Apocryphal stories about our nation’s first president abound.
Wooden dentures? Experts say disabusing the public of this myth is like … well, pulling teeth. (And George Washington did have several pulled, having suffered mightily from dental problems.)
Cherry tree tale? A young George is said to have been unable to fib about chopping into his father’s plant with a hatchet. A good story, but again, experts say they cannot tell a lie. It never happened.
And yet Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., says it has made an incredible and, experts believe, real find: a lock of George Washington’s hair inside a “long-forgotten book.” (The notion that he wore a wig is another myth, the onetime redhead actually powdered his long hair.)
Archivist John Reznikoff, who has earned a Guinness World Record for his celebrity hair collection, told the school, “Without DNA, you’re never positive, but I believe it’s 100 percent authentic.”
The long-buried treasure was uncovered after an archivist surveying the school’s oldest books in its Schaffer Library came across a leather almanac called Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793.
The book’s owner is believed to be Philip J. Schuyler. His father, Gen. Philip Schuyler is a school founder and one of Washington’s close friends, having served under him in the Revolutionary War.
The school’s catalog librarian then found a series of handwritten notes tucked between the pages of the almanac, including a slim yellowed envelope inscribed: “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. & G.B.S (crossed out) from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug. 10, 1871.”
“At which part, I paused,” Catalog Librarian John Myers told The Washington Post. He thought, “Not the Washington Washington’s hair.”
A peek inside revealed several strands tied together with a thread.
“It’s kind of this very curious yellow-gray hair,” Myers said. “I’m like, I’m no expert, but that really feels like the real deal.”
Susan Schoelwer, who is the Robert H. Smith senior curator at Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate, says proving it is the real deal can be a problem. If the hair was cut, it won’t contain the follicle — the part most easily tested. And if the shaft of the hair is tested, it can destroy the sample.
Schoelwer says short of DNA evidence, experts look at provenance.
The school, with the help of scholars, has come up with a theory: Washington’s hair was given to family friends the Hamiltons — Alexander was part of Washington’s Cabinet. James Hamilton, Alexander’s son and Gen. Schuyler’s grandson, then gave the envelope to his granddaughters, Louisa Lee and Georgina Schuyler. Remember, the initials on the envelope are L.L.S and G.B.S. and the school says the letters appear to match James Hamilton’s handwriting.
“The Hamilton family gives it a good bit of credibility,” Schoelwer says, although she is unable to authenticate the school’s claim.
But it seems like G.W. was doling out his locks like candy.
Schoelwer says Mount Vernon has five dozen hair samples that are reported to have come from Washington’s head.
“It was a way of preserving a memento of someone,” she said. “Usually hair was given out to close family and friends. But because of Washington’s fame, a lot of people wanted it. When he died, they cut off his hair to give to people.”
The school says it is unsure how Philip J. Schuyler’s almanac, with the hair inside, wound up in their archives.
Plans for a public display are in the works.
“It is a way of feeling like you are in touch with a tangible connection to the man who is regarded as the indispensable figure in the founding of our country,” Schoelwer says. “And I think that it’s very very powerful.”