Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washinton

The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington
By Martha Saxton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
360 pages, $28.00
            Much ink has been spilled on the life and times of George Washington, but little attention has been devoted to his mother Mary Ball Washington.  When Mary Washington appears in studies of her famous son, she is labeled as a “shrew,” “illiterate,” a “helicopter parent,” and “Medea in a mob cap.”  It was with trepidation that I picked up Dr. Martha Saxton’s new biography, The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington.  Would the same hackneyed stereotypes be repeated for three hundred pages?  I quickly realized that my fears were unfounded.  Dr. Saxton presents an insightful and engaging biography that firmly places Mary Washington’s life within the context of Colonial Virginia.  Under Dr. Saxton’s skillful handling, Mary Washington has finally received the scholarly attention that she deserves as the driving force behind George Washington’s life.  An argument can be made that without Mary Washington’s role in her oldest son’s life, the American Revolution could have turned out much differently.
            Born in 1708, Mary Ball was born in a colonial Virginia very different from the genteel version of colonial life often presented at such sites as Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon among others.  Mary’s mother, also named Mary, was born in England and immigrated to Virginia as an indentured servant.  Through skillful marriages, Mary Ball was able to enter Virginia’s emerging gentry class—an achievement that would become impossible by the time of the American Revolution.  Mary Washington’s childhood was difficult, marred by the early deaths of close family members.  Orphaned by the age of twelve, Mary Washington was cared for by her half-sister Elizabeth Bonum and the two developed a close bond.  In 1731, Mary married Augustine Washington, a wealthy planter who had lost his first wife the year before.  The marriage firmly placed Mary Washington within the comfort of the status of the gentry, but the marriage also brought three stepchildren to help rear.  The family grew in 1732 when Mary Washington gave birth to her first child, George.  Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred would follow.  Tragedy struck in 1743, when Augustine Washington died after a brief illness, leaving Mary Washington a widow to raise five children at the age of thirty-five. 
            Following Augustine’s death, Mary Washington lost the financial comfort that her husband provided as his vast landholdings and plantations were divided amongst his sons.  To combat her financial insecurity, Mary could have remarried, an option that many colonial widows followed.  Mary Washington decided to not follow that path and remained a widow, overseeing the management of her children’s inheritances.  While she was unable to send her children to elite schools, she provided her children—particularly George, with the practical education of running a vast plantation.  Mary Washington also instilled in her children industry, stoicism, piety, thrift, and independence.  In recent years, Mary has been unfairly condemned for not allowing fourteen-year-old George to join the British Navy.  Mary’s decision was firmly rooted in providing the best future for her son, a course of action that would not have been permitted as an ensign in the Navy.  Instead, Mary encouraged George in his surveying career which allowed him to make powerful contacts within Virginia society.
            These insights into Mary’s world are fully covered in Dr. Saxton’s work.  Utilizing a diverse arrange of primary sources: letters, diaries, planation inventories, land grants, wills and period newspapers, Dr. Saxton firmly places the reader with the complex world of Colonial and Revolutionary War Virginia.  The colonial Virginia that Dr. Saxton uncovers is a stark and at times cruel place.  This is not the romanticized world of Colonial Williamsburg.  Mary Washington was a slave owner from the age of three until her death at 80.  Becoming the owner of enslaved workers at such a tender age quickly hardened Mary to the plight of the men, women, and children that she owned.  Unlike her son, Mary never expressed any qualms about slave ownership and would separate enslaved workers from their spouses and children.  To cope with the early loss of many of her family members, Mary also developed a hard exterior that made her less empathetic to the plights of others. 
            Like any family, the Washington’s occasionally had family squabbles.  The most famous family dispute occurred during the Revolution when George openly questioned Mary’s claim of financial security.  The Revolution brought inflation and high taxes to the home front.  Compounding Mary Washington’s difficulties, in 1780 Mary was forced to flee into Virginia’s western interior with her family to escape possible capture from British military forces.  While in the west, her son, Samuel, and son-in-law, Fielding Lewis, died from illness.  During this time, someone petitioned the Virginia Assembly for a pension for Mary Washington.  When George received word of the planned pension he erupted in anger.  Sensitive to his public image, George feared that if word of his mother receiving a pension became public he would look like an uncaring son in the court of public opinion.  George Washington argued that his mother’s claim to poverty was exaggerated.  A claim modern historians have accepted unquestioningly, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
            Regardless of the occasional family dispute, Dr. Saxton reveals a more loving and respectful relationship between mother and son than historians have previously presented.  Mary and George deeply cared for each other, evidenced in the surviving correspondence between the two.  Before leaving for the presidency in 1789, George Washington paid one final visit to his mother at her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Mary Washington was in the final stages of breast cancer, and according to family tradition the two had a loving and tender final goodbye.  In her final months, Mary expressed concern for the health of her son until her death on August 25, 1789.
            Dr. Saxton’s biography is a timely addition to the study of the Washington family and their place in the Colonial and Revolutionary War period.  The work challenges previously held beliefs about Mary Washington and her son and will likely raise a few eyebrows and instigate scholarly debate.  I hope that this work receives a wide readership.
Michelle L. Hamilton
Author, Mary Ball Washington: The Mother of George Washington
Manager, Mary Washington House
Fredericksburg, VA

