NOTE: This is a rough draft for a chapter in an upcoming book that is (very) tentatively titled: Strange and Wondrous Tales from the Delmarva Peninsula. You can see the other books in my Secrets of the Eastern Shore series here.
The next time you fish around in your pocket or purse for some change, give some thought to the humble quarter. Yes, that’s an image of George Washington on the head’s side. But is it also the image of Dexter Truitt?
That’s question doesn’t have a definitive answer, but it will lead us along a fun, follow-the-breadcrumbs trail. A native of little Pittsville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Truitt became an actor and moved to California. He was pretty well known in his early 20th century day as a George Washington lookalike and impersonator.
His friends and family say that he sat as a model for the sculptor who created the image on the quarter. No definitive proof of this has turned up, but I suspect that the Truitt legend is probably true. Judge for yourself as we make our way along that breadcrumb trail.
From Dirt Crossroads to Trains Full of Strawberries
Let’s pick up that trail in Pittsville, which is one in a run of one-horse towns along the Route 50 highway east of Salisbury, on the way to or from Ocean City. A town of 1,500 today, Pittsville didn’t become an officially incorporated municipality until 1906.
But its story goes back a long time before that. Europeans were late to arrive on this part of the Eastern Shore. The landscape was different in colonial times. Much of it was swampy and uninviting. The earliest “land patents” date to the middle 1700s. The names those early landowners gave their “patents” are fascinating—they hint at the dreams and fears of folks who risked everything by moving into a sparsely populated “wilderness.”
One is called “A Gift to My First Son.” Others are “Newfound Land,” “Hardship,” and “Tribulation.” Then there is “Bald Cypress,” which points toward the environmental changes that would unfold as Europeans grew in number. That swamp-loving tree once abounded here, but the cypress forests would eventually get cut down, the wood transformed into shingles and other products. Slowly but surely, swamps and forests turned into farmland.
Growth came slowly. The first record showing a house on the land that would become Pittsvile dates to 1810. A store opened soon after that. But it was 1840 before there were enough people around to start up a Methodist congregation. The place was called “Derickson’s Crossroads” in these years.
The name Pittsville came by way of the railroad. That steam-powered miracle of 19th-century technology arrived shortly after the Civil War. A local physician named Hilary Pitts was president of the Wicomico and Pocomoke Railroad. His name ended up on the new railroad station and spilled out over time to encompass the whole town.
Like it did for towns all over Delmarva, the railroad brought monumental changes. Everybody in and around Pittsville went crazy for the strawberry business now that those highly profitable fruits could travel by rail to the markets of Wilmington, Philadelphia, and even New York City before going bad. The strawberry boom in Pittsville would last for decades. At its peak, fiftysome rail cars rolled out of town every day during spring harvest season.
Growth picked up speed thanks to the railroad. By the start of the 1880s, Pittsville had three grocery/general stores and three lumber companies. There was a hotel, too. Those aforementioned Methodists seem to have amassed a lot of power. Concerned about the moral and physical well-being of the local populace, they pushed through a law shutting down all three of the town’s taverns.
Dexter Truitt Heads to Hollywood
Dexter Truitt was born during the early heady days of that strawberry upswing, on Sept. 13 of 1888. Aside from that date, I haven’t come across any breadcrumbs that reveal significant details about his family background and childhood years.
But there’s no doubt about his birthplace, as that’s what Truitt wrote down on his registration paperwork for the military draft in World War I. He filed that document in June 1917, giving his father’s name as Joseph L. Truitt. By that point, Dexter Truitt was a widower with one child living on North 34th Street in Philadelphia. He describes himself as a man of medium build, with gray eyes and black hair. He was working in the produce business.
Much later, in 1934, Truitt applied for “Veterans Compensation” from the government for his service during World War I. According to that document, he served from 1917 to 1919, spending much of that time overseas in the 312th Field Artillery Battery of the Army’s 79th Infantry Division. He fought in the famously brutal Meuse-Argonne offensive. He suffered injuries from mustard gas and two gunshot wounds, one in his right leg and another in his left shoulder. He was discharged from Camp Dix, New Jersey on June 6, 1919.
The record on that widower-with-a-child business is a little vague. The Salisbury Daily Times looked into this topic in 2002 and reported that Truitt had married a local girl from Mardela Springs. The story doesn’t give her name, but it reports that she died while giving birth to a boy named Floyd who was raised by Truitt’s in-laws. Floyd eventually became known locally by the nickname of “Sparky.”
Somewhere after his return from overseas service, Truitt set his sights on an acting career. A snippet of oral history from Pittsville says this adventure began when he entered an acting contest and came out a winner. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1920s, landing film and stage roles under the stage name David Ward. Along the way he became quite well known for his resemblance to George Washington. He would appear at various civic and charity events in the persona of the Father of Our Country.
