If there was one tall hunk that nearly all the women of the colonies swooned over (and many in England and Europe, quite likely), it was Gen. George Washington. He was mobbed in the towns he passed through, he never sat out one dance, and even received groupie letters asking for a lock of his hair (which he obliged).
But the real historical record shows that all through his adult public life, George was free of substantive sexual accusations. Why? Because Washington was very aware of his image and character model, and always tried to live above reproach. He also was married to the woman who had become much more than just his “agreeable consort.” But more of that later.
Little Kate, the Washer-woman’s Daughter – It’s not like during the Revolutionary War the British or rumor mongers didn’t try to set him up more than once. In the August 17, 1775 issue of The Massachusetts Gazette; and the Boston Weekly News-Letter, a Tory newspaper published within British-held Boston, it was reported that the Royal Navy had intercepted a letter from Virginia Congressman Benjamin Harrison. It spoke of boring war things like procuring ammunition and gossip about engineers, but in the middle of the letter, it spoke of procuring “pretty little Kate the Washer-woman’s Daughter over the Way” for General Washington. Sensational seeming, but nobody bought the story. And it turns out the evidence that it was a forged letter was discovered in, of all places, the Public Records Office in London (now called The National Archives). The original untampered letter was sitting there, without the mention of “little Kate” in it. It had been forwarded to the British Secretary of State’s office by the other army commander in America – British Gen. Thomas Gage.
Mary Gibbons – A couple of years later in 1777, the British tried again to set up Washington. The claim came from the supposed captured trial records of conspirator Thomas Hickey, who was accused of plotting to kidnap or assassinate Washington. Two supposed witnesses gave incriminating testimony in the London-published expose of the trial. The first witness, “William Cooper, soldier”, testified that a female spy named Mary Gibbons was visited by Washington: “Mary Gibbons was a girl from New Jersey, of whom General Washington was very fond, that he maintained her genteelly at a house near Mr. Skinner’s, – at the North River; that he came there very often late at night in disguise.” Then, while Washington was asleep in Mary’s bed (wait, this gets better), a second witness swore that Mary rifled through the general’s pockets, had the top-secret documents she found copied, and replaced them when General George awoke. The trouble with the Mary Gibbons story is that the supposed two witnesses weren’t real people, so could never be found. In fact, Mary Gibbons couldn’t be found either. A big problem was that Martha Washington was in New York during the time of the story and George never left Martha at night on secret business, let alone for clandestine Mary Gibbons visits.
Forgeries by John Randolph – A London print office resourcefully tried again in 1777 to smear Washington’s name. A printed pamphlet by John Bew entitled Letters from George Washington to Several of his Friends in the year 1776 supposedly revealed captured letters from Washington. They were said to have been found in the satchel of Bill Lee, Washington’s slave, who was supposedly captured also. The pamphlet talks about his secret loyalty to His Majesty, how much he hates New Englanders, and how the war was one big misunderstanding. Phony letters to Martha were included, but unfortunately used phrases Washington never used in correspondence with her. This latest expose was reprinted by James Rivington, a loyalist New York newspaper editor. Historians are pretty sure the fake letters were penned by the loyalist and former Virginia attorney general John “Jack” Randolph. Randolph was first fingered by “Col. Tench Tilghman, then in his [Washington] military family and ‘well known to possess Washington’s confidence’ recorded in his writing in 1778 that he suspected ‘Jack Randolph for the author, as the letters contain a knowledge of his family affairs that none but a Virginian could be acquainted with.’” Nice try, John. But wait … in 1795, just eighteen years later, Washington, in the last part of his presidential second term, saw the two 1777 bogus stories come alive again! This time it was to prove that Washington had been an American secret enemy all along, which led to his recent declaration of neutrality in the war between England and France. It also showed that any piece of good gossip can always be resurrected and used again and again.