The book is available for purchase on Amazon

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Books Published

Below are my current books published as of February 2019:

Civil War Ghosts is published by Haunted Road Media and is available on Amazon

"I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears": Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln's White House is available on Amazon in print and Kindle. 

Mary Ball Washington: The Mother of George Washington is available on Amazon.

Manners During The Civil War: American Etiquette or, The Customs Adopted by Polite Society Throughout the United States is available on Amazon.

"My Heart is in the Cause": The Civil War Diary of James Meyers, Hospital Steward 45th Pennsylvania 1863-1865 is available on Amazon.  

My work has also appeared in the following anthologies published by Haunted Road Media.

I recount my experiences while working at the Whaley House in Encounters with the Paranormal: Personal Tales of the Supernatural: Volume 2 is available on Amazon.

In the third volume in the series, I recount my time in a Confederate cemetery in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Encounters with the Paranormal: Personal Tales of the Supernatural: Volume 3 is available on Amazon.

I contributed two chapters to the fourth volume where I recounted my experiences while visiting the Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois.  My second chapter details the true history of Grace Sherwood otherwise known as the Witch of Pungo.  Encounters with the Paranormal: Personal Tales of the Supernatural: Volume 4 is available on Amazon. 

Truth Seekers

On Sunday night I joined Karen Heasley on Truth Seekers to discuss President Abraham Lincoln's belief in Spiritualism which I documented in "I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears": Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln's White House.

Truth Seekers Chat with Michelle Hamilton about Spiritualism.

Edge of the Rabbit Hole

Happy New Year!  It has been a long time since I updated this blog as I have been busy writing my latest book Civil War Ghosts published by Haunted Road Media

In January, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Ghostorian Mike Ricksecker and medium Vanessa Hogle to talk about my new book on Edge of the Rabbit Home.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Our American Cousin

My recent trip to the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House has reawakened my fascination with the Lincoln assassination.  I have been intrigued by the assassination and conspiracy since I was in elementary school, but while I have read numerous books on the topic and have watched all of the documentaries made since the 1990s, I realized this week that I had not given much thought to the play that Lincoln was watching when he was shot. 

Our American Cousin was a popular farce written by Tom Taylor and had premiered at Laura Keene's New York theater in 1858.  The play proved to be an immediate success.   

The play is a farce and the comedy in the play revolves around puns, clever word play, and physical comedy.  President Abraham Lincoln was an avid theatergoer and was very discerning in his choice of plays.  His love of Shakespeare is legendary.  On face value it is hard to understand why Lincoln chose to attend Ford Theatre's production of Our American Cousin.  A deeper look at the play itself reveals the play's appeal to Lincoln.

Advertisement for Our American Cousin promoting President Lincoln's attendance (Image courtesy of Playbill)

The plot revolves around the financial woes of the Trenchard family.  The Trenchard's are an aristocratic family on the verge of losing their ancestral estate in Hampshire, England.  The estate's manager, Mr. Coyle, is stealing from the Sir Edward Trenchard and has designs on marrying the lovely Florence Trenchard.  Florence has no interest in Coyle, she is in love with Harry Vernon, but they cannot marry until Vernon receives a commission in the Royal Navy.  In an attempt to get her lover a commission Florence has invited Lord Dundreary to Trenchard Manor, but Lord Dundreary is a vain, dimwitted fop.   To make matters worse, the oldest son while on a shooting trip to Vermont discovered that the family estate was left to their American cousin Asa Trenchard.  The arrival of Asa sends the house into an uproar as American and British culture clash.  Asa Trenchard is a well meaning but vulgar and his American sayings provide confusion and misunderstanding.  While bemused by her cousin, Florence develops a genuine fondness for her cousin. Asa frequently targets the clueless Lord Dundreary with his verbal salvos.  Despite Asa's lack of social graces his wealth makes him the target of the fortune hunting Mrs. Mountchessington who throws her daughter Augusta in his path.  Asa quickly uncovers Mr. Coyle's nefarious plot and with the assistance of the houses servants and Coyle's disgruntled assistant Abel Murcott sets out to expose the villain.  By the end of the play, everything has been resolved with a happy ending for all the key players. 

