Sally Hemings, part two

Last time, we looked at Sally’s family background and pre-Paris life. This time, we look at her return to Monticello from Paris, and what happened next.

0:00 Intro

04:55 Sally’s story begins

45:47 Ads

1:26:44 Extro

The image for this episode is from the multimedia installation The Life of Sally Hemings at Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, Monticello. Learn about the exhibit here.

As mentioned in the intro, here is the link for Ancestry’s new resource: Articles of Enslavement on Ancestry

And here is more information about (and the recipe for) James Hemings’s Mac and Cheese


The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Life of Sally Hemings (

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Vulgar History Podcast

Sally Hemings, Part Two

June 26, 2024

Ann Foster:
Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster and today’s episode is Sally Hemings, Part Two. So, this is a story that is so important to American history and just, kind of, Sally Hemings herself and her situation but also just what she and her family represent. They’re some of the best-known Black people who were enslaved in American history. A lot of people, these days, who are trying to do genealogical research because they themselves want to learn more about their own enslaved ancestors, it’s really challenging; sometimes it’s literally impossible because the records are hard to find. But there is some exciting news to help people who are interested in that sort of research, so I wanted to let you know this before we get into the episode because it’s all related. 

So, recently, the genealogy site, released a free collection of nearly 38,000 articles involving enslaved people in America from 1788 to 1867, providing information about more than 183,000 people who were enslaved. This collection is called Articles of Enslavement. So, if you go to, I think you need to sign up for a membership or an account, but this collection is free, you don’t need to pay anything to be able to access all this information. 

This is a free and first-of-its-kind collection created using cutting-edge technology to, basically, they just had an AI sort of thing, crawling through newspapers and advertisements to resurface the names, ages, physical descriptions, and crucial details of long sought-after enslaved ancestors. 

This is honestly one of the first uses of AI where I’m like, “Yes! This is great… Good job AI,” this is a good thing to be using technology to do because for a human being– It would be so long for anyone to try and do this themselves. 

The details in these records can lead to key breakthroughs in helping descendants of previously enslaved people in the US, make discoveries about their families prior to 1870, even bridging gaps in documentation where records were destroyed, or the local courthouse may have burned…

Occurrences that would previously have just stopped people in their tracks who were trying to find their ancestors. 

The records in this collection include newspaper articles and advertisements related to enslavement, published in American newspapers before 1900. Just as they do now, newspapers served a critical purpose in the lives of our ancestors which often extended beyond detailing their daily lives. They also served as documentation of a community’s legal proceedings and decisions. Across the United States, during the period of slavery before and after the American Civil War, these legal matters often involved enslaved people. 

So, you can search for names of people and maybe it’s like, you know that person was in this state but maybe then they escaped and they went to this state and these records will help you track those down because there’s advertisements about enslaved people who escaped, advertisements being like, “We’re trying to track down this person,” or advertisements about sales of humans.  “Records may include the name of the enslaved person as well as the slavers’ name, locations, dates, occupation, age, physical characteristics, relationships and more.” Nicka Sewell-Smith and this is how I learned about all this because I follow her on Bluesky and she was like, “Hey big news, I’ve been involved in this and here’s what I did,” and I was like, oh my gosh. 

Nicka Sewell-Smith is a genealogist and senior story producer at Ancestry, and she said the collection’s value lies in the formerly enslaved people it aims to centre. This is a quote from her. She says, “What’s super important is that they’re not a footnote in this collection. With these articles, we have the opportunity to lean into the lives of our ancestors and learn all we can.” So, I’ve put a link in the show notes that leads to this collection on but this news just dropped in late May 2024 just as I was recording all of this stuff and I thought, “Oh, I need to let people know,” because this is major for people doing genealogical research on enslaved ancestors. 

Anyway, last time, in Sally Hemings, Part One, we learned all about her, her mom, the whole Hemings extended family and the series of coincidences that got her to Paris where she spent some time, her brother James Hemings was also there and also there, Thomas Jefferson. So, you know, content warning: American Founding Fathers and me talking shit about them. 

So, Sally Hemings, Part Two, let’s see what happens to her next and what she does about it.


So, Sally Hemings, Part Two! Actually, I’m glad I took a break between Part One and Part Two because I was reading up a little bit more about the modern-day Hemings descendants, the descendants of Sally Hemings and also of her other various siblings. And I came across something interesting. So, in family oral history and family lore, Sally was sometimes known as Black Mariah which I was like, interesting, people have various different names in this story. Why is she known as Black Mariah? 

The thing is… This convoluted family tree. So, Sally Hemings, half-sister of Martha Wayles Skelton, AKA on this podcast we called her Martha 2. Martha 2 was the wife of Thomas Jefferson AKA Thomas J. So, Martha Wayles Skelton had dark brown hair. Sally Hemings is her much younger, biracial half-sister, but Thomas J and Martha 2 had two surviving daughters. So, we have Martha 3, sometimes known as Patsy because the white people in this story keep changing their names. Thomas Jefferson and Martha 2’s younger surviving daughter, her name was Mary Jefferson. She was known in childhood as Polly, as an adult she was known as Maria or Mariah, and this is why on this podcast in part one we called her MMP for Mary, Mariah, Polly, a person with three various names. So, she was known as Mariah, apparently, Thomas J would call her Mariah, that was his pet name for her. 

The reason why Sally Hemings AKA Black Mariah is because… So, MMP looked a lot like her mother, Martha 2; dark hair and I guess they were both maybe shorter people. Martha 3, MMP’s sister was taller, she looked more like her father, more like Thomas J. But MMP resembled her mother, Martha 2. And then the fact that Sally Hemings was called Black Mariah is because she was only a few years older than MMP and looked like her but Black. So, this is just another reminder as the events of this progress, the fact that Sally Hemings looked enough like Thomas Jefferson’s first wife and enough like this young girl, MMP, that people called her Black Mariah. 

I was trying to think of an example so it’s like in The Office… Or you know when you’re in school and there’s two people and they both have the same name? I’m an elder Millennial, when I was going to school there were multiple girls called Sarah and Megan and Jennifer, so it was like Jennifer J, Jennifer P. The same as on The Bachelor, you know? There’s different names and then sometimes there’s different nicknames for people. On The Office, the TV show, there was a prank that Jim was doing so the actor Randall Park came on and he was being Jim and pretending like Jim had always been Asian, and this character was often referred to as Asian Jim. 

There’s the actress Michelle Williams is a white woman who was on Dawson’s Creek, she’s actually one of my faves. When I was a much younger person, I was working a barista job and white Michelle Williams came in and bought a latte from me and left a really big tip, so I’ve always been fond of her. She’s teeny tiny in person, for the record. Anyway, Beyoncé’s band that she used to be in (young people might not know that Beyoncé used to be in a girl group called Destiny’s Child), one of the members of that, also called Michelle Williams. So, that’s Black Michelle Williams. So, the two Michelle Williamses were both on the scene in the Y2K era so sometimes they are referred to as Black Michelle Williams and white Michelle Williams, not that they looked the same, but they have the same name. So, the commonality of like, two people and you use a descriptor to separate them. 

So, the fact that Sally Hemings was known as Black Mariah because she looked so much like MMP but was a light-skinned Black woman is just notable to me, I think, because in the cliffhanger, we left off with last time, Thomas Jefferson had impregnated her, Sally Hemings, the 30 years younger half-sister of his dead wife that Thomas J had been so upset when she died that he went into multiweek extreme depression. So, just remember that Sally Hemings looked visually… I think, again, there are so many questions, the questions that come up about Sally Hemings are often about her relationship with Thomas Jefferson but also, what did she look like? People are dying to know but there’s no existing portraits of her, there’s no portraits of MMP, there’s no portraits of Martha 2 to understand what they maybe all looked like. But the way that Sally was spoken about and treated by people who met her and knew her, it seems like she was a light-skinned Black woman with, kind of, straight hair hanging down her back and with very, very, very beautiful, very pretty, and also with facial features like a light-skinned Black person, where it’s apparent when you look at her like, “Oh, that’s a Black person. Black Mariah.” Anyway, so just bringing that all into it. 

That actually brings me to also remind you that so much of what we know about everything that happens in this story, one part of it is from Thomas J and his real compulsion to record so many details about so many things. So, we really know stuff like he bought her clothes, and these were the fabrics that they were made of, and this is the day that he bought the ticket for her to go out of the city to get her inoculation. So many of these records exist from him and so much of the things he didn’t write down are filled in by the oral history and the family tradition of the Hemings family. 

