Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
No one mistakes the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library for the National Portrait Gallery. Nonetheless, the library houses one of the more unusual paintings in Washington, the portrait of Yarrow Mamout. Yarrow, who was an ex-slave and Moslem, is pictured wearing a knit cap and holding an oddly shaped smoking pipe. He also has a faint Mona Lisa smile. James Alexander Simpson painted the picture sometime between 1820 and 1850. Simpson taught art at Georgetown College, where his painting of Stephen Decatur is still on display in the president’s office. Any portrait of an African-American before the Civil War is somewhat rare, but in Yarrow’s case there is a second painting. The renowned American portraitist Charles Willson Peale produced another, more famous and more skilled portrait. It is now in the Pennsylvania Historical Society collection of the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. Sidney Hart, the National Portrait Gallery’s expert on Peale, calls Peale’s painting “the most sensitive portrait in early America with an African-American as the sitter.” The full story of Yarrow’s life, and the reason for that smile, have been lost for 200 years because of a spelling error by Peale that confused historians. The saga begins with another case of enslavement, this one in 1650 in Scotland. Oliver Cromwell had invaded from England and won a resounding victory over the Scots at Dunbar. Cromwell’s forces took the Scotsmen prisoner, including a man named Ninian Beall. The defeated Scots were sentenced to seven years of involuntary servitude. Ninian spent that time first in Barbados and later in Maryland. Once freed, Ninian began to acquire property in America including a piece of land along the Potomac River that he dubbed the Rock of Dunbarton. Today, the land is called Georgetown. Ninian was followed to the colonies by more Bealls. Indeed, Ninian’s family became as prominent in Maryland as the Lees were in Virginia. Yet despite the fact that Ninian had been enslaved, the Bealls bought slaves from Africa. Thus, a Samuel Beall of rural Montgomery County, Md., purchased Yarrow Mamout from a slave trader named Captain Dow in about 1750. Yarrow was judged to be 14 years old when Samuel bought him, meaning he was probably born in 1736. It was said that Yarrow came from Guinea, but the entire west coast of Africa from Senegal to Angola was called Guinea in the American colonies because that is where the slave ships sailed from. When Samuel died, his son Brooke inherited Yarrow and later moved to Georgetown. His house was at Lot 73 Water Street, which would be on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue today just below the C&0 Canal. The 1790 census shows 32 Bealls owning a total of 142 slaves in Montgomery County, which then included Georgetown. The 1800 census counted 8,144 persons in Georgetown. Of those, 2,072 were slaves, and 400 more were listed as “free persons of color or Indians and not taxed.” Brooke was a merchant, shipping goods in and out of the port of Georgetown. He dabbled in real estate and was the first clerk of the Montgomery County Court. A modern researcher, Eleanor Vaughn Cook, came across Brooke’s financial ledger showing he earned rents from a store and grain mill. He charged the Montgomery County court for “paper, ink, powder, and pasteboard.” He sold herrings, flour, rum, snuff, tea, books, and bridles. And, he was paid for “2 days work on board the [ship] Maryland by Negro Yarrow.” Brooke was prosperous enough to send his younger son Lewis to Georgetown College in 1792, and he wanted to build a larger house on Congress Street (now 31st Street) in Georgetown. Brooke gave Yarrow the job of making bricks for the new house and promised to free him when the task was done. Yarrow finished the bricks, but then Brooke died. An inventory of his estate in 1796 listed “Negro Yarrow” age 60 and valued at �7. The same inventory valued a 21-year old male slave at �92. Brooke’s widow Margaret kept the promise and freed Yarrow in 1797. Three years later, Yarrow bought a house on Dent Place in Georgetown. The lot is only a few blocks from where the Georgetown slave market had been and not far from where his picture hangs in the library today. (Across the street is the house where the then-Sen. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy lived for several months). Another researcher, Diane Broadhurst, turned up the fact that Yarrow had a son, Aquilla, who was born about 1789. In 1816, David Warden published A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia. It mentions Yarrow and relates a story that Gen. John Mason of Analostan (now Roosevelt) Island told. Mason was the son of George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights. According to Mason, Yarrow “toiled late and early, and in the course of a few years he had amassed a hundred dollars.” Hoping to retire on the money, he gave it to a merchant, but the entire sum was lost when the merchant died insolvent. Yarrow worried because he was no longer young and strong. Still, he