How Stories Get Started

William A. Brown

George Washington Masonic National Memorial

The easiest thing in the world to do is to tell the truth. The most impossible is to make somebody believe it.

George Washington never wore wooden teeth.

Back in 1961, several historians and curators were invited to the Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. We met with one of the curators and he told us the following story, and made us promise to try to stop people from saying George Washington wore wooden teeth.

He gave us pictures of Washington's teeth which were on display in the museum, and are now on display in the Smithsonian. The pictures we had framed and are now on display in the Memorial Museum. The following is the story he told, as well as I can remember it.

The story began in 1841, which was long after Washington had passed away. A dentist at that time wrote a medical paper, in which he told all the wonderful things doctors and dentists could do for people, if the Church would just back off and permit them to use anesthesia, such as was available at that time, like Belladonna, Laudanum, and Cocaine. At that time it was against the laws of GOD and the Church to use any form of anesthesia. In his paper he was showing all the wonderful things Doctors could do to save lives and suffering, also the problems of filling and saving teeth for people who just could not stand the pain. In the paper he used Washington's name as a matter of time, what he wrote was, "During Washington's time some poor people had to wear teeth of wood." Of course the Church would have nothing to do with it and so the paper was tossed aside.

Twenty years went by and the war broke out. The Doctors had to amputate to save lives, arms and legs came off, but the shock killed the poor soldier. About six months into the war and the Doctors rebelled against the butchery, and went against the Church and started to use what they had as an anesthesia, and started to save lives.

The Church found out about it and rushed into the Surgeon General's Office saying the doctors were going against the laws of GOD, and wanted it stopped.

Now there was no A.M.A. at that time to step in to protect the doctors, so each one wrote a medical paper in which he named names, and told of the many lives he had saved by using anesthesia. He also named those who had died because of the great pain they had suffered, by not being able to use anesthesia.

Now these papers backfired, and they became a social status for the Doctors in their home towns. Naturally if Col. Smith wrote a paper and told of all the lives he had saved during the war by using anesthesia, the people in his home town would look to Dr. Smith as the best doctor, thus it became necessary for all Doctors to write papers telling of their success, and the lives they had saved.

At that time a dentist, who had a copy of his predecessors paper, which was now over 20 years old, decided it was worth repeating, and he rewrote the paper, following the same continuity, but changing a word here and there. When he got to the place where his predecessor had written,"During Washington's time some poor people had to wear teeth of wood", he changed it to say; "Even Washington in his time wore teeth of wood."

That paper was written in 1871, and the story spread like wildfire, everyone wanted to believe, In spite of the fact that we have pictures, documents, and the medical records of Dr. John Greenwood, who was Washington's dentist and who in 1789 extracted Washington's last tooth and prepared a new set of dentures for the President. During the War, Washington had correspondence with Greenwood his dentist, requesting help in cleaning and repairing his plate. The records and letters of Dr.John Greenwood with the oil painting of Dr. Greenwood are in the possession of The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. With all this proof, and the fact that no place in the records of Dr. Greenwood does he mention wood teeth for anyone, there are always those who for a laugh will repeat the story of wooden teeth knowing it is false.

Also to show how stupid some of our Senators are, and I won't mention his name, but on March 29th l985, in a T.V. Talk show, he was telling stories of the great men of our country, and he made the following statement. "Paul Revere had made a set of teeth for Washington. This too is a false story. Paul Revere was a silver smith, and never made any teeth. What really happened, Paul made a little silver urn, in which he placed a lock of Washington's hair. This silver urn in now the property of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, and is there on display.

How the story of Paul Revere making a set of teeth for Washington ever got started, I have been unable to locate, but I know it is not true.

Why so many people are interested in such a macabre subject as teeth, and Washington's teeth in particular, I will never know.

As an example, to show what you have to overcome to straighten out a story. In the game "Trivia Pursuit", the question appears, "What kind of teeth did George Washington have?" the answer card said "wooden".

One hundred years from now, they will still be saying George Washington wore wooden teeth.

And so my Brothers, if there is any moral to this paper, it is the morality of Truth, and the answers you give to the young Mason when he ask you a question. Stop and think before you answer. Think of this story of Washington and the wooden teeth. Make sure you give the correct answer to the young Mason. The answer you give will stay with the young Mason and he will repeat it to others.

I am no authority on Masonry, and I have never had the pleasure of meeting one, but I like so many others know when a false answer has been given. How they ever expect an intelligent brother to believe some of the ridiculous stories which have been passed around,I will never know. Just because he may be the Master of his lodge or even the Grand Master, does not make him an authority, nor make ever word he speaks on Masonry as Truth.

I attended a lecture in the Library of Congress back in 1928. The speaker made a statement at the beginning of his talk which I will never forget. "There is no such thing as a silly question or a stupid question. There can only be a silly answer and a stupid answer."