Something else, when I was reading about their descendants, is the way that the family really continued to keep re-honouring one another and really cementing their family ties by continuing to reuse the same names generation after generation. I think this was in the Annette Gordon-Reed book, but it was saying in a place where enslaved people weren’t able to get married but as a way to cement their family bonds, knowing that their children could be separated from them at any time because they were all enslaved, they could be sold or just transferred somewhere else, having these names, these similar names pop up generation after generation (especially when you have multiple generations living in the same place at the same time like they were at Monticello in this era) it’s just a way to cement those family connections. So, I think it’s notable and interesting that Hemings descendants continue to honour each other with these names, including the name Sarah, AKA Sally, which continues on. As well, there are so many people in the family tree I think who are named Elizabeth or Betsy, which was the name of Sally Hemings’s mom. 

So, last time we were talking about Sally Hemings in Paris, this really cold winter. She’d been there for two years just having this really new experience for herself and then she became pregnant by 47-year-old Thomas Jefferson. Again, she was 16 and apparently looked quite a bit like her dead, much older half-sister, his dead wife. So, I’m going to read, this is a quote from Madison Hemings who is Sally’s son. A lot of what we know about her and this whole situation came from his… He wrote down recollections of what his mother was like and what it was like growing up in Monticello and things like that so I’m just going to quote from him directly. 

He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him, but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well and in France she was free while if she returned to Virginia, she would be re-enslaved. So, she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so, he promised her extraordinary privileges and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of 21 years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.

So again, a lot of things that people wonder about this whole situation is what was the dynamic between 47-year-old slave owner Thomas Jefferson and 16-year-old enslaved Sally Hemings. Annette Gordon-Reed spends two chapters just kind of thinking this through and wondering what are the implications of all of it. I’m not going to step into that discussion for this podcast because I am focusing on the events and what happened. But what I will say is that this was a real choice from his point of view because… Okay. 

Let’s say that in an imaginary hypothetical situation, Thomas Jefferson was in Paris, and he spent two years living in very close quarters with a not-enslaved teenage girl who was white and then at the end of that period of time, she became pregnant. He could then marry her because she would be in this situation like a white, free person and that’s the sort of person that Thomas Jefferson could marry if he wanted to. Enslaved people couldn’t marry, full stop, so that was not an option here. So, let’s say hypothetically, that same situation where (I really want to emphasize the ages) 47-year-old Thomas Jefferson spent two years with a girl who was 14 to 16 and at the end of this, he got her pregnant and let’s say she was a free, white person but what if she was also the half-sister of Martha 2? Then he couldn’t marry her even though she would be a free, white person. People might raise their eyebrows about the age difference and people did. It was not every day that a 47-year-old man married a 16-year-old woman in Paris or in Virginia but that did happen. 

The two major things that could be scandalous about this to the people in this time were firstly that she was enslaved and that he was fathering a child by her because there were lots of rules about white people and Black people couldn’t get married, let alone an enslaved person but then also the half-sibling thing. That’s the real stumbling block. Legally, if there was no slavery involved in this situation at all, Thomas Jefferson could not marry the half-sister of his dead wife because of incest laws, that’s truly not allowed. So, on multiple ways, this relationship, and I’m going to say relationship and I’m just going to say, the way that I have a relationship with the person who drives my bus every day, people have relationships with each other, it doesn’t mean it’s a romantic relationship or a loving relationship, it just means the relationship between two people. This could never turn into literal marriage because of incest reasons and because of enslavement reasons and because of Black people and white people not allowed to get married to each other reasons. 

But also, I guess and also, on top of all of this, so they couldn’t, he couldn’t marry her, whether she would have wanted to do that or not, and that’s a whole other discussion Annette Gordon-Reed does get into in her book. People like Martha 2, once Thomas J decided he wanted to marry her, how much wiggle room does she have to do that or not in a really heavily patriarchal culture, like 1700s Virginia? 

The other factor here that is important to consider is Thomas Jefferson was a public figure. So, him doing this was outside of the bounds of society in various ways and if he was just some guy, then it wouldn’t have been seen as quite as scandalous because he wasn’t just a public figure, he was also somebody who was known at this point in America as being this man of really lofty morals, this really good guy. One of the reasons he wrote down everything he ever did was he was thinking a lot about posterity and how would he be remembered. He was seen as someone who was very disciplined and very controlled, who lived life on this kind of straight and narrow and he had spoken up in the past saying that he was, I don’t know if he specifically said, “I’m against slavery,” but he had represented Black people in court and things like that. So, it was something that he had spoken about. This needs to be kept secret on top of everything else, this relationship between the two of them. 

Sally. So, putting ourselves in her headspace. She was raised in the various Jefferson plantations, alongside her very big extended family, she had lots of siblings, some of the siblings started having children. She’s also raised alongside her white half-siblings or white half-nieces, I guess. So, she had been surrounded by people who she knew, by family members who loved her, and then she was taken to Paris, her older brother James was there with her, but she didn’t have female relatives around her. Her mother and her grandmother had been in a very similar situation, both of them becoming pregnant by white, powerful men so she could turn to them for advice or guidance about what she could do but they weren’t there with her. Also, in terms of systems of support among enslaved people, they really– In this situation, women really supported women in this sort of way and part of that, Annette Gordon-Reed talks about in her book, is likely, almost definitely, because of the first generation of enslaved people came directly from African countries and in a lot of African countries, there’s a real community element where women really supported each other. So, even though subsequent generations were more separated from their roots in African countries, that sense of women supporting women and being there for each other continued on; mothers taught that to their daughters and that continued on like that as well. 

So, she was 16 and pregnant by this very powerful, much older, patriarchal, almost father figure type person and she was in France, which was a place where she was legally free. So, everything was kind of blurry between the two of them just in terms of… Because this happened, she became pregnant at a time when she was the only Virginian female person on the premises. In France, there were a lot of paid servants there as well who were French people, she and her brother were there but everybody else was French and it lent itself to probably a more informal vibe than there was back in Monticello where there were so many people around all the time, there’s much less privacy there so things might have gotten kind of blurry just in terms– Because also, she was a Hemings and they were treated in this different way from other enslaved people. So, in terms of how the relationship started was very specific to this time and place. This story would be similar but different if this had all started at Monticello. One of the ways it would have been different is that she would have had people to turn to for advice and to ask what to do. 

So, I’m going to paraphrase part of Annette Gordon-Reed’s book about this part of the story. 

16-year-old Sally and her particular circumstances in Paris was perfectly positioned to be swept up in a Jeffersonian charm offensive to the detriment of what made any sense. Throughout his life, people far more worldly than her were similarly swayed, even when Thomas Jefferson did not seem to be trying very hard.

So, this is a thing from Thomas Jefferson that I really gleaned from reading this book is that he was a very charming guy. If we’re thinking in terms of people who are sexual predators, on the one hand, you have stories that I’ve read in the news, you might have too, about the way that Harvey Weinstein for instance would just violently, in a real power move, sort of grab people and force them to come to his hotel room and stuff versus somebody, it’s literal grooming, she was 14, he knew her since she was a baby. But just, Thomas Jefferson’s vibe is much more in line with what we know about the rest of his personality which is that he preferred everyone to like him. He had a real, one might say, pathological need, to be loved and/or liked. He was a people pleaser to this extreme extent, and he had the charisma and the personal skills to kind of make that happen, to make people like him, to make people trust him. He told people what they wanted to hear even if it wasn’t what he meant or it wasn’t what he believed, he was able to mould himself to be really liked. 

We’re going to get into more of his political aspirations in a little bit but he’s really similar to some of the very successful politicians one sees today in America and elsewhere. But also, it wasn’t just that he was saying what people wanted to hear, he was also helpful and nice to people. Anyone who asked him for help, he would do it to the detriment of his own finances or to what made sense. He was a… What’s that thing? There’s always these sorts of inspirational things about, “Stop saying yes to everything, stop being a people pleaser.” He was that because he wanted everyone to like him, and he figured out that he could. He had the skills and the personability that if he could figure out what made somebody tick, what are they interested in, what’s their vibe, he could flatter them, and love bomb them and just make them like him. And he did that to almost everybody, including the enslaved people who worked for him. This is because he wanted to live in this, kind of, Disneyland of imagining that all the enslaved people liked what they were doing because he was nice to them. So, then he wouldn’t have to think that they would ever want to leave or to run away because he’s so nice and aren’t they so lucky to be working for him? 

But then also, as we saw in the previous episode, when his wife died, when things didn’t go his way, even after he tried all the things that usually work, he would have migraines, he would have emotional breakdowns because he needed everything to be nice all the time. Who I keep thinking about in terms of Thomas Jefferson is in Moulin Rouge, if you know the movie and/or stage musical, Harold Zidler, the guy who is in charge of the Moulin Rouge show is always like, “Happy, happy, happy! Everything is going so well!” Let’s pretend everything is fine even when it’s not. So, the way that he would have dealt with this situation coming out of that pathology is what I’m kind of trying to imagine here.

