The Plot to Steal Washington’s Head

George Washington’s corpse was argued over, fought over, and at one point the object of theft. Curiously, all the scuffling was inspired by the country’s love for its late leader.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

There’s a pretty good prime directive when it comes to anything presidential: Start with George Washington.

Yes, the job has changed quite a bit since Washington’s time, but a huge amount of how presidents act today is based on how Washington acted as president back then, from how frequently to use powers like vetoes and executive orders to how many four-year terms to serve. Then, when the first president became the first dead president, the way the country dealt with the loss of Washington set a model for how to honor—or, occasionally, dishonor—his successors.

So here I am, at Mount Vernon—or, technically, “George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens.” If the house explains the owner, this one explains a lot about the man and his ambitions. George Washington wanted to have the fanciest house in the neighborhood (he turned a relatively modest farmhouse into a 21-room mansion) and the biggest yard, quadrupling the size of the plantation to a peak of 8,000 acres. Washington’s mostly enslaved workforce grew wheat and corn, raised livestock, and operated what was at the time the largest whiskey distillery in America. Mount Vernon today is a huge historic site: it boasts of having a million visitors a year and nearly 80 million since the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the place from Washington’s descendants in the 1850s.

For $17 a head, visitors to Mount Vernon can spend the day any number of ways. The big draw is the house tour, where one can see Washington’s study, the dining room where Charles Thomson informed the general he had been elected president, and the bed where he died, the victim of a nasty cold and/or incompetent, leech-slinging doctors. Historical re-enactors stand in the greenhouse, talking about life on the plantation; there’s a wharf, walking trails, and a gristmill. Depending on the day, Nicolas Cage fans can see some of the buildings used in the making of the National Treasure movies, and liquor connoisseurs can try whiskey based on a recipe used in Washington’s time.

Me, I’m staying close to the tomb, a tall, elegant brick structure with a stone sign embedded near the top. “Within this enclosure,” it says, “rest the remains of Genl GEORGE WASHINGTON.”

Next to me is a docent who answers visitors’ questions. She handles most of them with one phrase: “General Washington is in the sarcophagus on the right; Mrs. Washington is on the left.” I actually get an emotional charge standing here, this close to the man by whom every president is measured—not so much that I’d describe myself to be in a state of rapturous, patriotic awe, but enough so that I wish I’d dressed a little better. Who wears a broken baseball cap and a paint-stained T-shirt to see the Father of Our Country?

The docent’s shift ends at two, and as she heads out, another staffer comes on to start the wreath-laying ceremony. As the new docent unlocks the tomb’s large iron gate, she points out that the ceremony in which we’re about to take part has been host to presidents and queens and dignitaries. She gives a sort of eulogy, explaining that we lay the wreath because Washington spent much of his adult life leaving home to answer the call to public service, from the Revolutionary War to the Constitutional Convention to the presidency. “In total,” she says, “twenty-one years.” She says this last phrase very slowly so it sinks in, ’cause that’s a long time. “Twenty. One. Years.” We all look around at each other with “we haven’t been anything for twenty-one years” expressions.

The wreath is modest and unadorned, sitting on a thin green tripod, and volunteers from the audience are needed to place it next to the Washingtons. I’m eager to volunteer until I hear the docent ask the question that disqualifies me: “Do we have any veterans or active members of the military with us today?” Two veterans raise their hands, a fortysomething guy with graying hair and a blue polo shirt, and a thin, smiling woman in her thirties, wearing a long-sleeved khaki top, a red headband atop her short hair, and bright pink polish on her fingernails.

The docent turns back to the crowd to ask for one more volunteer, to read George Washington’s prayer. She looks past my outstretched hand and chooses a long-haired girl in her early teens, who reads as the veterans walk the wreath into the tomb:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field; and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

We wrap up with the Pledge of Allegiance, and the docent invites us to take pictures of the tomb before she closes the gate. I walk back toward the main entrance next to the wreath-laying woman and her three kids. She seems tickled to have been chosen for the ceremony, but the oldest kid, at maybe eight or nine years, is unimpressed that his mom laid a wreath at the tomb of George Washington. “Can we get lunch now?” he asks.

This ceremony plays out at Mount Vernon twice a day, every day of the year. It’s short; it’s dignified; it doesn’t keep kids away from their lunches for too long. Had the country left it at that, Washington probably would have been OK with it. Knowing that his death would set the norm for how the country would treat its late chiefs of state, he stated in his will: “It is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration.” In effect: I gave you twenty-one years of my life—but now that I’m dead, I’m done.

