Wednesday, September 23, 2020

From Garden to Table - Geo Washington's (1732-1799) Slave Chef

Painting by Frederick Kemmelmeyer (c 1755-1821) of George Washington Reviewing the Western Army 1794


He was one of the first great chefs of Philadelphia - in fact, of the young nation. The chief cook in President George Washington's home here in 1790 had only one name: Hercules.

In the mansion's open-hearth kitchen, where elaborate banquets were prepared, where spitted meats sizzled and "fricaseys" simmered in cast-iron pans over hickory fires, underlings scurried to execute the orders of Hercules, "the great master-spirit," according to one account, who seemed to be everywhere at once.

To Washington, however, Hercules was what he called that "species of property" - a slave. And though his talents would earn Hercules extraordinary privileges, including an income, fine clothes, and freedom to roam the city, Washington also went to great lengths to maintain the bondage of his prized cook - with deception, slave catchers, and, eventually, an attempt to stash him at Mount Vernon.

Recent controversy over the President's House, at Sixth and Market Streets, has renewed interest in Hercules and the lives of the other eight slaves who worked for Washington during his presidency in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1797. Their story surged into the international spotlight with the 2007 dig that unearthed the kitchen foundation and an underground passageway leading to it, obviously used by servants. Ironically, the kitchen where Hercules toiled was just in front of the new Liberty Bell Center.

The attention, along with queries from The Inquirer, led to a reexamination of historical documents regarding Hercules' life and especially his escape in 1797, when he disappeared, never to be captured again.

One document, a Mount Vernon farm report, has established new facts: Hercules did not escape from his privileged post in Philadelphia in early March, as had been widely believed. He fled Washington's Virginia plantation, where he had been transferred and put on hard labor - and his disappearance was discovered on his master's 65th birthday.

Thus, the saga of Hercules has emerged as compelling historical drama - his rise from plantation slave to respected chef in the president's kitchen, his appearance as a loyal servant trusted to stroll the city's boulevards in fine clothes, and his clever escape...

Through the eyes of George Washington Parke Custis, the president's stepgrandson, who grew up in his Philadelphia home, Hercules was a "celebrated artiste" in the kitchen, "as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States." He also was the family's beloved "Uncle Harkless" and a gilded boulevardier, the "veriest dandy" of his age, Custis wrote in his 1860 memoir.

But contemporary historians such as Mary V. Thompson of Mount Vernon, Anna Coxe Toogood of Independence National Historical Park, David R. Hoth of the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, and Edward Lawler Jr. of the Independence Hall Association have gone beyond Custis' memories to tease the outlines of Hercules' narrative from household account books, correspondences, and Mount Vernon farm reports.

"It helps people understand . . . freedom for whites was often built on the backs of enslaved people," says Gary B. Nash, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Slavery is liberty's evil twin brother. We think of them as polar opposites, and yet they're joined at the hip."

But who, in fact, was Hercules, and what is his legacy? Chef-patriot? Early African American hero? Or was he simply a man bent on finding his freedom despite being a favored servant of the nation's great hero? And what was it like for a Virginia slave to land in the cosmopolitan Philadelphia of the 1790s? It was not only the new nation's political center, but also the nexus of its abolitionist movement, not to mention the gastronomic capital of colonial America.

The Custis reminiscences provide ample color to stoke the quaint legend of the dandy chef, who, once those "savory viands" were served to the "masters of the republic," would shed his white apron for the black silks and polished shoe buckles of his evening promenade. The porter would bow low, Custis said, as Hercules passed through the mansion's front door with his hat cocked and a gold-headed cane in hand, then headed down High Street to join "his brother-loungers of the pave."

But on these jaunts about town, Hercules was most likely exposed to possibilities of life beyond slavery in Philadelphia, the "North Star" of American abolitionism, according to Nash's 1988 book, Forging Freedom.

"When Hercules went to market to buy fish or meat, he'd find himself amidst hundreds of free black Philadelphians," Nash says. "It must have been wonderful."

It must have also been confounding for a man of such great status who remained a slave.

A look through the kitchen window of the President's House, however, provides a picture of Hercules' life beside the blazing hearth that is far from a leisurely stroll.