And then you’ve got Sally Hemings who is 16 years old and however this came about, she became pregnant with his child in France. Annette Gordon-Reed says basically, I’m going to paraphrase, “By any system of logic, Sally Hemings should have seen Thomas Jefferson as an enemy,” he was her literal enslaver, he was the owner of her entire extended family but he believed that he was the opposite of the enemy and he presented himself to her and her family as this really nice guy so that’s part of what’s going on. But then also, in terms of what she’s going to do, as long as she was in France, she could be free. 

So, in the first part, I talked about how Thomas Jefferson had been kind of hoping that Sally and James Hemings maybe wouldn’t find out that that was the law in France, but they interacted with other people, so they had found that out. They both knew that they could go to the court in France and petition for their freedom and they would probably get it. So, when her mother Elizabeth had been in a similar situation, pregnant by her white enslaver, the difference was that she didn’t have the option of potential freedom. It sucks that Sally couldn’t talk to her mother about this, but she couldn’t talk to her mother about this unless she returned to Virginia and as soon as she returned to Virginia, that would mean giving up the potential freedom of a life in France. But as her son said, and I’m going to just say this… So, Sally refused to return to Virginia with him because she knew that she would be enslaved again. To induce her to do so, Thomas Jefferson promised her extraordinary privileges. So, they had a negotiation. 

So, this is a real defining moment for the Sally Hemings saga. We know so many of the things she did but we don’t know what was in her heart, we don’t know what her personality really was but this jumps out to be like, this is a person who felt confident, she had the will to challenge this guy, the patriarch of this plantation, the owner of herself and her whole family, she had the will to challenge him while they were in France and she was 16 years old! Maybe part of it too is the bravery and the optimism of a very young person and this might not have worked on a man with a different personality, but part of Thomas Jefferson’s whole thing too was he – I’m going to say, perhaps, pathologically – avoided conflict. He could not handle conflict at all, this is why he always wanted everyone to always be happy, happy, happy and he would manipulate things so that everyone seemed happy, everyone knew they had to act happy around him. He hated conflict, especially face-to-face conflict. 

So, the fact that she challenged him in this way is massive, it’s huge. If she’d said, “I’m staying in France. I am pregnant with your child, I’m also a child, and I’m going to stay here in France and that’s what’s happening.” The fact that it turned into a negotiation, that she had the power, she felt she had the power to challenge him in this way, he could have taken her, he could have grabbed her and brought her back to Virginia and forced her but instead, and this is maybe, I mean part of it is his whole conflict avoidance thing, part of it is maybe the manipulation of it all, but also, he agreed to certain terms and I don’t know if she started out with a bigger ask or if he suggested this at all, but what the terms included were that any future children that they had together, or actually, just any of her children, so implicit in that is any children she had, he would continue to father, would be freed when they turned 21 and that she would also get “extraordinary privileges.” So, she was like, “I will come back to Virginia but the children I have are going to be freed from enslavement when they turn 21,” and she would live life on her terms to some extent. 

So, part of this negotiation also, if you will recall back in Part One, when Martha 2, Sally Hemings’s half-sister, Thomas Jefferson’s first wife, when she was dying on her death bed, there were multiple Hemings around her, the women and girls had been helping nurse her through the illness that eventually she died from. Everyone heard her say to Thomas Jefferson, “Promise me you will never take another wife,” because she’d had these two stepmothers and she didn’t want her daughters to go through that. So, Sally Hemings would know that Thomas Jefferson had made that vow, he had been a widow for quite a while at this point, not quite 10 years, and he could have remarried right now, the fact that he didn’t seemed to indicate that he was honouring this promise. So, Sally Hemings would also know, if Thomas Jefferson was to take another wife, that person could get in the way, could break this negotiated promise, maybe take some of the powers away from Sally Hemings but she trusted that as part of this deal, that no woman not already known to her, there wouldn’t be a strange new woman to coming in to be his new wife, to be the new mistress of the house, she would have that control over her own life. 

Part of this also, even without being able to talk to her mother, she saw what had happened between her mother and John Wayles. When he had died, she and her siblings were all left to the legal mercy of his heirs, of his legal white daughter and her husband so she wanted a different outcome for her own children. I’m going to quote Annette Gordon-Reed again. 

Like other enslaved people, when the all too rare chance presented itself, Sally seized her moment and used the knowledge of her rights to make a decision based upon what she thought was best for her as a woman, family member, and a potential mother in her specific circumstances.

Now, part of the power, and I will say, maybe influence, that she had in this negotiation, in this discussion, is that if she did stay in France, she would have to petition French court for freedom, and this would be a public thing. This would probably show up in the newspapers because Thomas Jefferson was a public figure and this would wreck his reputation of being like, “I’m not a regular enslaver, I’m a cool enslaver. I’m cool with Black people.” He hung out with the Marquis de Lafayette and Lafayette, a white person (I just want to mention because he was played so memorably by Daveed Diggs, who also plays Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, my god!) Marquis de Lafayette was a big abolitionist and Thomas Jefferson hung out with him. When he hung out with him, he would say what Lafayette wanted to hear which was, “Yeah, let’s get rid of slavery, sure. Okay.” To show Thomas Jefferson to have impregnated a 16-year-old enslaved girl that he’d been illegally keeping in France for two years would kind of wreck his reputation. 

So, as evidence, perhaps, of how much this negotiation affected him and how much Sally must have really stood up for herself and had this conversation with him, he had a migraine attack, and he was bedridden for six days at around the same time. He was pathologically averse to conflict and having to have this conversation and maybe having to make some concessions as to what she was demanding really kind of broke him a little bit. Stress often made him physically ill. So, yeah, his whole thing was he tried to disarm people with niceness so that he wouldn’t have to think about or deal with actual life problems and it’s kind of like he thought maybe that solved the problems, but it didn’t, it just made everybody act like there weren’t any problems. But he also knew he could often solve most of the challenges he faced because he had a really strong work ethic, he was efficient, he was perseverant, he was intelligent, and when those things didn’t fix his problems, that’s where he broke down, as he did here. 

So, again, his reputation, super important to him which is very interesting and again very contemporary of him because in, I think it was in the 1970s, 1974, the first major article or book came out saying straight up, “He was the father. He impregnated Sally Hemings,” and people were big mad about it. People in the 20th century were like, “No! Not my Thomas Jefferson. Not this cool guy who hung out with Marquis de Lafayette,” because they knew that this really complicated the legacy that he wanted people to think of him as, which people did think of him like for a long time, which was just as this cool guy. 

There was, again in the more modern reading about people these days, Hemings descendants and other people, it’s generally accepted, like Monticello itself, the historic museum you can visit has lots of stuff on the website about Sally Hemings, the Hemings, they for sure say, “Yes, this happened. He fathered her children.” But there are still some people who are real Thomas Jefferson fans. It just sticks with me there’s this one woman who I read who had always idolized Thomas Jefferson and I get why people would have because, for a long time, all the writings about him were, “Look at this great man,” the legacy that he wanted people to have, which didn’t include a lot of details. 

So, this woman said she would read his letters, she found those comforting, she liked to see what he was like, she imagined this heroic person and she was like, “I just don’t see that he’s the sort of man who would do something like this, who would, age 47, impregnate his 16-year-old enslaved worker/doppelganger of his dead wife.” Just the fact that this woman said, and I think this is what she said exactly, “He just doesn’t seem like the sort of man who would do this,” and that just keeps running around in my head where I’m like, what part of him seems like he wouldn’t do this? The man who enslaved hundreds of Black people? Why do you think he wouldn’t impregnate Sally Hemings when they were left alone in this house for two years? He also really liked beautiful women, he also really liked beautiful houses, beautiful paintings, he was somebody who really liked beautiful things, she looked just like his wife who devastated him when she died. What part of him sounds like he wouldn’t do this? To me, every part of him sounds like, of course he did this.

Anyway, just to clarify this yet more, Annette Gordon-Reed wrote, “Any out-of-marriage liaison that produced illegitimate children would be a threat to the way posterity viewed Thomas Jefferson.” This is what he was thinking. “Living with and having children with an African American enslaved woman posed an exceptionally greater risk.” So, even just having illegitimate children would maybe kind of taint his reputation but, like, living with, and this seems to be the arrangement they’re making, she said, “Any children I have will be freed when they turn 21,” there’s the expectation that she’s going to have more children with him, she’s going to get extraordinary privileges. 

It seems like this document, her son Madison Hemings would describe her as being “his concubine,” which was also the word to describe her mother, Elizabeth Hemings with John Wayles, and in this context, we’ve come into the word ‘concubine’ a few times in the podcast. In this specific context, when they were writing that in the 1800s, what they meant was, that was kind of the word that meant two people who were in a sexual relationship, but they’re not married but it’s like a long-term relationship. I don’t know, ‘mistress’ could be another word you could use, ‘lover,’ I don’t know. ‘Concubine’ was the word that was often used. 

