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Current Events: George Washington’s Teeth

Florida led the nation in tragic news and events in the last weeks of June. There were shark attacks, a condo complex collapsing into a pile of twisted metal and rubble, and a truck careening through a parade route killing one, critically injuring another, and almost hitting a convertible that was to drive Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. These stories ran for days thanks to the sensationalized titles that served as clickbait offering details of tragedy, death, and blame.

Looking more closely at the final story, I believe there is something for us to learn in how the news relates stories and how we feast on the sensationalized tragedies of others. When the news first broke about a white Dodge truck careening through an LGBTQ parade, the news stations were calling the event a “massacre,” a cold-blooded act of homophobic revenge, even a deliberate attempt by right-wing radicals to kill Congresswoman Schultz. Emotional responses and irrational fears fed this news story for days and put everyone on edge in the Fort Lauderdale area. The official police report, offered days later, tempered these emotions, calling it an “unfortunate accident at the start of the parade.” The driver, a member of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus, struck his own colleagues who were pedestrians in the parade, killing one and seriously injuring the other. His truck continued onward crossing all lanes of the road and crashed into a fence on the opposite side of the street where the congresswoman’s car was waiting to join the parade route. The seventy-seven-year-old driver, being unable to walk, had been chosen to have his truck lead the parade. Inching into the parade route, he suddenly accelerated, and the tragedy unfolded before everyone’s eyes, dutifully recorded on multiple phones and etched in the bystanders’ memories.

The slow pace (two days!) at which the actual facts in the story unfolded serves as a reminder to us to be careful in rash assumptions and knee-jerk reactions. Emerging information was reported and logical conclusions were drawn. The story continued to grow and change as more and more facts were made known. Dozens of different accounts were written before the police presented their official report.

Facts disabled the unfounded bias and irrational fears with which the initial accounts began. One fact, a truck careening through a parade route, made this story newsworthy. Additional facts made it sensational. It was an LGBTQ parade. The victims were part of the Gay Men’s Chorus. A congresswoman’s car was almost hit. There were facts, eyewitnesses, and videos, everything necessary to understand the event. Except the truth. There is no magic number on the quantity of facts needed to come to the truth, but the basic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how get you awfully close most of the time. In this case, we had the who (the victims, potential victim, and the driver), the where, the when, the what, and the how. We were missing the why. Without waiting for the why, readers and observers filled in the blank themselves, something that we are very comfortable with doing as rational creatures.

This story reminded me of an assignment I had during graduate school. The internet was not the vast treasure trove of information it is now (yes, I pre-date Google!), but there was sufficient information online to do quality research. The assignment was to write down facts on a note card and circle the one where you went “Oh, wow! I did not know that!” or “Wait! Is this true?” The purpose of the assignment was to show that we rarely know all the facts and that our initial understanding rarely fits with all of them. The topic given to me was George Washington’s teeth. My notecard read as follows:

  1. George Washington had dentures
  2. He had his first tooth pulled when he was twenty-four
  3. In his late fifties he started wearing dentures
  4. His dentures being made out of wood is a myth!
  5. He had multiple sets of dentures, but only one remains (on display)
  6. These dentures are made of gold, lead, ivory, horse teeth, and donkey teeth
  7. A second known set was made from human teeth: from slaves and poor people!
  8. George Washington was a slave owner (three hundred slaves at the time of his death)
  9. Washington purchased nine teeth from his own slaves (nine British pounds, about $100)

Number six was my “Wow” fact. Can you imagine having animal teeth in your mouth? Number seven was my “Wait a minute!” fact. I have not revisited this topic in twenty years, and some of the “facts” might have changed, but the principle remains. The more information I found, the more my thoughts on the topic and my understanding of the time period grew. I could have gotten by with only the first four or five facts for the assignment. Everything made sense and fit within the reasonable thoughts I had of our first president and the time period. Facts seven through nine made me both gasp and want to dig deeper into the story. I read one article after another on the topic of a man’s teeth! It was no longer about his poor oral health or his wealth, but now it was about slavery, the true cost of human life, and the conditions wherein people sell parts of themselves just to make ends meet. There is nothing new under the sun, and I should not have supposed the beginnings of our nation were any different, but the textbooks had not portrayed the time period so fully.

Young people, consider the news you read and how carefully and fully the news is presented. We are to be understanding of the times and to live in accordance with the proper understanding of what is happening around us. Learn from these examples, ask the right questions, and continue to dig for facts before coming to a conclusion. The truth is worth the effort.

 

Originally published September 2021, Vol 80 No 9