By Edward Lawler, Jr.
“Presumed Portrait of George Washington’s Cook”
Attributed to Gilbert Stuart
Hercules, one of Washington’s slaves, was the chief cook at Mount Vernon by 1786, and was described by G. W. Parke Custis as “a celebrated artiste … as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.” Washington was dissatisfied with the cook in the presidential residences in New York City, and brought Hercules to Philadelphia in November 1790.
Hercules had been married to a dower slave named Lame Alice, a seamstress at Mount Vernon, and they had three children, Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). Alice died in 1787, leaving Hercules to raise the children. When he learned that he was to be transferred to Philadelphia, he asked Washington’s permission to bring his son with him to the President’s House. It is likely that Hercules, Richmond and Christopher shared a divided room on the fourth floor of the main house.
Hercules’s expertise as a cook was appreciated by the Washingtons, and he was given special privileges. It was estimated that he earned “from one to two hundred dollars a year” by selling the leftovers from the presidential kitchen. According to Custis, Hercules was a “celebrated dandy,” and spent this money on expensive clothing and luxuries. A vigorous portrait attributed to Gilbert Stuart has been “presumed” to be him.
Several years after his wife’s death, Hercules seems to have had a child by another woman, but her identity and if they married is unrecorded.
Richmond was caught stealing money at Mount Vernon in November 1796, and Washington suspected that it was for an escape attempt by the father and son.
That Hercules escaped to freedom has been long known by Washington scholars, but the date and circumstances of his escape were not uncovered until November 2009. In 1933, Stephen Decatur, Jr. – a descendant of Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear – wrote:
It is sad to relate that Uncle Harkless was so captivated with the delights of Philadelphia that in 1797, on the day Washington left the city to retire to private life at the end of hissecond term, he ran away rather than return to Mount Vernon. Although diligent inquiries were made for him, he was never apprehended.Stephen Decatur, Jr., ”Private Affairs of George Washington” (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1933), p. 296.
For more than 75 years, the conventional wisdom was the story that Decatur told. Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, proved this wrong. By looking through the weekly farm reports, she discovered that Hercules and Richmond were left behind at Mount Vernon when Washington returned to Philadelphia, and that following the November 1796 theft, they were not working in the plantation’s kitchen, but doing hard labor outside. Thompson’s biggest discovery was the exact date of Hercules’s escape from Mount Vernon: On Wednesday, February 22, 1797 – Washington’s 65th birthday – the records list Hercules as “absconded.”
In April 1797, Prince Louis-Philippe of France visited Mount Vernon. His manservant spoke with Hercules’s 6-year-old daughter, and ventured that she must have been upset that she would never see her father again. The girl reportedly replied, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”
By the provisions of Washington’s will, Hercules was legally emancipated in 1801, making him no longer a fugitive but a free man. Richmond, Evey, and Delia, dower slaves through their mother, remained in bondage.
(This biographical sketch is partially based upon the unpublished work of Mary V. Thompson, Research Specialist, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.)