This is one of my favorite pieces by Mark Twain. I’m trying to track down its publication history and will add it to this post when I find it. It’s often presented online as a “short story,” but in the work itself Twain states that he compiled the material “from authentic sources,” actual newspaper clippings. Twain worked at newspapers early in his career, so it’s likely that he gathered clippings from various papers through the years. My guess is that this piece was first published sometime in the 1870s, but, again, I’m not sure. When I find original publication information, I’ll add it to the bottom of the piece.
A Biographical Sketch
The stirring part of this celebrated colored man’s life properly began
with his death–that is to say, the notable features of his biography
began with the first time he died. He had been little heard of up
to that time, but since then we have never ceased to hear of him;
we have never ceased to hear of him at stated, unfailing intervals.
His was a most remarkable career, and I have thought that its history
would make a valuable addition to our biographical literature.
Therefore, I have carefully collated the materials for such a work,
from authentic sources, and here present them to the public. I have
rigidly excluded from these pages everything of a doubtful character,
with the object in view of introducing my work into the schools
for the instruction of the youth of my country.
The name of the famous body-servant of General Washington was George.
After serving his illustrious master faithfully for half a century,
and enjoying throughout his long term his high regard and confidence,
it became his sorrowful duty at last to lay that beloved master
to rest in his peaceful grave by the Potomac. Ten years afterward–
in 1809–full of years and honors, he died himself, mourned by all
who knew him. The Boston GAZETTE of that date thus refers to
George, the favorite body-servant of the lamented Washington,
died in Richmond, Va., last Tuesday, at the ripe age of 95 years.
His intellect was unimpaired, and his memory tenacious, up to
within a few minutes of his decease. He was present at the second
installation of Washington as President, and also at his funeral,
and distinctly remembered all the prominent incidents connected with
those noted events.
From this period we hear no more of the favorite body-servant of
General Washington until May, 1825, at which time he died again.
A Philadelphia paper thus speaks of the sad occurrence:
At Macon, Ga., last week, a colored man named George, who was the
favorite body-servant of General Washington, died at the advanced
age of 95 years. Up to within a few hours of his dissolution he
was in full possession of all his faculties, and could distinctly
recollect the second installation of Washington, his death
and burial, the surrender of Cornwallis, the battle of Trenton,
the griefs and hardships of Valley Forge, etc. Deceased was
followed to the grave by the entire population of Macon.
On the Fourth of July, 1830, and also of 1834 and 1836, the subject
of this sketch was exhibited in great state upon the rostrum
of the orator of the day, and in November of 1840 he died again.
The St. Louis REPUBLICAN of the 25th of that month spoke as follows:
“ANOTHER RELIC OF THE REVOLUTION GONE.
“George, once the favorite body-servant of General Washington,
died yesterday at the house of Mr. John Leavenworth in this city,
at the venerable age of 95 years. He was in the full possession
of his faculties up to the hour of his death, and distinctly
recollected the first and second installations and death of
President Washington, the surrender of Cornwallis, the battles
of Trenton and Monmouth, the sufferings of the patriot army at
Valley Forge, the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence,
the speech of Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Delegates,
and many other old-time reminiscences of stirring interest.
Few white men die lamented as was this aged negro. The funeral
was very largely attended.”
During the next ten or eleven years the subject of this sketch
appeared at intervals at Fourth-of-July celebrations in various
parts of the country, and was exhibited upon the rostrum with
flattering success. But in the fall of 1855 he died again.
The California papers thus speak of the event:
ANOTHER OLD HERO GONE
Died, at Dutch Flat, on the 7th of March, George (once the confidential
body-servant of General Washington), at the great age of 95 years.
His memory, which did not fail him till the last, was a wonderful
storehouse of interesting reminiscences. He could distinctly recollect
the first and second installations and death of President Washington,
the surrender of Cornwallis, the battles of Trenton and Monmouth,
and Bunker Hill, the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence,
and Braddock’s defeat. George was greatly respected in Dutch Flat,
and it is estimated that there were 10,000 people present at
The last time the subject of this sketch died was in June, 1864; and until
we learn the contrary, it is just to presume that he died permanently
this time. The Michigan papers thus refer to the sorrowful event:
ANOTHER CHERISHED REMNANT OF THE REVOLUTION GONE
George, a colored man, and once the favorite body-servant of
George Washington, died in Detroit last week, at the patriarchal age
of 95 years. To the moment of his death his intellect was unclouded,
and he could distinctly remember the first and second installations
and death of Washington, the surrender of Cornwallis, the battles
of Trenton and Monmouth, and Bunker Hill, the proclamation of the
Declaration of Independence, Braddock’s defeat, the throwing over
of the tea in Boston harbor, and the landing of the Pilgrims.
He died greatly respected, and was followed to the grave by a vast
concourse of people.
The faithful old servant is gone! We shall never see him more until
he turns up again. He has closed his long and splendid career
of dissolution, for the present, and sleeps peacefully, as only they sleep
who have earned their rest. He was in all respects a remarkable man.
He held his age better than any celebrity that has figured in history;
and the longer he lived the stronger and longer his memory grew.
If he lives to die again, he will distinctly recollect the discovery
The above r’esum’e of his biography I believe to be substantially
correct, although it is possible that he may have died once or twice
in obscure places where the event failed of newspaper notoriety.
One fault I find in all the notices of his death I have quoted,
and this ought to be correct. In them he uniformly and impartially
died at the age of 95. This could not have been. He might have
done that once, or maybe twice, but he could not have continued
it indefinitely. Allowing that when he first died, he died at
the age of 95, he was 151 years old when he died last, in 1864.
But his age did not keep pace with his recollections. When he died
the last time, he distinctly remembered the landing of the Pilgrims,
which took place in 1620. He must have been about twenty years
old when he witnessed that event, wherefore it is safe to assert
that the body-servant of General Washington was in the neighborhood
of two hundred and sixty or seventy years old when he departed this
Having waited a proper length of time, to see if the subject of his
sketch had gone from us reliably and irrevocably, I now publish his
biography with confidence, and respectfully offer it to a mourning nation.
P.S.–I see by the papers that this infamous old fraud has just
died again, in Arkansas. This makes six times that he is known
to have died, and always in a new place. The death of Washington’s
body-servant has ceased to be a novelty; its charm is gone;
the people are tired of it; let it cease. This well-meaning
but misguided negro has now put six different communities to the
expense of burying him in state, and has swindled tens of thousands
of people into following him to the grave under the delusion that
a select and peculiar distinction was being conferred upon them.
Let him stay buried for good now; and let that newspaper suffer
the severest censure that shall ever, in all the future time,
publish to the world that General Washington’s favorite colored
body-servant has died again.