J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Gen. Clinton Reads About Gen. Washington's Teeth

When I started this series of postings on dentistry with the arrival of John Baker in Boston, I’d never looked into that man’s life before. I was just trying to distract myself from the stitches in my gum. But the more I’ve scraped, the more I’ve found, and today’s posting is about how it’s even possible that Baker’s dental practice affected on the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

As I wrote on Tuesday, Baker set up shop in Williamsburg in 1772. He treated George Washington, among other Virginians. After the war began, he went on the move again. The Pennsylvania Packet of 24 Dec 1778 announced:

Doctor Baker,
SURGEON-DENTIST,
Has just arrived in this city from Williamsburg, Virginia. His stay here will be short. Those who are disposed to apply to him may not be disappointed.
This was, as far as I can tell, the first time Baker used the title “doctor” in advertising his services. And whether or not he intended to stay in Philadelphia at that time, he eventually did settle there for many years—perhaps the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Washington, now busy commanding the Continental Army, continued to consult Dr. Baker about his false teeth. On 29 May 1781, Washington wrote to him (as shown above):
A day or two ago I requested Col. Harrison to apply to you for a pair of Pincers to fasten the wire of my teeth. — I hope you furnished him with them. — I now wish you would send me one of your scrapers as my teeth stand in need of cleaning, and I have little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon. — It will come very safe by the Post — & in return, the money shall be sent so soon as I know the cost of it.
This letter is now in the papers of Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, then the commander of British land forces in North America. Despite Washington’s confidence that a scraper would “come very safe by the Post,” British spies or patrols must have intercepted Washington’s mail packet and delivered it to Clinton’s headquarters.

In mid-1781 Clinton was trying to figure out whether Washington and the French army that had landed in New England were going to attack him in New York, or whether he could send some of his troops south to reinforce Gen. Cornwallis. This letter told him that Washington felt he had “little prospect of being in Philadelph. soon.” The fact that the letter was about such a personal matter as cleaning his teeth implied that it was genuine, not a ruse designed to mislead enemy agents. And that meant any other documents in the same packet were probably genuine as well. Clinton gained confidence that Washington wasn’t preparing to head south through Philadelphia to attack Cornwallis.

Indeed, at the time he wrote, Washington was planning to attack New York. Just about a week before, he and the French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, had agreed to engage Clinton’s forces as soon as the French navy arrived. In July, Rochambeau’s land forces came into the New York theater.

But then in August, Washington and Rochambeau received a dispatch from the French admiral, the Comte de Grasse, saying that he’d left the West Indies to join up with American forces in Chesapeake Bay. Washington abandoned the plans for New York and marched to Virginia instead. Clinton had lost his chance to send reinforcements south, and in October the French and Americans forced Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. That turned out to be the decisive campaign of the war.

Of course, there were a lot of factors involved in Clinton’s decisions, and it’s unclear whether Washington’s letter to Dr. Baker played a significant role. But the mere possibility tickles me; teeth really do have deep roots.

According to James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of Washington, a couple of years later another letter from the general to Dr. Baker also went astray and ended up in Clinton’s files (now housed at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor). In that one, Washington asked for the plaster or powder that Baker had used to make a mold of his mouth—which he probably never got. I have to wonder how the general was sending his Philadelphia mail.

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