“Talks up a storm with those wooden teeth…”

Or so Stan Freberg says of George Washington when he Presents the United States, Vol. 1.

One problem, though. Washington’s teeth weren’t made of wood.

I don’t know if it was this review of WASHINGTON: A Life by Ron Chernow in the New York Times. Still, I recently heard, in connection with Chernow’s book, something similar to Times reviewer Janet Maslin’s comment: “[Washington had a] harshly pragmatic attitude toward slavery (he purchased slaves’ teeth, perhaps for use in dentures).”

Yeah… that caused a big gulp on my part. Perhaps I have too much empathy but… George Washington? Of all people? Using the teeth of his slaves for his dentures? Can you be more literal yet symbolic when it comes to an image of white privilege and rapaciousness?

I hunted down what I think may be the source for this. It’s reprinted online by the PBS series Frontline, but I believe it’s this article by Mary V. Thompson, who is described as, “A research specialist at Mt. Vernon, [who] studies the domestic life, foodways, and religious practices of the residents of George Washington’s plantation, with a special interest in the slave community.” The article originally appeared in Virginia Cavalcade, Volume 48, Autumn 1999, No. 4, pp.178-190.

Here’s the core of it:

“Slaves of the eighteenth century sometimes turned to the perfectly acceptable means of making money by selling their teeth to dentists. Since at least the end of the Middle Ages, poor people had often sold their teeth for use in both dentures and in tooth-transplant operations for those wealthy enough to afford the procedures. Sometimes the teeth were perfectly healthy; others were diseased and needed to be pulled anyway. In 1780 a French dentist named Jean Pierre Le Moyer (also called Le Mayeaur, Le Mayeur, and Joseph Lemaire) came to America, possibly as a naval surgeon with the French forces commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau, and over the next decade treated patients in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, and Richmond. He seems to have had an extensive practice in tooth transplants, but the results of the procedure were short-lived, usually less than one or two years. Transplantable teeth were hard to come by, and in 1783 Le Moyer even went so far as to advertise in the New York papers for “persons disposed to sell their front teeth, or any of them,” netting the donor two guineas (forty-two shillings) per tooth. In Richmond, he offered anyone but slaves a similar amount for their front teeth. Technical problems made it impossible to transplant molars, so the operation was probably useful primarily for cosmetic reasons. Le Moyer first treated George Washington’s teeth at his military headquarters in 1783.

The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–”I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.”

Wow. Just… wow.


EDITED TO ADD: Mount Vernon has an exhibit that includes the only known surviving denture of Washington’s. “Carved from hippopotamus ivory, the denture contains real human teeth fixed in the ivory by means of brass screws.” Since I first posted this link (which keeps changing), Mount Vernon has decided to mention the provenance of the “real human teeth” in question. Originally, they didn’t.

ETA2: It wasn’t the Times. It was this piece in the New Yorker, by Jill Lepore. Lepore herself is a history professor at Harvard, which, combined with the New Yorker‘s fact checkers, makes this all too credible.

Lepore’s off-hand comment was striking:

“The mar to [Washington’s] beauty was his terrible teeth, which were replaced by unsuccessful transplant surgery and by dentures made from ivory and from teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves.”

It was “pulled” that made my heart drop. Thompson’s account makes it seem much more voluntary — or as voluntary as a commercial transaction with a person who owns you as chattel can be.