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Posts Tagged ‘myths’

There are a lot of stories about Monticello that crept into the lore over the years – mostly after Jefferson died, after all the family had left Monticello, and no one who had lived there during its heyday was around anymore to refute them.   These stories found their way into popular literature and are still coming back home to roost, so to speak, in the form of queries from visitors.  One of the most persistent of these stories is one about Jefferson using the Dome Room as a billiard hall.

This myth flourished with some very able help from no less than Sarah Nicholas Randolph, great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and author of The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (1871).  In this book she matter-of-factly relates the Billiard Story, which information was given to her by a “member of Mr. Jefferson’s family, who lived there for many years”:

The west front the rooms occupy the whole height, making the house one story, except the parlor or central room, which is surmounted by an octagonal story, with a dome or spherical roof. This was designed for a billiard-room; but, before completion, a law was passed prohibiting public and private billiard-tables in the State. It was to have been approached by stairways connected with a gallery at the inner extremity of the hall, which itself forms the communication between the lodging-rooms on either side above. The use designed for the room being prohibited, these stairways were never erected, leaving in this respect a great deficiency in the house.

This is a rather well-developed and fascinating piece of family lore, and I would love to know how it came into being.  Needless to say, we have no reason whatsoever (other than this story) to believe that Thomas Jefferson originally intended the Dome Room for billiards, or that he actually employed it as such.

But…the Levy family did!  Check this out:

Photograph of a billiard table in the Dome Room, 1899.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s a billiard table.  In the Dome Room.

This is from an article that appeared in the January, 1899 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, “The Home of Jefferson,” by Maud Howard Peterson.  This account of a visit to Monticello was also published in Merrill Peterson’s Visitors to Monticello, and Peterson (Merrill, that is) takes pains to refute Maud’s billiard story.  Her version of the billiard story is even more elaborate than Sarah Randolph’s:

On the third floor is the famous ballroom, built originally for billiards of which Jefferson was extremely fond. Scarcely was it completed, however, when he discovered, to his chagrin, that the game was prohibited by a law recently passed by the State Legislature. The story runs that some years earlier there lived within the borders of Virginia a very brilliant and promising young lawyer named John Marshall, who insisted on wasting his time on games of all sorts, and most especially on billiards.  In vain his friends urged him to work seriously and give up such unprofitable pastimes.  Marshall was not to be moved.  Finally some one suggested that a law should be enacted to suppress billiards, declaring that “Marshall would never break a law.” The State Legislature, at the time, was composed largely of the young man’s friends, and they passed the necessary bill.  They laughingly used to say, afterwards, that Marshall owed to their timely intervention his subsequent brilliant career, which made him chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

However, the fact remains that billiards were prohibited throughout Virginia; and Jefferson, with the calm philosophy that characterized so much of his life, made the best of a bad bargain, and the room was converted into a ballroom, perhaps the most famous in any private residence of the time.  Could its walls speak, they would tell strange tales of the beauty, gallantry, and wit that once assembled there.  It was to have been approached by stairways connected with a gallery at the inner extremity of the hall.  For some unknown reason these were never erected; instead, a staircase was built in each wing, of such narrow dimensions that it is still a problem how the grand ladies with their ample hoopskirts ever ascended to the ballroom above.

I started to try to pick apart all the errors, distortions, and outright fantasies in Maud’s description of the Dome Room, but then I got tired.  Let’s just say, the only thing she’s right about is that the Dome Room is on the third floor.

In Maud’s defense, there was a billiard table right there in the Dome Room, at least in 1898.  You know and I know that that doesn’t mean there was one there in 1815, but Maud seems an easily suggestible lady.  Bless her heart.

The billiard table was apparently still in the Dome Room at least into the late 1920s, years after the Thomas Jefferson Foundation had opened Monticello’s doors to the public.  This no doubt helped to keep the myth going.  Here’s an image, taken ca. 1928, from I.T. Frary’s Thomas Jefferson: Architect and Builder (Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1931), in which the corner of the (presumably) very same billiard table is clearly visible.

And, the author actually calls it “the Billiard Room” right there, in the caption!   No wonder people thought the Dome Room was a billiard room, what with all this calling it a “billiard room” and having billiard tables in it.

Regarding Maud’s Ballroom Fantasy, well…if there were any glittering balls held up there, then all the guests of these balls must have been sworn to silence, because I’m unaware of anyone ever mentioning attending such a thing in any letters, diaries, or memoirs.

The truth is that we simply don’t have good evidence for any specific intended function for the Dome Room.  But Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do inquiring minds.  In the absence of any clear explanation for the Dome Room’s existence, it’s no wonder that more interesting stories creep in to fill the space.

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Over the July 4th weekend I celebrated by watching a lot of Founding-Fathery patriotic television shows.  This was more disturbing than entertaining, as one particular show – which I shall forebear to mention here – set me off on a Rumpelstilskin-esque fit of rage.   I actually yelled at my television as it, in all earnestness, told me the story of the “Unknown Patriot,” a mysterious figure who appeared at the Continental Congress and exhorted the members to Sign the Declaration!  (Because they never would have, if some guy at the back of the room that nobody had ever seen before hadn’t told them to.)  There was all sorts of discussion on the television of who this mysterious figure might have been, and astral planes and so forth.

Of course, there’s just one problem.  The story of the “Unknown Patriot” is a piece of historical fiction, written by a nineteenth-century novelist named George Lippard.  Seriously.  What if, 100 years from now, people thought that Sam Spade was a real person, and his adventures in pursuit of the Maltese Falcon actually happened?  You get my point.

Immediately following this was a segment on Thomas Jefferson and His Love for Hemp.  Apparently he loved hemp.  He wrote the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper.  He brought back hemp from Europe.  He invented a new method of separating hemp fibers.  (They didn’t actually say that he smoked it, but you know they probably hoped he did.)

Oh, Television!  You are wrong again:

  1. The Declaration of Independence was not written on hemp paper.  (Lots of hemp aficionado sites in the Internets will tell you it was, but they would say that, wouldn’t they?)
  2. I haven’t found any specific mention of bringing hemp back from Europe, at least in raw or seed form.
  3. Jefferson did not invent a new method of separating hemp fibers; they are probably talking about his hemp break, but he certainly didn’t invent that.

So: don’t believe everything the television tells you.  In fact, it’s probably best to assume the television is wrong.

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Sometimes it’s a little scary how persistent apocryphal stories about Jefferson are. Case in point: the perennial (for us) question, “Did Thomas Jefferson shoot someone on the White House lawn?” There’s no evidence that he did, and strangely enough, the source of this particularly bizarre story seems to be the movie Swordfish. (Thank you, Swordfish scriptwriters!) We’ve been asked about this question so many times that I’m thinking we should take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to quash the whole thing. The last few inquirers have pointed me to a message-board-type website in which someone answers this question in the positive, with quite a few details. I dutifully investigated this new information, to no avail – I could not find one shred of evidence that this incident ever happened: nothing in Jefferson’s papers, nothing in congressional records, nothing in the newspapers of the time (one would think they would have mentioned such a thing). Of course, if anyone has information to the contrary, do let me know

The persistence of this story is in itself intriguing. Either a lot of people are watching Swordfish, or a lot of people want to believe Jefferson shot someone on the White House lawn. Perhaps both of those factors are at work. Just another example of the ways in which Jefferson has lived on in the minds of people and taken on meanings and forms I’m sure he never could have imagined.

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