So, he could never be open about the fact that he’d just agreed to get into this situationship with Sally Hemings. Society would be okay with this, but he could never talk about it or acknowledge it. I know we just said, “There would be too much of a scandal,” but it’s like Virginia society, the other plantations around there, there were a lot of mixed-race children running around, a lot of white men were having children with Black women, you just kind of didn’t talk about it and then you could pretend like it wasn’t happening, again, the Thomas Jefferson dream world. So, he’s like, “Okay, I’m going to do this, but this has to be a secret,” and part of what he did to make it a secret was he just didn’t write about her. 

This is where people who are like, “How do we know he actually got her pregnant? He didn’t write that down and he wrote down everything.” It’s like, no! [chuckles] That’s why you can’t trust his written records, or anyone’s written records, or what people post on Instagram; people are choosing what they want you to see. You’ll see this over and over again in modern times. I’m just thinking of politicians because those are people who often portray themselves as being so moral and ethical but it’s like, oh, but did you know that this guy cheated on his wife, or this guy had a secret second family? Or like, this guy’s been on Grindr, and he has these live-in boyfriends? So, it seems really baked into American political life, which is influential and other politicians in other countries seem to act similarly but it seems, like, very American to have this expectation that political figures are so morally perfect and then they hide something that would ruin that reputation and then that stuff comes out and then it does ruin their reputation. Anyway, what happened next? 

  1. 16 and pregnant, Sally Hemings and her brother James Hemings got onto a ship to head back, to return to America and to slavery. So, it’s interesting that James also chose not to stay in France where he could have maybe stayed with his chef skills. They’d been in France for two years, they both had disposable income, so they’d amassed numerous possessions; clothes and souvenirs and gifts for their family and stuff so they took the ship over to America. First, they disembarked in New York City, but the ship docked, and everyone got off but before the luggage was taken off the ship, the ship caught fire. I don’t know if this is a thing to track this season, but I think it should be, just kind of, unpleasant ship voyage crisis. So, the Hemings siblings lost almost all of their possessions that they were bringing back from France. 

When they returned, there’s no record of this child. So, she gave birth a few months after arriving back in America but clearly, this baby only lived for a short period of time. Also, what they left in their wake in Paris, and they wouldn’t have known this but maybe they had some inklings. They left Paris just before the French Revolution really got into gear. So, the sorts of wealthy people who maybe could have hired– If they’d stayed there, if Sally and James stayed there and were freed, James would have been looking for a job as a cook, Sally could have been looking for a job as a domestic worker. But the sorts of aristocrats who would be looking for those workers were soon going to be guillotined anyway so that’s that. They’re back in Virginia. 

So, they got back. Finally, she gets to see her mother, Elizabeth Hemings who at this point is 55 years old and I’m glad she can finally talk to her mom and be like, “Here’s what’s happening,” history repeating, in a kind of Sweet Valley saga sort of way. She’d been in France for two years, but I think before that, I think it was about two years she was away at the Eppes house, living with MMP and Sally and her other half-sister Elizabeth, Elizabeth 2. So, she hadn’t been back in Monticello for a long time, so she gets to see all the Hemings again, all the new Hemings babies had been born, four of her sisters had given birth while she was in Paris. As I mentioned, the Hemings family would often name new babies after existing people, one of her sister Mary’s daughters was named Sarah, nickname Sally. 

So, other news around the same time, Martha 3, the daughter of Martha 2, Sally Hemings’s similarly aged niece, Thomas Jefferson’s older daughter, AKA sometimes Patsy. So, she’s 17 and she met and got married to his really shitty guy, very quickly. He was also her cousin, his name was Thomas Mann Randolph. He was 21 and awful and it was a really quick– I feel like they met and got married a month later, something like that. One wonders, perhaps, if she was motivated somehow by, I think Martha 3 had enjoyed being in Paris, she kind of thought “Maybe I could stay here.” Thomas Jefferson thought, “Oh no, she’s having too much fun being a French debutant, we need to bring her back.” Anyway, she’s going through some stuff and Martha decides to marry her cousin who is a horrible person. Maybe part of this is like, how did she feel about finding out that Sally, this girl who is basically her same age, who is also her aunt is now her father’s concubine? So, potentially Martha 3 was like, “I’m going to extricate myself from this narrative by leaving Monticello,” and the only way to do that was to get married. So, she happened to choose the worst person possible. 

It is notable, this is where, I don’t need to prove to you because I… [chuckles] Everyone can think what they think but there’s some people who doubt that Sally Hemings became the mother of Thomas Jefferson’s children, but I think we all know it’s true. But as further evidence, usually when the oldest daughter of a slave-owning family got married and left home, she would bring with her a lady’s maid who was usually someone similar age to her who she had a good relationship with, a good rapport, as a way to bring along some comfort and some help to her new household she was being set up. Sally Hemings had been her lady’s maid for two years, just now, in Paris, but she had to stay in Monticello. So, it’s notable, otherwise, in another hypothetical situation, Sally Hemings probably would have been bestowed upon Martha 3 to go and be her lady’s maid but instead, she had to be at Monticello because she was now Thomas Jefferson’s teenage, live-in mistress and he wanted her at Monticello. 

He loved this house in progress which is a constant… It’s such a lovely building when I see pictures of it now and it’s such an architectural treasure and everything but in the time that they were living there, it was constantly falling apart, under renovation, it was a construction zone for like, decades. Actually, at this point when they returned from Paris, it was kind of falling into disrepair a little bit because Thomas Jefferson hadn’t been there, he was also crazily in debt. Anyway, he loved Monticello, he wanted to be there flipping this house constantly and he wanted Sally to be there as his companion all the time. So, other things come up where it’s like, it would maybe make sense for Sally to be transferred elsewhere but she never was, she was always there at Monticello. 

Also, he returned, and Thomas J was offered a new job which was to be the first ever Secretary of State of the still quite newly formed United States of America. So, there’s a whole thing where first the capital of the United States of America was going to be New York City but then the capital was moved to Philadelphia so that’s where he was going to go. Philadelphia, shout out to any listeners in Philadelphia, your city comes up a lot this season. So, he went to Philadelphia, Sally remained in Virginia because the whole thing was that he wanted her in Monticello and also, he didn’t want anyone to know that he’d entered into this relationship with her, and he was out of town a lot. He went to Philadelphia, he stayed there, he brought some staff with him but not her. He was also ill a lot because at this time, Alexander Hamilton, (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the musical), was arguing with him all the time. Thomas Jefferson, we know, doesn’t do well with arguments so he was sick a lot which meant, Sally, a teenager, did not fall into the same once-a-year baby schedule that her mother had been on because Thomas Jefferson was away all the time. She conceived her first child in Paris when she was 16 years old and her next known pregnancy was not for five more years, at which point she had a daughter named Harriet. 

Also note, so I’ve talked about the Hemings family and the names repeating across generations, across family members. Her children, Sally Hemings’s children, had different names, they didn’t have the Hemings family regular names and that’s because they were pretty much almost definitely all named by Thomas Jefferson if you want more evidence that he was their father. They all got names after people who were important to Thomas Jefferson. 

Her mother Elizabeth was around to help out with baby Harriet. So, she’d had five years, Sally Hemings, of having “extraordinary privileges,” so we’ll talk about what that means in a bit, in terms of what her duties might have been. By the time she had her child, her mother was around, able to help. At some point in 1796, an 8-year-old enslaved girl named Edy Hern was moved into Sally’s household to help with the baby and if it’s like, why would she need help with the baby, her mother is there or whatever? But this is basically a thing about like what Sally herself had done; enslaved girls under the age of 10 were often set up to be helpers to people with babies but also, this is for when Sally went to be with Thomas Jefferson, Edy would watch baby Harriet. 

So, Sally’s duties at this time were things like she was Thomas Jefferson’s chambermaid, she did work as a seamstress. In terms of where was she located it’s not entirely clear to me because, again, Thomas Jefferson left very detailed records about lots of his enslaved people, not about her. But we do know that she probably– It’s called Mulberry Row. If you go to visit Monticello it’s kind of where all these shacks, I guess you would say, tiny homes where the enslaved people would live. It’s like a street and you’d be neighbours with different people. So, we’re pretty sure she had a home there and/or she might have had rooms in the slave quarters in the south wing of Monticello. The book I read by Annette Gordon-Reed was written in 2008. In 2017, a room was discovered that was just off of Thomas Jefferson’s room and it’s pretty much clear that that was Sally Hemings’s room. So, maybe while he was in town, she would sleep there but otherwise, she would have her own place to be. But basically, when she was off being with him, Edy was there to watch her baby. 