George Washington was no gourmet. Unlike his political rival Thomas Jefferson, forever a foodie after his diplomatic years in France, Washington was steeped in the ritual of simple tastes. He ate hoecakes for breakfast at 7, the white corn-mush patties swimming in butter and honey (to soften them for his famously sore teeth), with three cups of black tea. For his informal Saturday evenings, the fish-loving Washington regularly ate a humble hash of boiled beets, potatoes, onions, and salt fish (conveniently supplied by New England's congressional delegation) covered with fried pork scraps and buttery egg sauce.

But the president could also host in capital style, with regular feasts for 30 or more guests: senators, foreign dignitaries, Indian chiefs. And he needed a kitchen that could carry it off.

Hercules, the brawny and charming father of four, was Washington's choice. Little is known about his early life; Washington is believed to have purchased him in 1767, when Hercules was a 13-year-old ferryman. But Hercules clearly learned his kitchen craft well at Mount Vernon from Martha Washington's longtime slave cook, Old Doll. By the time Hercules was about 36, the president tapped him to come north to Philadelphia. The white cooks who worked at the previous presidential residence in New York were "dirty figures," Washington wrote to his private secretary, Tobias Lear. They would "not be a pleasant sight in view (as the kitchen always will be)."

Washington was keenly aware of the political importance of dining room ceremony, and his regular Thursday dinners with members of Congress would set an impressive standard for the nation's first power meals.

These were the nights, Custis wrote, "when Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor."

The kitchen staff, having toiled from the fire-stoking before dawn until the 4 p.m. service, would typically produce more than two dozen dishes laid out over two courses, plus a finale of fruits, walnuts, and sweet wines. The elegantly mirrored pedestal adorned with spun-sugar figurines was surrounded with puddings, soups, boiled meats, smoked gammon ham, game birds, fish, seasonal vegetables, jellies, and cakes.

With the president scooping pudding for guests and leading the meal in toasts, his wife the consummate hostess, and servants in the family's red-and-white livery, these were dignified affairs awash in Madeira, porter, cider, and French claret, but deliberately shy of aristocratic Euro pomp.

Addressing an incoming steward, Washington directed "that my table be handsomely, but not extravagantly, furnished." He had carefully logged each purchase coming into the house for seven weeks, in part because of overspending by the previous steward.

These detailed colonial logs, recently made available by Mount Vernon and never before published, provide a rare seven-week view into the president's larder and the sheer magnitude of this kitchen's task. With Congress drawing to a close and talk of avoiding another war with Britain likely swirling around the table, May 1794 brought forth a presidential gush of banquets.

During the week of May 19, for instance, the kitchen prepared 293 pounds of beef, 111 pounds of veal, 54 pounds of mutton, 129 pounds of lamb, 16 pounds of pork, calves' feet (for sweet colonial Jell-O), 44 chickens, 22 pigeons, 2 ducks, 10 lobsters, 98 pounds of butter, 32 dozen eggs, myriad fruits and vegetables, 3 half-barrels of beer, 20 bottles of porter, 9 bottles of "cyder," 2 bottles of Sauternes, 22 bottles of Madeira, 4 bottles of claret, 10 bottles of Champagne, and 1 twenty-eight-pound cheese.

Working in an 18th-century kitchen was backbreaking, with heavy iron pots swinging on cranes, whole animals turning on spit jacks, and tin reflector ovens beside the roasting-hot fires. Even the basic tasks, such as purifying sugar from large loaves, were a lengthy chore.

But the meat - regularly more than a quarter-ton each week, give or take a pig - was an astounding amount for a staff of roughly seven to butcher, boil, roast, or fry into "fricaseys," "ragoos," pastry-wrapped "coffin crust" pies, and scallopini-like "collops" rolled "olive-style" around forcemeat.

At least Hercules did not bake desserts. And contrary to Custis' image of him, he may not have always been in charge, either. The steward oversaw all the marketing, inspected each morning by Martha Washington after breakfast. The account books also contain numerous records of professional white cooks who worked for the household for various durations.

But while the hired cooks and stewards came and went, Hercules was the mainstay in the kitchen. And the Washingtons rewarded him with tokens of their approval. There were tickets to see a play at the Southwark Theater (The Beaux' Stratagem) and the spectacular riding acrobatics at Ricketts' Circus (America's first), according to account books. There were bottles of rum to mourn the death of his wife, Lame Alice, an enslaved Mount Vernon seamstress. A reluctant Washington also granted Hercules the favor of bringing his 13-year-old son, Richmond, to Philadelphia as a kitchen scullion and chimney sweep.

