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Death of Washington, Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library

This Presidents’ Day, spare a thought for George Washington’s bones mouldering away in Mount Vernon. The nation’s first president rests in the tomb where he wanted to spend eternity, but that was not always the case. In fact, it took an attempted grave robbery to fulfill his last washes.

Among all the events connected to Washington’s storied life, the plundering of his tomb is among the most obscure. The most prominent references I’ve found are in accounts devoted to another attempted presidential grave robbery, the would-be corpse-napping of Abraham Lincoln.

The writer Tom Craughwell, historian par excellence of the Lincoln tomb robbery, tells the Washington story in his book Stealing Lincoln’s Body. Craughwell writes:

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 graverobber 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.

By 1799, the year Washington died, his family vault was in shambles, and his will called for a new brick tomb. Those wishes were initially ignored, however, because of plans to bury Washington in a crypt beneath the dome of the United States Capitol.

The chamber built for him there still exists, but the plans were never carried out. By the time of the attempted theft in 1830, according to Craughwell, water from the Potomac had caused many of the wooden coffins in the vault to rot away and spill their bones on the ground. Tree roots had also broken through the walls and destroyed the wooden casings on Washington’s casket.

Washington’s First Tomb

According to the page on Washington’s will at the University of Virginia:

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.

About 30 years after it was built, the tomb looked like this:

Washington’s Tomb. Photo courtesy Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

As far as I can tell from the Mount Vernon website, the tomb today looks pretty much the same (with taller trees, of course). But perhaps it’s worth wondering: without an angry gardener who had a penchant for bones, where would he be today?

George Washington Skull by Mike Essl. Check out: mike.essl.com

George Washington Skull by Mike Essl. Check out: mike.essl.com

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3 thoughts on “The Desecration of George Washington’s Tomb

  1. Thank you for this fascinating story. As a tour guide Washington DC I have taken groups to the old tomb and it still looks eepy. It’s on a little hill on Mount Vernon that overlooks the cultivated land and has a sign that calls it a vault . I was never able to figure out why it looks sad and abandoned.

  2. Thank you for this fascinating story. As a tour guide Washington DC I have taken groups to the old tomb and it still looks creepy . It’s on a little hill on Mount Vernon that overlooks the cultivated land and has a sign that calls it a vault . I was never able to figure out why it looks sad and abandoned.

  3. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #87: Washington’s tomb | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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