Washington’s Teeth

An update to the post below about Mount Vernon, in particular about the nature of George Washington’s dentures. A web comic that goes by the name of The Oatmeal, earlier this year, used Washington’s false teeth as an example of beliefs that fundamentally challenge us. I recall that this one was widely shared on Facebook. The relevant bits:

You may have heard that Washington had wooden teeth. He lost most of his teeth in his twenties and had a set of dentures made out of wood.

Except it isn’t true. In 2005, at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, laser scans were performed on Washington’s two-hundred-year old dentures, and found them to be made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, horse, and donkey teeth.

Upon learning this information, how did you feel about George Washington’s teeth?

I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated. Presumably, your belief in the composition of George Washington’s teeth has changed with little or no friction.

But what if I told you George Washington had another set of false teeth? What if I told you this other set wasn’t made from wood, ivory, or any of the aforementioned materials?

What if I told you it was made from the teeth of slaves? (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

Now, let’s try this again. How did it feel to learn this fact about George Washington?

Any of the friction I mentioned earlier?

You may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept. But when I told you the second fact, you immediately checked my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort which you will boldly deliver to me in the form of a sour, blustering Facebook comment.

Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal, goes on to examine this so-called “backfire effect,” which occurs when we encounter beliefs that fundamentally challenge us and prompt our limbic system to respond as though we are being threatened with physical danger. This phenomenon deserves wider attention, if only to make people ashamed of it and encourage them to get over it, perhaps through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. After all, we cannot have universities, devoted to the free pursuit and communication of ideas, if everyone is running around being “triggered” by ideas they disagree with, equating those ideas with “violence,” requiring “safe spaces” as protection from them and soothing expressions of parental concern from the university administration, who have better things to do. Alas, this fundamentally adolescent mode of behavior is becoming all the more common in American academia, doubtlessly because the anti-bullying movement has encouraged people to believe that any difficulty they encounter is not only unpleasant, but morally illegitimate (requiring “emotional labor” to overcome), because university staffers feel the need to justify their employment by “doing something” about whatever is brought to their attention, and because liberal academics are desperate to be seen as being on the correct side of things politically.

But I digress.

I swear that I was not particularly upset to discover that Washington’s dentures were made of the teeth of slaves, although it doesn’t reflect all that well on him. My first thought was that surely they extracted them from dead bodies, in an early form of organ donation? Apparently not! But the evidence is somewhat oblique. It comes in the form of an entry in one of Wasington’s account books, which:

details Washington’s purchase of 9 teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. It’s not clear if Washington intended to use these teeth as implants or within a new set of dentures or if he employed the teeth at all. While this transaction might seem morbid to a modern audience, purchasing human teeth was a fairly common practice in the 18th century for affluent individuals.

“Source 2” above (the Washington Papers Project at UVA) provides more information:

The only documentation of which we are aware of George Washington purchasing teeth from slaves is a brief notation in his ledger books. The physical evidence, a pair of Washington’s dentures that includes human teeth, is part of the collection at Mount Vernon. As to the circumstances surrounding the creation of these dentures, the best historians can do is make an educated guess.  Like all historical theories, this conclusion should be grounded in historical context, supplemental primary and secondary documents, and sound reasoning. But without further documentation, it is impossible to describe the scenario in definitive terms. We are not even entirely positive that the teeth whose price is recorded in the Ledger Book are the same as those in the dentures.

Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.

Wherever Dr. Le Mayeur practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads “Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.” While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated “slaves excepted.” That could explain why the price noted by Lund Washington was so low. Nine teeth sold for two guineas each would be worth almost nineteen pounds; Washington paid only slightly more than six pounds.

Without further documentation, we can only speculate on the sequence of events leading to the inclusion of human teeth in George Washington’s dentures. Perhaps Dr. Le Mayeur offered George Washington a deal in which Washington saved on teeth by buying them at a much-discounted rate from his own slaves rather than from Dr. Le Mayeur. It is also possible that George or Lund Washington forced one or more of their enslaved people to part with their teeth, paying them a drastically reduced price. Under Virginia’s laws at the time, no plantation owner would have faced legal consequences for such an action.

Sad, if true. But at least he paid something for them, rather than just taking them without any compensation at all…