Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Plot to Kill Martha Washington?

George Washington died on December 14, 1799. At the time of Washington’s death, there were some 317 slaves living on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia (123 were owned by Washington outright, forty were rented from a neighbor, and 154 belonged to Martha Washington under the term of her first husband’s will). Under the terms of Washington’s will, his slaves (not including the forty who were rented or the slaves belonging to Martha Washington) were to be freed upon the death of his wife. Only one slave, William Lee was freed outright in Washington’s will.

The terms of the will created an almost immediate problem for Martha Washington. The only thing standing between 123 slaves and their freedom was her life. According to a contemporary letter, Martha Washington “did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their [slaves] Hands”. Martha Washington’s fears may or may not have been misplaced, but they certainly reflected the attitudes of slave owners of her day. The closeness of house servants to their masters, for whom they cooked and washed in the very house where the master slept, made the threat of poisoning terrifying. Nor was this fear groundless. The records of colonial Virginia document the trial of 180 slaves tried for poisoning. Martha freed Washington’s slaves within a year after his death. She never freed her own slaves.

Murder and mayhem at Mount Vernon

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