Hercules (chef)

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This portrait, attributed to Gilbert Stuart, may portray Hercules.

Hercules ("Herculas", "Uncle Harkless") was a slave who lived at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia plantation on the Potomac River. He was the head cook at the mansion in the 1780s, cooking for the Washington family and their guests. In 1790 President Washington brought him to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (then the national capital) to cook in the kitchen of the President's House. Hercules escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon in 1797, and later was legally manumitted under the terms of Washington's Will.

Life at Mount Vernon[edit]

Mount Vernon from the north. Hercules was one of two cooks listed in the 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census.

He probably was born around 1755, and was either the child of Washington's slaves or was purchased following Washington's 1759 marriage to the widow Martha Custis. He would have grown up on the plantation.

He took Alice, one of Martha Washington's "dower" slaves, as his wife, and they had three children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785).[1] He, his wife, and the three children were listed in the February 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census, which records him as one of two cooks in the Mansion House.[2] Alice died in 1787. Following Alice's death he may have had another daughter (born c. 1791).

Presidential household[edit]

He was one of nine enslaved Africans brought to Philadelphia in 1790 by Washington to work in the presidential household. The others were his son Richmond (then 13 years old), Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Paris, and Joe (Richardson).[3]

In the memoirs of G.W.P. Custis, Martha Washington's grandson, Hercules was recalled as "a celebrated artiste ... as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States." The cook was given the privilege of selling the extra food from the Philadelphia kitchen, which by Custis's estimate earned him nearly $200 a year,[4] the annual salary of a hired cook. According to Custis, Hercules was a dapper dresser and was given freedom to walk about in the city.[5]

Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition law in 1780 which prohibited non-residents from holding slaves in the state longer than six months. If held beyond that period, the state's Gradual Abolition Act[6] gave slaves the legal power to free themselves.[7] Members of Congress were specifically exempted from the act. Officers of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government were not mentioned since those branches didn't exist until the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788.

When the national capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, there was a question about whether the state law would apply to federal officials. Washington argued (privately) that he was a citizen of Virginia, that his presence in Pennsylvania was solely a consequence of Philadelphia's being the temporary national capital, and that the state law should not apply to him. Rather than challenging the state law in court, Washington took the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, and systematically rotated the President's House slaves in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a six-month continuous residency.[8] This rotation was itself a violation of Pennsylvania law, but no one challenged the President's actions.[9] The U.S. Supreme Court later found Pennsylvania's 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act to be unconstitutional in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

"Washington's Residence, High Street". Lithograph by William L. Breton, from John Fanning Watson's Annals of Philadelphia (1830).

Washington allowed Hercules' son Richmond, then 13, to work alongside his father for about a year in the Philadelphia kitchen, before being returned to Virginia. In November 1796, Richmond was implicated in a theft of money at Mount Vernon. Washington concluded that the father and son were planning a joint escape.[10]

New research[edit]

Stephen Decatur, Jr.'s book, Private Affairs of George Washington (1933) stated that Hercules escaped to freedom from Philadelphia in March 1797, at the end of Washington's presidency. Decatur, a descendant of Washington's secretary, Tobias Lear, discovered a cache of family papers unavailable to scholars, and presented Hercules's escape from Philadelphia as fact.[11]

In reality, Washington left Hercules behind at Mount Vernon when he returned to Philadelphia after Christmas 1796.[12] The historian Anna Coxe Toogood found that the Mount Vernon farm records listed Hercules and Richmond at the plantation during the winter of 1796-97, where they were assigned as laborers, along with other domestic servants, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.[5]

In November 2009, Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, was able to document that Hercules escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon, and that his escape occurred on February 22, 1797 – Washington's 65th birthday – which the president celebrated in Philadelphia. An entry in that week's Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules "absconded 4 [days ago]".[13]

Freedom for some[edit]

Louis-Philippe, the future king of the French, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry:

The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."[1]

Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President's House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia:

"Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion."[14]

The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 "dower" slaves owned by Martha Washington's family. Washington's 1799 Will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha's death.[15] Washington died on December 14, 1799.

At Martha Washington's request, the three executors of Washington's Estate freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. There is no evidence that Hercules knew he had been manumitted, and legally was no longer a fugitive.

In a December 15, 1801 letter, Martha Washington indicated that she had learned that Hercules, by then legally free, was living in New York City.[16] Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.

Because Alice had been a "dower" slave – owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis – the children of Hercules and his wife were legally property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the "dowers" divided among Martha Washington's four grandchildren following her 1802 death.


A new building for the Liberty Bell opened in Philadelphia in 2003. During excavation in 2000, remnants of the icehouse of the long-demolished President's House were uncovered. A more extensive archeological excavation was undertaken in 2007, which revealed foundations of the kitchen, an underground passage that connected the kitchen to the main house, and foundations of the Bow Window (a precursor to the Oval Office). A memorial has been created on the site of the President's House to commemorate the house and all its residents, and honor the contributions of the slaves there and in Philadelphia and US history.

A portrait attributed to Gilbert Stuart, now at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain, may portray Hercules.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32.
  2. ^ 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census. Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, Donald Jackson & Dorothy Twohig, eds., (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press), pp. 277–83.
  3. ^ Sarah, the wife of "Postilion Joe", and their children took the surname "Richardson" after being free under Washington's Will. Joe was a "dower" slave, and was not freed.
  4. ^ Hercules biographical sketch at www.ushistory.org
  5. ^ a b Craig LaBan, "Hercules: Master of cuisine, slave of Washington"], Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 February 2010, accessed 2 April 2012
  6. ^ Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act (1780)
  7. ^ Future children of enslaved mothers were born free, but required to work as indentured servants for their mother's master until they attained their majority, age 28.
  8. ^ President Washington's dilemma
  9. ^ By strict legal interpretation, a slave's residency could be terminated by spending one day outside the state. Non-resident slaveholders exploited this loophole until Pennsylvania eliminated it with a 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act. It was this amendment that Washington repeatedly violated. He was also careful never to spend six continuous months in Pennsylvania himself (which might be interpreted as establishing legal residency), arguing that he remained a citizen of Virginia, and subject to its laws regarding slavery.
  10. ^ Richmond biographical sketch at www.ushistory.org
  11. ^ Stephen Decatur, Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933), p. 296.
  12. ^ LaBan, Craig. "Hercules. Washington's Chef". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 25 April 2012. 
  13. ^ Craig LaBan, "A birthday shock from Washington's chef", Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 February 2010, accessed 2 April 2012
  14. ^ Frederick Kitt to George Washington, 15 January 1798. The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, p. 25.
  15. ^ Washington's will
  16. ^ Martha Washington to Col. Richard Varick, 15 December 1801. "Worthy Partner:" The Papers of Martha Washington, Joseph E. Fields, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 398-99.
  17. ^ Hercules portrait?

External links[edit]