This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2017: The Book of Usable Minutes

October 11, 2017: birthday: Mason Locke Weems

It’s the birthday of Mason Locke Weems (books by this author), born in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (1759). He was an Episcopalian clergyman and a traveling bookseller. He wrote extremely popular fictional tales about history and presented them as if they were fact.

Weems traveled around in a Jersey wagon on dusty rural roads for more than 30 years, peddling books and playing the fiddle during the long rides. He had long curls and wore a clerical coat with a quill pen stuck in his hat and an inkhorn hanging from his lapel.

It was Weems who invented the famous story about George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet, and then admitting that it was made-up. Weems included that story in his mostly fictional biography The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (1800).

Washington’s biography wasn’t the only one in which Weems took liberties with the truth. He also wrote about Francis Marion, a military officer who served in the American Revolutionary War. Using the work of Marion’s friend, General Peter Horry, he set about writing a book.  Horry was shocked with the result.  He wrote Weems, “I requested you would so far alter the work as to make it read grammatically, but entertained not the least idea of what has happened…You have carved and mutilated it with so many erroneous statements [that] your embellishments, observation and remarks, must necessarily be erroneous as proceeding from false grounds…Can you suppose I can be pleased with reading particulars of Marion and myself, when I know such never existed?”
But the public loved Weems’ works. The Life of Washington, for decades, outsold every book in the United States except the Bible.