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Jefferson's False Teeth

Kristie Smeltzer

Doing tours is only an occasional, wee part of my job. However, exploring Monticello with visitors is one of my favorite parts of my work. I'm a goofball by nature, so I don't always play it straight while doing house tours.

In the entrance hall at Monticello, there is a Thomas Sully portrait of Jefferson.

Flanking the portrait on two separate tables, there are fossilized upper and lower jaw bones of an adolescent North American mastodon.

Many visitors are keenly interested in the fossils. Frequent questions are if they are the original Jefferson owned (yes), were they there in Jefferson's lifetime (yes), and where are the bones from (the mastodon bones are from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky).

I was feeling a bit punchy one day, so I walked over to the Sully portrait of Jefferson and spoke a bit about it.

"Here's Mr. Jefferson. He was 6 feet 2" inches tall and is portrayed here when he was almost 78 years old."

Then I gestured to the mastodon jaw bones on either side of me (picture flight attendant exit indication stance).

"And these are Mr. Jefferson's false teeth."

Pause. More silence. Thirty-second hang-time at least.

I don't purport to be telepathic, but I'm pretty sure that if I were, people were thinking something along these lines:

"Wasn't it Washington who had the wooden teeth?"

"Wait, those are too big to be human jaw bones."

"Is this woman an absolute fruitcake?!"

At this point, another guide in the room processed what I had said and erupted in a laugh/cough. I then explained to the likely frightened visitors that it was a joke, and they were kind enough to chuckle.

First-time visitors often seem surprised by the contents of Jefferson's entrance hall, and I'd wager that many find the fossils, of the jaw bones in particular, to be the items that seem most out of place. Many visitors also think they're quite interesting, and so did Jefferson. Objects he chose to collect reveal his widely varied academic interests and the scope of his expansive mind.

Jefferson hoped Lewis and Clark would find a living mastodon as they explored the American Northwest. Extinction is one of those ideas I take for granted, like gravity. The Smithsonian Magazine had an article a while back about North American mastodons and mammoths, and the article includes information about the scientific community coming to grips with the conclusion that beasts like mastodons and mammoths had completely ceased to exist.

Jefferson would never get to meet a living mastodon, which is ultimately safest for us all, but he did have a fine set of fossilized jaw bones to share with Monticello visitors, then and now.

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