Finding a Lock of Hair, and a Link to U.S. History
Posted February 18, 2018 5:55 p.m. EST
SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — The red leather-bound book had long gone unnoticed, possibly for decades, shuffled around until an archivist stumbled upon it in the rows of shelves on the third floor of the library at Union College and passed it on to a librarian to be cataloged.
The librarian, John Myers, carefully flipped through its fraying brown pages. He found the title: “Gaines Universal Register,” or “Columbian Kalendar for the year of Our Lord 1793.” He figured out it was an almanac, printed in New York and filled with information — like the fledgling nation’s senators and its president, listed as George Washington Esq. There were personal notes, too. Myers saw that the book’s owner, Philip J. Schuyler, a businessman from a prominent family, had jotted down instructions on preserving beef in the summer months and stuffed a letter into the accordion folder built into the book’s cover.
Then, Myers found a slender envelope slipped into the almanac, its paper as brittle as the rest of the book’s pages. It was inscribed in cursive with initials that he did not recognize and at the top, “Washington’s Hair.” Inside, he found a lock of grayish-colored hair tied together with thread.
“It was kind of one of those ‘OMG!’ moments,” said Myers, the catalog and metadata librarian for Union College. “You know, this really feels like the real deal.”
Sifting through old books is part of the librarian’s job, so uncovering relics of history is not unusual. Myers previously found letters that offered details of the college’s founding more than two centuries ago. But his most recent find qualifies as an unrivaled experience. In recent days, after Union College announced the discovery, there has been a high level of excitement on the liberal arts college’s snow-covered campus, and it has drawn attention from around the country.
Yet, what is perhaps most surprising is that while finding strands of the first U.S. president’s hair is certainly significant, the discovery is not exactly rare. More than anything, the news comes as still another wrinkle in the long and somewhat bizarre history of the hair of an American forefather who was widely assumed to have worn a wig. (He did not.)
In fact, Washington had long hair that he meticulously coifed every day and powdered to look the way many recognize it on the dollar bill. Much of the hair that is still around was clipped off while he was alive, but researchers said some of it was cut off and saved immediately after his death and again when his remains were reinterred.
As a result, Washington’s hair has been the subject of intense fascination, long coveted as a tangible, and once-living, piece of the man who, for many, embodied the United States’ origin story.
“You could kiss it, hold it,” said Keith Beutler, an associate professor of history at Missouri Baptist University and the author of “George Washington’s Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders.” “It’s the ultimate communion experience with the ultimate American.”
In the course of his research, Beutler assembled a map of more than 100 institutions across the country — including museums and universities — that claim to have some of the former president’s hair. It was doled out as a form of political patronage, and possessing a few strands became a status symbol.
The hair has been woven into rings and other jewelry, and Beutler said it has even been part of dubious science experiments, including one, in 1849, in which the tensile strength of Washington’s hair was studied against hair belonging to African-Americans and Native Americans. For centuries, hair that was believed to have come from Washington’s scalp has been discovered in attics and amid family heirlooms. The New York Times reported in 1905 that Mrs. William McGarrett of Harrison, New Jersey, found strands of hair in a cedar box in her home, along with an affidavit declaring its authenticity and a note saying, “The God-like Washington, died 14th Dec., 1799. All America in tears.” More recently, in 2007, the Topps Co., which makes baseball trading cards and Bazooka bubble gum, issued three “relic” cards that included a strand of Washington’s hair.
The preoccupation is a testament to Washington’s singular place in U.S. history. He was not known for being an ideologue or even necessarily the most quotable figure, Beutler said. But, he added, in some ways, Washington became “this stand-in for all of American history.”
“There’s no one whose hair survives to that extent,” Beutler said. “It’s just surreal how much interest there was.”
In Washington’s day, perhaps unlike now, it was not unusual to request a lock of hair from a loved one or friend or even a highly regarded public figure. “Exchanging locks of hair were like the selfies of the day,” Myers said, adding that for its owner the book he found the hair in, an almanac, was “like his iPhone.”
Experts said it can be next to impossible to authenticate the many claims pertaining to Washington’s hair. For one thing, the DNA has likely worn down considerably over more than 200 years. Beutler figures that many of the locks that are purportedly Washington’s are not legitimate. Still, he and other experts contend it’s likely that just as many have a high probability of being his, including the one found at Union College.
“It has always been my feeling that hair locks, they fail or float based on the provenance,” said John Reznikoff, a documents expert in Connecticut who buys and sells relics related to historical figures and events. (He has also amassed what Guinness World Records has found to be the largest collection of hair from historical figures, a collection that includes Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein and two of the four Beatles.)
“Any relic, just by its nature, requires somewhat of a leap of faith,” Reznikoff said. “Is that leap of faith a crack in the sidewalk or a Grand Canyon?”
The provenance of the hair found at Union College appears to be promising. College officials are unsure how the book belonging to Philip Jeremiah Schuyler found its way to the archives, but his family has ties to the college, which was founded in 1795 and is among the nation’s oldest. Schuyler’s father, Gen. Philip John Schuyler, who fought in the Revolutionary War, was one of the college’s founders. The hair was believed to have been given to James A. Hamilton, the third son of the founding father Alexander Hamilton, by his mother, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. And the initials Myers did not recognize at first are likely those of James Hamilton’s granddaughters Louisa Lee Schuyler and Georgina Schuyler, to whom he passed down the lock of hair. In 1889, at a gala ball for the centennial of Washington’s inauguration, Louisa Lee Schuyler wore a pearl locket holding some of the first president’s hair, Beutler said.
Now that it has become clearer what has been found, the hair is being handled as the valuable piece of history it may very well be — with tweezers and wrapped in acid-free paper. India Spartz, the head of special collections and archives at Union College, said she plans to reach out to conservators about how to protect this unusual piece of history. “This is of such national significance,” she said.
For Andrew Cassarino, a senior history student who has been researching the college’s history, it has been fascinating to see how the discovery has highlighted the ties the campus has to the broader history of the United States. He noted the links to the Schuyler and Hamilton families, and a well-known speech by Eliphalet Nott, the college’s longest-serving president, about the evils of dueling, which, of course, led to Alexander Hamilton’s death.
“From these couple strands of hair,” Cassarino said, “you get this huge history.”