Apropos the recent controversy over the depiction of Hercules, the cook in the household of George and Martha Washington, in A Birthday Cake for George Washington (see previous post), here are some additional interesting details about Hercules. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on January 23, 2016 describing work on the President’s mansion at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia that uncovered the kitchen where Hercules worked. Ironically it is located just in front of the new Liberty Bell Center. Also cited is a farm report from Mount Vernon that shows that Hercules “absconded” on Washington’s birthday in 1797.
Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visiting Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797 recorded in his diary: “The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, ‘Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.'”* How did Louis-Philippe know that Hercules was in Philadelphia? Perhaps Washington said that he suspected that was the case.
At any rate Washington requested that contacts in Philadelphia be on the lookout for Hercules. His former steward Frederick Kitt replied in a letter dated January 1798: “I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion. I shall however use the utmost exertions in my power, and hereafter inform you of my sucess.”
Hercules was never recovered. In his will Washington specified that the slaves he owned be manumitted. After his death in 1799, Martha saw that his wishes were carried out. So Hercules became legally free although he did not know it. In 1801 Martha Washington wrote a letter to Richard Varick in New York indicating that she had learned that Hercules was in New York.** But nothing more was ever heard again of Hercules or his whereabouts.
The portrait shown is by Gilbert Stuart and is thought to be of Hercules. It is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. Who commissioned it is a mystery. Would George Washington have wanted a portrait of his cook who was a slave? Could Hercules himself have commissioned it? It has been suggested by James Wemberley that the portrait ought to be in the White House Collection and that Michelle Obama might undertake to acquire it. I like the idea. See Wemberley’s article on a possible exchange.
* Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32.
** Martha Washington to Col. Richard Varick, 15 December 1801. “Worthy Partner:” The Papers of Martha Washington, Joseph E. Fields, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 398-99.