We're delighted to bring you one of the bonus episodes from our other podcast, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
In Intertwined Stories, we're featuring extended interviews with some of the expert contributors to the main Intertwined show.
Today, you'll hear part of the conversation that Jim Ambuske and Jeanette Patrick had with Ramin Ganeshram about Hercules Posey. Posey was the Washington’s enslaved chef, and for more than 200 years old we didn’t know happened to him after he self-emancipated on George Washington’s birthday - February 22, 1797. But now we do.
We hope you enjoy this episode, and to hear more Intertwined Stories, search for your favorite podcast app for Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon or find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com
Episode published: April 6, 2022
Transcript created: July 10, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
JIM AMBUSKE: Hi everyone. It's Jim Ambuske. I'm just popping in to say that instead of a regular episode of Conversations at the Washington Library, we're delighted to bring you one of the bonus episodes from our other podcast, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington's Mount Vernon. We're calling this bonus series Intertwined Stories, and it features extended interviews with some of the expert contributors to the main intertwined.
Today, we're delighted to bring you part of the conversation that Jeanette Patrick and I had with Ramin Ganeshram about Hercules Posey. Posey was the Washington's en slave chef. And for more than 200 years, we didn't know what happened to him after he self-emancipated on George Washington's birthday, February the 22nd, 1797.
But now we do. We hope you enjoy this episode. And to hear more Intertwined Stories, search your favorite podcast app for Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Or find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.
BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
JIM AMBUSKE: Welcome to Intertwined Stories. I’m your host, Jim Ambuske
In this mini-series, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
To create that show, we interviewed over twenty scholars, some of whom are descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community, for over an hour each. We couldn’t fit everything into the main series, so we’re happy to bring you extended versions of some of those conversations now.
In Episode 5 of Intertwined we encountered Hercules Posey, a man enslaved by the Washingtons, worked as their chef, and who self-emancipated from Mount Vernon in February 1797. For over 200 years, we had little idea of Posey’s whereabouts after he left the plantation. But thanks to recent research, now we do.
To learn more about Hercules Posey, we talked to Ramin Ganeshram. She’s a chef herself, historian, and the Executive Director of the Westport Museum for History and Culture in Westport, Connecticut.
Ganeshram is also the author of the novel The General’s Cook, which is a marvelous fictional tale about Posey and his life.
Intertwined’s co-creator Jeanette Patrick served as the lead interviewer for our conversation with Ganeshram. We pick up the story with Posey’s flight to freedom in February 1797. And you won’t believe what happens next.
JEANETTE PATRICK: Can you describe what happened on February 22 of 1797, and based on the documentation, but also based on, you know, what think happened and why this date is significant.
RAMIN GANESHRAM: So February 22nd, 1797, is the 65th birthday of General Washington, President Washington. He's in Philadelphia celebrating. It's important to understand that in Washington's lifetime, his birthday was celebrated with much fanfare. Even before it was a formal national holiday, it was a de-facto national holiday for Americans. There were around the country balls and party's, fireworks to celebrate his birthday. So while he's in Philadelphia attending what is to be his last birthday night ball, during his presidency, and during that day, there's fireworks displays, the ships in the harbor are shooting off cannons to celebrate the President, at the same time at Mount Vernon, liquor, rum and small bits of food are given to the enslaved people to toast the General to celebrate as well. So there sort of given the night off, so to speak, to celebrate Washington's birthday and toast his health. At some point during these... I don't wanna call them revelries, because how excited can you be to toast to the health of the man who's enslaved you, but during this period of time where people are kind of drinking and just doing their thing, he disappears, he leaves. And that's it. That's what was known about what happened to him., Washington tries to find him, has men in Philadelphia looking for him. He is cited once more in 1801 in New York City by the then Mayor of New York, Mayor Varick, who was a friend to the Washingtons.
Washington has already died by this time, and Varick writes to Martha, and says, "I've seen your cook. Do you want me to apprehend him?" And she says, "No, I declined to take him back essentially because I found a white cook who answers just as well." Which we know isn't true, she spent endless time complaining about the very poor quality of cooks that came through once Hercules was gone. So here's what I think happened. And I think what we eventually found, myself and my colleague, Sara Krasne eventually found... Sort of gives credence to this... So I think that he was able probably to make it by foot or small boat to Alexandria, which is the main town very close. And from there, whether he got there on foot or got to Alexandria by a smaller boat, got on to a larger boat to Philadelphia. This is what I think happened... Where he would have had people that he likely knew, including abolitionists. So what you have to understand that the Pennsylvania abolitionist society was very, very active at this time. The very prominent members, including Benjamin Rush, and I think he probably got to Philadelphia and got help to go to North. He couldn't have stayed in Philadelphia in my opinion, Washington expected him to be there. Hercules was famous in his time. People knew him, they recognized him, they knew who he was. It would have been too dangerous to remain in Philadelphia.
