Mythbusting with Martha
TOPICS: Eighteenth-Century Life, Guest Contributor, Martha Washington
by Katharine Pittman, Historical Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg
March 1, 2019
“Have you heard the one about George Washington’s wooden teeth?!” Yep, I’ve heard it. I’ve also heard the one about the cherry tree, and (to my amusement) the one about Martha Washington actually being a man and George a woman—yes, you read that correctly. I hear a lot of myths surrounding the Washingtons since I have the honor of portraying Martha Washington for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the opportunity to bring her story to life every day through first-person interpretation. It’s a job I cherish, partly because it has led me to meet many wonderful people who are dedicated to telling the Washingtons’ story with truth and passion like the good people at The Washington Papers. A vital part of our shared passion is to take these age-old myths that have defined the Washingtons for generations and find the truth (or fiction) behind them.
The Washingtons are ensconced in American lore. Even before their deaths, wild stories surrounding both George and Martha circulated throughout the country. It seems everyone has a family story with a Washington connection, and it seems like George Washington slept in almost every tavern and private home in America.
Such stories have also made the rounds through Williamsburg over the years. My favorite goes as follows: Martha Dandridge’s (Washington will come later) father-in-law, John Custis IV, was initially not too keen on the idea of her marrying his son, Daniel Parke Custis. John threatened to throw the Custis silver into the streets of Williamsburg rather than let a Dandridge get her hands on it (that part is true).1 After her father-in-law and first husband died, Martha received life rights to their Williamsburg properties, including the large Custis House (also true).2 The story then goes that after she came into possession of the home, she rampaged through it, selling everything and throwing more than 100 bottles of wine down the well in a rage! She supposedly even went so far as to deface one of the Custis seals on the bottles to spite her father-in-law! Pretty dramatic, right? You can just see petite Martha, red-faced, running through the house and taking revenge on the man who attempted to thwart her first marriage.
Over the years, I’ve been told several versions of this story by guests and colleagues alike. I began to wonder why Martha would act in a way that was so contrary to her natural demeanor. Now, I’m not denying that Mrs. Washington had a temper. She definitely liked things her way, but smashing more than 100 bottles of perfectly good wine? That didn’t seem like something a good Virginia housewife would have done. So, I put on my investigator hat and took the story to task.
I started by examining the inventory records for the Custis estates that were dated around the time this incident allegedly occurred. Sure enough, there was a massive estate sale of the Custis House in Williamsburg in October 1759, during which time it seems that she sold the majority of the goods in the house.3 OK, so that part checks out. But what about the wine bottles? The person I decided to consult about this part of the story just happens to be someone I know extremely well: my father-in-law.
Bill Pittman worked for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for thirty-six years in many capacities but retired as Curator of Archeological Collections. His specialty is…wait for it…bottles. My father-in-law can date a bottle almost to the exact year it was made just by looking at it. When I mentioned this story to him one day, he very nonchalantly said, “Oh yeah. I remember when those were found.” He told me that the archaeologists had found the remnants of about sixty wine bottle seals, some still attached to the bottles, down one of the wells at the site of the Custis House, along with a great number of other artifacts and plant matter. Basically, the 18th-century inhabitants were using the well as a trash pit. He then told me that all of the recovered bottles and seals dated from the early 1710s, meaning they would have been obsolete and probably empty by 1759 when Martha was said to have smashed them.
How do we know this? Well, as my father-in-law explains it, the storage methods of wine changed dramatically over the early part of the 18th century, and as they changed, so did the design of the bottles. Wine bottles from the 1710s, for example, were stored upside down to keep the corks wet, resulting in sediment collecting in the neck of the bottle. Over time, the shape of bottles evolved to a more cylindrical shape so that the sediment no longer collected in the neck of the bottle. The bottles found in the well were an older design and not as fashionable or as useful as the more “modern” cylindrical bottles. So, it seems like Martha might have just been taking out the trash. However, my father-in-law did confirm that one of the seals had been scratched out. Not as dramatic a story, but much more in keeping with the Martha that I know: practical and neat.
So, does this myth stand up to the test of historical research? In some ways, yes; in other ways, no. We should always be in search of the truth, even if it results in a less sensational story. Can we say with certainty that Martha didn’t revel in smashing those bottles down the well? Nope. Did Martha deface that seal, or did something else happen to it? We’ll never truly know. Was she just cleaning out her father-in-law’s basement and taking out years of trash before putting the house up for rent? Probably. The facts do not inform every aspect of the event, but, at the very least, it gives this story a different angle. As an interpreter, it provides me with more insight into Martha, her family, life in Williamsburg, and the material culture of the 18th century. And thanks to the teamwork of historians, archaeologists, interpreters, curators, and every other member of “Team History,” we continue to find layer after layer of who these people might have been and the world in which they lived.
1. James B. Lynch The Custis Chronicles. Reply of Moodys to Complaint of Daniel Parke Custis, n.d., Mss 1C 9698A 66, Custis Family Papers, ViHi (112).
2. “III-A. Schedule A: Assignment of the Widow’s Dower, c. October 1759,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0005. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 6:217–20.
3. “Appendix B. Account of Sale in Williamsburg for the Estate, Oct. 25, 1759,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0024. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 6:280–82.