When I can get my hands on it, I love to read American History magazine. If you think I am dropping hints, you’re right. A shameless hint. Perhaps a loyal reader or family member will take pity on me and get me a subscription. My birthday is in July.
I recently read an article about George and Martha Washington attending a dinner dance. The dance — a common occurrence during the Revolutionary War — took place at the home of General and Mrs. Greene near Morristown, N.J. George and Martha were the honored guests, of course, along with several other officers and dignitaries.
It was a cold night, and this particular party was taking place during one of the colder months of the entire war. I suppose the guests bundled up as best they could and looked forward to an evening of food and fellowship. And drink.
Now, history has sometimes painted quite an austere picture of both George and Martha. We have heard stories of how Martha would curtly inform guests what time “the general” retires, ending a party or get-together abruptly. We hear about George being a serious, non-smiling guy who sat at the head of the dinner table glaring at guests.
The family of the Washingtons and their inner circle of friends protected the couple fiercely. Indeed, even decades after they had both died, stories and articles about them were written in such a way you’d think the two were a couple of saints.
Martha, who has forever been etched in our minds as a little shawl-wearing granny, was really quite a vivacious and lively gal. She was a party animal of sorts. True, she was proper and probably carried herself as a member of aristocracy. She was, after all, the richest widow in the colonies when George married her.
George was a tall, well-built guy. Women today would think he was a hunk, I suppose, with or without his powdered wig. He was a man’s man. He was tough.
I’m sure George was aware of his hero status and his hunkiness. I’m sure women fluttered their eyelashes at him and curtsied and flirted a bit. And George was reported to have liked the attention.
During this party, there was much partying and merry-making. Apparently, the party itself was not well-stocked with food as there was a food shortage. However, alcohol was in plentiful supply.
Everyone seemed to be having a good time. George liked to dance, and he managed to wear Martha out in a short time. He then managed to dance with a few of the other gals. Everything was very proper. The dancing had little to do with the scandal I will tell you about. I just wanted to let you know George could cut a rug and often did.
After dinner, as was customary, the women went to another room and the men did too. The women had dessert and coffee and the men had maybe cigars and some more to drink.
At one point, a man named George Olney left the gentlemen and joined the ladies in the other room. I’m not sure why this happened, but it was reported that Olney and his wife were teetotalers. In any case, the men noticed Olney’s absence by the time they’d had enough spirits to begin feeling a little ornery.
The men decided they would march into the meeting room of the ladies and demand to have Olney back. I’m pretty sure it was all a joke conjured up by some men who were feeling good and trying to forget the rigors of war. In any case, George chimed right in and decided to lead the group as they headed for the other room.
When they entered the room where the ladies were gathered, all seemed lighthearted and fun. The men informed the ladies that they wanted Olney to come back with them and also added that if the ladies would not give him up, he would be taken by force. Again, all of this I’m sure, was in jest.
Apparently, a few of the men went over the get Olney and drag him back with them. The ladies protested and stood in the way of the men. I guess things started to get out of hand at that point. George went toward the group of ladies too. I’d almost bet you that most of the folks still had smiles on their faces, even now.
Mrs. Olney claimed George placed his hands on her wrists during the “fun.” With that, it is reported that Mrs. Olney said she would scratch his eyes out if he didn’t unhand her. She told him she didn’t care who he was, basically.
The women managed to keep Mr. Olney in the room with them. Again, I’d bet most folks involved thought it was all a harmless prank.
However, a few folks had heard what Mrs. Olney had said to General Washington and were appalled at her remarks, kidding or not. I never heard what George thought.
The hostess of the party, Catherine “Caty” Greene, must have gotten her dander up and made comments to Deborah Olney that were not becoming to a lady. What followed was a hasty exit by both Mr. and Mrs. Olney. They were escorted out of the room by Mr. Greene and supposedly set straight on a few things. Mr. Olney was also apparently chastised for refusing to have a drink with General Washington.
Of course, word got out that Deborah Olney had said some awful, inappropriate things to the dear General Washington. The Olneys were shunned by society for a while, and after several letters being exchanged between the party guests, George Washington got involved. He assured everyone that it was just a harmless bit of fun.
By today’s standards, this “scandal” is tame and makes us all smile a bit. Although the Olney’s really weren’t ever included in Washington’s circle of friends again, it was intriguing to find out that all of the parties thought so much of Washington that they all tried to keep the events of that evening quiet. Even Caty Greene added a note to some correspondence that said “do not share the contents of this letter with anyone.” The letter apparently recounted the story and was not talked about or shared for many, many years.
Ah. The good old days.