By George Decker
From the Historic County, March 2002
Many Americans admire George Washington because as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army he led the Colonials to a hard fought victory over a vastly superior British force. Others admire him because as first President of the United States they proudly proclaim him to be the Father of their country. This writer once admired Washington for a far more personal reason. The celebration of the man’s birthday annually guaranteed a happy holiday for me, free of schoolwork.
But it was in the sixth year of my elementary school experience that I gained a more meaningful reason to admire George Washington. My classroom teacher told a little-known story about the great man that was different from all others told.Her fascinating story follows. There was a small boy living in the Village of Totowa who was severely handicapped. Physically deformed, he rarely got out of bed because his head was so large that he could not control it. Many were the days that he passed in utter silence and abject loneliness.
Meanwhile, General Washington, while quartered at the Dey family mansion for several months in the year 1780, was told of the unfortunate little boy. Thereupon, he visited the child and was, indeed, alarmed but equally saddened by the grotesque sight before his eyes. Upon subsequent visits, Washington gained the friendship of the boy and spent much time in conversation with the lad. He also encouraged his many staff officers and generals to visit the boy. His purpose was clear. George Washington wanted to bring cheer and comfort to the life of a small boy who, like himself, knew the pain of isolation, of loneliness and of despair.
This warm and inspiring story has remained with me through all these years. I have learned to admire George Washington for many reasons, but mostly I admire him for this single act of kindness.But, read on. The facts of the story follow.
Dr. James Thacher, Surgeon to General Washington in that winter of 1780, upon the Commander’s request examined the boy known as Peter Van Winkle then age 27. The following extract, written below comes from the good Doctor’s daily journal.
We were invited to visit a curiosity in the neighborhood. This is a monster in human form. He is 27 years of age; his face, from the upper part of his forehead to the end of his chin, measures 20 inches, and round the upper part of his head is 21 inches; his eyes and nose are remarkably large and prominent, chin long and pointed. His features are course, irregular, and disgusting and his voice is rough and sonorous. His body is only 27 inches in length, his limbs are small and much deformed, and he has the use of one hand only. He has never been able to stand or sit up, as he cannot support the enormous weight of his head; but he lies constantly in a large cradle, with his head supported on pillows. He is peculiarly fond of the company of clergymen, taking great pleasure in receiving religious instruction.
Peter Van Winkle, the hapless little invalid, by the efforts of Washington, met many prominent leaders of the Continental Army in that winter of 1780. He also met the noted Frenchman Marquis de Chastellux, author of a two-volume work, valued by historians today, titled, Travels in North America – 1780-1782. He described Peter in much the same manner as the surgeon, Doctor Thacher but added,
As he was long accustomed to lie on his right side, his right arm is in quite a state of atrophy. He is quite not an idiot, but could never learn anything and has no more reason than a child of five or six years old, though he is seven and twenty.
George Washington, long beset with the miseries of war, none-the-less humanely demonstrated a sincere, kind, tender and merciful compassion for a little handicapped Dutch boy. This singular act of kindness adds immensely to the brilliant luster and majesty of the man, our founding father.
But alas, the story is not yet at the end. In the year 1835, while excavating the ground under the Old First Church in Acquackanonk, now Passaic, workmen came upon human remains. The town’s undertaker, P.W. Doremus was summoned. Among the several bodies uncovered was one whose head was most unusually large. A special casket was prepared and the body was properly reinterred in the graveyard adjacent to the church.
Paterson Morning Call, February 22, 1950, Washington, And The Big Headed Boy, article by Isaac A. Serven, President, Captain Abraham Godwin Chapter S.A.R.
Scott, William, W., History of Passaic and Its Environs, Vol. I., Chapter XIII, page 120., Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., New York. 1922.