Did Washington ever obtain teeth from enslaved people that he owned?
Washington’s financial records document the payment of cash for nine teeth from unidentified “Negroes” in May 1784. This transaction has been widely interpreted as providing teeth for Washington’s own use, for either dentures or transplantation. An understanding of 18th-century accounting practices points to these particular teeth becoming the property of the dentist Jean Pierre Le Mayeur. It is possible that teeth obtained from enslaved people could have been used in making dentures for Washington at another time.
What do we know about the transaction in May 1784? This transaction is entered twice in George Washington’s financial records: first in the journal of accounts (a simple listing of payments and receipts as they occurred), and then in the ledger of accounts (which used double entry bookkeeping to organize information on a client by client basis). The journal of accounts kept by Mount Vernon plantation manager Lund Washington records, under the heading, “Cash p[ai]d on Acc[oun]t of Genrl. Washington,” the following transaction: “To p[ai]d Negroes for 9 Teeth, on acc[oun]t of the French Dentis [sic] Doctr Lemay [sic].” This same transaction was subsequently transcribed in George Washington’s ledger of accounts, as a credit to Lund: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acc[oun]t of Dr Lemoin.” In both cases, the explicit notation “on the account” of the dentist points to Le Mayeur as the end recipient. If Washington had been purchasing the teeth for himself, there would have been no need for this information; the entries would have simply recorded the item and payment, as when Washington purchased poultry, wild game, fish, and garden produce from enslaved individuals.
At the time of this transaction, the French-trained dentist Le Mayeur was temporarily staying in the Mount Vernon area, and advertising in the Alexandria, Virginia, newspapers his availability to perform tooth transplants. Following practices at the time, teeth for this purpose could have been supplied by enslaved people or free individuals desperate for cash.