Most telling, though, was allowing Hercules the right to sell the kitchen "slops" - the remaining animal skins, used tea leaves, and rendered tallow that would have been compost on the plantation. In the city, these were lucrative leftovers, an income-producing perk traditionally bestowed on top chefs, including James Hemings, Jefferson's Paris-trained slave chef, who was paid a salary and soon to be freed.

For Hercules, that meant annual earnings of up to $200, if Custis is accurate, as much as the Washingtons paid hired chefs. That income was no doubt what allowed Hercules to buy his dapper wardrobe, his velvet-collared blue cloth coat with bright metal buttons, and a pocket watch dangling from a long fob.

He was dressed for adventure in a city that, for a country kitchen slave, must have been astounding on many levels.

As a food artisan, he found himself walking in what was the culinary capital of the United States, bursting with politicians and international diplomats, and a vibrant port that welcomed boats weekly from Europe, New England, and the Caribbean. That same week of May 19, 1794, according to the Philadelphia Gazette, there were casks of raisins and hogsheads of Tenerife wines from the Canary Islands waiting at the Walnut Street wharf, Grenadan rum just landed at Dock Street, Boston mackerel and "country gin" at Front and Spruce Streets, and, at 117 S. Front St., French hams, olives, brandied fruit, baskets of anisette, and Gruyère cheese.

According to local food historian William Woys Weaver, the bustling High Street market with arcaded stalls was teeming from the river to Fourth Street with local bounty: river shad, passenger pigeons, famously delicate salt-marsh mutton, Chester County cream cheese, and the yellow dessert apples Washington was known to covet. Ladies sold hot buckwheat cakes for breakfast, and black street vendors like Flora Calvil made spicy West Indies pepper pot stew.

The Caribbean and French influence grew exponentially during Hercules' stay in Philadelphia, as the Haitian slave rebellion and the French Revolution flooded the city by 1793 with well-trained European cooks. It's hard to imagine these exotic new flavors didn't have some influence on Hercules and the fashion-conscious Washingtons. Their cuisine was largely rooted, with plenty of Virginian embellishments, in English influences such as their well-thumbed edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse.

Use of the tomato, Weaver says, was becoming widespread in Philadelphia. And the ornately fluted ice creams known as "fromage glaces," made by Victor Collet at 127 N. Front St. in 1795, would become nationally renowned. The Washington account book for June 25 that year shows an ice cream mold purchased for $7.

Undoubtedly, Hercules also had ample opportunity to talk kitchen shop with Hemings, a fellow Virginia slave whose training in France under the chef of Prince Louis-Joseph de Bourbon gave then-Secretary of State Jefferson's table, just blocks away, a special sophistication.

But there was likely another topic simmering in the air between them, too: freedom.

Hemings could have claimed his liberty in France, where slavery was outlawed. But he returned with Jefferson on the promise that he would be freed if he passed his knowledge of French cookery onto Monticello's kitchen staff. Jefferson made good on that promise, freeing Hemings in 1796.

Pennsylvania had already become the first government in the New World to begin the abolition of slavery with its Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. And with the Quaker-backed Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery and Free African Society working on their behalf, there were 1,805 free blacks in the city in 1790, while only 273 remained enslaved, according to the federal census as noted in Nash's book. By 1800, the slave number had dropped to 55 among a black population of 6,436, about 10 percent of the city's population.

The Washingtons were deeply concerned.

To circumvent the Gradual Abolition Act, which allowed citizens of other states to hold slaves only six months before the slaves could claim their freedom, the Washingtons regularly and illegally shuttled their slaves across state lines before the deadline expired, thus resetting their residency at zero. And Washington wanted to keep it secret at all costs - even if it meant a lie.

"I wish to have it accomplished under the pretext that may deceive both them and the public," he wrote to Lear. ". . . This advise may be known to none but yourself and Mrs. Washington."

It wasn't long before the slaves figured out why they were being shuffled back and forth between Philadelphia and Virginia by stagecoach and boat, but Hercules, Lear wrote Washington in 1791, was "mortified to the last degree to think that a suspicion could be entertained of his fidelity or attachment to you."

"So much did the poor fellow's feelings appear to be touched that it left no doubt of his sincerity."

But was he? Or was Hercules, in fact, setting the Washingtons up for his own flight?

Martha Washington showed her trust by allowing Hercules to stay, at least once, beyond the six months. But the president clearly never relaxed.