went back to work for fixed wages during the day and at night made “nets, baskets, and other articles for sale.” After a few years, Yarrow had again saved $100, which he gave to another merchant in Georgetown. But again, his savings were lost when the merchant went bankrupt. Yarrow went back to work a third time and acquired an even bigger fortune of $200. This time, wrote Warden: “By the advice of a friend, who explained to him the nature of a bank, he purchased shares to this amount in that of Columbia [Bank of Georgetown], in his own name, the interest of which now affords him a comfortable support. Though more than eighty years old, he walks erect, is active, cheerful, and good-natured. His history is known to several respectable families, who treat him with attention. . . . When young, he was the best swimmer ever seen on the Potomac; and though his muscles are now somewhat stiffened by age, he still finds pleasure in his exercise.” Warden resorted to patronizing dialect to quote Yarrow’s account. Nonetheless it is the only record of how Yarrow may have talked and shows a clever grasp of stock ownership: “Yaro old for true now. Must work again � worky, worky, get more dollar. Gib him this time to all de massa � all de massa cant die, cant go away. Oh, Yaro � dollar breed now � every spring � every fall, Yaro get dollar.” Charles Willson Peale had been an officer in the Revolutionary War and an artist. His paintings from the Revolution, including seven life portraits of George Washington, made Peale famous. He had a museum in Philadelphia and came to Washington in 1818 for the purpose of painting President James Monroe to add to the collection of presidential portraits in the museum. He also planned to paint other political figures and earn money from commissioned portraits. Among those who sat for him were Vice President Daniel Tompkins, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, Attorney General Henry Clay, and a bevy of senators, congressmen, and commodores. Thus, Yarrow was in heady company when Peale came to call. But Peale’s initial interest in Yarrow was scientific. Peale, who was 77 years old and also a scientist, had been investigating longevity. He had calculated a ratio of the period of childhood versus adulthood for various animals and concluded that human beings should live to be 200 years old. He believed that men died sooner than this because of bad habits. And so, Peale wrote in his diary: “I heard of a Negro who is living in Georgetown said to be 140 years of age. . . . He is comfortable in his Situation having Bank stock and lives in his own house. . . . I propose to make a portrait of him should I have the opportunity.” Peale believed he had found a man who possessed the secret to longevity, but in fact Yarrow was only 83 at the time, six years older than Peale. Peale arranged to paint Yarrow and went to his house in Georgetown in late January 1819: “I spend [spent] the whole day & not only painted a good likeness of him, but also the drapery & background.” The next morning, Peale went back to touch up the painting and “to see some of the family how [who] had knowledge of Him for many years & whose Ancesters had purchased him from the Ship that brought him from Afreca � a Mr. Bell in a Bank directed me to an ancient Widow who had set him free.” Peale’s bad spelling would mislead historians. No one named Mr. Bell was president of a Georgetown Bank then. In fact, no one named Bell is in the 1820 census for Georgetown. However, the president of the Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Georgetown in 1819 was Thomas Brooke Beall. The name Beall is usually pronounced “Bell.” Ninian Beall said his name was pronounced as “ringing bell.” Thomas Brooke was Ninian’s great-great grandson and a distant cousin of Yarrow’s deceased owner, Brooke. Peale next visited “Widow Bell” who set Yarrow free. She was obviously Brooke Beall’s widow, Margaret. Peale’s diary continued: “Yarrow owns a House & lotts and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown & particularly by the Boys who are often teazing him which he takes in good humor. It appears to me that the good temper of the [m]an has contributed considerably to longevity. Yarrow has been noted for sobriety & a chearfull conduct, he professes to be a mahometan, and is often seen & heard in the Streets singing Praises to God � and conversing with him he said man is no good unless his religion comes from the heart. . . . The acquaintance of him often banter him about eating Bacon and drinking Whiskey � but Yarrow says it is no good to eat Hog � & drink whiskey is very bad. I retouched his Portrait the morning after his first setting to mark what rinkles & lines to characterise better his Portrait.” After finishing the portrait, Peale asked the clerks at the Columbia Bank to verify that Yarrow owned stock. They confirmed that he had held shares since the early 1790s. Yarrow was legally still a slave then. Peale took the painting back to Philadelphia and probably put it on display in his museum. In 1852, well after Peale’s death, his grandson Edmund mistakenly labeled