Hercules was born about 1755 in Virginia. He was married to lame Alice and had 4 children, including son Richmond who went to Philadelphia with General Washington in 1790. Hercules must have had many close interactions with newly returned James Hemings, first American trained as a classic French chef. Jefferson’s residence in Philadelphia was just down Market Street from Presidents house. If kitchen walls could talk!
Little is known about his early life; George Washington is believed to have purchased him in 1767, when Hercules was a 13-year-old ferryman. At Mount Vernon he was sent to work in the kitchen and clearly learned his kitchen craft well from Martha Washington’s longtime slave cook, Old Doll. It was Old Doll and other black slave cooks like her who created the first British fusion cooking, incorporating more than 1,000 years of English, Irish, Welsh, & Scottish cookery with its legacy of Roman occupation, and creating a delicious new cookery. Old Doll and others stirred it all into a big iron pot, along with Native cooking traditions, seasoning it with African spice, flavor, and ingenuity, creating the basis of colonial Virginian cookery. James Hemings, while in Paris as Jefferson’s chef, fused this new Virginian cookery with fine French Cuisine, codifying another level to Southern cuisine. It was the new James Hemings fusion that was preferred by both Washington and Jefferson.
Hercules was about 36, when George Washington as president tapped him to come north to Philadelphia. The white cooks who worked at the previous presidential residence in New York were “dirty figures,” Washington wrote to his private secretary, Tobias Lear. They would “not be a pleasant sight in view (as the kitchen always will be).” Washington clearly preferred Virginia plantation cooking by enslaved cooks to that of Frances Tavern in New York City.
One of the clearest historical accounts of Hercules as a chef was written by George Washington Parke Curtis (1781-1857) step grandson to President Washington, who grew up seeing “Uncle Harkless” preside over the kitchens at Mt. Vernon and in Philadelphia at Presidents House at 6th and Market.
“The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules, and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless.
Trained in the mysteries of his part from early youth, and in the palmy days of Virginia, when her thousand chimneys smoked to indicate the generous hospitality that reigned throughout the whole length and breadth of her wide domain, Uncle Harkless was, at the period of the first presidency [Philadelphia 1789-1797], as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.
He was a dark brown man, little, if any, above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.
The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his iron discipline, wo [woe] to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.
The steward, and indeed the whole household, treated the chief cook with much respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.
It was while preparing the Thursday or Congress dinner that Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor. During his labors upon this banquet he required some half dozen aprons, and napkins out of number. It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.
When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, “the labors of Hercules” ceased.
While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His perquisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptionable whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth coat with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat, and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days) of the president’s kitchen.
Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market street, [Philadelphia] attracting considerable attention, that street being, in the old times, the resort where fashionables,” Parke Curtis Wrote.
Hercules fell from grace when his son Richmond was accused of stealing money from a visitor’s saddle bags. General Washington was immediately suspicious (slaves with money) that both father and son were planning an escape. This is a contradiction to the fact that Washington allowed Hercules to sell “slop” or leftovers to colonial foodies on Market Street making about $200 year, and enormous sum in colonial Philadelphia.
Both the celebrated cook and his son were sent back to Mt Vernon with instructions from the General to teach them a lesson by having him dig clay for making bricks, wear field slave clothing and break rocks into sand.
Happy Birthday Mr. President:
In the early morning of General Washington’s 65th birthday 1797 Hercules ran away. He had to navigate the vast Mt Vernon plantation of 6,000 acres, and cross several rivers to reach Alexandria where there was a large free black community called the ‘Bottom’. Hercules then went on to Philadelphia where he probably had many friends among the Quaker abolitionist and a community of over 2,000 free blacks. Washington, who freed all his slaves in his will upon his death, never gave up trying to find his former cook. Although legally freed upon Washington’s death, and no longer a fugitive, his children remained in slavery. The children were the property of the Curtis estate, Martha’s first husband.
While visiting Mt. Vernon, Louis Philippe future king of France wrote in his memoires that when his youngest daughter was asked if she was sad her father ran away, she replied “no sir, I am happy he is free now’
Hercules was spotted in NYC in 1801 by a former secretary to Washington after the general had died. Martha declined to pursue him. He clearly didn’t spend all the money he made selling “slop” from Washington’s table.
Hercules and Hemings were both our real culinary founding fathers, responsible for bringing fine plantation cooking and fine dining to urban cities, first Philadelphia and New York, then later to the Jefferson White House.