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Private? No parades? No speeches? That’s not how we roll. The citizens were so eager to honor Washington’s memory, they didn’t want to wait for his death to get started. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress voted to build “an equestrian statue of General Washington… at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established… the General to be represented in Roman dress, holding a truncheon in his right hand, and his head encircled with a laurel wreath.”

This was not the bright start Washington wanted for the United States. He’d spent years tamping down efforts like these to turn him and the presidency into something larger than life; a statue would undo all of that work to emphasize that America was a republic with a chief executive, not an empire ruled by a king. And Washington remembered well what men from his Continental Army did to celebrate the passage of the Declaration of Independence in New York: They found a large equestrian statue of King George III, pulled it down, cut off its head, and held a mock parade across town. He didn’t want his own head in such a parade if the new country fell apart.

Washington got his fellow citizens busy building a nation, and talk of equestrian statues and other such honors wound down. The one exception came on September 9, 1791, when the commissioners overseeing construction of the country’s new capital renamed the “Federal City” as the city of Washington. The president let this one honor go forward because he had been trying not to micromanage the men he’d personally chosen to lead the construction project. But he pointedly continued to use the city’s old name in all his papers.

The city’s new name gave it a crucial new purpose. While the design for the Federal City included some space for monuments and memorials, it was, as its name suggested, about functionality—a giant office park for the national government to do its business. Naming the capital for Washington made the entire city a memorial, in effect making D.C. not only the seat of government but a kind of repository for our national memory.

What—and who—we honored as a country, we would put there, with gusto. All the nation needed now was a corpse.

It got one on December 14, 1799, after General Washington succumbed to a throat infection, though it should also be noted that his doctors, in trying to treat the illness, took something like five of his eight pints of blood while simultaneously trying to get him to throw up. He didn’t, but he might have, had he lived to see how the country reacted to his requests for no speeches, no parades, and no public funeral.

For one thing, there was a massive public funeral at Mount Vernon, starting with a large procession. Organized by Washington’s Masonic lodge, this parade included musicians, clergy, troops, and a riderless horse, a military tradition reportedly dating back to the age of Genghis Khan. The unwanted funeral included unwanted speeches, too, by no fewer than four ministers. The ceremony concluded with a final viewing of the body and “three general discharges of infantry, the cavalry, and eleven pieces of artillery, which lined the banks of the Potomac.” Later, the plantation’s farm manager outfitted the slaves and servants with mourning clothes.

The rest of the country followed Mount Vernon’s lead upon learning that our first president was gone. It’s said the mourning was so deep there were shortages of black cloth in some parts of the country for months. The House and Senate immediately adjourned out of respect; Senate President Pro Tempore Samuel Livermore wrote to President John Adams, “Permit us, sir, to mingle our tears with yours. On this occasion it is manly to weep.” The manly tears continued to flow through the official congressional eulogy, as Virginia Rep. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee dubbed Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Having missed the actual funeral, cities simply held their own. Boston not only held a mock funeral, it struck coins to mark the occasion. “He is in glory,” the coins said, “the world in tears.”

All of this, remember, was the exact opposite of what George Washington had asked for in his will. And while it’s incredibly American for the people to thumb their noses at authority, that’s not what was going on here—the country was trying to hold on to a figure they saw as truly indispensable. In his epic biography Washington: A Life, the historian Ron Chernow suggests Americans were worried that national unity, and maybe the country itself, might start to crumble without the general there. If Washington was a mere man, he could die, and America would have to carry on without him. But if America simply honored Washington enough, he would become more than a man, and then we wouldn’t really lose him at all. So, Chernow writes, “Washington was converted into an exemplar of moral values, the person chosen to tutor posterity in patriotism, even a civic deity.” You can see evidence of the “civic deity” today if you stand in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and look up: At the center of the Capitol dome, you’ll see a painting called The Apotheosis of Washington, in which angels welcome the general into heaven and elevate him to godlike status. Apotheosis images, which showed up in engraved prints, textiles, and even pottery for home consumption, were huge hits shortly after Washington’s death. So was a book by Parson Weems called The Life of Washington, in which the author invented from whole (and probably not black) cloth the story of how honest young George chopped down the cherry tree and quickly confessed the deed to his father. Stories like this helped people feel like Washington was still watching over the country from his new perch in the great beyond.

While Washington the myth was ascending to heaven, Washington the corpse was not faring so well. Again, George Washington had left specific instructions about the handling of his remains in his will: The family Vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of Brick, and upon a larger Scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out. In which my remains, with those of my deceased relatives (now in the old Vault) and such others of my family as may chuse to be entombed there, may be deposited.

