- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 21, 2021

America was experiencing major growing pains in the early 19th century, with rapid expansion westward, Northern and Southern states battling over slavery and political factionalism rending the young nation.

But even through competing agendas, George Washington, who died in 1799, remained a such a powerful symbol of unity that the Founding Father’s tomb at Mount Vernon became a site of pilgrimage for those committed to the American experiment in republicanism.

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that someone would try to steal the first president’s remains.

The attempt would fail. The thief likely made off with the bones of a Washington relative and was caught soon afterward. The great man’s remains, as far as anyone knows, have not left Mount Vernon since the day he died, and history has largely forgotten the episode.

The details remain sketchy. Neither the year of the attempt, the name of the thief nor the actual bones stolen are known for certain.

But the reports of theft caused a bit of a sensation when details leaked into the newspapers of the day. Congress soon was asking that Washington’s body be driven 18 miles north to be entombed in the Capitol as part of the celebration of his 100th birthday, Feb. 22, 1832.

Had Washington’s heirs at Mount Vernon not just built a new tomb in 1831 — historians say most likely spurred by the theft attempt — Congress might have prevailed.

“The attempt on the body is certainly a catalyst to ensure that the new tomb is constructed and the body is moved,” said Matt Briney, vice president of communications at Mount Vernon.

Grave concerns

Body-snatching was a widespread problem throughout the 1800s, and Washington wasn’t the only president targeted. Abraham Lincoln’s remains were nearly snatched in an Election Day 1876 plot, though one of the conspirators turned out to be a Secret Service agent who was working from the inside to foil the attempt.

The body of Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War-era pamphleteer, was dug up in 1819 and shipped to England as part of an effort to gin up pro-democracy sentiment. Over the years, his bones were split up. The Thomas Paine National Historical Association says the skull is probably in Australia and a leg bone is rumored to be in the wall of an English tavern.

The Paine theft sparked a renewed debate over Washington’s corpse and the value it might have if stolen. One correspondent in the Richmond Enquirer pondered the possibility of theft of the Founder to ship to South America, where it might spur Bolivarian revolutionaries battling Spanish rule.

Matthew Costello, now senior historian at the White House Historical Association, wrote his dissertation on Washington’s legacy in the 19th century. He found newspaper rumors of the body being targeted for theft as early as 1824, when The Eastern Argus reported that an English gardener planned to carry the remains to England for exhibition.

But Mr. Costello, author of “The Property of the Nation,” a book about Washington’s tomb, discredits the 1824 account. He wrote that the papers at the time said the thief made off with Lund Washington, who wasn’t actually entombed there.

The story made another round of the papers in 1829, though by then the stolen bones were reported to have been those of Lawrence Washington, the half brother who gave Mount Vernon its name and left it to George in his will.

An attempt was made in 1830, according to the best records Mount Vernon has, written in 1905 by Harrison H. Dodge, who was custodian of the estate for more than 50 years surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

The version Dodge tells is strikingly similar to the 1824 rumor, and also involved a fired gardener.

“His name I have never learned, nor do I know what was his nationality,” Dodge wrote. “Under cover of night he returned and forced the door of the old family-vault, taking from one of the coffins a skull which he supposed was that of General Washington but which proved to be that of one of the Blackburnes a relative of Judge Bushrod Washington’s wife. The man was apprehended the next day in Alexandria and the skull was returned to its place.”

Mr. Briney at Mount Vernon said they can’t been certain which account is correct. Based on the description in the Dodge account, the only relative it could be is Jane Charlotte, but she didn’t die until 1855.

Mr. Briney said the Washington family probably labored to keep the theft attempt secret, so the lack of known details makes sense. The theft was covered in several pamphlets about Mount Vernon in the 1850s.

Larger than life

It’s difficult to conceive now just how towering a figure Washington was for the new country.

In life, the Revolutionary War hero’s presence made the concept of a somewhat powerful national executive palatable to a loosely connected confederation of states that had just thrown off a king. After all, there was little doubt who would be the first to fill that executive role.

