History, Heroes, and Dentures

George Washington's dentures

George Washington’s dentures


Friends and other people often ask me “What’s this thing with you and history?”

As if history is for fusty old geeks or weirdos – something to lump alongside stamp collecting, or being a Goth after the age of 50 (no offence intended to philatelists or middle-aged fans of The Cure).

When I was about 14 years old, my junior high school had try-outs for the annual school play.

That year, the play was a musical called “Let George Do It“, a typical piece of heartland American fluff purporting to tell the life of the first President of the USA, George Washington.

I went to the try-outs, and got “first stand-by”, or understudy.

My older brother got the actual part.  Any middle-kid with an older, more senior sibling will know how that felt…

Our school was in Phoenix, Arizona, and our school productions always went on the road.  That year, we were going to perform in a most unusual place.

The Hopi Indian Reservation in NE Arizona.

The distance between 1978 and 2022 is huge, and only the wisdom of age eventually made me look back with a combination of shame and horror at what American kids were indoctrinated, trained and employed to do back in the day.

Like some insane scene from a David Lynch film, we children were dispatched to impoverished Indian reservations as an all-singing, all-dancing propaganda corps for telling the vanquished all about the wonderfulness of their conquerors.

A breathtaking level of coarse and arrogant hubris, utterly impervious to irony.

George Washington was notorious for suffering from bad teeth.  By the age of 57 he was left with only a single tooth – a tooth which was removed to make way for the dentures which he wore for most of his latter years.

American schoolchildren of my generation took it as a cultural touchstone or piece of historical iconography that George Washington had wooden teeth.  This “factoid” was as true as the story of Pocahontas‘ deep infatuation with Captain Smith

This is the weakness, the failure, of pseudo-history and foundational mythology.  By being so specific in their construction of a false history, the bluffers inadvertently reveal their hand.

The only reason American schoolchildren were taught about “wooden dentures”, was because the reality was too brutish and nasty for “The Father of a Nation”.

You see, George Washington wore dentures made from teeth extracted from animals and the mouths of his slaves – living and dead.

Unlike the purveyors of the “wooden teeth” story, historians rely on documentary evidence when constructing biographies.

And it’s all still there, in the letters and accounts of Mr. Washington himself.

May 8, 1784:

[paid 6 pounds 2 shillings to]

“Negroes for 9 Teeth, on acc[oun]t of the French Dentis [sic] Doctr Lemay [sic].” 

Of course, this sort of living cannibalism practiced by the wealthy upon the poor and disempowered is still with us today – whether it be the black market in organs, or the use of “surrogacy farms” in poorer countries, where young women are paid a relative pittance to carry and bear children for wealthy westerners.

A certain type of people need gods and heroes.  And it is those people who are most likely to bend facts and commit violence in defence of what they believe their gods and heroes represent.

In reality, gods and heroes are simply reflections of how some people wish to see themselves, and how they wish the world worked.

Ideologies always cause more pain and death than facts.

This is why facts matter, and it is the reason I “do” history.

©2020, revised 2022


#BeforeWeWereWhite #GeorgeWashington #slavery #dentures

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