He signed the Fugitive Slave Act that Congress had overwhelmingly approved in 1793, which allowed slave owners to retrieve their runaways anywhere, even if captured in non-slavery states. Then, after Martha Washington's maid, Oney Judge, escaped while the family was eating dinner in Philadelphia on May 21, 1796, Washington went on high alert.

There was cannon fire in Philadelphia on the morning of Feb. 22, 1797, as 16 rounds of salute - one for each state - rang out in celebration of the nation's greatest hero.

It was the 65th birthday of George Washington, the "man who united all hearts," as John Quincy Adams called him. And with Washington's final weeks as president ahead, the event was celebrated with "more sincere joy" than ever, according to the Philadelphia Gazette. People of all classes paraded to the President's House at Sixth and Market. At the ball that night, there were so many splendid dancing ladies and gentlemen "the room appeared like a grove of moving plumes," the paper wrote.

At Mount Vernon, however, Washington's birthday began with a sobering discovery: Hercules was gone.

Hercules had been the president's prized cook, a charismatic slave whom Washington had handpicked to come north to Philadelphia, where he prepared celebrated feasts for the Washingtons and their stream of high-profile guests.

But recent revelations in historic farm reports from Mount Vernon have turned up a new twist to the 213-year-old story of Hercules and his escape.

Contradictory to long-held beliefs, the chef did not flee from his vaunted position in Philadelphia at the end of Washington's second term. He had landed in distinctly less comfortable circumstances that miserable winter.

Washington was on guard to prevent another escape during his final months in Philadelphia, where in the spring of 1796 Martha's maid, Oney Judge, had run away. So when he returned to the capitol that fall, Washington left Hercules in Virginia.

Runaways from Washington's estate weren't uncommon, and though some managed to flee to the British during the Revolution, most failed, writes Wiencek. Four men escaped in 1761, only to be recaptured. A slave named Sam was caught several times trying to run away. One named Tom was caught and sent away in handcuffs to be sold in the West Indies. Hercules' literate contemporary Christopher was caught when a note to his wife detailing his escape plans was discovered.

Oney Judge proved Philadelphia was a risk. But back at Mount Vernon, surely, Hercules would be secure.

The once-trusted chef, also noted for the fine silk clothes of his evening promenades in Philadelphia, suddenly found himself that November in the coarse linens and woolens of a field slave. Hercules was relegated to hard labor alongside others, digging clay for 100,000 bricks, spreading dung, grubbing bushes, and smashing stones into sand to coat the houses on the property, according to farm reports and a November memo from Washington to his farm manager. "That will Keep them," he wrote, "out of idleness and mischief."

When Hercules' son Richmond was then caught stealing money from an employee's saddlebags, Washington made his suspicions of a planned father-son escape clear in a letter: "This will make a watch, without its being suspected by, or intimated to them . . ."

By February, after several days of working in the damp chill, Hercules had had enough. Before dawn on Feb. 22, 1797, he launched his quest for freedom.

The recent discovery by Mount Vernon historian Mary V. Thompson of this key detail in the weekly farm report from Feb. 25, 1797 - "Herculus absconded 4 [days ago]" - has finally solved two long-held mysteries: the place and timing of Hercules' flight.

Hercules' rough confinement at Mount Vernon reinforces the complexity of Washington's struggle with slavery. Ultimately, he would be the only Founding Father to free his slaves, an act he added to his will in the last year of his life, historian Henry Wiencek wrote in An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.

It was a decision born both of Washington's evolving moral battle with the paradox of human bondage after the War for Independence and of the increasing failure of his plantation as a viable slave business. His slaves, however, were not to be free until the president and his wife were dead.

That Hercules chose his master's big day, Feb. 22, as the moment to escape has been greeted with cheers of poetic justice.

"Happy birthday, George!" Wiencek said of the news. "Hercules is a lot gutsier than we even thought. It was a lot harder to get out of Virginia than Philadelphia."

"The irony is absolutely perfect," said lawyer Michael Coard, a founder of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, an activist group dedicated to bringing attention to Washington's nine slaves at the President's House. It plans to hold a Hercules Freedom Day there today at noon. "It couldn't have been scripted better," he said.

Escaping Mount Vernon was no small feat. The estate where Washington's mansion overlooks the Potomac was an 8,000-acre plantation encompassing five farms with at least 316 slaves. And the dreary weather that February was bone-chillingly damp, according to farm reports, alternating between rainy 40-degree days and snow at night.

