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Hercules

By Edward Lawler, Jr.

hercules2"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 his second 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.)


George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of the Life and Character of Washington

Benson J. Lossing, ed. (New York, 1860), 422-24.

The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules, and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless. Trained in the mysteries of his part from early youth, and in the palmy days of Virginia, when her thousand chimneys smoked to indicate the generous hospitality that reigned throughout the whole length and breadth of her wide domain, Uncle Harkless was, at the period of the first presidency, as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary arts as could be found in the United States. He was a dark-brown man, little, if any above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.

The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his iron discipline, wo[e] to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.The steward, and indeed the whole household, treated the chief cook with such respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.

It was while preparing the Thursday or Congress dinner that Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor. During his labors upon this banquet he required some half dozen aprons, and napkins out of number. It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.

When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, "the labors of Hercules" ceased.

While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His prerequisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptional whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days) of the president's kitchen.

Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market street, attracting considerable attention, that street being, in the old times, the resort where fashionables "did most congregate." Many were not a little surprised to behold so extraordinary a personage, while others who knew him would make a formal and respectful bow, that they might receive in return the salute of one of the most polished gentlemen and the veriest dandy of nearly sixty years ago.

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