George Washington’s brush with immortality: The hair relics of a sainted hero

Robert McCracken Peck

Robert McCracken Peck Furniture & Decorative Arts

The eighteenth century had no pollsters to assess what voters really thought about their politicians, but even without such data, the eulogistic editorials that announced George Washington’s death in December 1799 make clear that the country’s first president had assumed a status as close to sainthood as anyone has ever done in the United States. John James Barralet’s print The Apotheosis of Washington (Fig. 3) and a spate of similarly grandiloquent depictions of the deceased leader rising into heaven speak volumes about the god-like reputation Washington assumed in the decades following the American Revolution.

Fig. 1. Mourning brooch with braided hair of George and Martha Washington, 1797. “washington” appears in gold letters on the front; engraved “Hair of/George and Martha/Washington/cut by/Martha Washington/for/Elizabeth Wolcott/in/March 1797” on the reverse. Gold and enamel; 1 ⅝ by 1 ⅛ inches. Winterthur Museum, Delaware.

As Europeans had done with saints in the Middle Ages, Americans for most of the century that followed Washington’s death, craved physical vouchers of their fallen hero. Second only to his autographs, the most widely distributed relics of the first president are pieces of his hair. These are found in such numbers that one wonders how our famously dentured patriarch was able to generate enough keratin to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand. It is fortunate that the style of his era encouraged him to wear a wig at least some of the time, or our one dollar bills and quarters might have a Yul Brynner lookalike gazing back at us instead of the stylishly quaffed figure we have grown so used to seeing.

Even before he was elected president, Washington understood that his role as the central military strategist of the American Revolution had set him on the fast track to immortality. He patiently posed for Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Jean-Antoine Houdon, and John Ramage (see Fig. 6a), to name just four of the artists who recorded his likeness. In Washington’s view, portraitists held “the keys of the gate by which Patriots, Sages and Heroes are admitted to immortality.”1 Could he have felt the same way about his barber? Until Washington’s hair began to change hands commercially in the twentieth century, most examples could be traced by descent from someone who had received clippings directly from the president and first lady, or from George’s secretary and aide Tobias Lear (1762–1816), who was assigned the job of distributing presidential relics to friends and admirers after Washington’s death. In his detailed account of Washington’s burial, Lear described cutting off some of the general’s hair just after his body was placed in its coffin.2 He may have been collecting a memento for himself, but more likely he was laying in a supply for the barrage of requests he knew the family would soon receive.

Fig. 4. Embroidered patch containing a lock of Washington’s hair accompanied by a label that reads, “This Hair was presented to the late John Pierie Esq. of Philadelphia by Gen. Washington some time previous to his death – A.M.P. [Miss Anna Pierie], May 23, 1864.” Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, gift of Edward Everett III; photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

Another understandable, if slightly less revered, source of Washington’s hair was Martin Pierie, the barber who groomed the president when he lived in Philadelphia.3 According to his son John, the elder Pierie snipped a good supply from the president’s head while administering to his hairdressing needs in the 1780s. When the younger Pierie followed in his father’s barbering footsteps, he used Martin’s trove of presidential pile to curry favor or to advertise his own hair-cutting services. The Pieries’ ready access to similar, if less desirable locks, raises questions about the authenticity of the Washington hair samples they distributed. Nevertheless, the unusual presentation of some of their offerings make them noteworthy examples of presidential relics.

The largest single lock of Washington hair with a Pierie provenance is contained in a handmade frame that is as much a celebration of revolutionary antiquarianism as a tribute to the man whose hair it enshrines (Fig. 2).4 A note pasted to the back identifies the source of the oval surround as having come from “Washington’s mansion—Mt. Vernon” and the molding as “part of a chestnut tree planted by Washington.” The bead around the frame is from Independence Hall, and the ring trim is from Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, where the first Continental Congress met in the fall of 1774. The wooden back was allegedly once part of the “pew that Washington worshipped in at Christ Church [Philadelphia].”5 Each of the four stars decorating the frame also boasts a patriotic provenance. It is not known who assembled these various bits of revolutionary woodwork, but the note identifying their sources is signed by Joseph Crout, who may well have been the maker. “I believe the above to be correct and true,” wrote Crout with authority when scribing his label of authenticity on February 18, 1860, thirty-one years after the younger Pierie had presented the hair to the Library Company of Philadelphia.6

Other Washington hair samples supplied by Pierie are contained in a medal given for marksmanship by a New York State militia;7 in a nineteenth-century shadowbox containing a portrait print and an unrelated letter from Washington at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and in an embroidered patch from a commemorative album now at Mount Vernon (Fig. 4).8

The presentation and display of hair from an admired friend or loved one, which reached its peak in the nineteenth century, had been common among well-to-do families for more than a century. Martha Washington was said to have “always” worn a locket that “almost invariably… contained a miniature of her husband, generally with a lock of his hair set in the back, to which she attached a great deal of sentiment”9 (see Figs. 6a, 6b). Nor did the Washingtons keep such mementos to themselves. As early as 1770, George Washington was sending hair samples overseas to have them put into lockets that he and Martha could give to their family and friends.10