1797, baby Harriet died of old-timey disease type things, I presume, and that same year, Thomas Jefferson became vice president because of this very brief rule – imagine this was still the rule – it used to be that people running for president and whoever won more votes in the electoral college would become president and whoever got the second most votes would be the vice president! Imagine if that was still the thing! Anyway, he became vice president because he didn’t get as many votes as John Adams who mentioned very briefly before. He was the husband of Abigail Adams who was a person who met Sally when she was in London. Anyway, so he was, again, this meant he had to live in Philadelphia, which was the capital of America at that time, but he did go back to visit Monticello, at least long enough to knock up Sally again and she had a son in 1798 named William Beverley, known as Beverley. The sons that she would have would go by their middle names. 

So, she had one surviving child and had been in this situationship with Thomas Jefferson for nearly 10 years. For basically all of that time, although Thomas Jefferson was like, “No one can ever know about this,” (except people are going to find out). So, the people in surrounding plantations had been gossiping about this for basically 10 years. So, they were especially gossiping about it because Thomas Jefferson had entered public life at almost the same time he’d started fathering children with Sally. He was also an early adopter to using the press, pamphlets and newspapers, to his advantage to get his points across and to make himself seem smart and cool so he was a celebrity. He also, at this point, note, he was a seemingly wealthy (asterisk, actually bankrupt) but he was a rich dude who’d been raised rich– or maybe he wasn’t raised rich, but he’d married rich. He was a wealthy, slave-owning, plantation fancy guy who liked beautiful luxurious things. But when he entered public office to become a politician, he was like, “I’m just like Joe plumber guy.” He started dressing more plain, he started presenting himself as this working guy, like every man, which people who knew him were like, “Well, that is all a lie.” But people took to it, people believed it. So again, news of him fathering children with an enslaved woman would kind of wreck this image he was building for himself as like, “I’m just like you, northerners.” 

1799, Sally had another daughter who died in infancy, and Thomas Jefferson was not writing down all his dealings with Sally but the same year he did refer to her in a letter as, “Mariah’s maid.” 1800, another presidential election so the presidential campaign was happening. So, Thomas Jefferson had enemies and the enemies started spilling tea in the newspapers and pamphlets of the era. This one guy said, “His record isn’t as spotless as you think,” which is a real blind item sort of thing to say. The election ended in a tie, imagine if that happened. Then there was a re-vote, and ultimately, Thomas Jefferson was elected, and they weren’t doing the same thing where the winner is president, and second place is vice president because they realized it’s best not to have a president and vice president who hate each other and want to actively murder each other. So, he was the president, and his vice president was Aaron Burr from the musical Hamilton

By now, the capital of the United States had moved from Philadelphia to Washington DC and here’s a fun fact I learned from friend of the podcast, Lana Wood Johnson, which is Washington DC was a swamp, it was literally built on a swamp. The thing that people say now about politics like, “Drain the swamp,” et cetera, I thought that was metaphorical. In fact, literal; Washington DC was built on a swamp. So anyway, they moved to this new swamp city, he did, not they. Sally, of course, stayed at Monticello which honestly, around her family in the place that she knew and was comfortable in this community of enslaved people, which is like, they are enslaved, which is awful, and also, she was with her family so rather than being enslaved in a swamp with strangers. 

In 1801 she gave birth to another daughter who survived whose name was also Harriet, which is a thing that has happened, again, to other people in this story where you have a child, and the child dies and then you give that child the same name as a previous child. It happens, in this whole season, it’s a thing that happens a lot. 

One year later, September 1802, a newspaper called the Richmond Recorder published some writing by a guy named James Callender, a pamphleteer by trade. He had been working with Thomas Jefferson and then they had an unamicable split on a professional basis, and he was James Callender, messy bitch living for drama to the extreme. He was mad at Thomas Jefferson, and so he just started spilling all the tea in the newspapers. He wrote “Thomas Jefferson for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY.” So, at this point, it wasn’t just the previous newspaper article that was like, “Maybe his reputation is not as spotless as you think.” He was just like, “This is what’s happening,” literally. And the fact that he knew her name was Sally because everybody in the neighbourhood knew about Sally, AKA Black Mariah. Anyway, Thomas Jefferson, if he didn’t want his secrets to be spilled then he needed to… I don’t know. He was doing his pathological, trying to make everyone like him thing but that doesn’t work on everybody. 

By now, Sally Hemings, 29 years old, mother of two, she was basically put on blast. Callender had informants from the neighbours of Monticello, and he had the facts. He was like, “This affair started in France, she had her first child by Thomas Jefferson about 13 years ago,” which was when they came back from France. What really got this scandal going and moving is the fact, all the things I said before that Thomas Jefferson knew would be scandalous and this is why he didn’t want people to find out about it. He had fathered children with Sally but what people found more shocking was the long-standing nature of this arrangement, the fact that she was at Monticello all the time, the fact that they had been having several children over several years which made her seem almost like a wife to him. People found that shocking because she was a Black woman, because she was enslaved, because Black and white people couldn’t get married, because enslaved people couldn’t get married, because there was real vicious racism about Black people and white people having relationships, there’s political cartoons and stuff came out. 

And this guy Callender, this messy bitch Callender, he sort of exaggerated things as well as he had some facts but he’s like, “This isn’t enough to make people as scandalized as I want them to be. This isn’t going to destroy Thomas Jefferson,” so he said untrue things like “Sally had up to 30 lovers of all colours,” he called her “A slut as common as the pavement.” He suggested she lived in a pigsty at Monticello. His hatred for her was massive, unreasonable, unbounded, malicious and it was really coming out, it was apparent that this guy, Callender, hated Black people. He was horrified by Thomas Jefferson; he saw him as a traitor to the white race. So, instead of saying “Thomas Jefferson is shitty,” he would say “Sally is horrible,” so he was trying to humiliate Thomas Jefferson by being cruel about Sally which is something we see still today about the way that Black women are often villainized in the press. 

There’s no record of Thomas Jefferson ever publicly responding to any of this, and this is probably, partially, because if you know the musical Hamilton, there’s the part where Hamilton has the affair with another woman, I want to say her name is Peggy, and then people find out about it and he was like, “Yeah, I did that,” and then that kind of wrecked his political career. Thomas Jefferson was like “It wrecked his career because he said something about it. If I never say anything, then I’ll be fine.” So, he never responded to this. 

1804, his daughter MMP, white Mariah, she, like her mother, had really rough pregnancies. She fell ill after giving birth, she had gotten married a few years before and she died aged 25. Thomas Jefferson went home from the swamp to go be with her on her deathbed at which time he conceived another child with Sally, who would become the son, James Madison Hemings AKA Madison Hemings AKA the one who wrote the memoirs from which we know a lot about Sally. This is another thing where people are like, “How do we know Thomas Jefferson was the father of these children?” Every time he came to Monticello, nine months later, Sally had a baby. Who else do you think is the father of these children? 

Despite the smear campaign by Callender, who I think also died of old-timey things, I presume, Thomas Jefferson was re-elected president again in 1804. Sally was never part of his household for obvious reasons, the obvious reasons being he didn’t want anyone to know that he had a long-term enslaved concubine relationship with this woman. He was also doing that whole thing where he was like, “I’m just this cool everyman, working-class guy,” and any reminder that he owned hundreds of slaves was not what he wanted people to be thinking about. 

Annette Gordon-Reed also mentions the complication of if Sally and the children went to live with him, there would be cute mixed-race babies running around who looked just like him and apparently, his sons really looked like him. And in terms of skin tone, I guess, if you think starting with Parthenia, who was a Black woman from Africa, she had a child with a white man who was Elizabeth Hemings, Elizabeth Hemings had children with a white man who became Sally Hemings and other siblings, Sally Hemings’s children with Thomas Jefferson. So, at this point, they’re what, one-eighth Black? The children, we’re going to see later, could pass for white, visually. 

So, Thomas Jefferson, people are like, “Hey, why don’t you make more of your enslaved Black workers here to the swamp White House?” And he’s like, “I prefer white servants when I’m in the swamp,” but this is also again a thing to sort of evade the whole perception of him being who he was which was an enslaver from Virginia who is also wealthy. He’s like, “No, I’m just like Joe Everyguy, the common man,” or whatever. 

During the eight years he was president, the press continued to refer to Sally. This is the one thing that they had that they could smear him about because the rest of his reputation was apparently so squeaky clean. So, they referred to her, they called her things like Dusky Sally and Black Sal in the press. The concept of her was so famous, no other enslaved person in America was so famous but she herself was not known, it’s just the concept of her. There were pictures of her in cartoons and stuff and they always illustrated her looking like a stereotypical dark-skinned, Black woman which is, like, what we know is that she had long, straight hair, she had light skin, but no one actually saw her. No one actually knew what she looked like. The stories and it wasn’t just stories, there’s also verse, like comedy poems, many of which were written by a man called John Quincy Adams, the son of former president John not-Quincy Adams. He really, for a while, had a real hyper-fixation on writing verse poems mocking Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally. 

