Desecration of Washington’s Tomb


My wife and I visit our grandchildren and enjoy babysitting twice a week. Unless there is something special to do, we often head for the Mendham Library. Part of my heritage to them will be an introduction to libraries.


Downstairs Karl heads for the shelves and brings the latest book about Clifford, the Big Red Dog or about a family of bears, the Berenstain Bears. He then rounds off the morning with books on dinosaurs, construction vehicles and trains. Seems I have read a number of these books a couple of times.


Monday Shon took the lead reading to the children and I was at the next table looking for something to at least look at. Some teenager must have come to the children’s table and left a book on Generals Lee and Grant and, along with it, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin.


The Golden Globes had featured, a night or two before, the hit Lincoln film. I had enjoyed learning more about Lincoln  and according to one authorthe American public still thirsts for details about the sixteenth president in a way that even Washington cannot match. Questions abound: Was he straight or gay? How did his melancholy influence his career? Did he suffer from Marfan syndrome?”  I still wondered if he really was a vampire? So I began reading…..


Some 80 pages into Sheinkin’s book was the unexpected story of the desecration of Washington’s tomb by a robber. Of course this caught my eye. Years ago, on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death, I visited Mt. Vernon and was chosen to place a wreath at His Excellency’s tomb.


Then to quote author Shinkin quoting his source, Craughwell,


In 1830 John Augustine Washington II, a nephew and heir of George Washington, fired one of the gardeners (the man’s name is unknown) who tended the grounds at Mount Vernon. Angry and vengeful, the unemployed gardened returned to the estate at night, entered the Washington family tomb, and stole what he believed to be the skull of America’s first president. In fact … the skull he ran off with belonged to one of the Blackburns, the in-laws of yet another of the president’s nephews, Judge Bushrod Washington.


According to Craughwell, the grave robber was apprehended the following day and the pilfered skull returned to its tomb. But the theft did have far-reaching effects: it motivated Washington’s heirs, including Custis, to fulfill the wishes in Washington’s will.


As Washington wrote in his will as recorded in the Washington’s Papers:


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. And it is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration.


Well, Washington’s  funeral did include a most public funeral and a parade and oration and the building of the new tomb didn’t happen until the break-in. The footnote added in Washington’s Papers explains more about the tomb.


After he inherited Mount Vernon, Washington had the old tomb built according to the instructions laid down in his half-brother Lawrence’s will. The tomb was built on the side of a steep hill about two hundred yards south of the mansion house. It was a plain, bricked up excavation in the hillside. Whenever the tomb was opened for a new occupant, the bricks had to be removed and replaced again after the burial. Mrs. Washington instructed that a door be made for the vault after her husband’s burial, observing “that it will soon be necessary to open it again.” By 1799 the tomb was in a ruinous condition from tree roots and moisture.



After Washington’s death John Adams requested and received permission from Mrs. Washington to remove Washington’s body for reburial in a crypt to be built under the dome of the United States Capitol. This was never done, however.



In 1831, after an attempt was made by vandals to steal Washington’s body from the decaying tomb, Lawrence Lewis and George Washington Parke Custis built a new brick tomb west of the mansion, in the “Vinyard Inclosure” mentioned in Washington’s will. The bodies of George and Martha Washington and other family members buried in the old tomb were reinterred in the new vault. For more on GW’s tomb, see Paul Wilstach, Mount Vernon, Washington’s Home and the Nation’s Shrine, (New York, 1916): 223-24, 247-50, and Prussing, Estate of George Washington, 239-42. [back]



                                                                                                                                                                                    Washington’s “New” Tomb.

                                                                                                                                     Photo courtesy Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library


As an old professor once said (I guess he really wasn’t old, just I was so young) this subject was certainly a “researchable project.”