The Hollywood Daily Citizen, March 3, 1927: “David Ward, national impersonator of George Washington, will appear in costume [at an upcoming civic event]. The double of the Virginia planter has similar features, is the same height, carries the same weight, wears the same size shoes, gloves, other apparel. For seven years he has been entertaining groups with his work.”
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Oct. 28, 1928: “David Ward, America’s foremost impersonator of George Washington, was selected by [the film director] Erich von Stroheim [to portray] a typical Austrian soldier and [appeared] throughout [a film titled “The Wedding March”] as a member of Emperor Franz Joseph’s famous Life Guard Mounted.”
The director posed with Ward/Truitt for the fun publicity photo that you see here. The handwritten caption on the back reads:
”Erich von Stroheim, director, star, and author of the forthcoming Paramount picture, ‘’The Wedding March,’ with David Ward, foremost impersonator of George Washington. … In ‘’The Wedding March’ Ward appears not as George Washington, but as an Austrian soldier. ”
That silent film is worth a quick detour, as it’s a famous bit of Hollywood excess. It was originally budgeted at $300,000. The producers shut filming down when expenses reached $1.25 million. The Wikipedia entry on “The Wedding March” gives examples of the extravagance and includes a strange, memorable quote from the director:
“Stroheim rebuilt huge sets for St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the streets surrounding it, various palatial rooms, and an entire apple orchard with thousands of blossoms individually tied to the trees. Stroheim defended his elaborate set choices by stating, ‘They say I give them sewers — and dead cats! This time I am giving them beauty. Beauty — and apple blossoms! More than they can stand!’”
The name “David Ward” pops up now and again in cast lists for plays, but I haven’t found a lot of references to appearances in movies. One 1926 newspaper story announces that Ward will have a role in the then-upcoming Cecil B. DeMille production, “King of Kings,” but Ward’s name doesn’t appear in the final cast list. Perhaps his role was too brief for that, and perhaps it ended up on the cutting room floor.
Several old newspaper stories from the 1920s say that Ward portrayed Washington on film multiple times, but I haven’t been able to pin down details on those movies. Oral history back home on the Eastern Shore supports the idea that Dexter Truitt found his way into the movies with some frequency. In that 2002 Salisbury Daily Times article, the actor’s nephew, Gerald Truitt Jr., is quoted as saying that people from Pittsville would travel to Salisbury movie theaters every time their town’s native son on the big screen. That local grapevine says that Truitt played in so many westerns he earned the nickname “Tex.”
Truitt appeared in his Washington garb at countless civic events. He gave talks to fraternal organizations. He marched in parades. He made cameo appearances at charity galas. He engaged with young people through groups such as the Boy Scouts and the Campfire Girls. He once told the Los Angeles Evening Express newspaper that impersonating Washington for these audiences was an opportunity he regarded as a “sacred privilege.”
“I have never attempted to bring [Washington] before my audiences as a ‘plaster saint,’ but as a real man, a man among men, … a man loved and revered by his comrades, a man worth of the ideals surrounding his memory,” Truitt said, adding that his deepest hope is for his work to “arouse to some degree these ideals in the boyhood and manhood of America.”
A Second Family, a Dreadful Accident, an Early Death
I am not sure when Dexter Truitt got married for a second time. He had three more children with Sarah Lafferty Truitt. On that 1934 paperwork he filed seeking veteran’s compensation, he lists 13-year-old Nancy, 11-year-old Helen, and nine-year-old Elsie in addition to that son from his first marriage, 18-year-old Floyd.
Truitt retired from acting in 1935 and moved to Tujungo, a little way north of Los Angeles. Brand new at the time, the community was a planned affair built on utopian dreams of a place where folks could escape city life and get back to self-sufficiency and living off of the land. Tujungo drew lots of World War I veterans seeking refuge from the high rents and other big-city complications of Los Angeles.
It was an idiosyncratic place. One prominent Main Street business was named “Dean’s store, the locale of the ‘Millionaire’s Club of Happiness and Contentment.’” The town’s marketing slogan was, “Move to Tujunga with a trowel and a bag of cement, and build your own.” Many residents did just that, constructing their own houses, keeping livestock, and working small plots of farmland. There were cattle at the Ward/Truitt house on Mountair Avenue.
Alas, Truitt didn’t get the chance to enjoy the utopian dream of Tujungo for very long. He died in 1944. He was in his mid-50s. His obituaries say that he had suffered a terrible fall three years before that left him an invalid.
Is That Really a Guy from Pittsville on the Quarter?
OK, time to return to that quarter business. The evidence in favor of this includes oral history from Pittsville and the Truitt family, newspaper mentions across various decades, and the direct words of a Hollywood celebrity.
Let’s start with that last one first. Truitt was friends with the novelist James M. Cain. Cain’s best-known work is The Postman Always Rings Twice. His Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce were turned into films, too. He also wrote screenplays—all told, he had a hand in 20-plus films over the years.