1807, Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Betsy Hemings, died aged 72. She had lived a long enough life to see over 30 grandchildren be born and at least four great-grandchildren. Her legacy was right there around her all the time. And then Thomas Jefferson announced he was not going to seek a third term as president. I don’t think you’re allowed to do that anymore; you can only do two now, right? So, he retired from being president and went to his favourite work-in-progress, Monticello. Nine months later, 1808, Sally had another son named Thomas Eston Hemings and just note, of all of Sally’s children, he was the one who looked the most copy-paste like Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was, like, 6-foot-2 and Thomas Eston, known as Eston, when he became an adult was around the same height. There was one time he and his friends were around the statue of Thomas Jefferson and his friends were like, “This statue looks exactly like you.” I don’t know… I get it, I’m like so many other people, I’m like “What do these people look like?” I was looking at pictures of Thomas Jefferson and trying to picture him being younger, but Eston, apparently, looked just like him. 

So later, when her son Madison was thinking back to his childhood, he described them as growing up “measurably happy because they were free from the dread of being enslaved all their lives,” because of this negotiation, that they were going to be freed when they turned 21. And Thomas Jefferson prepared them for their eventual freedom. The Hemings already had, like we talked about in Part One, different sorts of work from other enslaved people at Monticello. But these children, Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally, they specifically were taught work in the trades like woodworking and joining and things like that; Harriet was taught how to spin and weave, the sorts of skills that would be looked for in a wife and mother. Thomas Jefferson loved music and the violin; the boys all learned how to play the violin. Eventually, Eston would make his living as a musician. Beverley, the oldest son, also was apparently a very gifted musician and he was also really into woodworking and joining. Thomas Jefferson, he loved watching workmen doing skilled work, he liked watching people do woodworking and stuff like that, so he spent a lot of time in the wood shop where his sons were apprentices. 

One of the, sort of, I don’t know if it’s an irony necessarily but just a thing that is sort of sad, these sons who were going to be freed when they were 21 but were raised enslaved, and a lot of them had similar interests to him, similar skills to Thomas Jefferson being sort of intellectual-type people who like working with their hands, who like playing the violin versus Thomas Jefferson’s white eldest grandson, the son of Martha 3, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, did not share any of his father’s interests in architecture, woodworking, or music. What he did have, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was business sense, which Thomas Jefferson did not have but we’re going to get to what happened to all of his debts in a little bit. But just the fact that these sons who were like, copy-paste look like him, who were so similar to him, were his illegitimate sons that he never publicly claimed as his own, who grew up enslaved but were not actually his heirs even though they were so similar to him. 

Anyway, eventually, speaking of Martha 3, Sally’s similarly aged half-niece, she had that terrible husband. She had a lot of children with her terrible husband who was literally extremely physically abusive, awful, terrible person, bad with money, and she returned to Monticello, she left her husband, and she couldn’t bear to be with him anymore. So, her children were there, this guy, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, her children including him were there growing up alongside Sally’s children. So, these children who are relatives, but some are privileged white people, and some are enslaved Black people, all growing up together in this fucked up situation. 

So, Sally Hemings, what did she do all day? She was helping raise her children, she was clearly the one who probably taught Harriet how to sew and how to mend clothes, teaching her those skills. Her tasks around the house were all behind the scenes. Thomas Jefferson loved having people over, people would just randomly show up because he was a famous person and he was like, “Sure, come in!” And the staff was like, “Are you kidding me?” and they had to keep entertaining people. Sally had to always be in the background because of the whole concept of Black Sal being so famous so she did these behind-the-scenes things. She worked as a seamstress for the family, staying away from the house guests, she did things like when there were tasks helping to bottle beer and things like that. But remember when she had gotten extraordinary privileges, maybe part of that was she might have also gotten some free time to herself, I don’t know. 

Her older brother, I think older, brother John, did not have children of his own. He was married to a woman named Priscilla, they didn’t have children– Sorry, not married because they were enslaved. He was effectively married; he was partnered with a woman named Priscilla and he became a mentor to Sally’s sons because he was a skilled woodworker were some of the tasks that he did around Monticello, so he helped train them and became sort of a surrogate father figure. Part of what Madison Hemings recalls is seeing Thomas Jefferson being so hands-on and loving to his white grandchildren and not like that to his Black children, but John stepped in to have that male presence in their lives. A visitor who came to Monticello two years into Thomas Jefferson’s retirement wrote, 

The story of Black Sal is no farse. That he cohabits with her and has a number of children by her is a sacred truth and the worst of it is he keeps the same children slaves, an unnatural crime which is common in these parts.

So again, to that contemporary woman who was like, “I just don’t think Thomas Jefferson would do things like that,” then why were contemporary people who visited his house saying, “He’s doing this shitty thing?” 

Anyway, so he was true to his word, to the Paris negotiation with Sally. When Sally’s eldest children Beverley and Harriet turned 21, Thomas Jefferson aided their escape. So, he didn’t write paperwork being like, “I legally free these people,” but he sort of facilitated them leaving and then when he wrote in his records what happened, he used the language of slavery to be like, “These two just escaped,” but really what happened was they got a carriage for them, he gave them I think $50 or something to start their life. Both of them went to Washington, swamp city, where they just kind of disappeared into the white community; they passed as white people, married white people and what they did vanished from the historical record although we do know from the Hemings descendants that they stayed in touch with their other siblings and with Sally. 

In 1824, our friend the Marquis de Lafayette visited Monticello. So, this is wrapping things back around, the Paris era, he and Thomas Jefferson spent so much time together in that pre-revolutionary era. Sally was around, it was a small household, he would have known her so I don’t know if he would remember her but I’m sure she would remember him, and he could not have not seen Sally’s sons who were there because Sally was maybe behind the scenes a bit but the sons had forward-facing jobs. So, he just saw, “Oh! Who is that enslaved person who looks exactly like Thomas Jefferson?” Copy-paste face and height. He would have figured out what would have been going on over these past several decades. 

Thomas Jefferson’s health began to deteriorate in July 1825. He had rheumatism, arm and wrist injuries, intestinal and urinary disorders, and eventually, he became confined to bed one year later. He prepared his will in which he kept his word. He wrote in the will that Sally’s youngest sons, Madison and Eston, would get their freedom once they reached age 21. He kind of couched that in other information saying that he was freeing John, Sally’s brother, who had been their mentor in woodworking and stuff because Thomas Jefferson was just covering all his angles. He’s like, “I can’t say I’m freeing these two specific enslaved people and not these other ones,” so he said, “I’m giving John his freedom and also these two people who are his apprentices so that that will help John.” So, that was his way of doing that and this fulfilled his promise he’d made to Sally in Paris 37 years ago. What’s notable here is that Madison was already older than 21, Eston was 17. 

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th aged 83, this was the day of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence which he had written. He died deeply in debt. He’d been in debt all of his life. I think part of it is he had inherited some debt when he married Martha 2 and then he just kept– He wanted to look impressive, it’s the same way he wanted people to remember him as a great man, he wanted them to see him as a great man while he was alive, so he fucked everybody over. He was unable to pass on his estate freely to his heirs because of all the debts. His estate, his possessions, including the enslaved people, 130 of the enslaved people of Monticello were all sold at public auctions. Eventually, Monticello itself was sold by Martha 3 and the other heirs. Martha 3, her late life, not great. She had this shitty husband who also left her with no money, she inherited really nothing from her father except for debts. She ended up having to, like, couch surf with people for the rest of her life. Thomas Jefferson fucked everyone over. 

So, multiple generations because there are so many Hemingses by now from all of Sally’s siblings who were such an age spread, some were so much older than her, had children, some of those children had children. There were so many Hemings, so the big family was split up. Sally herself was not legally freed, she was not mentioned in the will because that would be too controversial for Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, but Martha 3 unofficially freed her by saying, “Giving her time,” is what it was technically called. And before all of the belongings of Monticello were sent to auction, Sally took a few souvenirs. What she kept kind of speaks to maybe her experience of life alongside Thomas Jefferson and the fact that she wanted to remember him and what she took to remember him by which became Hemings family heirlooms; a pair of his glasses, an inkwell, and one of his shoe buckles. 

And so, Eston I mentioned was 17 but they didn’t make him wait four years to be freed, they were freed basically right away. Sally and her two youngest sons, Madison and Eston, went to live in a rented house on Main Street in Charlottesville, not far from her older sister Mary. Later, her sons would buy their own houses. I think they both worked, or Eston was a musician, Madison I think worked as a skilled tradesman. They would buy their own homes and she lived with Madison. All three were listed, there was a census done in 1830, and they gave their status as free, white people. Interestingly, three years later, there was another census in which Sally was identified as a free, mixed-race woman. Her two older children, Beverley and Harriet remained in contact with her and the others which is how we know what they died. 

