December 14, 1799: Death comes to George Washington

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, George Washington went out for four hours on horseback to supervise the farm activities at Mount Vernon. The weather was lousy – light snow, then hail, then rain.

When Washington returned to the manor house he was soaking wet, but he was reluctant to change out of his wet clothes before dinner.george_washington_death

The next morning brought three inches of snow. Despite a bad sore throat Washington went outside again to select trees to be cut. Washington’s voice became increasingly hoarse as the day progressed, so much so that by evening he had difficulty reading aloud

Washington awoke in terrible discomfort around two in the morning. Martha was very concerned and wanted to send for help, but having just recovered from a cold herself, Washington would not allow her to leave the comfort of their room.

When Caroline, the house slave, came to light the fire at daybreak, Martha sent for help. Tobias Lear, Washington’s secretary rushed to the room where he found Washington having difficulty breathing. Lear sent for George Rawlins, an overseer on the plantation, who at Washington’s request bled him, and then sent for Dr. James Craik, Washington’s trusted physician for forty years, who lived in Alexandria.

While waiting for Dr. Craik, Rawlins extracted a half-pint of blood, which Washington believed had cured him of past ailments. Washington was also given a mixture of molasses, butter, and vinegar to sooth his throat, but which was difficult to swallow and nearly suffocated Washington.

When Dr. Craik arrived he produced a blister on Washington’s throat in an attempt to balance the fluids in his body. He bled Washington a second time and ordered a potion of vinegar and sage tea prepared for gargling. At noon an enema was administered, but there was no improvement in Washington’s condition. Washington was bled again (thirty-two ounces of blood was said to have been extracted).

As the prognosis became more dire, Craik administered an emetic to induce vomiting, though without beneficial results. At four-thirty in the afternoon, George called Martha to his bedside and asked that she bring his two wills from his study. After review Washington discarded one, which Martha burned.

George Washington then called for Tobias Lear. He told Lear, “I find I am going, my breath can not last long. I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal. Do you arrange and record all my late military letters and papers. Arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than anyone else, and let Mr. Rawlins finish recording my other letters which he has begun.”

At five in the afternoon George Washington sat up from bed, dressed, and walked over to his chair. He returned to bed within thirty minutes, and said to Dr. Craik “Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go; I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it; my breath can not last long.”

At eight at night more blisters and cataplasms were applied, this time to Washington’s feet and legs. At ten at night George Washington spoke, requesting to be “decently buried” and to “not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.”

Around ten PM on December 14, 1799, it was all over; George Washington, the Father of our Country, passed away.

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