Hercules Posey

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Hercules "Uncle Harkless" Posey (1748 – May 15, 1812) was an African American slave owned by the Washington family, serving as the family's head chef for many years, first at the family's Plantation at Mount Vernon in Virginia and later, after George Washington was elected president of the newly formed United States of America, in the country's then-capital city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania at the President's House, working alongside Oney Judge. Sometime in 1797, Posey absconded and fled to New York, where he lived until his death in 1812. He was legally manumitted upon Washington's death in 1799, though his children remained enslaved by Washington's wife, Martha Washington.

Hercules Posey
DiedMay 15, 1812
Other namesUncle Harkless
OccupationChef to George Washington
Known forFugitive slave

Life at Mount VernonEdit

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

Hercules was probably born around 1754, and was acquired by Washington as collateral for an unpaid loan given to his neighbor John Posey, Hercules' original owner. He first appears on tax records for Mount Vernon in 1771. He would have grown up on the plantation.

He chose 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, Alice, 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 her death, he may have had another daughter (born c. 1791).[3]

Presidential householdEdit

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

Hercules 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).[4]

In the memoirs of Martha Washington's grandson, G.W.P. Custis, 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,[5] 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.[6]

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[7] gave slaves the legal power to free themselves.[8] 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 did not exist until the U.S. Constitution became effective in 1789.

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

New researchEdit

Stephen Decatur's book The 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]

New research documents that Hercules was left behind at Mount Vernon when the Washingtons returned to Philadelphia following Christmas 1796.[12] Historian Anna Coxe Toogood found Hercules and Richmond listed in the Mount Vernon farm records during the winter of 1796-97. They and other domestic servants were assigned as laborers, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.[6]

In November 2009, Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, discovered that Hercules's escape to freedom was from Mount Vernon, and that it occurred on February 22, 1797 – Washington's 65th birthday. The president celebrated the day in Philadelphia, but it was also a holiday on the plantation. An entry in that week's Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules "absconded 4 [days ago]".[13]

As reported by Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer in March 2019, Ramin Ganeshram uncovered new research about Hercules' final whereabouts after his escape. [14] Ganeshram and her Westport Historical Society colleague Sara Krasne found compelling evidence suggesting Hercules, who had never been seen again after 1801, in fact lived in New York City where he died on May 15, 1812. Their discovery offered never-before seen scholarship on Hercules.

The Westport Historical Society published an article in 2019, Sara Krasne found an index entry that listed a Hercules Posey of Virginia, aged 64, as having been buried in the Second African Burying Ground in New York City and as having died of consumption.[15]

Freedom for someEdit

Louis-Philippe, later king of France, 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 January 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.[16]

The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 "dower" slaves owned by Martha Washington's family.[17] Washington's 1799 Will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha's death.[18] 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. It is possible that Hercules did not know 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.[19] Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.


During his time at Mount Vernon, Hercules had three children, son Richmond (born 1777) and daughters Eve (also Evey; born 1782) and Delia (born 1785) with another enslaved woman, Alice, who belonged to George Washington's wife, Martha. He had a fourth child by another woman, after Alice's death, as reported by Louis Philippe I, who visited the plantation in 1797 and wrote in his diary of Hercules' escape to freedom and how he had left behind his six year old daughter. Neither his second partner's name nor his fourth child's name were recorded.[1]

While Hercules and all other African Americans enslaved by George Washington were ultimately freed in 1801, Hercules' children were not among those freed. Their mother Alice was property of the Custis estate, that of Martha Washington's first husband, and so, neither she nor George Washington owned them, but had been allowed to make use of them until Martha's death, after which they would be returned to the estate and divided among her descendants. A slave census taken in June of 1799, only a few months before George Washington's death, shows that Richmond, in his early twenties, was being made to work at the River Farm, farmland that made up the outlying part of Mount Vernon, while Eve and Delia, in their teens, like their father, were being made to work at the Mansion House Farm.[20][21][22] It's unclear what happened to them after Martha's death.


Long thought to be a portrait of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart but is neither Hercules nor painted by Stuart[14]

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's history and American history.

A portrait long attributed to Gilbert Stuart, now at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain, and thought to portray Hercules[5] was examined by experts in 2017 and, in fact, determined not to be Hercules at all. Nor was it painted by Stuart[14] but a free Dominican man.

A picture book for young children about Hercules, A Birthday Cake for George Washington illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and authored by Ramin Ganeshram, was published by Scholastic Trade Publishing in January 2016.[23] After receiving severe and widespread criticism for illustrations "depicting happy slaves",[24] it was pulled by its publisher.[25][26] In 2018, Ganeshram published The General's Cook the novel she had been working on prior to the publication of Birthday Cake. In the novel's acknowledgements, the author reprised public statements regarding her objections to and attempts to persuade the publisher to alter what she called the "offensive nature" of the picture book's illustrations.[27][28]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c 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. 277–83.1786
  3. ^ The sole source for this additional daughter is Louis Philippe's diary (see below). Louis Philippe's secretary estimated her age as 6, but the child may have been Hercules's younger daughter Delia, then 11 or 12.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ a b Lawler, Edward Jr. (2014). "Hercules". The President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall Association. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  6. ^ a b Craig LaBan, "Hercules: Master of cuisine, slave of Washington", The Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 February 2010, accessed 2 April 2012
  7. ^ "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. (1780)". The President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall Association. 2014. Archived from the original on December 22, 2015. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  8. ^ Any future child of an enslaved mother was born free, but also was required to work as an indentured servant for the mother's master until age 28.
  9. ^ President Washington's dilemma
  10. ^ Lawler, Edward Jr. (2014). "Richmond". The President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall Association. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  11. ^ Stephen Decatur, Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933), p. 296.
  12. ^ LaBan, Craig. "Hercules. Washington's Chef". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  13. ^ Craig LaBan, "A birthday shock from Washington's chef", The Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 February 2010, accessed 2 April 2012
  14. ^ a b c LaBan, Craig (1 March 2019). "George Washington's enslaved chef, who cooked in Philadelphia, disappears from painting, but may have reappeared in New York". The Philadelphia Enquirer. Retrieved 29 June 2020.
  15. ^ "Centuries-old mystery solved by Westport Historical Society". AP NEWS. 2019-05-16. Retrieved 2019-11-14.
  16. ^ Frederick Kitt to George Washington, 15 January 1798. The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, p. 25.
  17. ^ 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census, from University of Virginia Press.
  18. ^ "George Washington's Last Will and Testament". National Archives. July 9, 1799. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ "Landscapes of Slavery at Mansion House Farm". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved 2021-02-18.
  21. ^ "Slavery at River Farm". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved 2021-02-18.
  22. ^ "Founders Online: Washington's Slave List, June 1799". founders.archives.gov. Retrieved 2021-02-18.
  23. ^ Ganeshram, Ramin (January 5, 2016). A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Illustrated by Brantley-Newton, Vanessa. Scholastic. ISBN 978-0-545-53823-7.
  24. ^ Mondor, Colleen (January 14, 2016). "We Need to Stop Publishing Books Depicting Happy Slaves". Chasing Ray. Retrieved January 17, 2016.
  25. ^ "Scholastic pulls George Washington book over slave cake controversy". Guardian. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
  26. ^ "New statement about the picture book "A Birthday Cake for George Washington"". Scholastic. January 17, 2016. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
  27. ^ "The General's Cook". Skyhorse Publishing. Retrieved 2018-11-08.
  28. ^ "Interview with Ramin Ganeshram, author of The General's Cook: A Novel - Journal of the American Revolution". Journal of the American Revolution. 2018-11-05. Retrieved 2018-11-08.

External linksEdit