Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Mystery of George Washington's Cook

"George Washington's Cook"


Hercules was born in 1754, and came to Mount Vernon in 1767 as part of payment owed George Washington. He went to work as the ferryman at the Mansion.  It is not certain how he made his way to the kitchen, but it was a blessing that he did.  Here he apprenticed to “Old Doll”, the plantation’s chief cook who had come to Mount Vernon with Martha Washington.  By 1786, Hercules had become the chief cook at Mount Vernon.

Hercules was summoned to Philadelphia in November 1790 to become now President George Washington’s personal cook. The clearest account of Hercules as a chef was written by George Washington Parke Custis, President Washington’s step grandson

“The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules, and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless.

Trained in the mysteries of his part from early youth, and in the palmy days of Virginia, when her thousand chimneys smoked to indicate the generous hospitality that reigned throughout the whole length and breadth of her wide domain, Uncle Harkless was, at the period of the first presidency (Philadelphia 1789-1797), as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.

He was a dark brown man, little, if any, above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.

The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his iron discipline,  (woe) to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights (unfortunates) who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.

The steward, and indeed the whole household, treated the chief cook with much respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.

It was while preparing the Thursday or Congress dinner that Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor. During his labors upon this banquet he required some half dozen aprons, and napkins out of number. It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.

When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, ‘the labors of Hercules’ ceased.

While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His perquisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year (about $5,000 in today’s money). Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptionable whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth coat with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat, and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy .. for there were dandies in those days.. of the president's kitchen.

Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned.”

In November 1796, during a visit of the president and his entourage to Mount Vernon, Hercules’ son was caught stealing. Washington suspected that father and son were planning to run away. Washington was taking no chances.  When Washington returned to his presidential duties in Philadelphia, Hercules was left behind at Mount Vernon reduced to the status of a common laborer on the farm, digging clay for bricks, and wearing the outfit of a common field hand. This type of punishment, a humiliating loss of status within the slave community itself, had been used before by Washington to exert his authority over recalcitrant slaves.

It was Hercules, however, who was to have the last word.  On February 22, 1797, George Washington’s sixty fifth birthday, Hercules made his bid for freedom, escaping from Mount Vernon forever.  He first made his way to the port city of Alexandria, some eight miles from Mount Vernon, then on to Philadelphia where he had many friends in the free black community and among the abolitionist Quakers.

Washington was angered and confused by the actions of Hercules, believing that Hercules lived a privileged life.   On March 10, 1797, Washington indicated that he wanted Hercules to be found and returned to Mount Vernon, as soon as possible.  This never happened.  Hercules was spotted in Philadelphia in January 1798, but no steps were taken to apprehend him.  Doing so would have created an embarrassing uproar in abolitionist Pennsylvania.  Hercules was last spotted on December 15, 1801 in New York City.

On November 13, 1797, a distressed Washington stated that while he “had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase,” because of Hercules' absence, “this resolution I fear I must break.”

Although Hercules vanishes from recorded history on December 15, 1801, there is some evidence that he may have made his way to Europe.  In the galleries of Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, located near the Prado Museum in what is known as Madrid’s “Golden Triangle of Art”, hangs a portrait called “George Washington’s Cook”, and is presumed to be Hercules.  The painting was previously in a British collection, and a French collection, before making its’ way to Spain.  The painting is by Gilbert Stuart, the American artist who painted many of the iconic likenesses of George Washington, including the portrait that appears on every one dollar bill.  These paintings were completed between 1795-1797.

The question is “Who commissioned the painting and why?”   It is unlikely that Washington commissioned the painting, for even though Washington bestowed many favors on Hercules, theirs’ was a strictly master/servant relationship.  Commissioning such a painting of Hercules, a full and solitary frontal picture of the man in the full confidence of his chef’s regalia, would have been totally out of keeping with Washington’s character.  Hercules may have spent some his hard earned money on commissioning a portrait of himself from the very same artist who had been commissioned to paint a portrait of George Washington. This remains one of history’s mysteries.

These are the often overlooked stories of early America. Stories such as the roots of racism in America, famous murders that rocked the colonies, the scandalous doings of some of the most famous of the Founding Fathers, the first Emancipation Proclamation that got revoked, and stories of several notorious generals who have been swept under history’s rug.

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

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