George and Martha Washington's wills are currently being held in a Fairfax County courthouse vault amid "heroin, other drugs and guns confiscated by police," a state legislative committee was told today.
Fairfax Circuit Court Clerk James E. Hoffnagle, testifying on behalf of a bill that would permit transfer of the wills to the Washingtons' Mount Vernon home, said he was concerned about the security of the documents because "the lock on the (vault) door can be opened with a nail file and the temperature changes at the opening and closing of a door."
Hoofnagle said the documents are worth "hundreds of thousands of dollars." Mount Vernon's director, Harrison M. Symmes, said the documents would be safe at the home because there are guards on the premises around the clock and at night they are armed with guns. Hoofnagle said there is not enough security at the courthouse and that is why the wills are currently held in the vault with evidence confiscated for criminal trials.
Despite Hoofnagle's testimony before the House Courts of Justice Committee, the bill permitting a loan of the wills to Mount Vernon was opposed by state library and archives officials. The measure passed the state Senate without controversy two weeks ago; no action was taken by the committee today.
The archivists noted that Virginia law requires that wills be kept on file in a local clerk's office. Donald Haynes, the state librarian, said he was against the move because of the precedent it would set of "putting public papers into private hands," even though the wills would be displayed publicly at Mt. Vernon.
Mount Vernon is run by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, a non-profit organization chartered by the state of Virginia in 1853. The Association bought Mount Vernon from Washington's grand-nephew, Col. John Augustine Washington Jr., in 1858 after his attempts to sell it to the federal government and to the state of Virginia had failed, according to Symmes.
Hoofnagle said that if voters in Fairfax pass the upcoming bond referendum for a new county courthouse, then there would be a secure place for the documents in the new building.