Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Death of George Washington - December 14, 1799

~Updated December 2017~

George Washington
Because so many momentous historical dates of our founding period are no longer commemorated (except the 4th of July), for this week's posting I thought I would write a little something about our nation's 1st President, George Washington, a true 18th century citizen of the American colonies...and of his death, which took place over 200 years ago on this very date - December 14, 1799.
What you are about to read here, however, I did not write. It was taken, mostly word for word, from two books I have in my collection: "Revolutionary Medicine" by Jeanne E. Abrams and "George Washington - An Interactive Biography" by Rod Gragg (links at the end of the post), which I feel describes our first President's last days in a you-are-there manner exceptionally well.
I hope you like it.

Despite hail and snow, on December 12, 1799, the former President conducted his regular inspection of his plantation on horseback, returning to Mount Vernon in the mid-afternoon. He attended dinner in his wet clothing, then spent time with his wife, Martha, reading in the Mount Vernon parlor. By the next morning he developed a severe sore throat. Although we know today that throat infections are not necessarily caused by either cold or wet weather alone, years of chronic illness had undoubtedly also compromised the aging Washington's immune system, and fatigue may have made him more susceptible to contracting an infection. In any case, he went out in the snow again to mark some trees for future chopping, and by nightfall he was hoarse and had difficulty speaking, but stoically refused any medication to help alleviate his symptoms. According to Tobias Lear, Washington's personal secretary, the former President said, "You know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came."
The final night the Washington's spent together in Mount Vernon's parlor reading.
During the night his discomfort grew. There is a question as to whether he woke his wife, Martha, during the night, but by morning he was clearly worse, with (a sudden outburst of) chills, referred to as "ague," and difficulty breathing. When the chambermaid came in to build the morning fire, Martha asked her to quickly summon help. Riders were dispatched from Mount Vernon to fetch the doctor and a bleeder to treat her husband. While Martha and Lear waited for Dr. James Craik, long-time physician to Washington, to arrive, they offered Washington what they thought was a soothing drink of molasses, butter, and vinegar. But in his critical state, he was unable to swallow the treacle-like concoction, nearly suffocating. Like so many of his contemporaries at the time, physicians and lay people alike, Washington viewed bloodletting as a remedy for most ills. Even before Dr. Craik arrived, Washington had ordered his overseer to take about fourteen ounces of blood, and another local physician, Dr. Brown, was sent to offer his expert assistance.

A "fleam" - 
a 'medical' instrument used for bloodletting.
Once Dr. Craik arrived, he applied a hot compress to Washington's neck for the throat infection, drew even more blood, administered a purge, and tried to get the retired president to gargle sage tea and vinegar. This all proved to no avail, however, as by this time the former president's throat had swelled to such a degree that his windpipe was closing up, making breathing more and more difficult.  Faced with a dire situation, Craik called in another eminent local physician, Dr. Elisa Cullen Dick, who arrived mid-afternoon, followed by Dr. Brown. Dick argued against further bleeding because of Washington's weak pulse, but Craik and Brown prevailed and performed yet a fourth bleeding.  Martha Washington, who had anxiously remained close to her husband's sick-bed the entire last day of his life, also opposed further bleeding of her husband in his weakened state.  But the two doctors were desperate to save their long-time friend and beloved leader.  Craik and Washington had been especially close, and the always-generous Washington had even paid for the education of some of Craik's children.  In addition to bleeding, calomel and antimony tartar were administered as laxatives.  By this time Washington was so weak and resigned to his death that he dictated his final will to his overseer, graciously thanked his doctors, and requested them to let him die peacefully.  In considerable distress and pain, he managed to maintain his calm and dignity.  According to Lear, Washington declared, "I find I am going, my breath can not last long.  I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal." To his physicians he said, "I thank you for your attention. You have better not take anymore trouble about me; but let me go off quietly. I cannot last long."
Still, the physicians clung to the hope that they could save the former president.  Dr. Dick even suggested a tracheotomy to open the air passage, a procedure he had only performed once previously, but it was rejected by Dr. Craik as too dangerous.  We know that early American physicians had some experience with tracheotomies.  For example, in a letter written in 1751, Franklin referred to the illness of the rector of the Philadelphia Academy, whose serious case of throat "Quinsey" forced the man's doctors "to open his Windpipe, and introduce a leaden Pipe for  him to breath thro."
Junius Brutus Stearns "Washington on his Deathbed" 1851
His last recorded conversation was with Mr. Tobias Lear shortly before 10 o’clock:
"I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead."
Lear nodded assent and Washington asked: “Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sir,” he replied, followed by Washington’s final response: “’Tis well.”
Washington died quietly at 10:00 p.m. on December 14, 1799, at the age of sixty-seven as the momentous 18th century was winding to a close.  
Increasingly frail and grief-stricken, Martha Washington declined to attend her husband's simple funeral at Mount Vernon.
Suits of mourning clothes with appropriate buttons were purchased almost immediately for Lawrence Lewis, Washington’s nephew, and George Washington Parke Custis, known in his lifetime as the adopted son of George Washington, who were both away from home. Thomas Law, Eliza Parke Custis' husband, sent his servant into Alexandria for mourning clothes two days after Washington's death (Eliza was Washington’s step-granddaughter).
In keeping with mourning customs of the time period, a number of the Mount Vernon slaves and hired servants were outfitted with mourning clothes after George Washington's death. Two days after Washington passed away, farm manager James Anderson went to Alexandria "to get a number of things preparatory for the funeral." At the same time, mourning was ordered "for the Family Domestics and Overseers.
The coffin was placed in the family crypt, which Martha could see from her 'above stairs' bedchamber.
"The whole United States mourned for him as a father," said Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
John Adams stated that, "His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations, as long as our history shall be read."

