Washington possibly had human teeth at all–much less those of slaves.
The reality is more complicated. Because while we do know a bit about Washington’s dental habits, we don’t know much of anything of the teeth gotten from slaves in his possession. Researchers like Thompson have tried to painstakingly make the best guesses, based on what we know of the era in which Washington lived. While using human teeth may seem macabre to us today, it wasn’t so uncommon in the 18th-century. Poorer people sold them often to the wealthy, in an age where teeth decay was early and common. Yes, even slaves were known to sell their teeth. The enslaved often participated in local economies, both formal and informal, selling out their work when possible, their goods, and, it turns out, even their teeth. In fact, a man of wealth like George Washington (if he wasn’t so particular) would get a good rate for the teeth of slaves–which, according to Thompson, were a full third-less than the teeth of free whites.
Yet, none of that tells the whole story. Enslaved people, after all, were property. As such, it blurs and complicates what “purchased” means. How much consent is allowed to property? How do the narrowly circumscribed opportunities under which an enslaved person lives act upon their decision? What desperate need, or dream, might drive a person in bondage to give up a tooth? Did some wait for their teeth to depart by natural means, or resort to more drastic measures?
I can’t know. All we have is a notation in a ledger book. We don’t know who these enslaved people are or what their motivations might have been. It’s assumed that they were likely from Mount Vernon, but even that isn’t a certainty. The archives are silent on their lives and motivations, lost somewhere between window repairs and Nankeen cloth. Thomspon attempts to piece together what she can: the lives of the enslaved population that belonged to George and Martha Washington; that Le Mayeur traveled regularly throughout the region buying teeth; that he was frequently at Mount Vernon; that he practiced teeth transplants. But we’re still left with questions. Did Washington have the teeth implanted into his mouth? Did he have them placed into dentures? Did he even procure them for his own use? We don’t really have answers for any of that. There’s just not much to go on. Heck, like Seamus told Harry, “it’s (almost) nothing to go on.”
Still, I wanted to write a story about those mysterious teeth. A story about the lives of the enslaved who parted with them. About George Washington. About the glaring paradox of human bondage in a country that boasted of its liberty. So I did what historians often do, I speculated. Yes, historians make guesses all the time. We have to, because no amount of sources can ever provide a complete picture. But I’m also a writer of SFF, so I speculated–A LOT. I took a page from the early African-American writer Pauline Hopkins, who believed fiction could be used to at times illuminate some of the best truths of the fractured past. The archive has its limitations. And sometimes it offers up frustrating silences, especially on the experiences of the marginalized. But even if I can’t know, I can still imagine. So, I turned to the speculative, mixing bits of our own history with elements of the fantastic to root out larger truths.
Some insight into the histories that inspired each of the nine vignettes in my story.
Vignette One: The Blacksmith. This story is based in part on the significant role of the blacksmith in many West African societies, from where so many of the slaves bound for North America embarked. It was also meant as a reminder that the labor of the enslaved was not restricted to the cotton plantations that dominate our popular films–something that did not become ubiquitous in the South until the nineteenth-century. The enslaved did all forms of labor. Throughout the Americas they drained swamps (and died in them), carved out roads, mined for precious metals, and laid the foundations of settlements. They were the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. Their feet stamped out silver in South America and their hands helped build capitols and White Houses in Washington DC. Many were prized, even selected, for the skills they brought with them from Africa–from rice growing technology to iron working. Embedded in this story is also a refashioning of a quote by the ex-slave and antislavery activist Olaudah Equianao: “When you make men slaves you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them in your own conduct an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war.”
Vignette Two: The Bonny Man. The second story was drawn from records of the transatlantic slave trade, and the ships that carried human cargo with names like the Mary, or the Jesus. Bonny referred to a land upstream from the Bight of Biafra in Nigeria, an English corruption of the Ibani Kingdom. It was also a main port for slaves to English vessels, and various people from this region were often generalized under the term Bonny (Ibani). I decided in this story to play as well with the idea of mermen–linking them to the water spirits common in West African folklore, said to inhabit rivers. I also added popular early sailors’ tales of sea monsters (in a pure Lovecraftian sense), to symbolize the horrors endured in the Middle Passage.
