A Case of Mistaken Identity
An 18th-century portrait, once thought to portray George Washington’s enslaved cook Hercules, yields new information—and new mysteries.
Hercules Posey, a member of the Mount Vernon enslaved community, was widely admired for his culinary skills. George Washington appreciated Posey's skills in the kitchen so much he brought him to Philadelphia to cook in the presidential household. Posey would later self-emancipate, one of the few instances of a member of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community successfully escaping during Washington's lifetime.
Posey first appears in Washington's historic record in his list of tithables (persons for whom taxes had to be paid) in 1770. Previous to his arrival at Mount Vernon, Hercules was enslaved by and worked as a ferryman for Washington’s neighbor John Posey. Seen legally as part of John Posey's property, in 1767 Hercules was given to George Washington due to an unpaid mortgaged. Hercules Posey, now George Washington's property, became the ferryman at the Mansion House Farm for the Washingtons.
Since enslaved people first appear in tithable lists at age sixteen, Hercules was likely born sometime in or around 1754.1 By the 1770s Hercules was married to Alice, an enslaved woman owned by the Custis estate. Based on Washington's records, the couple had three children: Richmond (1777), Evey (1782), and Delia (1785).2 Although it is not known exactly when Posey started working as a cook at Mount Vernon, the 1786 Mount Vernon slave census lists him as the cook at the Mansion House.3
Posey's cooking was very much loved in the Washington household, and was "familiarly termed Uncle Harkless," according to Washington's step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis.4 Custis described Posey as "a celebrated artiste . . . as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States."5
Posey was one of nine enslaved people George Washington took to Philadelphia in 1790 to work in the President's House. The Washingtons worked to ensure the people they brought with them left Pennsylvania at least every six months to circumvent a state law that allowed enslaved people to claim their freedom after residing in the state for a minimum of six months.
Due to his culinary prowess, Posey asked Washinging if his son Richmond could also work in the kitchen in Philadelphia. Washington agreed and Richmond was allowed to work with his father. According to Custis, Posey earned "one to two hundred dollars a year," by selling leftovers, known as slops, from the presidential kitchen. Hercules was a "celebrated dandy," in the words of Custis, and the chef kept an equally meticulous 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."6
Different accounts provide varying reasons for Posey's decision to escape enslavement. In The Private Affairs of George Washington, Stephen Decatur Jr., the American naval hero and a descendent of Washington's secretary Tobias Lear, described Posey as being so enamored by Philadelphia that when Washington left to return to Mount Vernon in 1797, Posey chose to run away. Decatur notes that "although diligent inquiries were made for him, he was never apprehended."7
However, other records indicate that Posey escaped in early February 1797, after being made a laborer at Mount Vernon instead of his usual chef duties. Weekly reports from Mount Vernon indicated that Hercules and other enslaved men were put to work with the bricklayers and gardeners in early 1797.8
Learn more about Posey's flight to freedom in our podcast episode Intertwined Stories: Finding Hercules Posey.
Washington was angered and confused by the decision to run away, believing that Posey lived a privileged life.10 On March 10, 1797, Washington expressed to Tobias Lear that he wanted Posey to be found and returned to Mount Vernon, as soon as possible.11 Washington was so distressed by the absence of the family chef that he even wrote to Major George Lewis on November 13, 1797, about buying an enslaved person in Fredericksburg who was reputed to be an excellent chef. Washington stated that while he "had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase," because of Posey's absence, "this resolution I fear I must break."12 The Washington family never located Posey.
Washington's last will and testament provided for the eventual emancipation of the enslaved people he directly owned, following the death of Martha Washington. However, he had no legal control over whether the people owned by the Custis estate would gain their freedom. As a result, Posey's children remained enslaved.
Likely through the help of friends from his time in Philadelphia, Posey ended up in New York, where city directories show that he worked as a cook.13 On May 15, 1812, he died of tuberculosis at age 64.14 He is buried in the Second African Burying Ground in Lower Manhattan.
George Washington University
1. "Memorandum List of Tithables, 14 June 1771," Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 8, 24 June 1767?–?25 December 1771, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 479–480.
2. Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32; “1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census,” Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press), pp. 277-83.
4. George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of the Life and Character of Washington, ed. Benson J. Lossing (New York, 1860), 422.
8. See Weekly Reports for "January 7, 14, 20, and 28, 1797, and February 11 and 25, 1797," in Mount Vernon Farm Accounts, January 7-September 10, 1797 (bound Photostat, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon); and "Weekly Report for February 18, 1797," in Mount Vernon Weekly Reports, January 10, 1795- March 18, 1797 (bound photostat, Fred W. Smith National Library).
11. "From George Washington to Tobias Lear, 10 March 1797," Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1797?–?30 December 1797, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 27–8.
14. Ramin Ganeshram, “Art Fraud, a 218-Year Cold Case, and the History Detectives from WHS,” May 15, 2019. https://westporthistory.org/blog-post/cold-case/.
Custis, George Washington Parke. Recollections and Private Memoirs of the Life and Character of Washington. Ed. Benson J. Lossing. New York, 1860.
Decatur, Jr., Stephen. Private Affairs of George Washington. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933.
Lusane, Clarence. The Black History of the White House. San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 2011.
Cadou, Carol Borchert, Dean J. Norton, Dennis J. Pogue, Mary V. Thompson, Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon, Ed. Stephen McLeod. Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 2011.