Sally Hemings died in 1835 in Charlottesville, age 62. Her burial site is unknown, but she is remembered all over the place at the Monticello Museum. So, Monticello which was sold to try and pay off some debts, it’s operated as a historical site run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1923 and they’ve spent so much time, what they call “restoring” the house to what it was like, but I feel like I don’t know if it ever was that good while Thomas Jefferson was alive. It looks beautiful now, it looks like a beautiful place to visit. 

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and honestly what they’re doing at Monticello is really… We’re going to talk in some other episodes later this season about how history is remembered in various places, and they’ve done really great work at Monticello at weaving the story of slavery with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson because they can’t be separated, that’s such a crucial part of this whole situation. So, they’ve created programs to fully interpret the lives of enslaved people at Monticello, they have an interactive multimedia exhibit. I believe it’s in the slave quarters in the south part of Monticello itself, where they don’t know what room was Sally’s, so they chose one as emblematic and because there are no images of Sally, we don’t know what she looked like, what they have is this multimedia show that has sort of silhouettes of Sally and her children to interpret and imagine what she would have looked like. The multimedia exhibit is called “The Life of Sally Hemings” and because of the whole thing where people are like, “Was she Thomas Jefferson’s concubine? Did he father her children?” Instead of them interpreting that, the words of this exhibit are all entirely the reminiscences of her son Madison explaining her life story and I watched it, there’s a video of it and it’s a very lovely tribute. 

In 2003, Monticello welcomed a reunion of descendants of Thomas Jefferson from both the Hemings side and the Wayles side and this was organized by the descendants who have created a group called the Monticello Community. Additional larger reunions have since been held, not just of descendants of the Hemings and of Jefferson but of all the enslaved people who worked at Monticello. 

In 2012, there was an exhibit called “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History which also examined the legacy of Thomas Jefferson the enslaver. This was developed as a collaboration between the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello itself. It was the first exhibit on the National Mall to address such issues. Also, in 2012, Monticello opened a new outdoor exhibit on its ground called “Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello,” to convey more about the lives of the hundreds of enslaved people who lived and worked at the plantation. 

And so, Sally Hemings… What a saga, honestly, an American story. So, we’re going to look at her in terms of our Scandiliciousness Scale. First, we have the award for Outstanding Supporting Performance, the Jewelled Tortoise Award, and I feel like the Hemings family, the way that they carried on the oral tradition and continued on her legacy, the people of Monticello, I feel like that’s all so important. These awards though are more for people who were there, in with the person, helping them out at the time and I think the whole Hemings family did, I just don’t have enough examples to specifically give them this award, but I am grateful that she was not by herself throughout all of this stuff. 

So, the first category on the Fredegund Memorial Scandiliciousness Scale is Scandiliciousness which is complicated. The myth of Black Sally in the pamphlets and the newspapers, that wasn’t about her, that was about the concept of her, and it was really about Thomas Jefferson and trying to slander him by just dishing out this message noire about Sally Hemings. Augh! It’s tricky. The whole concept about like, the incest thing and the fact that he was so much older, and he was her enslaver but that’s not her being scandilicious. We don’t know what went on between the two of them. It’s different from situations like… We had the story two years ago when I was doing a story about Hürrem Sultan, who was an enslaved woman from Ukraine who was taken to serve in the Ottoman court and then the Sultan Suleiman fell in love with her, and he fell in love with her partially because of her scheming to get his attention and stuff. She kind of caused that and he, to his credit, freed her, married her, and to all the haters was like, “Fuck you, this is my woman,” Thomas Jefferson would never. 

So, Sally Hemings, I don’t think she was scandilicious, I don’t think she did anything intentionally scandilicious. The most scandilicious thing maybe that she intentionally did which I don’t think is scandilicious, but people might have thought that, was to stand up to Thomas Jefferson when she was 16 in Paris and be like, “I’m going to leave unless you give me what I want.” But that’s more scheminess than scandiliciousness. I’m going to say 2 for Scandiliciousness because it wasn’t things she did but she was perceived as scandalous by people who heard about the situation.

Scheminess, like, we don’t have a lot of examples of things she actually did, especially after she became Thomas Jefferson’s concubine, but the negotiation itself. The way that Madison shares that story, and we know so much about her from what Madison, what his reminiscences say and then other people who were at Monticello were like, “Sally would always talk about her time in Paris.” The fact that Madison knew about this negotiation means she shared that story as well. She made sure her story was known, which is scheminess. But also, the scheminess of knowing Thomas Jefferson so well, his obsession with public image, the way that he hated conflict, the way that she knew she could use these things in this moment where she could stay in France and be free but that would mean leaving her whole family behind, but she could get freedom for her children. I’m giving her 10 for Scheminess because I think she was very savvy, I think she was very clever, and at age 16 in this situation, away from her whole family and support system, she stood up for herself and what she wanted happened, her children were all freed. 

Her Significance I feel is also a 10. So, she is one of the best-known American women we’re going to be talking about this whole season. Her name is really well known, and I think that’s really because of her descendants and the descendants of the other Hemings siblings, all the descendants of Elizabeth Hemings, kept her name out there, kept her story out there, made sure that people knew who she was, her importance, and to not erase this, erase her and her experiences from history. But also, her significance just as an enslaved woman and the fact that we know as much as we do about her where we know so little or nothing about most enslaved people of this era. So, she’s significant in and of herself and then she’s also significant on behalf of so many enslaved people whose stories we don’t know. 

The Sexism Bonus. This is, to new listeners, how much did the patriarchy get in her way and things like that? How different or better might her life have been if she wasn’t a woman? Like so many other people we’ve talked about on this podcast who are people of colour, you can’t extricate the sexism from the racism for her, the enslavement. But if we’re just going to score the sexism of it all, her brother James for instance, he went to France and was trained to be a French chef and then he went off and his whole story is worth reading and learning about; Annette Gordon-Reed’s book The Hemingses of Monticello really talks more about him and what happened to him, but he had opportunities that Sally did not because he was a man. Her other brothers did too. Some of them learned skilled trades, they became house servants, he did free some of the older siblings, Annette Gordon-Reed talks about that in the book. I really wanted to focus just on Sally. 

Her experience, it’s similar to that of her mother and her grandmother and her sisters just in the sense of being wives and mothers and that’s what they did. If she hadn’t lived in this racist slave situation, how much more could she have accomplished? Also, pulling out one tiny part of that, it’s like, if she hadn’t been a young girl or woman in this situation, what other skills might she have done? [purring] Can you hear that? My cat Hepburn is here, she’s purring real loud right next to the microphone. [purring] Anyway, Hepburn concurs, 10/10 Sexism Bonus for Sally Hemings. 

This gives her a total score of 32/40 which in terms of people we’ve talked about, I’m just seeing who is around there. Even looking specifically at Black history, people we’ve talked about, the Queen of Sheba has a 31, who was the legendary queen mentioned in the Christian Bible who lived in Africa. African history, Nefertiti has a 31.5. Amanirenas of Kush, who was also a very notable figure from Black African history has a 32, and that’s right where Sally Hemings is going to go as well. 32/40. Love to see her there around these literal queens. 

And then we’re also doing, this season, the Marie Antoinette season, we have our segment called Nothing But Net where we’re looking to see what’s the closest connection between this person and Queen Marie Antoinette. And actually, Sally Hemings is one of the closest ones. She was living in France, breathing the same oxygen basically as Marie Antoinette. She was in France just immediately before the French Revolution; Marie Antoinette lived through that really cold winter as well. But it’s the Marquis de Lafayette who is the connection here. The Marquis de Lafayette visited that house in Paris all the time and then also came to visit Monticello. He was, Marquis de Lafayette – I feel like we should almost do a special episode about him because he’s interesting, kind of messy – but he for sure would have met Sally Hemings. He was in that house in Paris all the time, it was a small house, she was a noticeable person. Marquis de Lafayette knew Marie Antoinette so that makes Sally Hemings two degrees of separation from Queen Marie Antoinette. 


So, I wanted to follow up on a couple things from this story because I recorded this a bit ago and now, I’m recording this little extro. Since I recorded this story, there are so many other details, I can’t recommend enough, Annette Gordon-Reed’s book, The Hemingses of Monticello. There’s a couple things I really wanted to say in this podcast as well about her brother James. So, James Hemings is the one who was with Sally when she was in France and he was there because Thomas Jefferson liked French cooking and he wanted James, (who was working in the kitchen, enslaved) to learn some good recipes and James was really gifted at cooking. So, he received training to be a French chef while he was in France and actually, on his own dime, in his own… Thomas Jefferson didn’t pay for him to do this but James Hemings also got tutoring in the French language so he spoke French, he was learning about French cookery, and he is credited with bringing many French cooking styles to colonial America and developing new recipes inspired by French cuisine such as the French dish of pasta and cheese. 