“Requiring repairs” was probably putting the situation mildly; the tomb was in bad shape and getting worse. A visitor to Mount Vernon in 1820 described the vault’s entryway as “formed of half inch fir board, now rotting away. Such a door would disgrace an English pig-stye. Were pigs to range here, they would soon enter the tomb.” “Improperly situated” was the general’s way of saying the Old Tomb was prone to flood damage: For decades the Potomac had invited itself into the vault, causing thirty or so wooden coffins to rot. There were bones literally spilling onto the ground around Washington’s remains. The general was intact—his coffin had been laid on a wooden table, to keep the water away—but tree roots had found their way into the vault as well, and they had started to cause damage. In time, even George Washington’s bones might have ended up on the Old Tomb’s floor.

Yet even given the urgency about flooding and tree roots and bones, and given Washington’s very explicit instructions to move the tomb elsewhere, his body spent the next thirty years right where it was, near the river, in a little vault that was slowly falling apart. Part of the problem was that everything was falling apart at the huge and unprofitable Mount Vernon, meaning there wasn’t much money to spare on restoration work. The other problem with building a new tomb was that Washington’s nephew Bushrod, who had inherited the enormous plantation, was busy enough showing visitors around the existing one. “To that spot,” the historian Emma Willard wrote of Washington’s resting place, “will every true son of America, in all future ages, be attracted, in mournful, filial pilgrimage.” Indeed they were; just as the living Washington had never been short on unexpected guests, a steady stream of visitors invited themselves to Mount Vernon to pay their respects at Washington’s tomb and to be shown about the house, whether the Washington family wished to host them or not. Playing host and tour guide became one more giant task on Bushrod’s already full plate; while he tried, unsuccessfully, to make the enormous plantation profitable, he was also serving as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. No surprise that when Bushrod died in 1829, he had put in place none of what his uncle had requested.

As a result, George Washington very nearly became the victim of the first presidential grave robbery. Bushrod left the plantation to his nephew John Washington, who soon after fired one of the men who tended the grounds at Mount Vernon. The ex-gardener decided to take his revenge by breaking into the tomb and trying to steal George Washington’s head. He got one of Bushrod’s in-laws’ skulls by mistake, and was apprehended shortly thereafter, but it convinced John Washington and the surviving executors of the president’s will that they had to get a new tomb in place.

All this time, Congress had been asking to bring the former president’s body to the Capitol. They even built a crypt under the Rotunda, with a big hole in the center so visitors could peer down and see the coffin. Shortly after the general’s death, Congressman (and future Supreme Court legend) John Marshall had managed to get a grieving Martha Washington’s approval, though as yeses go, it was a pretty passive-aggressive one: Taught by that great example which I have so long had before me never to oppose my private wishes to the public will, I must consent to the request made by Congress… In doing this, I need not, I cannot say what a sacrifice of individual feeling I make to a sense of public duty.

Go ahead, take my husband’s body away from me, she said, and the Congress, completely oblivious to Mrs. Washington’s disappointment, was like, Sure! But instead of moving forward, lawmakers wrangled over costs and designs; John Washington, who may have been the only person in America to actually read George’s will, finally put a stop to the plan when officials dropped by Mount Vernon to pick up the body. The dejected builders went home to plug the hole between the Rotunda and the Capitol Crypt, which is used today by Capitol tour guides to corral their groups.

It was John Washington who finally got a new tomb together, three decades after Washington’s death. The president’s coffin was showing signs of wear, possibly from the general turning over in his grave because it took so long to build the new tomb, so the architect William Strickland designed a new sarcophagus, which the artisan John Struthers carved out of white marble. It was strong, sturdy, and beautiful. It was also too big to fit through the doorway to the new crypt. Masons had to add on a whole new front section to house it. Once they did, in 1831, Strickland, Struthers, and some relatives had to get Washington’s body in there, which Harper’s New Monthly Magazine described:

When the sarcophagus arrived the coffin of the chief was brought forth. The vault was first entered by Mr. Strickland, accompanied by Major Lewis… When [Washington’s] decayed wooden case was removed the leaden lid was perceived to be sunken and fractured. In the bottom of the wooden case was found the silver coffin-plate, in the form of a shield, which was placed upon the leaden coffin when Washington was first entombed. “At the request of Major Lewis,” says Mr. S. [Strickland], “the fractured part of the lid was turned over on the lower part, exposing to view a head and breast of large dimensions, which appeared, by the dim light of the candles, to have suffered but little from the effects of time.”

