Two packages wrapped in brown paper were quietly carried through the service entrance of Mount Vernon plantation yesterday morning under a police escort. Their contents were then elaborately ensconced in a glass case wired with electronic alarms costing several thousand dollars.
Had they been around their former home yesterday. George and Martha Washington would undoubtedly have been amused at the security expense, ceremony as well as the controversy surrounding the return to Mount Vernon of their last wills and file in Fairfax Circuit Court for more than 175 years.
The two wills, said by historians to be "priceless" and insured by Mount Vernon's owners for an undisclosed amount in excess of $100,000 each, have been temporarity lent to the home of the first President and his wife by the court. They have been sent there because of inadequate security for the documents at the Fairfax Courthouse and so the wills can be more accessible to tourists.
Circuit Court Clerk James E. Hoff nagle proposed the temporary transfer o the wills earlier this year. He told a state legislative committee they were being stored in Fairfax Courthouse vault with"heroin, other drugs and guns confiscated by the police" on which the lock "could be opened with a nail file."
Under the loan agreement signed yesterday between Hoffnagle and Mrs. John H. Guy Jr., the regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the wills are to be displayed in the plantation's museum where entrances, exits and the wills' display case "shall have ultrasonic nighttime security on doors . . . microswitch contacts, an ultrasonic transceiver and a vibration detector."
The newly installed alarms, which cost "several thousands of dollars," according to John Castellani, assistant director of Mount Vernon, are set to sound off in a nearby guardhouse where guards are on round-the-clcok duty. The security guards are armed at night and have access to guns in the daytime, said Harrison M.Symmes, Mount Vernon's resident director.
State archivists and librarians protested when Hoffnagle requested the state legislature to authorize the temporary transfer because they objected to the precedent of putting public papers into private hands.
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is a nonprofit organization that pruchased the plantation in 1853 from Washington's grandnephew, Col. John Augustine Washington Jr. after his attempts to sell it to the federal government and the state of Virginia had failed, according to Symmes.
Prodded by Senate Majority Leader Adelard L Brault D-Fairfax), the General Assembly passed the enabling legislation for the transfer of the wills. When Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax) recently asked for an opinion on the legality of the transfer, state Attorney General Anthony F. Troy said that the Circuit Court had the right to decide what to do with the wills.
There also were objections from some people that tourists would now be paying to see what they previously could see free. Symmes said the presence of the wills at Mount Vernon was a "bonus" for the tourists who don't normally see them since "the average American tourist doesn't go to the Fairfax County Courthouse unless he's arrested."
Symmes estimated that about $500,000 tourists will view the documents before they are taken to the Library of Congress next January for complete restoration work. The Library's restoration department has already examined the wills and found them to be in "excellent shape", according to Hoofnagle. George's will was already restored once, in 1919, by the Library of Congress staff.
Both wills had remained in the Circuit Court from the time of the Washingtons' deaths until the Civil War when Confederate forces removed George's will to Richmond for safekeeping.
Martha's last testament, which at five pages is considerably shorter than her husband's 29-page will, was apparently not thought important enough to save from the clutches of the enemy and a Union Army officer did remove it from the courthouse.