Vignette Three: The Runaway. This story was pulled directly from numerous newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves in 18th-century Virginia, several of which were put out by George Washington himself. You can view some here. Most of these were written as little vignettes in themselves, positing runaways as characters in their own stories, complete with descriptions and even (at times) the suspected motives. One of them I came across told of a young man who ran away from his owner, and was suspected to have gone to try to find his sister, thought to be enslaved at a local school. I thought it spoke to the complex reasons a person may flee their bondage–to secure their own freedom, or the freedom of family and kin. A reminder that the enslaved existed in communities and resisted when the bonds that knit them together were broken. I also added some necromancy. Because when has the raising of the dead not made a story more interesting.
Vignette Four: Henrietta. The fourth story allowed me to touch on a few different histories of slavery across the Americas. It recounts the tale of a descendant of Jamaican maroons who fought in “Queen Nanny’s War.” She’s also descended from a Yamasee grandfather who took part in the battle against English colonists in the early eighteenth-century. It’s a reminder that only some 6% of slaves came directly from Africa to the mainland English colonies, and that their numbers were often supplemented by slaves from the Caribbean–which took in a massive 40% of the trade. I also wanted to include the often forgotten history of indigenous enslavement in North America, particularly in the colonial era. Adding a bit of gunpowder sorcery, obeah, and vampires gave it just the right kick.
Vignette Five: The Conjure Man. This story allowed me to explore the role of enslaved people who fought for the British during the American Revolution–a favorite topic, that is often ignored in popular narratives of the War for Independence. The longest of the vignettes, in here are magical takes on Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, as we follow a conjure man who ends up fighting alongside the historic Colonel Tye. Included are mage-hunters, curses, and even mention of a Spanish mulata werewolf. Because why not?
Vignette Six: Solomon. The sixth story allowed me to throw a bit of science fiction into the magical mix. It has hints of Afrofuturism, that seem fitting in this age of “Wakanda Forever.” I also got to include some histories of the Royal African Company and their Dutch counterparts, to remind that the slave trade was (at its cold heart) rooted in capitalism–as the great Eric Williams so brilliantly laid out, and which is getting a revival in modern academic treatises. I as well wanted to pay homage to the genius of the enslaved, who often created their own scientific knowledge systems of the environment about them.
Vignette Seven: The Trader. The seventh story touched on African involvement in the slave trade, and follows the life of a middleman (a true Atlantic Creole) whose fall from grace sends him into the trade as a captive and commodity. This was something that enslaved people passed on in their stories, sometimes telling folklore of men eternally punished for their roles in the traffic. It’s a reminder of the many hands that took part in the trade and speaks to the moral judgment of history.
Vignette Eight: The Cook. This was one of my favorite stories, about a cook for George Washington named Ulysses–complete with potions and a sweet bit of revenge. The inspiration here was George Washington’s famed slave-cook celebrated for his culinary skills, who bore the name Hercules. To Washington’s endless exasperation, Hercules eventually absconded to parts unknown. Given the names, this story plays heavily with Greek myth and a certain Homeric witch of ill-repute.
Vignette Nine: Emma. The last story, of a slave woman named Emma, departs somewhat from the rest. There’s no larger magical story here. No supernatural creatures or happenings. Emma’s is perhaps the most realistic of stories, about the life of an enslaved woman who lives in the shadow of America’s most famous family. The magic she carries is subtle, and rooted in the hopes and desires expressed in the words, acts, and even the silences of the enslaved. But its power is perhaps greatest of all.
So those are the tales told of the secret lives of the nine Negro teeth of George Washington. As one reviewer put it, the story starts out with the fantastic but becomes more real as it progresses. Devastatingly so. Check it out if you have the time, and I hope you find it (if not enjoyable) at least somewhat magical.
Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982)
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. (New York: Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2017)
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustava Vassa, the African (1789).
David B. Gaspar and Darlene C. Hine, eds. More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996)
Kathryn Gehred, “Did George Washington’s false teeth come from his slaves?: A look at the evidence, the responses to that evidence, and the limitations of history,” George Washington Papers, University of Virginia (2016).
Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012)
Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016)
Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
Mary V. Thompson, “They Appear to Live Comfortable Together’: Private Lives of the Mount Vernon Slaves,” In Philip J. Schwarz, ed., Slavery at the Home of George Washington (Mount Vernon, Washington DC. 2001), 79-109.
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944)