So, Thomas Jefferson really liked pasta, he called it all macaroni, I don’t know if everybody did, but he did. So, James, while he was in France, he learned about French pasta, which I guess is Italian. We know that later on, Thomas Jefferson ordered a pasta maker from Naples because he was so into the pasta that James had introduced him to. So, James prepared this dish called macaroni pie which evolved to what Americans now call macaroni and cheese. His recipe, you can look it up, it’s a bit different from what people do now where you make a roux with flour and stuff. His recipe is like, layers of macaroni, butter, cheese, bacon, it sounds delicious, I think I might make it. His actual recipe, you can find. So, James Hemings is believed to be one of the first American chefs to prepare the original French dish in this way. 

Credit is often incorrectly attributed, for the invention of macaroni and cheese, to Thomas Jefferson’s cousin/sister-in-law or his daughter married Mr. Randolph or their cousin… Anyway, god this family tree. Anyway, a woman named Mary Randolph wrote a cookbook called The Virginia Housewife, which contained a whole bunch of recipes that she said, “These are the recipes me and my family love.” Mary Randolph was not doing cooking herself, the enslaved people in her household were doing the cooking but she was the one who wrote the recipe book, so people thought maybe she invented the recipes, but she had never been to France, she didn’t know about macaroni pie. Anyway, so the recipes in her book, The Virginia Housewife, all say to credit Mary Randolph or other people who are not James Hemings. Anyway, I read a thing that said Thomas Jefferson, only went in the kitchen to make sure the clock was telling the right time, he also was not cooking. Some people, very erroneously, think Thomas Jefferson invented macaroni and pie. James Hemings invented macaroni and cheese and everybody should know. 

You can learn more about James Hemings, there’s a 2022 very recent Amazon Prime documentary called James Hemings: Ghost in America’s Kitchen and I just thought in terms of the Hemings and their importance to American history, I should let you know that about macaroni and cheese. 

I also briefly said in the episode about the room that archaeologists found in 2017. So, a bit more about this. There was this little room that was discovered that was adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s bed chamber at Monticello. This room had been hidden from view since 1941 because Monticello had been a museum for a long time and so many people were coming that they were like, “We need more public bathrooms” so this had turned into a men’s bathroom. This room was 13 feet long and 15 feet wide and could only be accessed through Thomas Jefferson’s personal room, it didn’t have its own other door. So, “This room contained a fireplace, a brick hearth, and a brick base for a stove.” I mean, who else’s room would this be except Sally Hemings’s room? So, it’s still currently being restored for eventual public viewing as Monticello’s curators continue to work diligently to incorporate Hemings’s life as part of the story of Thomas Jefferson. So, this room was built around 1809, we know from the architectural plans, this is when Sally would have been around 36 years old. The quarters where she likely lived before that, up to age 35 or 36, is in the South Pavilion at Monticello and this is where “The Life of Sally Hemings” exhibit is currently on display. 

The image that I’m using for this podcast (if you look at your phone screen right now, I put an image up there) and what that is is a still image from the multimedia exhibition that’s part of “The Life of Sally Hemings,” where they use the words of her son Madison Hemings to explain her story. Because there’s no portraits of Sally Hemings, rather than guessing what she looked like, what they have is sort of a mannequin showing the sort of clothes that she would have worn and then it’s projected upon with different imagery like birds flying and stuff. In the background, the multimedia thing has silhouettes of people being Sally and her children. You can watch that, I put the link to that as well in the show notes. So, that’s the image I’m using there is from this “Life of Sally Hemings” exhibit. Another room in the south wing contains the recently excavated and restored first kitchen of Monticello which reveals more about the life of macaroni and cheese inventor, James Hemings, as well as the other enslaved cooks and chefs who helped create early American cuisine. 

So, if you want to keep up with this podcast/with me, first of all, I have a Substack weekly newsletter where every week I send out to all the subscribers a free newsletter where I’m telling the story of someone scandalous from history, it’s not the same people as on the podcast, it’s different people. Currently, I’m talking about the murder of Amy Dudley who is a woman from Tudor era who may or may not have been killed by Queen Elizabeth I’s boyfriend, Bobby Duds. 

You can also keep up with me on Patreon at You can join there for free as well. I’ve been posting some stuff, like that stuff about and the records that you’re able to access, when I heard that news, I shared it on Patreon for all the free members. I’m just trying to add some more content there as well for all the free members too. Also, if you become a paid supporter on Patreon for $1 or more a month, you get early, ad-free access to all the episodes of this podcast as well as the past episodes, you also get those ad-free. If you subscribe for $5 or more a month you get all the above as well as bonus episodes of our bonus series Vulgarpiece Theatre, where I talk about costume dramas with Allison Epstein and Lana Wood Johnson. There’s a really good back catalogue of those now so if you really want to, if you’re going on some long road trips or something and you really need some three-hour podcasts where we’re just yelling about costumes being historically inaccurate, there you go. I also have some Patreon-only episodes there of a series called So This Asshole where I talk about gross men from history. Actually, I did an episode there about Thomas Jefferson and that’s where I first started getting interested or being aware of how interesting Sally Hemings and the Hemings family story really was so you can hear that, the origin story of these episodes there as well. 

I do also want to mention we have a brand partner, Common Era Jewellery, which is a small business based out of New York City where they are, by they, I mean the two people who run this company, Torie and her colleague. This is a woman-owned business that makes beautiful jewellery inspired by women from history as well as women from classical mythology. So, this includes people we’ve talked about on the podcast like Agrippina, Cleopatra, Boudica, Anne Boleyn is there as well. If you’re looking at some of the people from further back, there’s people like Sappho is there, Livia, also who is featured prominently in the series I, Claudius, also people from mythology like Medusa and Aphrodite. Hatshepsut is there, we’ve done an episode about her as well. Their pieces are available in solid gold as well as more affordable gold vermeil and Vulgar History listeners can always get 15% off anything you buy from them by going to or using code ‘VULGAR’ at checkout for Common Era Jewellery. 

If you want to get Vulgar History merchandise, actually, you know, big news, the first merch drop of Season Seven has come out. I didn’t pre-plan what merch I was going to do based around Season Seven because I wanted to see what was going to take off because I can never predict which way the Tits Out Brigade is going to go with things. But the phrase from two weeks ago episode about the Public Universal Friend where the Public Universal Friend would say to people, “The Friend hath need of these things,” and just take their shit because of the cult-adjacent vibes of the whole situation. Just the phrase, “The Friend hath need of these things,” when you’re a genderless spirit, you just feel free to demand things from people. Anyway, that phrase took off a little bit amongst the Tits Out Brigade/myself so I just kind of made a design myself using some cute fonts that say, “The Friend hath need of these things.” I think it’s clever to get that on a tote bag because then it’s not so much like, the Friend is, you know, taking your shit. It’s more like the Friend hath need of these things, the things that are in this bag. But then there’s also stickers and T-shirts, dad hats, various things. Anyway, you can check out all that merch and also the longstanding other merch we have at for Americans or if you’re outside the US you can shop at where the shipping is a bit better for non-Americans.

If you want to get in touch with me, especially, I know there are a lot of listeners in the US so I’m curious to know, what did you learn about Sally Hemings growing up in the US? How was she handled when you were going to school? I’m interested to know. Have you ever been to Monticello? If so, send me pictures! You can get in touch with me, there’s a form if you go to where you can just message me or you can also send me messages, my DMs are open on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod. 

Next week, we’re sticking obviously with the same 18th-century revolutionary era thing. This Season Seven Part One is really focused on the American Revolution and the ripple effects of all of that. Next week, I have a real treat in store for you. We’ve done episodes in the past about people like Lola Montez, about Rachel, these sort of sexually liberated, chaotic people are very much similar to next week’s heroine who is, I’m going to say sexually liberated chaos person but really what I mean to say is she’s really just a horny chaos slut and I’m here for it and I’m so excited to share this story and I’m maybe even more excited to let you know that this story is going to take place in Ireland. I know that Irish listeners have been waiting for a minute for a full Ireland-based episode although Lola Montez was from there and I think you can claim her. In fact, I asked the guest, we have an amazing guest, I think this is what I’m most excited about next week. It’s a guest, I won’t say their identity but if you know, you know. When you hear them and who it is you might say, “Herman, my pills!” So, stay tuned next week for more of these adventures of the revolutionary 18th century and how they all connect back to Mary. Marie Antoinette. 

Until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out! 

Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster, that’s me! The editor is Cristina Lumague. Theme music is by the Severn Duo. The Vulgar History show image is by Deborah Wong. Transcripts are written by Aveline Malek. Find transcripts of recent episodes at

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at


The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

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