Ostensibly these fellows were verifying that the would-be grave robber hadn’t disturbed the president’s remains. But the next part of Strickland’s account suggests they had probably opened up the coffin so they could be the first people to see George Washington in over 30 years:

The eye-sockets were large and deep, and the breadth across the temples, together with the forehead, appeared of unusual size. There was no appearance of grave-clothes; the chest was broad, the color was dark, and had the appearance of dried flesh and skin adhering closely to the bones. We saw no hair, nor was there any offensive odor from the body; but we observed, when the coffin had been removed to the outside of the vault, the dripping down of a yellow liquid, which stained the marble of the sarcophagus. A hand was laid upon the head and instantly removed; the leaden lid was restored to its place; the body was carried by six men, was carried and laid in the marble coffin, and the ponderous cover being put on and set in cement, it was sealed from our sight on Saturday the 7th day of October, 1837.

I love the phrasing here: “a hand was laid upon the head.” Whose hand? Certainly not any of our hands, just, um, a hand that was hanging around! And while Strickland says he “saw no hair,” somebody seemed to, as hairs purportedly taken in 1837 have gone up for auction, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars. Nonetheless, the crew, having sealed the sarcophagus for all time, went back to the Mount Vernon mansion. George Washington had become the first president to be exhumed, patted on the head, then reinterred. (There’s some debate about whether this actually happened: according to an account from a Washington relative, told secondhand to an author in 1916, “There was a small circular hole immediately over the face, through which several persons attempted to look on Washington’s face, and some of them claimed that they saw it, but… on attempting to look through the hole could see nothing.” If so, Washington was the first president to be exhumed, gawked at through a small hole in the sarcophagus, then reinterred.)

Having been unable to bring George Washington’s body to the Capitol, Congress decided to build a Washington of their own instead. In 1832, marking a hundred years since Washington’s birth, lawmakers commissioned a statue of Washington from the sculptor Horatio Greenough, offering $20,000 for the work. Greenough knew he’d gotten the job of a lifetime and “determined to spare neither time nor expense to make his work worthy of the country and himself.” Early America saw itself as the heir to Greek democracy and the Roman republic, and Washington was its version of Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who handed back the reins of power to civilian authority at the end of a war. Greenough, who had left his native Massachusetts to work and live in Italy, was happy to run with the comparison, and he used a famous statue of Zeus at Olympia as the basis for his Washington at, uh, Washington. Zeus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, so what better model to choose?

The statue took Greenough nearly ten years to complete. Like Zeus on his throne, Washington is seated; his chair features Native Americans and Columbus—meant to place the general between the New World and the Old. He wears Roman-style clothes, shirtless and in sandals. In his left hand he holds a sheathed sword; the handle points away from him. His raised right hand points toward heaven. He is literally larger than life—and if that wasn’t symbolism enough, the work also includes depictions of Apollo, god of the sun, and Hercules (in infant form, but still). The artist’s inscription explains all this in Latin.

If Greenough was excited to bring Washington to the Capitol Rotunda in 1842, his excitement was short-lived. The classical imagery did not go over as intended. Instead of seeing a timeless Washington as heir to the ancients, visitors saw the beloved Father of Their Country in a toga, trying to stab himself. “It is a ridiculous affair, and instead of demanding admiration, excites only laughter,” said one visitor. Charles Bulfinch, the third Architect of the Capitol, wrote, “I fear that this statue will give the idea of Washington’s entering or leaving a bath.” The only ones who weren’t laughing were the Capitol maintenance workers, who worried the Capitol floorboards would buckle under the sculpture’s weight. A friend of Greenough’s clicked his tongue at the unappreciative DC rabble: “This magnificent production of genius does not seem to be appreciated at its full value in this metropolis.”

Hearing this, Congress decided the Rotunda was too good for a “marble absurdity” like Washington and moved the statue outside to the Capitol grounds, where visitors in off-peak months joked the shirtless president was reaching for his clothes. It was moved again to the Patent Office and then was finally donated in 1908 to the Smithsonian, where it was kept relatively out of sight until the bicentennial in 1976. No statue has dared to show presidential nipple since.

Say what you want about a George Washington toga party—at least Horatio Greenough got his work done. The Washington Monument was the other great project aimed at honoring the first president, and even though political heavyweights like Chief Justice John Marshall and former president James Madison were among the most prominent members of the new Washington National Monument Society, formed in 1833, this project moved at the slowest pace imaginable: Toga George had been built, mocked, and moved outside before the Washington Monument even got started. Perhaps that’s for the best, though, because the monument’s initial design, by the architect Robert Mills, called for an Egyptian-style obelisk surrounded by an oversize statue of Washington on a chariot leading a team of Arabian horses, with a base shaped like a circular Greek temple (not too different from the look of today’s Jefferson Memorial). The team of horses would be “driven by Winged Victory.” If Toga George went over badly, imagine how the public would have reacted to Ben-Hur George.