Cain and Truitt became friends in the Army. Perhaps they bonded over shared ties to Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Born in Annapolis in 1892, Cain moved with his parents to Chestertown, Md. in 1903. He graduated from Washington College. He worked as a reporter in Baltimore before hitting it big in novels and movies.
In 1944, Cain wrote a letter to Truitt’s son, Floyd. It must have been written either while the elder Truitt was on his deathbed, or shortly after his death, as Cain seems to be recounting the history of their friendship. I haven’t seen the whole letter, just references to and quotes from it. Here is a Cain quote by way of a newspaper article:
“He was the same genial, friendly, unabashedly outrageous fellow I had liked so well. I sat looking at him in my living room, noting at once something I hadn’t observed in the Army—the startling resemblance to George Washington.”
The article goes on to report that Cain says in the letter Truitt told him how he had modeled for the image on the quarter. Interestingly, Cain’s collected papers offer a hint that Truitt tried his hand at writing now and again, as well as acting. Those papers are housed at the Library of Congress, where an online summary of contents that includes lots of works by lots of different writers has a listing for a work called “’Flame of Louisiana (Well of Enchantment),’” written by Drexel Truitt.
Folks back home in Pittsville had heard about the quarter business, too. Residents and former residents alike have told reporters many times over the years that Truitt did that modeling duty. It’s presented as fact in the well-done booklet Pittsville: A Pictorial History.
Truitt’s widow, Sarah, said the same thing to the writers who prepared her husband’s obituary. Here is how it appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
“Mr. Truitt, whose marked physical resemblance to the first president brought him from his Maryland home to Hollywood, … sat as a model for the head of Washington that appears on the quarter, his widow … recalled. He also played the part [of Washington] in numerous films before retiring to raise cattle in 1935.”
The New York Times, along with quite a few other newspapers, included the same information, attributed each time to Sarah Truitt.
This all seems quite reliable, doesn’t it? Truitt, his family, his friends, his hometown acquaintances—everyone says it happened.
The rub here is a lack of official proof. If you ask historians at the American Numismatic Association about Dexter Truitt and the quarter, they will start sounding like the CIA, saying “we can neither confirm nor deny,” etc. This isn’t because of some secrecy thing—it’s just that there are no official records of Truitt playing a role in the creation of the coin.
The quarter came into being in 1932 to commemorate the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. The image of Washington used on that coin was the work of a prolific New York sculptor, John Flanagan. You can see him in a photo here working on a bust of General John J. Pershing, while using Pershing himself as a model.
Official records say only that Flanagan based his design on a famous 1785 bust of Washington by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Those records make no mention of Dexter Truitt or David Ward any other model visiting Flanagan’s studio as part of the creative process.
Bottom line: If I were a betting man, my money would go with the oral and community histories here, especially considering the way those reports come from multiple sources all saying the same thing. None of those people were getting money or any other benefit out of the deal.
By 1932, Truitt had a national reputation for his uncanny resemblance to Washington. It would have been an easy matter for Flanagan to reach out to him, or, perhaps, for Flanagan to recognize the possibilities around a chance social encounter. There was a lot of overlap in those days between Hollywood and the New York theater world—actors were often shuttling between the two coasts. David Ward might very well have been in New York for an audition or role while Flanagan was working on the quarter.
We might never know with 100 percent certainty whether that’s Dexter Truitt’s mug on the quarter, but it seems quite possible that you really are carrying around a little piece of Pittsville in your purse or pocket.
—written and posted by Jim Duffy on April 8, 2021 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
• I will be testing more chapters from this project here on the website. The best way to keep up with them is by signing up for Month of Fundays, a monthly e-newsletter that serves up stories about Delmarva as well as a guide to the best events and happenings of the coming weeks. Sign up by scrolling to the bottom of any page on this website and look for the subscribe button.
• I need to give big-time credit here to the Secrets of the Eastern Shore community on Facebook. As anyone familiar with that page knows, I post a lot of photos and facts about days gone by on the Delmarva Peninsula. Sometimes I get things wrong, but readers there always seem to have my back, letting me know about mistakes and telling me about typos and oversights.
When I first posted about Dexter Truitt and the quarter, it was short and sweet. I relied on booklet Pittsville: A Pictorial History, which says this story is true. One reader got mildly indignant about this, demanding that I provide more proof.
I happened to be traveling that day, so I was barely on Facebook. That Secrets of the Eastern Shore community leaped into action. The volunteer or staffer who was working social media that day for the Nabb Center for Delmarva History and Culture spent time wandering the internet, then posted Truitt’s World War I draft paperwork and his later request for veteran’s compensation. A reader named Wayne Cannon found Truitt’s obit in the New York Times and posted that. Folks in Pittsville chimed in with their two cents on local oral histories. One of them, Christopher Travers, reported that Dexter Truitt’s “grandson was my roommate,” Pictures of Truitt’s grave in California appeared. So did the photo you see here of Truitt hanging out with James M. Cain.
Thanks, everyone! We have fun on that page. You should follow it if you don’t already.