Thomas Posey and West Ford – The still-referred-to stories of George Washington’s secret love children also seem to never die. Never mind that George may have been sterile, stemming from a bout of smallpox he contracted in Barbados in 1751. The legends of Thomas Posey and West Ford claiming George Washington as their father were still being refuted into the twentieth century and remain with us today.
Thomas Posey was supposedly born in 1750 on a farm called “Rover’s Delight” situated next to Mount Vernon. Capt. John Posey, Thomas’s alleged father, had served on the frontier with Washington and had proven his courage under fire. Washington, the expert money manager, was the opposite of Posey, however. Through the later years, in spite of Washington’s guidance, it seems John Posey sunk lower and lower into alcoholism and debt, often borrowing large amounts of cash from Washington, other Virginians, and even people as far away as Maryland. Thomas Posey, on the other hand, took Washington’s advice and seems to have been an industrious kid. The problem was Thomas Posey’s parental lineage. No one really knew who his parents were. The math didn’t add up that he was the son of Captain John and Martha Harrison Posey. “Posey, according to one rumor, was born out of wedlock to the widow Harrison in Maryland before she married John Posey and moved to Virginia. Other rumors alleged that he was the illegitimate child of the irresponsible and irrepressible Captain Posey and another woman, or that he might even have been the natural son of seventeen-year-old GW [George Washington] and an unnamed ‘Low Land Beauty’”
Even though the identity of Thomas’s parents is somewhat of a mystery, Thomas said he “born of respectable parentage.” Just because Posey had a positive self-esteem doesn’t necessarily mean that he was coyly hinting that his father was George Washington. In fact, through his entire life, neither Thomas Posey nor his family ever claimed that he was Washington’s son. The tabloids of the 1870s and 1880s, however, had their own theories and they let the presses run.
West Ford’s story goes that once Washington left his military commission, he finally got back to Mount Vernon. But the legend says that when back, he headed out to visit Bushfield, the plantation nearly one hundred miles away which belonged to his brother Jack. It was there with a slave named Venus, it’s said, that he fathered a boy named West Ford, who was born sometime in 1784 or 1785. But records show (and Washington was a fastidious record keeper in his journals, account books and diary showing his every movement) that he never visited Bushfield once between 1783 to Jack’s death in 1787. But the West Ford Family oral history clearly shows Bushfield as the incident location and asserts strongly their entire body of facts and point of view. This end note will give you more information on both sides of this story.
Oh yeah. There’s one more story that barely calls for passing mention. It’s the outrageous story that Washington caught his fatal cold not from wet clothes, but from jumping, pants-less, from a snowy window after spending quality time with the wife of an overseer. Sheesh.
Sally Fairfax – But now we get into a story that’s true and is about as lustful as it can get when it comes to George Washington. In 1877, another assumed-forged letter popped up supposedly written by a young, single George, dated September 12, 1758. It was addressed to Sarah (“Sally”) Cary Fairfax, the beautiful, cultured wife of George’s friend George William Fairfax. The Fairfaxs lived at Belvoir, an elegant mansion owned by Sally’s father-in-law, south of Mount Vernon. In the clearly flirtatious letter, Washington confesses that he is a “Votary to Love” (“votary” meaning “a devoted follower”). But under very close scrutiny, the now-famous letter from Washington (logically called the “Votary to Love” letter) turned out to not be a forgery and shows the youthful, and by that time engaged to be married, Washington professing love for a married woman! The letter was quietly purchased in 1877 and removed from public sight for some eighty years. It was rediscovered in the 1950s sitting in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, where it was authenticated. Historians have been at a loss as to why an engaged Washington wrote the vaguely-worded love letter to another woman. There’s some who think George was fishing for validation that Sally also felt the same way. Or that George gave it the old last try before saying wedding vows.
