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George Washington Petrified

In early 1877, an article appeared in many American newspapers alleging that the remains of General George Washington had been discovered to be petrified. The reporting was attributed to the Washington correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle. The text of the article read as follows:

The Remains of Washington Petrified
We visited Washington's tomb today at Mount Vernon, Va., some twelve miles from this city, down the Potomac, and we had the unusual privilege of beholding the mortal remains of the immortal Washington. Visitors to the tomb will remember that the west wall of the same has for several years been in a falling condition and in great need of repair. A few days since part of it tumbled into the tomb, completely covering the sarcophagus of Washington, and also that of Martha Washington. In order to repair the damage in a competent manner, it was found necessary to remove them a few feet from their resting-place.

The one containing the remains of Martha Washington was removed first, but attracted no attention. But the unusual weight of the one containing the remains of Washington aroused the curiosity of the official who was superintending the work of removal, and it was decided to open the sarcophagus in order to ascertain the cause. This was done, and the remains were found to be petrified, in fact, a solid stone resembling a statue, the features perfectly natural, with the exception of eyes and ears, no trace of which can be seen.

The body is of a dark leathery color, and may be said to be a soft sandstone, which would likely break should an attempt be made to remove it from the sarcophagus. Edward Baker, an aged colored man, who has resided upon the farm since he was a boy, and who assisted in removing the remains from the old tomb to the present one, informs us that it is thirty-eight years since their last removal. At that time they had rested in the old tomb thirty-eight years, and were exhumed in a state of preservation beyond all expectation, being a solid compact mass, with the skin drawn tightly to the bones, petrifaction, no doubt, having commenced its work. The repairs to the tomb will be completed today, and the sarcophagus is not likely to be opened again for a century to come, unless, indeed, in the case of an accident, as in the present instance, and petrifaction will complete its work, and the remains of the immortal Washington will then be as enduring as his memory is dear.

Debunked

It was only a matter of time before people realized that Washington's remains had not turned to stone. Nevertheless the news continued to circulate as a true story for many months.

In March, 1877 the New York Herald published the following notice informing its readers that the report was a hoax:

Not Petrified
We are glad that the Father of His Country is not petrified as it was reported that he was; glad that the report to that effect is contradicted on the authority of a man whose word may be taken as to a cadaver, but who may not be a lapidary. There have, no doubt, been facts in our recent history that would have justified the spontaneous conversion into stone of anything that was left of George Washington, but it would have been an undignified proceeding on George's part to have taken any such notice of them; and George was never found wanting on the side of dignity. Moreover, it would have been unworthy of George's character and his name for anything to have been left of him at this time to turn into stone.

One of the first duties of a well conducted corpse, once buried, is to resolve itself into the original elements. Any other line of conduct is ill bred and vulgar. "A tanner," it is true, "will last you nine year," and that is the extreme limit to which ultimate dissolution may be deferred -- even for a tanner. But then, who and what is a tanner that the grandest gentleman of the New World should imitate him? Extravagance is always avoided by modest men who regard their dignity as George did, and the indulgence in petrifaction is an extravagance of demeanor of which he could never have been guilty. --

This turning into stone is a kind of postmortem unquiet -- an eager grasping at the retention of the semblance of life by which the corpse, so to speak, "gives himself away" and proves that he loved life more than a hero should, and that he would not have died if he could have helped it. We rejoice that George has not been found guilty of such weakness. It is with great satisfaction that we find ourselves fully relieved from the apprehension that we should some day or another have met George Washington in an anatomical museum.

Authorship

Although the article was initially attributed to an unnamed correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle, the hoax was probably the work of Joseph Mulhattan, a traveling salesman who was notorious for sending false stories to newspapers.

It is probably Mulhattan's work, however this can not be established with certainty. An 1888 article about Mulhattan in Thomas Herringshaw's Biographical Review of Prominent Men and Women of the Day, as well as a 1901 newspaper article, both describe Mulhattan concocting a tale about the petrifaction of Washington's remains. In fact, the Herringshaw article describes it as one of the hoaxes about which Mulhattan was proudest, which he referred to as his "great national joke." However, the hoax described in the 1888 and 1901 articles differs in several details from the hoax that appeared in newspapers in 1877.

The 1901 article offers this description of Mulhattan's hoax:

It was in 1875 that Mulhattan got up his first really imposing fake. He discovered that the remains of George Washington were petrified, and that some well-known citizens, who were very desirous of seeing the Washington monument completed, were about to remove the petrified body to the exposition at Philadelphia, to place it on exhibition during the centennial year. An admission fee of 50 cents would be charged, the money to be used in finishing the monument. This was printed and reprinted the wide country over, and the newspapers teemed with letters favorable and denunciatory. Alexander K. McClure, editor of the Philadelphia Times, was particularly vigorous in the denunciation of Mulhattan's idea, while the Pittsburg Gazette supported it warmly.

The 1901 account describes a funnier hoax than what appeared in 1877. Is it possible there were two separate Washington-Petrified hoaxes, one in 1875 (perpetrated by Mulhattan) and another in early 1877 (perpetrated by an unknown author)? It's possible, but unlikely. A search of newspaper archives has uncovered no trace of any newspaper story from 1875 or 1876 mentioning George Washington being petrified. The most logical explanation is that the 1877 hoax was the work of Mulhattan, but subsequent authors misremembered the details of it. Either that, or Mulhattan later embellished the tale when he told stories about it.

Links and References
  • "The Remains of Washington Petrified." Waterloo Courier. January 4, 1877.
  • "Not Petrified." Chester Daily Times. (Reprinted from the New York Herald.) March 22, 1877.
  • "Joe Mulhattan's Hoaxes." The Anaconda Standard. January 11, 1901.


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All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.