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?

Friday, February 22, 2019

Happy Birthday to George Washington

On February 22, 2019, we celebrate the 287th anniversary of George Washington’s Birthday.  Have a piece of cherry pie in honor of the birthday boy!

Here are some interesting facts about the birthday:

Alexandria, Virginia hosts the nation’s oldest and largest George Washington Birthday Parade, capping off a month of tributes to Washington, including the costumed “Birthday Ball” held at Gadsby’s Tavern.

Alexandria, Virginia Parade

GeorgeFest is the longest running festival celebrating Washington’s Birthday.  Started in 1902 in Eustis, Florida, the festival features outdoor dining, music, fireworks, carnival rides, a float parade and an annual 5K run.  It is held annually in the last weekend of February

The federal holiday honoring Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879.

In 1782, Washington created the Purple Heart (which bears his likeness) to recognize meritorious service during the Revolution.  The medal fell into disuse, but was revived in 1932 to mark the bicentennial of Washington’s Birthday.  The revived medal recognizes wounded soldiers.

Since 1862 there has been a tradition in the United States Senate of reading George Washington’s Farewell Address on his birthday, which in part reads:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection….” 

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?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Real Scarlett O'Hara?

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

In 1936, a young former reporter for the Atlanta Journal published her one and only novel, a book called Gone With the Wind, about the American Civil War and Reconstruction in Georgia.  Even in the 21st century, a Harris poll found that it is the second most popular book among American readers.  Second only to the Bible.  Thirty million copies have been sold worldwide.

Interestingly, it was the mother of President Theodore Roosevelt, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt who provided much of the inspiration for the character of Scarlett O’Hara in the book.

"Mittie" Bulloch Roosevelt

In 1839, Mittie’s father, Major James Bulloch moved his family to Cobb County Georgia.  He built a fine mansion called Bulloch Hall.  Mittie was a true Southern belle, who in 1853, at the age of eighteen, married Theodore Roosevelt Sr. of New York .

Bulloch Hall

In his autobiography published in 1913, her son Theodore Roosevelt Jr. described his mother, “My mother, Martha Bulloch, was a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody. She was entirely 'unreconstructed' to the day of her death.”

Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With The Wind, lived her entire life in Atlanta, absorbing local stories told by those who had lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Mitchell had, in fact, interviewed Mittie's closest childhood friend and bridesmaid, Evelyn King, for a story in the Atlanta Journal.  In that interview, Mittie's beauty, charm, and fun-loving nature were described in detail, making her the perfect prototype for the character of Scarlett O’Hara.  Originally, however, Mitchell named her heroine Pansy O’Hara.  Scarlett seems more appropriate, all things considered.

The last death agonies of the Confederacy captured in pictures.

A portrait of Holly Springs, a small but prosperous town in northern Mississippi’s Marshall County, during the years of the American Civil War and the era of Reconstruction. This is a glimpse of life in Mississippi during these dramatic years, relying on the words of the people who lived during that time and on other primary historical sources to tell the story.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Divorce in the Colonial South

By all accounts, George and Martha Washington enjoyed a happy marriage for some forty years.  This was fortunate since options in cases of unhappy marriages were limited.  A woman could win a separate maintenance if a husband’s neglect or abuse made it clear that he was not fulfilling his husbandly duty to provide her adequately with clothing, food, and shelter or if he was endangering her life. Once separated from her husband, a woman could try to make her own living, but her chances of achieving financial security on her own were not good. The situation for elite women was somewhat different.  An elite wife who found her husband abusive or their marriage unhappy could usually finance an informal separation whereby she would live with friends and relatives.

There was rarely official religious or legal recognition that a marriage had collapsed.  Maryland legalized divorce in the early eighteenth century, but the other southern colonies made no such provision in their legal codes.  Any English subject could apply to the House of Lords in London for a divorce by means of a private Act of Parliament, but such a difficult and expensive procedure was out of the question for most people.  The situation changed little after the Revolution.  South Carolina did not permit divorce for another fifty years.  The first post-Independence divorce in Virginia did not occur until 1803.  The Georgia constitution of 1798 allowed divorce, but only if approved by a two thirds vote of the legislature.

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in colonial America and the early republic.

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?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Victoria and Albert and 19th Century American Wedding Traditions


Victoria and Albert

No single event did more to influence the future course of wedding traditions in America than did the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on February 10, 1840.

White as the color of a wedding gown did not become a popular option until after the marriage of Queen Victoria. Victoria wore a white gown that incorporated lace which had a special sentimental value to the young bride.  The Royal wedding portrait was widely published, and many new brides opted for a similar dress. The tradition continues today in the form of the white wedding, though prior to the Victorian era, a young bride was married in any color except black (the color of mourning) or red (which was connected with prostitutes).

Various theories for the meaning of Queen Victoria’s color choice have been put forward, from her appreciation of color symbolism, white representing purity of heart and the innocence of childhood, to conspiracy theories that link the monarch with schemes to promote lace sales.  It was only later that a white wedding gown came to be regarded as a symbol virginity that should only be worn by a virgin bride.

The adoption of the white wedding cake was also a product of Victoria’s wedding. There was a great deal of cake at Buckingham Palace in February 1840.  Queen Victoria's wedding cake weighed three hundred pounds and measured nine feet across and fourteen inches high and was adorned with roses. An ice sculpture of Britannia surrounded by cupids capped the cake. White wedding cake or bride's cake did not become widespread in the United States until the 1860's. Prior to this, cakes served at wedding receptions were a dark and spicy concoction. The more refined cake was created with the introduction of finely ground white flour and the manufacture of baking powder and baking soda. The heavier “fruitcake” was relegated to being the “groom's cake.”

The wedding cake was cut and boxed and given to guests as they left. Often favors were baked inside for luck. Each charm had its own meaning.  In 2016, a piece of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake was sold by Christie’s auction house for about $2,500.  It appeared dry.

The Civil War Wedding, an entertaining look at the customs and superstitions of weddings during the Civil War era.