In death, Washington’s remains inspired a common thread of patriotism and unity that ran from Maine to Georgia, even as the states split more deeply into the anti-slavery industrial North and the pro-slavery plantation South. The tomb at Mount Vernon was a site of pilgrimage, and many of those who made the trek reported feeling a sense of near-religious rapture during their visits.

“Almost everywhere you went in America there was a portrait of George Washington. Towns, counties and cities were named after him,” said Jonathan Horn, author of “Washington’s End,” a book about the Founding Father’s final years at Mount Vernon. “They tried to raise their children to grow up to be George Washington.”

Mr. Horn said the decrepit state of the tomb was also seen differently by visitors. Some saw it as an affront to the great man. Others were thrilled with the simplicity and saw it as a testament to the country’s republican values.

Whatever the takeaway, there was no doubt that the tomb, now with about 20 members of the extended Washington family, was in bad shape.

Some accounts at the time talk of tree roots having sprung through the masonry. Others report that the location was low enough that water poured through when the Potomac River flooded, weakening the structure. Mr. Briney at Mount Vernon said both are likely to have been true.

Washington left directions in his will for a new tomb to be built. That the directive was not fulfilled until 1831 lends credence to the story of the theft attempt, Mr. Costello said.

Congress still wasn’t finished with Washington, though.

In the days after his death in December 1799, Congress passed a resolution calling for a marble monument to sit inside the new Capitol in Washington, D.C., which was under construction. Martha Washington gave a lukewarm consent. Mr. Horn said she was concerned that she might be separated from Washington in death, and assurances were given that wouldn’t happen.

In his 1825 address to Congress, President John Quincy Adams pointed out that the Capitol, after decades of work, was about to be completed and said it was time to move Washington.

Worries about the fate of Washington’s body were renewed when Bushrod Washington, the controlling heir at Mount Vernon, died in 1829. Newspapers speculated on whether the family could maintain the estate and fretted that a future owner might sell Washington’s bones.

In 1832, with the theft attempt in their minds and with the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth looming, Congress made a final attempt to get the body moved to the Capitol. Letters went out asking permission.

George Washington Parke Custis, step-grandson of the president, wrote that he gave “my most hearty consent.” He said it was “a great act of national gratitude.”

But the Virginia legislature, hearing of the plan, quickly passed a resolution opposing the move and urging John A. Washington II, the proprietor of Mount Vernon after the death of Bushrod Washington, to refuse.

“The fact that Virginia has been the birthplace of the best and most illustrious man that ever lived, is naturally calculated to inspire her citizens with a strong desire to keep his remains enshrined in the land of his nativity,” the General Assembly said.

With that backing, John Washington said he would not relinquish the body and gave the additional reason that he had finally completed the new tomb Washington dictated in his will. Disturbing him again would be an affront to the Founder’s own wishes, he said.

Mr. Horn said Virginia’s feverish defense of the body was ironic given that Washington felt politically estranged from his home state by the end of his life. The ideas of Thomas Jefferson were taking hold in a political faction that viewed itself opposed to Washington’s governing ideology.

Indeed, one reason to move the body was the belief that Washington would be a unifying presence in the capital city, his bones binding the sectional divisions. As Virginia’s legislature made clear, factional politics won out.

“One of the questions you see emerge in the debate was whether Washington’s memory belonged more to the state he called home or to the country he created,” Mr. Horn said. “It was a preview, in sense, of what would happen during the Civil War when both sides sought to claim Washington’s mantle for their own.”

Saving history

After the theft attempt, John A. Washington II belatedly rushed to fulfill the late president’s wishes in his will for a new tomb. He also hired a guard to keep watch.

The property eventually was bought by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which was formed in the 1850s with the mission of rescuing the property from rapid deterioration.

They tried to get the state of Virginia to take ownership, but the General Assembly refused — a surprising twist given the state’s stance in 1832.

So the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association took control in 1858 and launched a pioneering preservation effort.

Today, Mr. Briney said, an interpreter resides near the tomb to keep watch, along with a network of security cameras to prevent any further attempts at grave-robbing.

“Just imagine where we would be today if the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association didn’t come along and protected the home and purchased it from the Washington family and made it a secure site that’s open to the public today,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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