Of the many discussions of the cause of Washington's final illness, the explanation offered by modern-day physician Dr. Michael Cheathan appears the most complete and sensible in the light of what we know from a contemporary vantage point.  Cheathan has concluded that an initial strep or staph throat infection led to adult acute epiglottis, which resulted in near suffocation, and that the repeated bleedings of over half of Washington's circulating blood and the other heroic measures led to septic shock, ultimately causing his death.  Today, modern medicine would have probably treated the initial infection with antibiotics, unavailable at the time, and a tracheotomy in extreme nonresponsive cases, a highly dangerous procedure during Washington's era, particularly without reliable anesthesia.  However, given Washington's age, delay in seeking treatment, and the limitations of medicine during the period, there was little else his three doctors could have done to prolong his life.

Okay, so I got to admit that upon reading this I did feel melancholy, even now, nearly 220 years after the fact. Yeah...that's the way I am...

As I said, the words herein are not mine, for I am not as good a writer as the authors of whom you just read, and though I attempted to re-write it in my own words, it just was nowhere near the quality and description that I wanted.
And the story just engulfs you, does it not? What it enticed me to do, after re-reading it a few times, was to research some of the mourning practices during the time of President Washington's death.
Here's some of what I found:
A mourning ring
The death of George Washington was the first to generate widespread public mourning in the new nation. 18th century generations of English and European settlers developed elaborate forms of mourning. People wore black crepe badges. They also wore black sashes and carried black gloves or fans. Both men and women had handkerchiefs that carried Washington’s image and words. Tokens were sometimes offered to mourners: gloves inscribed with the names of the deceased, scarves, mourning ribbons, or mourning rings, for example. Such rings were often gold, sometimes combined with enamel…or the hair of the deceased, and were always inscribed with the name and death date of the deceased. Motifs on these rings reflect the gravestone motifs of the period such as death’s heads, hourglasses, skeletons, and coffin shapes. Abigail Adams, wife of second President John Adams, reported that she would be in full mourning and wearing black but that she would be in half-mourning in the spring.
For years after Washington’s death, artifacts commercially produced to commemorate (our 1st President) included lithographs, handkerchiefs, and transferware ceramic patterns showing images of mourners at Washington’s grave site.
Among the earliest and most decorative of the artifacts associated with the new, sentimentalized expression of mourning were mourning pictures made by young American school girls.  

So, I hope you don't mind my sort of Reader's Digest collection of Washington's death information...and I hope you will remember this date in the future.

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Now, if you are a living historian/reenactor or just like to collect history, I think you might enjoy what I have here. You see, I've not accepted outside advertising on Passion for the Past for a number of reasons. However, every-so-often I will come across items made by historians that I feel are worth sharing with others.
This is one of those times.
As mentioned, there were numerous ways that people during the colonial times, as well as in the 19th century, mourned when a head of state passed away. The wearing of cockades was another way, and on the left we see some originals from Washington's death, while on the right are replicas made by Ms. Heather Sheen:
As Heather told me, "Black and white cockades were the earliest patriotic statements in America. The color black came from our British heritage (they had black cockades) and French assistance during the Revolutionary War (their cockade was white). George Washington himself ordered that black and white cockades be worn by the Continental Army. By the early 1800s, sympathy with the French Revolution led many Americans to wear tricolored cockades instead. Eventually the black and white cockades disappeared and red, white and blue became the colors of American patriotism. Both color schemes were often used to honor George Washington with cockades."
Heather offer reproductions of both styles in her shop. They are appropriate for living historians and history lovers alike.
And here is the link to her site: Creative Cockades
Creative Cockades
Please check out her site. I have found that since most originals are priced way out of ranges, replicas are just as nice.

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~To purchase "Revolutionary Medicine" by Jeanne E. Abrams, please click HERE
If you enjoyed what you read here, then you will most certainly enjoy this book, for inside you will learn of a sort of biographical illnesses of not only George & Martha Washington, but of John and Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, as well as an nice overview of health and medicine during the era of America's founders.

To purchase "George Washington - An Interactive Biography" by Rod Gragg, please click HERE
With this interactive biography you get wonderful replicas of a couple pages from Washington's diary as well as letters - both in his own handwriting, the title page from the 1783 Treaty of Paris, a broadside copy of his farewell address, and numerous other articles.

The information written here about mourning came from these sources:

And THIS web site
For a general overview of life in Colonial times, click HERE
To read about a wonderful docudrama of colonial medicine, please click HERE

Until next time, see you in time.....

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Homeschoolmom said...

I am so pleased to find your wonderful blog. I teach history at a small university where I have the freedom to extol the virtues of Great Americans like George Washington. Thank you for this wonderful and informative post.

Jerry said...

God Bless George Washington! I Salute our
First President who the First Commander in Chief of this Great Nation. Sir! RIP.


Jerry Richards, SAR, Barry Goldwater Chapter, Scottsdale, AZ.

OttoStrauss said...

I whole heartedly agree with 'Homeschoolmom'. We homeschooled all four of our children, enjoying most every minute of it. I also reenact Ben Franklin at groups and schools and it is fun to see the kids light up when they see the kite and key. But back to George. Understanding that there was not any previous presidents for to be an example and ground breaker, he set the bar rather high. The 101 Rules of Civility pamphlet/booklet that he copied and 'digested' also set him apart from most of his contemporaries. Thanks Historical Ken, keep up the good work.