Centuries-old mystery solved by Westport Historical Society
WESTPORT — It’s a mystery that has intrigued historians for decades and now, after 218 years, has been solved — thanks to staff at the Westport Historical Society.
Ever since his escape from President George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in 1797, the final resting place of enslaved cook Hercules has been the subject of speculation among researchers and members of the history community. The last known sighting of the renowned culinary chef was in Manhattan in 1801.
“Some historians speculated he had gone to Europe where a presumed portrait of him attributed to Gilbert Stuart hung in a museum in Spain,” according to the society, but after that, the trail went cold.
That is, until archives manager and genealogist Sara Krasne got involved.
“No one knew what happened to him until two months ago,” said Executive Director Ramin Ganeshram, who has spent nearly a decade researching Hercules for a novel about his life. “His life and the life of other slave people at the president’s house have been the course of study for decades for historians, but what happened to him was just never discovered until Sara discovered him.”
It all started when Ganeshram received a call informing her the Hercules portrait she planned to use as cover art for her book was recently unauthenticated and, in fact, did not depict the chef.
After following a few hunches that ultimately turned out to be dead ends, Ganeshram wondered if there was a simpler approach to finding out what happened to Hercules, and teamed up with Krasne.
“Sometimes things are right in front of your eyes,” Ganeshram said.
Krasne reasoned that, having run away from his owners, Hercules would not have used “Washington” as a last name. Instead, she searched on familysearch.org for records of Hercules with the name of his previous owner — John Posey.
And she got a hit.
She found an index record listing a Hercules Posey born in Virginia around the right time period, and later buried in the Second African Burying Ground in New York City. He died in 1812 at 64 years old.
“Posey was not a good man, so it didn’t make sense for him to use that name because he wouldn’t have had any love for the man,” Krasne explained. “But ... if he needed to hide, he wouldn’t have used Washington. The Posey name seemed for me a logical fit because it was something no one would have thought to look under, and obviously no one had for 200 years.”
The duo then visited the New York City Municipal Archives, where their theory was confirmed. The physical documents and directories provided additional information about Hercules, including his street address, occupations as a laborer and cook, and cause of death: Consumption.
“I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” the director said, recalling the moment she realized the importance of their discovery. “I called Mount Vernon. ... I called everybody.”
Ganeshram considers this the biggest discovery made by the society since its founding in 1889. “There is no way to overstate the enormity of this find and the fact that she (Krasne) got it just like that — in days — when people have been looking decades.”
“This is really unique and pretty awesome,” Krasne said.
The two are currently advocating that a memorial plaque be installed by New York City in a public park across the street from Hercules’ burial site, as the original location is now occupied by two privately-owned buildings.
Back in the day, Krasne said, the Second African Burying Ground had reached capacity, and began burying bodies on the outskirts of the site.
While bodies within the burial ground were later reinterred in a Brooklyn cemetery, those outside the area were left there. Public records and reports indicate Hercules’ body remains buried under what is now pavement, according to Krasne.
But besides putting one of history’s mysteries to bed, Ganeshram and Krasne are hoping their discovery can play a larger role in correcting the public record.
“The National Park Service in Philadelphia, which manages the President’s House site where Hercules lived with Washington, is also changing its interpretation of the chef to indicate he lived out his remaining years as a free man working as a cook in New York,” according to the society.
The search to locate Hercules’ descendants is proving more of a challenge, but, Ganeshram said, “If anyone can find them, it’s Sara.”