The earliest and most irrefutably authentic of the Washington hair relics are the ones that the Washingtons created for themselves. During Washington’s presidency, his household accounts note a 1789 payment to the New York jeweler Daniel van Voorhis for “hair work put into a breast pin for Mrs. W[ashingto]n.”11 Years later Washington stipulated in his will that five female family members and friends should be given “a mourning Ring of the value of one hundred dollars.”12 Most, and possibly all of these would have contained strands of the president’s hair. Similarly, in her will, Martha allotted funds for memorial rings for her grandson, three granddaughters, a grandniece, and at least two other female relatives.13

As Washington’s public reputation grew, he began to receive requests for his hair from more distant relatives, military colleagues, and even from strangers. In March 1778, the war-weary general took time from his military responsibilities at Valley Forge to send a lock to a young admirer whose father had requested it in a letter.14 Years later, one of Washington’s friends, Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, witnessed a rare public collection and presentation of Washington’s locks. The story was retold in many of the popular accounts of Washington’s life that emerged in the nineteenth century: “On leaving the seat of Government after the inauguration of his successor, Washington presented to all his principal officers some token of regard. When Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, the wife of one of these gentlemen, and the particular friend and correspondent of Miss Custis [Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter] called ‘to take leave,’ Mrs. Washington asked if she did not wish a memorial of the General. ‘Yes,’ replied Mrs. Wolcott, ‘I should like a lock of his hair.’ Mrs. Washington instantly took her scissors, and with a happy smile, cut a large lock from her husband’s head, added it to one from her own, and presented them to her fair friend.”15 Today, at least four different hair relics are claimed to be derived from that famous event (see Figs. 1, 5, 7, 8).

Fig. 9. Snuffbox repurposed to contain the hair of George Washington, nineteenth century. Inscribed “Hair of Gen. Washington given by/ Mrs. Washington/to Mrs. R.C. Derby/and by her presented/on her death bed/to/J.C. Warren/ Dec. 1832” on the inside of the lid. Silver; height ¾, width 3, depth 1 ¾ inches. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association; Ashworth photograph.

The inexhaustible appetite for Washington talismans can be seen in letters Martha received after her husband’s death. In January 1800 the famous Boston silversmith Paul Revere and two others wrote to the president’s widow on behalf of the Masons’ Grand Lodge of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to ask for a lock of her husband’s hair. In their letter they explained that if it was given, a golden urn would be prepared to hold the hair, “an invaluable relique [sic] of the Hero and the Patriot whom Their wishes would immortalize.” 16 Tobias Lear responded favorably to the request on Mrs. Washington’s behalf.17 The hair Lear sent, and the diminutive gold urn that Revere made to contain it, are still counted among the most precious possessions of the Grand Lodge (Fig. 13).18

Fig. 12. Hair of George Washington contained in a repurposed photograph case “patented August 7, 1855.” The card through which the hair is threaded reads, “Washington’s Hair at 40 years/Presented by Mrs. E. Lewis to/William Piemsay and by/him to my mother/J.H. Hobart.” Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association; Ashworth photograph

In succeeding decades, as America’s population grew in size and ethnic diversity, families whose ancestry predated the Revolution took special pride in their heritage. The descendants of those who had fought in the Revolution and known Washington personally often sought ways to display those connections by literally wearing evidence of them on their sleeve—or lapel or finger—in the form of cufflinks (Fig. 10), brooches (Fig. 11), lockets, or rings that reputedly contained the president’s hair or that of his wife. Many of these were given their current housings during periods in which America suffered crises in confidence. Economic recessions (especially in the 1820s and 1830s), and political turmoil in the 1860s seem to have fostered the greatest nostalgia for the perceived glories of America’s revolutionary past and the associated impulse to preserve it.

While some pieces of jewelry were especially commissioned to contain locks of Washington’s hair, in other instances existing pieces and other containers were ingeniously redesigned to serve the purpose. When the hair was inherited by male descendants, if the owner preferred to display it at home rather than wear it, or when mourning jewelry went out of fashion, snuffboxes (Fig. 9) and even frames originally intended to hold portrait miniatures, daguerreotypes, tintypes, or other kinds of photographs were pressed into service as reliquaries. A good example is a tuft of Washington’s hair contained in a photographic frame that bears a patent date of 1855, eightythree years after the locks were acquired (Fig. 12).19

Fig. 14. Hair sample of George Washington collected for scientific study by Peter A. Browne (1782–1860) as part of a “national collection” of human “pile.” Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia; photograph by R. W. Purcell.

While most collectors were drawn to Washington’s hair by feelings of personal sentiment or patriotic pride, in the 1830s an amateur naturalist in Philadelphia acquired a sample for scientific purposes. Over a period of several decades Peter Arrell Browne collected hundreds of hair samples from around the world to create what he called a “national collection” of human and animal “pile.” He thought a close examination of hair from many sources might reveal relationships between different races, and possibly the relative intelligence of individuals. Ultimately, his North American collection, now housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, contained hair samples from politicians, painters, writers, musicians, scientists, jurists, criminals, lunatics, and the first twelve presidents of the United States. Just who provided him with his Washington sample (Fig. 14) is unknown, but given the scientific focus of his request, the chances of it being authentic are high. Browne’s death in 1860 brought to a close his unusual collection, but not before he had published several papers on sheep wool and a book outlining his system for the classification of human hair.20

No one knows how many Washington hair samples exist, or how many are really his. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association holds the single largest collection, with some sixty examples, but there are many more distributed throughout the United States and abroad. Whether contained in simple paper packets or in elaborate pieces of mourning jewelry, most of these bear inscriptions or accompanying papers documenting their provenance.

