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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Sunday, August 11, 2013

George Washington and the Fish House Punch

Yesterday’s rerun of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! on N.P.R. reminded me that I wanted to look into a story its host had told about George Washington: that he went on a “three-day bender” on Fish House Punch, the favored drink of the Philadelphia gentlemen’s club variously known as the Schuylkill Fishing Company and the State in Schuylkill. Well, that’s the way that comedy game show put it. The Philadelphia Inquirer stated the case this way in 1992:
In 1787, George Washington was an honored guest at the club and no doubt sampled the punch. After he made an entry in his diary that he was en route to dine at the Fish House, his diary remains suspiciously blank for the next three days.
I’ve found references to that story as early as 1974. The 9 June 1975 New Yorker quoted a member of the club telling the same story, complete with the three-day gap in his diary—but no specific dates.

The club’s own History of the Schuylkill Fishing Company, published in 1889, states that members invited Washington to dine with them on 14 June 1787. They might have chosen that date because it was twelve years after the Continental Congress had voted to form the Continental Army. Or it might just have been convenient.

Washington was in Philadelphia that summer for the Constitutional Convention, and he kept a sparely-written diary of how he spent his time. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography published a transcript of that journal in 1889. Back at home in Mount Vernon, Washington copied those entries with a little editing into his main series of diaries, which can be read at Founders Online. Neither version shows any gap at all in the June entries, or in any other summer month.

Furthermore, Washington’s diary suggests he didn’t accept the Schuylkill Fishing Company’s invitation. His entry for 14 June says:
Dined at Major Moores (after being in Convention) and spent the evening at my own lodgings.
The editors posit that was Thomas Lloyd Moore, a major in the Continental Army. He wasn’t a member of the Schuylkill club.

On 30 June, Washington recorded that he:
Dined with a Club at Springsbury—consisting of several associated families of the City—the Gentlemen of which meet every Saturday accompanied by the females of the families every other Saturday.
This was the Cold Spring Club at Springettsbury. He went there again on 11 and 25 August and 8 September. The journal shows Washington dined out with other local social groups as well.

From 30 July through 4 August, Washington took two out-of-town fishing trips with Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and others. (He also went back to Valley Forge to look around: “Visited all the Works, wch. were in Ruins; and the Incampments in woods where the ground had not been cultivated.”) So Washington did fish. But I don’t see any record confirming the story that Washington visited with the Schuylkill Fishing Company in 1787 or sampled its Fish House Punch, much less felt under the weather for three days afterward.

Usually the burden of proof for historical stories rests on those telling them: they should provide evidence that events happened as they describe. Because of all the gaps in the historical record, skeptics needn’t prove something didn’t happen. But in this case the very records that proponents of the Fish House Punch story point to—Washington’s diaries for 1787—actually appear to disprove that legend.


Joe Bauman said...

Ha! I hope the folks on Wait, Wait read this. They should air a correction in their next show. Was it Wait, Wait where I just heard the word "midden" defined as a squirrel's heap of nuts? They should tell that to an archaeologist digging through a midden mound.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised that there's no evidence of a three-day drinkfest. That would likely be anathema to Washington's idea of gentlemanly conduct.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t hold the comedy game show responsible for this error since it appears in so many recent histories of the American cocktail and other sources. And it often appears with what looks like historical evidence: a supposed three-day gap in Washington’s diary, a record of the club’s invitation to him in 1787. But no one repeating the story took the step of confirming that “evidence.”

J. L. Bell said...

Most versions of the legend suggest that the Fish House Punch sort of snuck up on Washington, that he didn't mean to become as debilitated as he did. Of course, there's no evidence that he was debilitated at all, and the State in Schuylkill's punch must have snuck up from a distance since there's no evidence he actually visited that club when they invited him.