The University Record, February 18, 1998

Washington's letter to his dentist left British chief wondering about tactics

Gen. George Washington's letter to his dentist, Dr. John Baker, in the holdings of the Clements Library. Photo courtesy Clements Library

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

He had to give up his birthday (Feb. 22) to the official President's Day, one of the scheduled Monday holidays. And as a young man, he gave up most of his teeth to a smallpox infection. Now most of us will have to give up information we have thought true since elementary school: George Washington did not have wooden teeth. He did have dentures made of a variety of substances, but wood was not among them.

Among the holdings at the Clements Library is a letter from Washington, commander of the American forces during the Revolutionary War, to his dentist in Philadelphia. He asks Dr. John Baker for wires to hold his dentures in place and a scraper for cleaning his teeth.

The letter never got to the prominent dentist who maintained a national clientele. It and other messages were stolen from a courier by the British. Once the confiscated mail was routed to Sir Henry Clinton, chief of the British Army at the time and based in New York City, military intrigue reigned.

Clinton questioned whether the letters in the packet were authentic, or phony correspondence that had been planted and their capture "arranged." Was this packet nothing more than false intelligence? The British commander, basing his decision on the dental letter, determined that the capture was "good," and the intelligence contained in the entire bundle was reliable. Clinton was sure that the letter to the tooth doctor would not have been included with other communications had the packet been intended for interception.

This seemingly innocent letter helped reinforce Clinton's belief that Washington intended to attack New York City. While Clinton prepared for this confrontation, Washington moved his forces to Virginia where he defeated Cornwallis.

The Clements Library found Washington's letter after purchasing the voluminous papers of Sir Henry Clinton in 1937.