the portrait “Billy Lee,” a servant of George Washington. And so, for the next 95 years, the Peale painting was known as “Billy Lee.” However, in 1947, historian Charles Coleman Sellers relied on information from Peale’s diary to conclude that the portrait was of Yarrow. Besides, Sellers wrote, “It is not reasonable to suppose that Peale would have painted Billy Lee in his old age, for, despite faithful service to General Washington, Billy was a drunkard and a cripple in his last years at Mount Vernon.” Sellers apparently did not know of the existence of the Simpson portrait that would have confirmed his conclusion. A comparison of the two portraits reveals curious similarities. Yarrow wears the same style of knit cap. The collar and buttons of his jacket are the same. He has a white shirt and red waistcoat in both paintings. Even the pose, forehead wrinkles, and whiskers are the same. Simpson may have copied from the Peale. Copying was an accepted practice then. Indeed, Simpson’s painting of Stephen Decatur in the president’s office at Georgetown was copied from a Gilbert Stuart painting. Yarrow died in 1824 at age 88. Charles Willson Peale, who thought Yarrow had the secret to longevity, died three years after Yarrow. Peale was 86. Yarrow’s son Aquilla died in 1832. Yarrow’s death does not end the saga though. The Columbia Bank of Georgetown fell on hard times and its stock became nearly worthless. But, evidence from old court records suggests that Yarrow sold the stock and loaned the money to a Georgetown merchant in 1821, taking as security a deed of trust on a “two story brick dwelling and store house with extensive back buildings, situated on the west side of High street [Wisconsin Avenue].” In 1843, 19 years after Yarrow’s death, the Chancery Court for the District of Columbia ordered the property sold at public auction to pay off a later loan. Nancy Hillman, a free black woman from Frederick, Md., came forward to say she was the daughter of Yarrow’s sister. She said Yarrow’s loan had never been paid off and argued that his deed of trust meant she had the right to the proceeds from the sale. The court ruled in her favor and in 1850, awarding her $451 in principal and interest for the loan Yarrow made almost 30 years earlier. But how would Yarrow know Columbia Bank was in trouble? Did he get inside information? Two names crop up: Gen. John Mason and William Marbury. Both were elected to the board of directors of Columbia Bank in 1809. Mason was the one who in 1811 told David Warden about Yarrow’s financial recoveries. The possibility that Yarrow got advice from Marbury is suggested by the fact that Peale consulted Marbury before painting Yarrow and had dinner with him afterward. Moreover, Marbury’s son, John, was trustee on the deed of trust that secured Yarrow’s loan. Of course, William Marbury is better known for suing Secretary of State James Madison for withholding a commission as a justice of the peace in Washington, D.C., that outgoing President John Adams had issued. Marbury v. Madison established the principle that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the Constitution. Meanwhile, Yarrow had become a legend in Georgetown. The Rev. Thomas Bloomer Balch � another descendant of Ninian Beall � delivered two lectures on Georgetown history to the Methodist Church there in 1859. Although Yarrow died 37 years earlier, Balch could still recall “old Yarrah . . . a Mohammedan from Guinea, and of whom an admirable likeness was taken by Simpson.” Yet Yarrow is also an enigma. Was he the Georgetown burgher, the canny financial wizard, that Peale had painted? Or, was he, as pictured by Simpson, simply a witty, diligent, and honest laborer whose sterling character traits earned him respect and financial advice from the real burghers of Georgetown? Even the stories about Yarrow are puzzling. He told Peale that it was no good to eat hog and drink whiskey. Yet Warden wrote about Yarrow: “On Christmas, his great delight is to fire a gun under their [the respectable families of Georgetown] windows at break of day, which is intended as a signal for his dram.” A final curiosity is the name, Yarrow Mamout. By our convention, the name is in reverse order. Yarrow was his surname, and Mamout was his given name. Mamout, or Mahmoud, is a common name in Africa and the Middle East. “Yarro” and “Yaro” are family names in Senegal and other parts of West Africa. However, the spelling “Yarrow” comes from Scotland where it is the name of a plant, and of a place and stream not far from Ninian Beall’s Dunbar. In any event, the historical facts hint at what was behind that Mona Lisa smile. Here was a man with dignity. Here was a slave who had been freed. Here was an old man who twice lost his life’s savings and earned them back again and more. Here was a black man who owned stock and who could walk into a bank in Georgetown at a time when few white men did that. Little wonder Yarrow Mamout was smiling. D.C. lawyer James H. Johnston is a frequent contributor to Legal Times. He may be contacted at [email protected].

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.