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George Washington: Wooden Teeth, Cherry Tree, Silver Dollar Toss All Myths

Monday, 25 Aug 2014 03:35 PM

By Jim Meyers

Young students for years have heard that George Washington tossed a silver dollar across the Potomac River, wore wooden dentures, and readily confessed to chopping down a cherry tree by stating "I cannot tell a lie."

But all those assertions about America's Revolutionary War leader and first president are, in fact, myths.

Washington was afflicted with dental troubles through his adult life, but he never wore wooden dentures.

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He began losing teeth at age 22 and had only one tooth left by the time he became president. John Adams claimed he lost the teeth because he used them to crack Brazil nuts, but modern historians believe that mercury oxide, which he was given to treat illnesses including smallpox, could have contributed to the loss.

When he became president, Washington wore false teeth carved from hippopotamus and elephant ivory, held together with gold springs. Prior to this, he had a set made from real human teeth. Some of his dentures had been stained and took on a wooden appearance, but he never wore wooden fittings, according to the website of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which manages Washington's estate in Virginia.

The story about Washington chopping down his father's favorite cherry tree was first reported by biographer Parson Weems, who after Washington's death interviewed people who knew him over a half-century earlier.

As Weems tells it, 6-year-old Washington, overly enthusiastic about using his new hatchet, cut down the cherry tree and was confronted by his father.

Young George, "looking at his father with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth," according to Weems, admitted that he did the deed, telling his father: "I cannot tell a lie."

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The story was widely reprinted throughout the 19th century. But after 1890, historians noted that there was no documentation for Weems' tale. And in 1904, a historian noted that Weems plagiarized other Washington tales from published fiction set in England, and no backup for the cherry tree story was ever found.

The story of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River is also a myth. The Potomac is over a mile wide at Mount Vernon and Washington could not have thrown it that far. Besides, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man.

His step-grandson reported that Washington once threw a piece of slate across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, which is much narrower than the Potomac, and that may be the origin of the tale.

Another popular myth about the "Father of Our Country" is that he wore a wig, as was the fashion among many in his time. Washington had red hair as a young man, and later he powdered his hair, but he did not wear a wig.

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