Washington and Sally had been neighbors and friends for quite a while. They danced minuets at Belvoir and performed amateur theater together, such as Cato. In 1758, Sally nursed Washington through his bout of dysentery. But by all accounts, Sally was a huge tease and fully aware of the power she had over men – especially Washington. They had exchanged flirtatious letters filled with clear sexual innuendos, as was popular to do during that time. But she was a married woman and Washington was aware enough to know that acting on the attraction would only end in disaster. He knew that either a physical affair or having Sally leave her husband would create a scandal that, at the very least, would sink Washington’s aspirations, let alone ruin lives. So Washington gave the letter to Sally, let it go, and married Martha Dandridge Custis, which turned out to be one of the smartest and best things he did in his life. But whatever happened to Sally?
Before the war, the now-married Washington’s had been good social friends with the Fairfaxs, and Martha and Sally in fact had been fairly close. But finally, George Fairfax and Sally decided they had to move to England in 1773 because, being Loyalists, they felt it wasn’t safe in Virginia anymore. George Washington and Sally never saw each other ever again, but “the evidence indicates that Sally always held a special spot in George Washington’s heart.” And likewise, Washington possibly held a special spot in Sally’s heart also. We can surmise that when we know that for fifty years, Sally kept that “Votary to Love” letter in her possession (and remember – when the letter was written, Washington was just a regular guy and wasn’t the famous hero and leader of a new country). When the widowed, eighty-one year old Sally died in 1811 in Bath, England, the letter was found by a relative.
Even more poignant, in May 1798, Washington was finally back at Mount Vernon after winning the Revolutionary War and serving two terms as the first president of the new United States. It was just one year before his own death. Washington, possibly reflecting back on his life, wrote to Sally that none of the things he’d accomplished in his life, “nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind, the recollection of those happy moments – the happiest of my life – which I have enjoyed in your company.”
That doesn’t mean that the special bond that George shared with Martha was lessened. Theirs was an undisputed partnership of mutual love and support through forty years of turmoil, both private and public. Historian Peter Henriques very well summarized the differences between Sally and Martha, whom Washington lovingly referred to as “Patsy” (and Martha in turn, called George my “Old Man”): “Sally Cary Fairfax may have been the first real love in George Washington’s life, but Martha Custis Washington was the first real love of his life.”
 When autograph collecting became popular in the nineteenth century, collectors would acquire a letter written entirely in Washington’s hand, clip off the signature, and throw the rest of the letter away. After all, they knew it was the signature that was the important part of collecting autographs.
 George Washington to Richard Washington, September 20, 1759; The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series 6:359; also Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York, The Penguin Press, 2010), 99.
 Nigel Cawthorne, The Sex Lives of the Presidents (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 18; Thomas Fleming, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, (New York, NY, HarperCollins, 2010), 58-60; also http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2014/07/genuine-copies-of-intercepted-letters.html and http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2010/09/i-snatchd-golden-glorious-opportunity.html (both accessed February 22, 2016).
 Worthington Chauncey Ford, The Spurious Letters Attributed to Washington (Brooklyn, NY, privately printed, 1889), Introduction, 1-13; Fleming, Intimate Lives, 60-61; Paul Leicester Ford. The True George Washington (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1905), 106; https://books.google.com/books?id=WwtUAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA106&lpg=PA106 (accessed February 22, 2016).
 Ibid; Fleming, Intimate Lives, 61-62; Ford, Spurious Letters, 166; “A Letter from the Virginia Loyalist John Randolph to Thomas Jefferson”, American Antiquarian Society Proceedings, Vol. 30 (1920), 21.
 American Antiquarian Society Proceedings, 21.
 Historians often point to Washington’s supposed sterility as the reason George and Martha never had children. It’s been equally raised, however, that it’s also possible that Martha Custis, after having four children of her own in those days of primitive birthing methods, was simply unable to conceive any more children.
 Thomas Posey to George Washington, November 20, 1791, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0117). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 9, September 23, 1791 – February 29, 1792, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 207–209; quote can be found in “NOTES” (accessed February 22, 2016).