President Lincoln loved the play because he could recognize himself in the title character, in his youth Lincoln was viewed as boorish and uncouth by many of his contemporaries.  In the play, Asa falls in love with the heiress Mary Trenchard and Asa rises above his humble beginnings and becomes a member of the British aristocracy.  In real life, Abraham Lincoln rose from his humble origins and married Mary Todd and became president of the United States.

Lincoln also loved clever word play and puns and the dialogue of Our American Cousin is full of this type of humor.  Below is a following example of the dialogue found in the play:

"Asa [Goes hastily up to table] Wal, I don't want to out too plain, but this is an awful mean set out for a big house like this.
Florence Why, what's wrong, sir?
Asa Why, there's no mush!
Dundreary No mush?
Asa Nary slapjack
Dun Why, does he want Mary to slap Jack?
Asa No pork and beans!
Dun Pork's been here, but he's left.
Asa And where on airth's the clam chowder?
Dun Where is clam chowder?  He's never here when he's wanted." (Act 1, Scene 1)

Also the actors preforming Our American Cousin would have also been a draw.  Laura Keene was reprising her role of Florence Trenchard a role that had brought commercial and professional success since her debuted the role in 1858.  The April 14, 1865 performance was a benefit for Laura Keene and the actress received a portion of the box office revenue.  Performing alongside Keene was Harry Hawk a popular comedian who was playing Asa Trenchard.

Advertisement for Our American Cousin in the April 14, 1865 edition of the Washington Evening Star.  (Image courtesy of Wikipedia).  

After a long and bloody Civil War, the war was finally drawing to a close and after a week of celebrations President Lincoln was looking for an evening of diverting entertainment.  From the accounts of witnesses at Ford's Theatre, Lincoln appeared to be enjoying himself watching the play.  This compounds the tragedy of the assassination, in a moment of joy Lincoln's life was snatched away in an instant.

Applewood Books published a good edition of Our American Cousin.         


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Dr. Mudd House

On Saturday, I braved the elements and visited the Dr. Mudd House in Waldorf, Maryland.  Dr. Samuel A. Mudd is a controversial figure in American history, his role in the Lincoln assassination has sparked debate for over 150 years.  He has been portrayed as everything from a simple country doctor innocently brought into the Lincoln assassination conspiracy to an arch fiend in league with John Wilkes Booth to kidnap and then murder President Abraham Lincoln.  Like most things in this world, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

The exterior of the house looks similar to how it appeared on April 15, 1865.

The road that John Wilkes Booth and David Herold took on the afternoon of April 15, 1865 towards Zekiah Swamp.

Dr. Mudd's bedroom widow was the bottom left. David Herold tapped on that window to wake Dr. Mudd in the early morning hours of April 15, 1865.

Dr. Mudd's first headstone erected in 1883, it has a typo, Dr. Mudd was 49 not 48. It was replaced following the death of his wife Sarah Frances "Frank" Mudd in 1911.

The original 1865 wellhouse.

The Mudd family lived in the house from 1857 until 1982. They were the houses only private owner.

The family parlor, John Wilkes Booth laid on the sofa while Dr. Mudd treated him for his broken leg.

Another view of the parlor and sofa.

The family dining room.

This sideboard belonged to the Mudd family. Sarah Frances Mudd was forced to sell the piece to pay the bills while Dr. Mudd was imprisoned.

Dr. Mudd made this desk will in prison at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Mudd over the mantel.

The Mudd's bedroom, the crucifix was on the wall in 1865.

Painting of Dr. Mudd in the front entry hall.

The bedroom John Wilkes Booth stayed in on April 15, 1865. Dr. Mudd used this room to treat patients.

Sarah Frances Mudd drew this drawing in school. It is called "Sleeping Beauty" and was in the Booth Room in 1865.

This dresser and mirror was in the Booth Room in 1865.

The bed is not original to the room, but legend holds that staff will straighten the blankets, only to return to find an imprint of a person in bed. Is it the spirit of John Wilkes Booth?

John Wilkes Booth kept a watch for pursuing Federal authorities from this window.

Lovely 1860s dress in the Mudd children's room. The Mudds' had nine children.

The Mudd children's room. Following Dr. Mudd's arrest, Sarah Frances Mudd and her four children were placed under house arrest until John Wilkes Booth was killed.

Dr. Mudd's medical office.

Guns that belonged to Dr. Mudd and his son.

Some of Dr. Mudd's medical equipment.

Items Dr. Mudd made while in prison. Dr. Mudd was received a pardon in 1869.

I highly recommend a visit to the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House.  I left the museum questioning my original opinion of Dr. Mudd.  

For more information please visit The Dr. Mudd House Museum.