So the irony is, in my book, in my novel, I decided that he’s sighted in New York... He remains in New York, he works in New York as a cook, and builds this free life. It was complete conjecture on my part, it's kind of what I wanted him to happen to him because I'm from New York City, I'm born and raised in New York City. So I was like, this feels good to me. When we found two years ago, my colleague and I were able to find out what happened to him, and I'll just digress a minute and say that that story directly relates to Mount Vernon. Which is that when Lives Bound Together was opening and the very famous portrait long thought to be Hercules was finally authenticated and determined not to be Hercules and not to be by Gilbert Stuart as was thought. It was an embargoed, as you all know, it was embargoed information. And when it was announced, my colleague Craig Laban, was the only reporter allowed there... Was writing a story about it. And he contacted me and he said, "I have some news for you." And I'll never forget what he said... He said, "You're not gonna like it."
And I said, "What's that?" He said, "The portrait's been authenticated." And I said, "Oh... " And he said, "It's not Hercules." And I said, "I know it's not Hercules." And he said, "How do you know that?" I said, "cause that's not a chef's toque that he is wearing." So people who know the portrait know, it's a very regal, black man, yes, there he is with a white jacket and what looks like a toque, and toques didn't come to America, 'til the 1820s. So I always knew it wasn't Hercules. But what I didn't know was... Whoever this gentleman was, I knew two things about him. The first is that whoever he is, he kept Hercules alive because that title "Portrait of George Washington's Cook", it kept him alive. Like I'm getting emotional. So, so when he said that to me, he said, "But you know what it looks like is this... These portraits of free people of color in the West Indies, in the Dominican Republic by a man named of Augustino Bunia, it's not a "Bunia" painting." And I started to think about it. So I am half-Trinidadian.
And when he said that to me, I thought, this person is a person of religious importance, because in West African religions they are still foundationally important in the Caribbean, wearing white is a sign of prominence. So, I digress to say to you, when Craig said that to me, I started to think, but, what if it was Hercules and he went to the West Indies? What if you went to the West Indies and had himself painted because that title is crazy... "Portrait of George Washington's Cook". We now think it was kind of like a joke on a person who had acquired it in the 1920's. But at the time I thought that's really too much of a coincidence. So, or maybe his parents were from the West Indies. So, I asked my colleague here at Westport Museum, who is a very skilled genealogist, "Can you try to help me find his parents? Is it possible in any way that they were from the West Indies from the Caribbean?" Which by the way, it's very possible, because the Caribbean, many enslaved people came to the United States, not from the Caribbean, equally as directly from Africa, particularly by the late 18th century. So she says to me, "Well, what's his last name?" And I said, "What are you talking about?" And she said, "What's his last name?" I said, "Well, he didn't have a last name." And she said, "Well, his previous owner... What was his name?" I said, "His name was Posey, but Hercules didn't use that name." And she was like, "Oh, I don't know."
And I said, very cocky, I said, "Trust me, if he was using that name... If I didn't know it... Mary Thomson, at Mount Vernon would know it, Craig Laban at the Philly Enquirer would know it. Adrian Miller, who was the President, like there are people who would know this." And she basically said... She's a genealogist... she doesn’t care, so I'm looking... She found him, she found Hercules Posey buried in the second African burying ground in New York City died May 15, 1812. And still in all I said to her, "It's a coincidence". Right? So we go to New York City to the municipal records to get the death record, born in Virginia. The age is right. So then we start looking in the city directories. So at the time you had to pay to be part of a city directory. You couldn't... It was like the Yellow Pages, you had to pay. And we find him and it lists him as laborer. And I thought, Uhg, so then I decided to look at all the census documents, all the directories for this period of time in New York, there's no other Hercules, there's no other Posey, black or white, right?
So someone in Boston, a research from Boston finds a different city directory for New York City. Hercules Posey, Cook. So then that was it. So then I basically, I called. I went to Columbia Journalism School, I called the library there and begged and begged and begged them, 'cause I live in Connecticut and I couldn't get down there to go through all the directories, they had them, and they found it directory after directory, Hercules Posey, Cook. So that was it. I called Mary, I called everybody, I was like, I think this is him, this is him. And I think we all pretty much agree that it is. So the thing about it, he did work as a cook, he certainly made enough money to pay for himself to be in a directory. The interesting thing is the burying ground where he was buried by the time of his death in 1812, was overflowing it's borders, which was common in municipal burying grounds in New York City. And so they would start burying people outside of the granted land, which today is pavement and roadway. And when the Second Avenue subway, which as an aside, has been being built since I was born, and I'm... 53, will never be built. They were doing GPR, ground penetrating radar of this pathway proposed pathway. And they knew that there had been a burying ground there that had been disinterred the in 1840s. But just to be sure, there is evidence of burial under the road there, so I think he's still there along with other people. So that's what happened to him.
