The Day Jefferson Got Plastered

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The frightened women refused to leave and their presence angered Browere, who admitted that because of them, “I had to pull the old gentleman’s ears a little.” The “old gentleman” put it less lightly in his letter to Madison: “There became real danger that the ears would separate from the head sooner than from the plaister.” Finally Browere freed the last bits of plaster. He washed Jefferson’s face while Burwell hurried for fresh clothes. The sculptor and slave then supported the gasping man to a couch in his study, where he rested for half an hour.

Meanwhile, grandson George had gone to Charlottesville and by now was telling a tale of horror to a crowd of wide-eyed townspeople: how Browere had almost suffocated his aged and beloved grandfather, assaulted him with a hammer and chisel, cut his scalp, and torn loose his ears. Soon newspapers took up the story; the Charlottesville Gazette reported that Jefferson had almost been suffocated, and that his arm had been broken by “this modern Gorgon, Mr. Browere, who regardless of Mr. J’s life, seems to have thought only of the trophy he was likely to carry off in the shape of the cast.”

Jefferson himself did not mention his displeasure to the artist; on the contrary, he invited Browere to stay for dinner and spend the night, and later he and the sculptor joked about the day’s misadventure. The two men stayed up late discussing a wide range of subjects, as Jefferson loved to do. Jefferson even presented Browere with a face cast of Lafayette done by the French sculptor Houdon to compare with the one Browere himself had done the previous summer.

The artist left Monticello the next day. From his mold, he later cast the head of Jefferson that survives today as a unique document from America’s past. Jefferson himself might well have agreed that the few hours suffered for such a legacy were worth it.