 John Thornton Posey, “Governor Thomas Posey: The Son of George Washington?,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 86, Issue 1, 28-49; http://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/11029/15767 (accessed February 22, 2016).
 Thomas Posey went on to eventually become a brigadier general in the Continental Army, a top state officer in Kentucky, a U.S. Senator for Louisiana and a governor of the Indiana Territory. It seems his “father” set an example of what not to be.
 To read more about this, visit the PBS Frontline Q&A sheet by Mount Vernon, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/video/tofords.html. They also offer a great video at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/video/report1.html. The West Ford Family website is at the bottom of the video homepage, or is at: http://www.westfordlegacy.com.
 In the ruins of Belvoir Manor, the original red brick foundation can still be seen today on the grounds of the U.S. Army’s Fort Belvoir. After the Fairfaxs left in 1773, it was confiscated in 1779 by the Virginia Act. Following a fire, the manor was destroyed in a clash by British artillery fired from a naval squadron on the Potomac River during the War of 1812.
 Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (Charlottesville, VA., University of Virginia Press, 2006), 69-70.
 Some of the more spicy parts of the letter were included in Henriques, Realistic Visionary, 70.
 Rumors flowed that the letter was bought by J.P. Morgan and that he felt he was doing it as his patriotic duty so as to not sully the name of George Washington with the scandalous letter.
 Henriques, Realistic Visionary, 82.
 George Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax, May 16, 1798, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-02-02-0204), (accessed February 21, 2016). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, January 2, 1798 – September 15, 1798, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 272–275.
 Colonial Williamsburg, “Martha Washington Remembers” at http://www.history.org/media/podcasts/052807/MarthaWashingtonRemembers.cfm (accessed February 11, 2016).
 Henriques, Realistic Visionary, 90.
Well done! You have dared address a question that many have pondered, speculated upon and failed to properly research for over 200 years. The inclusion of black propaganda into the story adds a fascinating element I had not considered. Excellent article.
Thank you, Hugh! I’m glad you enjoyed the examination of the many attempts to set up Washington or to sell tabloids. He was a refreshing true blue American hero who treasured his relationship with Martha and visa versa… with no vice.
Let’s not forget the story that George Washington had relations with one Rachael Fawcett Lavien, producing a boy who would go by the name of Alexander Hamilton. To my knowledge, this was first proposed in 1932. https://goo.gl/pF4nCf
Yes, Michael, you raise another good Washington rumor. That would explain why Gen. Washington favored young Alexander Hamilton so much within his military “family”.
And it had nothing to do with Hamilton’s high intellect, courage, or even complete lack of similar physical traits to his commanding general.
But facts have never been the basis for juicy gossip. Thanks for showing how ridiculous many of them are.
I am reading George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. It seems that Washington had a habit of flirting with married women, including Sally Fairfax, Nathanael Greene’s wife Catherine and Eliza Powell. How intense those flirtations were I don’t know, but it certainly seems more of a character trait and less of a series of isolated incidents.
Washington must be excused in the case of Mrs. Greene…a great many flirted with her (can you blame them?! Especially a certain General Wayne…..
Michael… sounds like a great article in the making! 😉
Mickey – Yes, General Washington could be a flirt (in a light way) with women and he certainly enjoyed their company. The flirting almost always ran two ways, like with Catherine Greene, a beautiful woman and a huge flirt herself. With George, it counters some historical criticism that he was an emotionless and rigid person. The “thing” with Sally Fairfax was when he was single and a pretty young guy. Every account shows that after he was married, any “intense” flirtation never happened on his part. He would never have let it happen. His relationship with Martha was the intense part that he cared about.
I am trying to find the name of the (girl) woman Washington was friends with as a boy and kept in contact throughout his life and was invited to this woman’s granddaughter’s wedding after he had retired from the presidency. The story I am trying to confirm is did Washington attempt to have a new army uniform tailored for himself but the work was not done in time because the work was done in London?