Disputes between Congress and the Monument Society went on for several more years, which meant the cornerstone wasn’t laid until Independence Day 1848. Even then there was a delay: the cart carrying the six-ton-plus cornerstone got stuck in a mud patch near the National Mall, and it took 40 workers from the Navy Yard to pull it out. It set a maddening pattern for the rest of the project: even when it moved forward, it still got stuck.

Mills had designed what was then the tallest structure in the world; he needed more marble than his suppliers could feasibly deliver by rail. And funds were as short as supplies: the project frequently ran out of money. The society staged a fund-raiser on July 4, 1850, with a guest of honor: President Zachary Taylor, who was worn down by the extreme heat and died less than a week later. In honoring one dead president, the monument helped to create another. By 1854 funding had completely dried up; the builders simply stopped where they were, about 152 feet up, and the long, painful “stump era” of the Washington Monument began. The shrine to the country’s greatest hero was now known best as a decent grazing spot for the District’s sheep and pigs. Robert Mills died in 1855, around the time the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothings muscled their way into the leadership of the Monument Society so as to stop the builders from adding a stone sent as a gift by the pope. They probably smashed it to bits and dumped it in the river. They did add about 21 feet of stone to the tower, but the work was shoddy and had to be removed. By the time the Know-Nothings relinquished power, the Civil War was about to begin. The country had fallen apart before the Washington Monument could come together.

There was, at last, a turning point around Independence Day 1876—the American centennial. Lawmakers started to realize that almost all of the people who were alive at the start of this project, not to mention 16 of Washington’s successors, were now dead, and they finally put forward long-awaited funds and put the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge of construction. Cost concerns meant all the adornments were scrapped—no Washington on a chariot, no team of horses—and the color difference between old and new marble was (and still is) highly visible. But it was done, albeit after taking some 90 years, absurd sums of money, and the life of Zachary Taylor. The Washington Monument was finished in 1885, dedicated by President Chester Arthur—twentieth successor to Washington—that year, and opened to the public in 1888.

There were concerns the nation might be too exhausted by the building process to care about the monument. “Here is the memorial,” wrote the Atlantic in the final years of construction, “begun on such a scale that all our other monuments are toys to it,… yet nobody outside Washington shows any interest in it.” But they needn’t have worried: the 555-foot tall obelisk, the tallest human-made structure in the world at the time, was hailed as a marvel of engineering and design, and included innovations like a steam-powered elevator that allowed visitors to take in the view without having to climb all 897 steps. Some critics even considered the monument as a metaphor for a country on the rise, surpassing, as one put it, “the highest cathedral spires designed by the devout and daring architects” of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Even with the many design changes over the decades, Robert Mills’s vision for the monument as the centerpiece of a national pantheon ended up being fulfilled. The architect had hoped to put murals and depictions of historic figures and national heroes in place around a statue of Washington, all of which was scaled back because of cost concerns. But in 1902, a Senate commission studying the park system of the District of Columbia proposed an expansion of the city’s monument space, including a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, a bridge to Arlington Cemetery, and several other areas designated for future monuments. The McMillan Plan, as it was known, put the Washington Monument in the center of the civic space, the anchor of what it envisioned as a “Pageant to American History.” Hundreds of thousands of people take the elevator to the top each year, while millions more see the monument as they travel about the capital city, a constant reminder of the man for whom the Federal City is named.

Periodically, of course, the ravages of time and nature have to be repaired. After an earthquake in 2011, more than a year’s worth of work had to be done. The public used this downtime to take pictures of themselves lying on the ground, with the tall, stiff shaft of the monument positioned behind them in a way that eighth-grade boys find really, really funny.

Washington set the precedent for dead presidents—almost everything that happened to him, and for him, happened again to his successors. But even knowing how strange this story got, I’m reassured when I see the tomb, and Mount Vernon, and the monument today. We may go bigger with our presidential funerals than necessary, or than the president wanted; our monuments may be large, controversial, expensive, and hard to build; we may open the presidents’ coffins (a lot); there may be thievery and bad behavior… but we generally get it right in the end. Even if it takes nearly a century to do it.

Excerpted with permission from Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders by Brady Carlson, published by W.W. Norton.

The author of Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders, Brady Carlson is a reporter and on-air host for New Hampshire public radio. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and children.