A Hair-Raising Experience: The discovery of a lock of George Washington’s hair at Union College goes viral

By India Spartz

While surveying a shelf of materials in the archives in December 2017, project archivist Dan Michelson came across a small red leather-bound almanac perched alone on a shelf. The book, published in 1793, was out of place, so Dan promptly showed it to John Myers, catalog and metadata librarian at the Schaffer Library. Flipping through the first few pages, Myers noticed a small envelope tucked inside the title page with a handwritten note on the front. It read, “Washington’s hair, L.S.S. from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, August 10, 1871.”

Inside the envelope were strands of whitish/brown hair, gathered together with an old piece of string. Myers would later describe it as an “OMG moment!” Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Myers immediately sent me an email about his discovery.

“It was one of those mind-blowing moments that happen every once in a while in a librarian’s life,” said John Myers, a catalog and metadata librarian at the college. “I thought, that doesn’t mean George Washington, does it?”                                                                                      – The Associated Press, 2018

 

We later learned that James A. Hamilton was the son of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton. According to Ron Chernow’s, Washington: A Life, “As a remembrance of her husband, she [Martha Washington] asked Tobias Lear to snip locks of hair from the corpse before it was deposited in the coffin.” The locks of hair were distributed to close family and friends of Washington; the Hamiltons were close friends of George and Martha Washington.

 

When Union College Librarian Frances Maloy became aware of the finding, she requested more information to include in a report to the campus. One month later, I was contacted by Phil Wajda, campus communications officer, who suggested that we write a press release about the discovery of the hair. Of course, we were delighted to share the story and jumped at the chance to highlight our collections. On February 13, 2018, we released a statement to the press and media outlets.

It would have been impossible to anticipate the ensuing media storm. Less than 24 hours after the release, the Archives and Special Collections department received a flurry of requests for interviews from national and international media outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, CBS Saturday Morning, USA Today, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. The story also appeared on the cover of the New York Times on Presidents Day. Social media channels included approximately 2,500 posts on Twitter and Facebook.

The College communications office tracked media coverage of the story as shown in the following graphics from a Media Coverage Report:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Based on our experience, here are some tips, should you as an archivist find yourself in the midst of a media storm:

  • Work with your communications department (if you have one) to craft a standard  response. This will help you plan the two or three pieces of information that you want to convey in all your interviews.
  • Be concise. Your interview will be edited, so highlight short facts about your collection or employer/institution.
  • For video interviews (Skype/Zoom/FaceTime) have a “practice” session beforehand to ensure the connection.
  • Choose a “friendly” location for video interviews; avoid conference rooms or messy spaces (offices/processing rooms).
  • Promote! But be discreet. Media professionals are savvy, so they can spot a shameless plug. Still, this is a valuable (and free) opportunity to publicize your collection or institution.
  • Be prepared. Reporters work on tight deadlines, so some interviews get scheduled quickly. Keep a black blazer in your office to wear during television interviews. (This is also helpful should a donor arrive unannounced.)
  • Be friendly and upbeat. If you’re excited and engaged, the viewer will be excited and engaged.
  • Smile!

Next steps
During the news coverage, we were frequently asked, “What next?” and “When will the hair be on display for the public to see?” I am currently looking into preservation options that will allow the hair and the book to be stored together in a custom-made, acid-free container. This will make it possible to display the hair for the purposes of teaching and exhibition.

The Schaffer Library plans to mount an exhibition to highlight the hair discovery and other aspects of the story. Eliza Hamilton was the daughter of Philip J. Schuyler, a prominent resident of Albany, NY and Major General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.  The exhibition will feature the hair and related objects around the Schuyler family of Albany, NY. This includes an original letter written in 1795 by General Schuyler promoting the establishment of Union College in the town of Schenectady rather than Albany, NY. It’s hoped the exhibition will coincide with a fall 2019 performance of the musical “Hamilton” at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady, NY.


India Spartz is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She holds an B.A. from the University of Alaska (her home state), MLIS from UC Berkeley, and M.A. in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She’s a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and serves on SAA’s College & University Archives Steering Committee.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s