As the exhibition Discover the Real George Washington comes to a close this Labor Day, it is an appropriate time to see how Washington labored at the end of his life. He worked as the “farmer” of Mount Vernon up to the day before he died. In fact, Tobias Lear, who had been Washington’s secretary, blamed the weather of those last days for Washington’s fatal illness.
Thursday, December 12, 1799, was cold and miserable. When Washington came inside in the late afternoon, he was wet with snow on his hair. Heavier snow fell the next day, yet Washington went out to mark trees that were to be cut down. Lear worried that such wetness and chill would worsen the sore throat and cold symptoms Washington was showing. Stoic Washington insisted on Friday evening to Lear, “’You know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came.”
Lear’s diary — owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and where this conversation is recorded — gives us the most complete story of Washington’s death. According to Lear (and one does have to wonder about his sense of self-importance), he was with Washington to the end – calling on doctors, managing treatment, and recording last words. It is a fascinating story not only of how the first president died but also of medicine in the 1700s.
Early on the morning of Saturday, the 14th, Washington roused Mrs. Washington to tell her that he was feeling quite sick; she said he could hardly breathe or talk. By daybreak, he asked to have his overseer George Rawlins come to bleed him. Washington was bled by Rawlins and later by doctors four times over the course of the next eight hours. Today doctors estimate half of his blood was drained.
Some treatments seem more typical of those today for sore throats. Washington gargled with a mixture of molasses, vinegar and butter and inhaled the steam of vinegar and hot water. But his throat also was swabbed with a salve and a preparation of dried beetles. His legs and feet were washed with warm water and covered with wheat bran. Washington was even given an enema. But none of these treatments helped – and some probably hastened Washington’s death.
Today Washington likely would have been diagnosed with a form of strep throat infection requiring an antibiotic. According to Lear, Washington accepted these treatments not only as appropriate, but also accepted his imminent demise. Around 4 p.m. he asked to see his will. By 5 p.m. he was telling his doctors he did not think he would last long. Lear tells us that Washington’s last words, spoken around 10 p.m. on December 14, were: “’I am just going! Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault less than three days after I am dead.” Then, “Do you understand me? . . . Tis well!’”
Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” as he was eulogized by Congressman Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, was dead at 67 years of age.
Beth A. Twiss Houting is Senior Director of Programs and Services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Founded in 1834, HSP has more documents related to the founding of the country than any institution other than the Library of Congress. http://www.hsp.org/.