PATRICK: It's an incredible story. Yeah, it's amazing that you were... You guys are able to track him down and that he was in fact using Posey as his last name... It's incredible.
AMBUSKE: You kind of talked about it a little bit, about what you were thinking and feeling in those times, but wondering if you recall sort of the moment where you had pretty much come to the conclusion in your mind that who you were seeing in the directory was in fact Hercules.
GANESHRAM: Well, I was kind of jumping up and down, screaming, honestly, I was like, Oh my, I couldn't believe it. And I was calling everybody and I just felt this relief. It's hard to explain to you, I'd felt this... I spent, you know, 12 years trying to tell his story and get him the recognition that I believe he deserves. So when that happened, for me personally, it felt like... It almost felt like he was saying to me, "You didn't waste your time." So, I think... I fully believed that it was him, but the moment for me that I just knew, I knew... I knew that it was him and he was still there.
I had gone to Christy Street to see the site, which is in downtown New York, in... Manhattan Bridge. And I have this kind of, I'll admit to you, cukkoo habit of talking to him in my head, 'cause I've been doing it for a dozen years, and I'm walking down Christy Street and you know, I'm from New York. And I know this street and I'm just kind of walking along, thinking, thinking, and I'm looking around, knowing full well there's no signs of the 18th Century city virtually anywhere in New York anymore. And I said to him in my head, "Hercules, if you're really here, just give me a sign. Something I haven't seen before, something I didn't notice. I'm just standing there and I was kinda looking down. I was like in my phone, actually, thinking this. And I look up and right across from me is a dry cleaning van and it's... "Hercules Dry Cleaning".
It's crazy, right?
GANESHRAM: And I was like, That's it. That's it. He's here.
So it was just a relief. It just made me... I felt sort of vindicated like I'm not completely nuts...
And by the way, I'll tell you in terms of crazy coincidences, when I had first posited the idea that he could still be there, the firm that did... That Craig had, I think written about it in his story, the firm that had done the ground penetrating radar for the City of New York of the potential burials, they contacted me to say, "Yes, we're gonna send you the report." But here's the crazy thing, they're located in the town where I live, and I live in Connecticut. I thought that we all live in Manhattan. I live in Westport, Connecticut, and I mean, this isn't like Stanford Connecticut... Which was not a big city by any stretch of the imagination, they live right here. So it was just kind of all these weird things that happened that kind of confirmed to me.
PATRICK: That’s amazing! Are you still researching Hercules even if so... What questions are you still trying to answer, what parts of his life are you still working to uncover...
GANESHRAM: I'm trying to find out for whom he worked in New York, 'cause while we know he was a cook, we don't know where. Was he cooking at the tavern, was he cooking in someone's home, was he doing a combination as a caterer. So I'm trying to find that out. The pandemic kinda derailed that a bit... A lot. So that's one thing, and we really are very interested in trying to find his children or his descendants. They kind of disappear, the two girls are given to two of Martha's grandchildren as gifts, essentially. And Richmond kinda disappears. So I'm hoping that Sara, who is a truly a gifted genealogist can somehow find them. We did have a lead, a gentleman who is interestingly a chef... contacted me. His surname is Posey, and he thought his family was originally from Virginia. He was in maybe Tennessee, I'm not remembering it now, but that was a dead end. He was probably frankly, descended from somebody enslaved by... Somebody in the Posey family... John Posey's, larger family. But that's what we've been doing. Researchers have been trying for many, many, many, many years to determine what happened to these children. But, you know, people tried for 218 years to find out what happened to him. So when people tell us, you're never gonna do it, I think, you know, maybe we won't, but... We have to try.
The important thing to understand about him, to me is that... He, I believe, especially again, going back from that one period account of him, he understood how skilled he was. He understood how talented he was, he was proud of himself, right. As he should have been, which is so remarkable, considering the condition he was forced to exist in as another man's property. To still have that presence of mind, and I just want people to understand that while he was remarkable, that was not remarkable. Enslaved human beings are human beings. Right? They were human beings who who knew things that had skills and love their children and understood that their lives matter. So this sense of self-possession and dignity just to simply survive slavery, it was there. So I'm always kind of fighting that we can never forget the horror of what was done to him and done to everybody who was enslaved Mount Vernon and Monticello and Montpellier and up here in New England and throughout the United States for hundreds of years. But, you know understand that, that didn't make him down trodden. He wasn't anyone's fool. That's what I want people know about him.
AMBUSKE: Intertwined Stories is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.
I’m Jim Ambuske, your host and producer for this episode.
Jeanette Patrick and I co-created and co-wrote the main series, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Brenda Parker brought it to life as our wonderful narrator. Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.
Thank you to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon whose generous financial support made this show possible.
Please rate and review Intertwined on your favorite podcast app. We’d love to hear what you think, and it will help more people find the series.
And remember to check out our website for full transcripts, teacher resources, and suggested readings. You’ll find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com
Thanks for listening.