George Washington was one of America's richest presidents and he famously ran a whiskey distillery. But there's a dark side to the Founding Father, who owned over 300 slaves and used a loophole to keep them enslaved while he lived in Philadelphia, which had abolished slavery. It turns out there might be a further - and more bizarre - connection between Washington and slavery: the famous tale of Washington's teeth being made of wood might not be true at all, as popularly claimed. The truth behind his smile is potentially far more gruesome.
What were Washington's teeth made of? Evidence shows that America's Founding Father wore dentures made from various materials including human teeth, and there is reason to believe they were made with teeth Washington purchased off his own slaves.
The history of dentures and dentistry changed forever in the 18th century with a new practice called "tooth transplantation." The grim practice saw wealthy people buying living, healthy teeth from the poor to transplant into their own mouths. Were wooden teeth real? Yes, but only the impoverished had to use wooden teeth. The wealthy took teeth from the poor and even from slaves to make sure their smiles shined. While it's impossible to say for certain whether or not Washington had slave teeth in his own mouth, he certainly purchased them for someone, and that someone might have been the first President of the United States himself.
George Washington didn't usually smile in his portraits - and no, it's not because he had wooden teeth. That myth may have lasted so long because, like the cherry tree legend, it humanized the first president and made him seem like a common man instead of a very wealthy plantation owner who could afford the most expensive dentures available.
But the myth hardly gets to the truth of the matter. Washington's dentures contained several materials, including ivory, but the at least some of the teeth themselves were likely actual human teeth. While it's impossible to say for certain if the Founding Father had the teeth put in his own mouth, he certainly purchased teeth from his own slaves on at least one occasion, and he probably had a specific reason why.
Eighteenth-century wealthy people who lost a tooth had several options: they could purchase dentures to replace the tooth, or they could opt for the newer method of a tooth transplant. Washington, who only had one of his original teeth by the time he became America's first president, tried both options.
In May of 1784, Washington took nine teeth from several unnamed "negroes," who were most likely his own slaves. French dentist Jean Pierre Le Moyer, a specialist in tooth transplants, visited Mount Vernon several times between 1784 and 1788, and Washington's own letters hint that he underwent a tooth transplant in 1784, the same year he bought the teeth. That year, he told his former clerk Richard Varick: "I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion." If the transplant didn't take, that might explain why Washington turned to dentures once he became president.
In Washington's day, many dentures included human teeth - for people who could afford them. Dentists like John Greenwood, the president's dentist, paid good money for human teeth. Greenwood posted an advertisement for "Live teeth," offering "a guinea each."
One of Washington's other dentists, Jean Pierre Le Moyer, also bought human teeth. In 1783 he advertised in the New York papers for "persons disposed to sell their front teeth, or any of them." Le Moyer was more generous, promising two guineas per tooth. The same year, Le Moyer began treating Washington, and he likely performed the tooth transplant the general had in 1784.
Washington became a slave owner at the age of 11, when he inherited 10 slaves from his father; by the time he died, he owned 317 people.
In 1798, a Polish poet named Julian Niemcewicz stayed at Mount Vernon for two weeks. He was horrified by the living conditions of Washington's slaves. Their living quarters could not be called houses, Niemcewicz began: "They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and his wife slept on a miserable bed, the children on the floor... a boy about 15 was lying on the floor with an attack of dreadful convulsions." The entire scene screamed of "misery" to the poet, who was shocked and appalled at the conditions he witnessed.