On at least two occasions over the past forty years, modern techniques of forensic analysis have been applied to hair samples purported to have come from Washington in an effort to determine their authenticity. The first investigation, carried out by the Orentreich Foundation for the Advancement of Science in New York in 1976, used a scanning electron microscope to examine several well-provenanced examples. The second trial, conducted by the FBI in 1994, applied the then developing techniques of DNA analysis to compare the genetic structure of Washington’s historic hair samples to new samples collected from living descendants of his sister, Betty Washington Lewis (1733–1797). After several months of study, the investigators were willing to issue a cautious confirmation that the historic hair could have come from the president.21 At least they could not rule him out as the source.

In the twenty years since the FBI study, the techniques of mitochondrial DNA capture, sequencing, and analysis have grown increasingly sophisticated, making it possible to extract much more information from even fragmentary pieces of hair. A repetition of the 1976 and 1994 studies today would undoubtedly prove far more conclusive, but few, if any, owners are willing to allow the destruction of these objects to confirm their true origin. As welcome as such forensic research might be to a public steeped in CSI mystery solving, one could argue that attempting to determine the authenticity of Washington’s hair by scientific means runs counter to the sentiment that caused these objects to be created in the first place. With or without scientific proof, ultimately, the appeal and power of relics from America’s greatest civic deity rely on their provenance, their presentation…and faith.

1 Washington to Lafayette, May 1788, quoted in Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004), p. 154. 2 Letters and Recollections of George Washington Being Letters of Tobias Lear and Others between 1790 and 1799 (Doubleday, Page, New York, 1906), p. 139. 3 Pierie’s name is sometimes spelled Pierrie and sometimes, based on oral transmission, Perry. 4 The Library Company of Philadelphia’s minutes (vol. 5, p. 265, August 6, 1829) read: “A lock of General Washington’s hair taken by Martin Pierie in 1781, was presented by John Pierie. The Secretary was directed to return the thanks of the board to the donor, & the Librarian requested to have it framed under glass and placed in the cabinet.” The original frame was probably replaced by the more patriotic frame at a later date. 5 I wish to thank Linda August, reference librarian at the Library Company, for providing this information. 6 According to James N. Green, librarian of the Library Company, Washington was not a member of the library, but he was included in the general extension of privileges to members of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the Federal Congress when they met in Philadelphia. Personal correspondence, September 2, 2014. 7 A photograph of this medal (ex coll. William Lanier Washington, current whereabouts unknown) is in the files of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. The hair is visible through a glass front, and the back is engraved “The Enclosed Lock of Genl. Washington’s Hair Presented to the Light Guard by Mr. Perrie of Philadelphia.” This was the 106th Regiment of the New York State Militia. I am indebted to Susan P. Schoelwer, senior curator at Mount Vernon, for sharing the file. 8 A fourth sample, also at Mount Vernon, is identified as coming from “General Washington—given to grandfather Griffith by Perry —the Barber—Cuffer & Bleeder” (Mount Vernon collection #W–2211). A fifth piece with a written Pierie provenance is in a private Philadelphia collection. 9 Stephen Decatur Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington from the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esq., His Secretary (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1933), p. 66. 10 In an order to the English retailer Robert Cary Jr., the Washingtons requested “A Locket with the Inclosed hair in it” (invoice, August 20, 1770, in The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick [U.S. Govt. Printing Office, Washington, 1931–1944], vol. 3, pp. 24, 25). 11 Entry for December 28, 1789, as cited in Decatur, Private Affairs of George Washington, pp. 104–105. 12 The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and schedule of His Property: to Which Is appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, rev. ed. (Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association of America, Mount Vernon, Va., 1992), p. 18. 13 Ibid. p. 58. 14 Washington to Catharine Wilhelmina Livingston, March 18, 1778, in The Papers of George Washington, digital edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2008). 15 This account appears in several different books starting with George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury (New York, 1846), vol. 1, p. 450. 16 John Warren, Paul Revere, and Josiah Bartlett to Martha Washington, January 11, 1800, in Joseph E. Fields, Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington (Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1994), pp. 337–338. 17 Tobias Lear to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, January 27, 1800, ibid., p. 344. 18 According to the lodge’s historian, Walter Hunt, the urn is only removed from secure storage and displayed in public once every three years when a new Grand Master is sworn into office. Personal correspondence, October 3, 2014. 19 The note of provenance indicates that the hair was collected in 1772, when Washington was forty. The frame bears a patent date of August 7, 1855. 20 Peter A. Browne, Trichologia Mammalium (Philadelphia, 1853). 21 The samples providing DNA were from Tudor Place, Mount Vernon, and the DAR Museum.