The labors of Hercules

A painting sometimes identified as a portrait of Hercules the chef and attributed to Gilbert Stuart

George Washington may have been in some ways uniquely admirable as a political leader, but as a slaveholder he was no better than he found it convenient to be.  Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer reports on recently discovered documents that show how brutally Washington could treat even his most favored household slaves.  

When Washington went to Philadelphia to head the federal government there, he took his chef Hercules with him to the President’s Mansion.   Hercules’ talent as a gourmet cook made him famous shortly after his arrival in the reestablished capital, and the president acknowledged his skill by allowing him unheard-of privileges, for example allowing him to earn income by selling leftovers from the kitchen, and to use this income to dress himself in a style that gained him a reputation as one of Philadelphia’s foremost dandies.    

In the spring of 1787, Prince Louis-Philippe of France visited Mount Vernon.  He reports that the Washingtons were upset that Hercules had escaped.  Any thought that Washington might have been a benevolent master loved by his slaves should be dispelled by a conversation his manservant had with Hercules’ six year old daughter.  The servant asked the little girl if she was sad that she might never see her father again.  “Oh!  Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”  What could she have seen that would have made a little girl happy that her father had gone away, never to return? 

For many years, it was assumed that Hercules had escaped while in Philadelphia.  The Quaker city was after all the world’s foremost center of abolitionism; it might have been relatively easy for a skilled man who had collected some savings to find his way to freedom there.  Perhaps Hercules had seen freedom ready at hand, and simply taken it. 

With a recently uncovered farm report and a cache of letters it makes intelligible, we now learn a far darker story.  In the spring of 1796, a year before the end of Washington’s second term as president, a woman named Oney Judge, who was Martha Washington’s personal maid,  disappeared from the President’s Mansion.  Washington would employ detectives to hunt for Oney Judge, eventually running her to ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Oney Judge may have been trying to make her way to Nova Scotia, where several fugitives from Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon had already made homes.  The Washingtons then decided that it was too dangerous to try to keep slaves in Philadelphia.  When they went to Mount Vernon that summer, they took the whole establishment with them.  When they returned to Philadelphia, they returned alone. 

With the president and his lady 130 miles away in Philadelphia, there was no need for a gourmet chef at Mount Vernon.  Hercules and his sons were sent to the fields.  Evidently the demotion came as a shock to Hercules’ son Richmond, who was soon caught stealing money.  Informed of this theft, President Washington saw a plot to escape, and surmised that it might be a father-son enterprise.  He ordered Hercules and Richmond sent to the clay pits, the hardest and most degraded task given to slaves at Mount Vernon.  On 22 February 1797,  as George Washington celebrated his 65th birthday, Hercules disappeared from the plantation.  President Washington’s term was due to expire 10 days later, when John Adams was inaugurated as president on 4 March.  One might imagine that Hercules was afraid of what might happen when Washington came home.  Afraid, perhaps, that his capricious master might find new ways of humiliating him; afraid, perhaps, that he would be unable to restrain his own anger at the thoughtless and unjust treatment he had received, so that if he stayed he might do something that would lead the Washingtons to make life even worse for his children than they would make it in response to his escape.


  1. Very timely and illuminating, Acilius. I just plugged it at Group News Blog. Thx.

  2. acilius

     /  February 22, 2010

    You’re very welcome, Maggie! And thanks to you.

  1. Richard Woodbury, UMass anthropologist | GazetteNET | Educational New Mexico
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