Historians such as David R. Hoth, associate editor at the Papers of George Washington, believe Hercules "almost for certain" would have first headed to Alexandria. The port city would have provided ships out of Virginia and the temporary safety of a community of free blacks.

But getting there would not have been easy. What today is a simple 15-minute drive north was in 1797 an arduous and winding route. To flee the hump of land that was Mount Vernon, surrounded by river, creek, and marsh, Hercules likely would have had to start veering northwest before connecting to River Road at Little Hunting Creek, says Pamela Cressey, Alexandria city archaeologist. He could have passed through woods, small paths, and fields on his way north. But there was likely only one ford across the Great Hunting Creek. Heading east then, he would have passed the high bluffs of Hoof's Run Creek into Alexandria, where there was an enclave of free blacks known as the Bottoms.

With the stormy weather and treacherous night travel, the journey would likely have taken at least two days, Cressey said. And for Hercules, the clock was ticking.

The Mount Vernon overseer would have noticed his absence at dawn, when slaves reported to work, says Thompson. "He only had a 12-hour head start, if that."

For more than two centuries, the supposed script of Hercules' escape has been different. Most historians believed he slipped away in Philadelphia, disappearing from the President's House on the morning in March 1797 when Washington left the presidency and headed home for Mount Vernon.

In a letter from March 10, 1797, the traveling Washington writes from Head of Elk, Md., to his secretary in Philadelphia, Tobias Lear: "I pray you to desire [steward Frederick Kitt] to make all the enquiry he can after Hercules, and send him round in the Vessel if he can be discovered & apprehended..."

But historians such as Thompson, Hoth, Ed Lawler, and Anna Coxe Toogood of Independence National Historical Park continued to tug at loose threads in the letters that didn't quite jibe.

Why would Washington, in a letter to dispatch his men to maintain the hunt for Hercules "at any expense," declare his certainty that the slave had "gone to Philadelphia" if it was from there he had escaped?

"The phraseology bothers me, too," Lawler wrote.

The mystery began to unravel when Toogood discovered in the farm reports references to Hercules digging clay at the time the president was hosting his farewell feasts in Philadelphia. Then Thompson, having learned of Toogood's finds from The Inquirer, turned to the farm reports again. She found what she was looking for in the 1797 report from Feb. 25: "Eureka!" she wrote in an e-mail.

The discovery changes much about the perception of Hercules' motivations. After years of being portrayed as a favored servant simply walking off into a Philadelphia famous for its abolitionist options, the revelation of his labors on the plantation lends a new poignancy to his escape.

"Hercules had occupied such a high position, this [hard labor] strikes me as a pretty severe punishment," Wiencek said. "It's certainly a humiliation. The community of slaves would all have looked up to him as tight with the boss, with the ability to earn his own money and live in the mansion with autonomy. And then he's just tossed down from the mountain, and he's one of the grunts."

Wiencek is one of several historians who has interpreted Hercules as a master manipulator, one of the few slaves who managed to negotiate privileges from Washington, including the perk to earn an income by selling kitchen "slops," and freedom to wander the city: "His competence gave him great value to the Washingtons."

Hercules may have also been "setting his masters up" with protestations of loyalty, Wiencek wrote in his book, noting a 1791 exchange when Hercules realized the Washingtons were concerned he would escape. Tobias Lear wrote the president that "he was mortified to the last degree to think that a suspicion could be entertained of his fidelity or attachment to you."

But the new information that Hercules did not escape from Philadelphia despite six years of opportunities may prove that he was more faithful than previously believed. Until, of course, he was put on clay-digging duty at Mount Vernon.

"That would have been a horrible, horrible circumstance," said historian Annette Gordon-Reed, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on Thomas Jefferson's slaves, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. "Knowing he had a shot back in Philadelphia to become a free person, it had to have been a horrible feeling."

Family may have long been a factor delaying Hercules from leaving. He had at least four children at Mount Vernon who might have been punished. In a letter to his farm manager after Richmond's theft in 1796, Washington wanted Hercules' son to be "made an example of."

By the time Hercules fled in 1797, the three children he'd raised since his wife died 10 years earlier ranged from in age from 11 to 20. A fourth child, a daughter of 6, seemed to have understood her father's need to leave. A Mount Vernon visitor asked whether she was "deeply upset that she would never see her father again."

She replied, according to the future French king Louis-Philippe, in his Diary of My Travels in America: "Oh! sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."

