The Washington Post, Guardian of the Tomb, August 14, 1898.


The Washington Post published this interview with Edmund Parker, conducted on his deathbed by an unknown reporter, on August 14, 1898. Parker was an enslaved worker on Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation, from 1841 until he fled north during the American Civil War (1861–1865). His enslaver was John Augustine Washington III, George Washington’s great-grandnephew. In 1882, Parker returned to Mount Vernon as a free man to work for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which had acquired the estate in to 1860 to restore it, preserve it, and open it to the public. Parker’s job was to guard Washington’s tomb and entertain visitors with his stories.


Guardian of the tomb

Edmund Parker, Watchman of Mount Vernon, Dying

His life slowly ebbing away

Was a slave of John Augustine Washington, the First President’s Great-great-grand Nephew – Has lived in the State More Than Half a Century and Been Custodian of the Tomb for Twenty-Five Years – Some Interesting Reminiscence

Lying in a half stupor in a clean, comfortable bed in a cool room on the first floor of the tenement at 1458 Q Street northwest, is the massive, faintly breathing body of Edmund Parker, the former slave, who, for nearly a quarter of a century as guardian of the tomb of Washington, has been one of the most picturesque features of Mount Vernon. For the past six or seven weeks visitors have missed him from his post and frequenters of the historic retreat have inquired of the whereabouts of the oracular guardian and historian.

The versatile old man possesses the vivid fancy native to his race, on occasions which he considered worthy of his supremist efforts he was wont to entertain distinguished tourists with his well-learned historic narrative, introducing such pomp and ceremony as he deemed worthy of the position he graced. On those, to him, great occasions he would straighten his venerable figure, and, posing against a stately tree nearest to the tomb, he would tell the history of the Washington family in deep sepulchral tones, interpolating his phraseology now and then with such additional items as his imagination regarded as necessary embellishments to the often repeated story. He would answer questions with courtly grace, and if ever he was piqued by inquiries he considered beneath his dignity to answer he waived them with the patrician dignity of the ancient noblesse.

Telling His Experiences.

The poor old man has lost the energy of his vocal utterances, but in a faltering voice he entertains his occasional visitors by rehearsing former splendors and experiences and dwelling upon the kindness of the ladies of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, who, he says, are the “very finest ladies in the land.” He also speaks affectionately of Mr. Harrison H. Dodge, the resident Recording Secretary and Superintendent of Mount Vernon. Mr. Dodge has always been kind and considerate to the old man, and has visited and comforted him in his present illness.

The beginning of his falling strength was less than two months ago, when he lost his wife.

“Yes, yes,” he moaned yesterday, “I’se always been under the conceit that if she should be the shortest-lived and I the longest I sh’ld be of not much good. We wus married forty years ago in the library at Mount Vernon, aright under the room where the Gen’rl died. Pahsun Libbed married us. It is fifty-seven years since I went to Mount Vernon, and my wife and me we belonged to John Augustine Washington. You know he was the great-great-grand nephew of the Gen’rl’s. My wife and me have had nineteen children, nine now living and all good children; married, all of them. I used top come over and see my family once I two weeks, and I took back provisions enough to last a fortnight. They don’t board nobody to Mount Vernon. I had a room in the laundry next to the carriage house, and cooked my meals there. I always wears my uniform at the tomb, and the association furnishes it. It is jest like the army’s – nickle plate buttons and all. The old buttons had Booth’s speech on it.”

He referred to the motto on Virginia’s coat of arms, which John Wilkes Booth shouted on the stage of Ford’s Theater after he had assassinated President Lincoln.

Hard Work as a Slave

“I stay at the tomb from 11 till 5 every day, except Sundays,” he continued, “and then four men come on night watch. As a slave on the place I did mighty hard work. Had more put onto me than I could perform, ‘cept as I took care of myself. There was mighty heavy timber on that Mount Vernon farm, and we slave folks was pulled and hauled. Altogether, as far as kindness was concerned, I reckon they meant well enough, although life is a burden to a slave person; indeed it is – left without eddication and the mind terrified all the time.

“Oh, indeed, I have seen many great persons there at that tomb. I wus there when the Prince of Wales planted a horse chestnut and I dug the hole when Dom Pedro planted his tree – an ellum. I dug the hole for the W.C.T.U. tree in front of the Emperor of Brazil. I never leaves my watchhouse durin’ visitin’ hours, there in front of the sycamore tree and a edar tree on the next side. If I felt able to talk I would tell about a good many mighty great people I have assisted at that tomb, but I am getting mighty weak-er and weaker, although I don’t suffer no ‘scrutiating misery, ‘cept ‘casionally little from this risin’ on my breast. I have a large collection of my pictures that have been took in front of the tomb, all of them been sent to me. Folks has been very kind to me, and I hope to meet some of them in heaven, where the prophets have foretold.”

Nearing his end

The old man seems to be nearing his end, but he has no perceptible illness except weakness. He was born December 24, 1827, at Blakely Farm, the home of Mrs. John A Washington, three miles from Charleston, W. Va. He went to Mount Vernon in 1841, and lived there until just before the battle of Bull Run, when he went to Alexandria and joined Ellsworth’s Zouaves, where he was cook for the regiment. He cooked in the old Capitol Prison in Washington, where the library of Congress now stands. He worked there nine months and then he joined the Union army at Fort Washington, Md., serving as cook. At the close of the war he took regular service at Mount Vernon, and his duty since 1874 has been to guard the tomb where lie the ashes of Washington, a task he has performed with great pride and ceremony worthy of his trust.

APA Citation:
Washington Post. The Washington Post, Guardian of the Tomb, August 14, 1898.. (2024, April 04). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Washington Post. "The Washington Post, Guardian of the Tomb, August 14, 1898." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (04 Apr. 2024). Web. 29 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, April 04
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