There were northbound boats leaving Alexandria in early March 1797, according to Hoth, who cited the Columbia Mirror and Alexandria Gazette: The schooners Jerusha and Trial headed to Philadelphia, as did the sloops Dianna and Peggy. The sloop Polly left for Baltimore on March 2.

Either way, Hercules would have had to stow away, historians say, a difficult but not impossible task. Later in her life, Washington's runaway maid, Oney Judge, told a newspaper in New Hampshire that she had escaped from the President's House just eight months before Hercules, thanks to the abolition-minded sea captain John Bowles and her "friends among the colored people of Philadelphia."

If Hercules managed to reach Philadelphia, he could have accessed that network.

According to historian Gary Nash's book Forging Freedom, Philadelphia at the time had the largest free black population in the United States, with major clusters near Northern Liberties and Cedar Ward, near Fourth Street and modern-day South Street. Richard Allen, the pioneering abolitionist who founded the historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets, also had a chimney-sweep business that did work at the President's House, according to account books.

It is also a good possibility, Wiencek says, that Hercules had set aside a stash of money and clothing.

"Hercules was much better prepared than most to not only escape but to stay escaped," Hoth agreed.

Washington, in his ever-evolving conflict over slavery, lamented to his nephew George Lewis in November 1797, that the "inconvenient" fleeing of his cook had him reconsidering his vow never to buy another slave.

But he was convinced of Philadelphia's hold on his former chef. He sent two notes to former steward Kitt the following January, nearly a year after the escape, urging him to hire men to keep up the hunt: "If proper measures were employed to discover (unsuspectedly, so as not to alarm him) where his haunts are . . . it would render me an acceptable service as I neither have, nor can get a good Cook to hire."

There was one hearsay sighting later that month, Kitt replied. But then, for the nearly two remaining years of Washington's life, Hercules was gone.

Where Hercules ultimately landed we may never know.

"Doubtless, he finished his days working for someone very rich because he could handle the demands of that scene very well," Weaver said.

But in the small world of colonial America, where Washington could track down Oney Judge in Portsmouth, N.H., it's possible, historians say, that Hercules believed the United States was no longer safe.

"Canada's a possibility," Nash said. "That's where [several] Mount Vernon slaves who fled to the British ended up, in Nova Scotia."

A supposed portrait of Hercules in full cook's regalia that has been attributed to Gilbert Stuart has become one of the iconic images of the slave memorial being built at the President's House and now scheduled to open this year.
Once attributed to Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) Assumed to be a Portrait of Hercules, George Washington's Cook, 1797.

Along those lines, some, like Thompson, believe that a painting supposedly of Hercules purportedly by Washington's portraitist, Gilbert Stuart, might hold a clue, beginning with the aristocratic residences in Europe where it has hung, including the dining room of a famed socialite's Parisian mansion, a baron's manse in Gloucestershire, England, and its current home at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Spain.

Legend has it that Stuart was so impressed by Hercules' talents in Philadelphia that he painted a portrait of the president's cook, too, said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania who curated an exhibit with the painting Presumed Portrait of George Washington's Cook.

But questions regarding its provenance and age raise tantalizing possibilities of a later sitting and European journey for Hercules.

To begin with, Stuart experts do not acknowledge it as part of the artist's work.

"I'm familiar with it," said Ellen Miles, curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. "But it's never made it into the basic Stuart books."

The cut and fashion of the subject's white coat says late 18th century, Miles said. But his chef's hat is a tall toque that didn't become popular until the early 19th century, said Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer, a librarian at the Culinary Institute of America.

Could it have been painted after the cook settled in Europe, perhaps after joining the household of a British diplomat?

"It's possible," Nash said, citing a Russian portrait of Jean LaPierre, who he believes is the former slave "Negro John" who returned to Europe with Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish military leader who fought as a colonel in Washington's Continental Army.

Either way, Hercules resurfaced at least once more in the United States. He was spotted in late 1801 by Col. Richard Varick, Washington's former recording secretary, who was then mayor of New York. In responding to his alert, Martha Washington wrote "to decline taking Hercules back again."

But the date is key. On Jan. 1, 1801, according to biographer Patricia Brady, Martha Washington decided to free all 123 of her late husband's slaves, despite his wish that they would not be freed until both he and his wife were dead.

Did the former slave know he'd been freed?

"Hercules," Nash chuckled, "was a clever, clever guy."