The sad and sudden death of George Washington
Everyone knows George Washington was the first president of the United States, serving as a Founding Father of the country’s early development. He was a general during the American Revolutionary War, leading the country in its fight against Great Britain. While we know this historical information, most people don’t know how Washington died. It might be surprising to some, but Washington’s death was faster and more unpleasant than you would think. His sudden illness left him in critical condition, but that’s not how we want to view our Founding Father.
His final three years
President George Washington served from 1789 to 1797, but afterward, he spent his final three years at his Mount Vernon, Virginia estate. He focused on making the plantation productive, getting his affairs in order, and addressing troubling dilemmas that worried him for over a decade. Washington had a feeling he wouldn’t live that long, so he wanted to take care of his businesses before it was too late.
Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, built in 1734 by his father, had five farms, 123 horses and mules, 680 cattle, and about 300 slaves, not to mention the nearly 11,000-square-foot mansion he lived in with his wife, First Lady Martha Washington. Every day, Washington would ride his horse around the estate, checking on various projects. He would return to the mansion just in time for dinner, where his meal was often interrupted by visitors who wanted to meet the former president. In the late 18th century, the presidential family didn’t have Secret Service to protect them from curious visitors.
Many people would like to think Washington had a relaxing retirement from his political office, but that’s not the case. A year before his death, he received as many as 677 guests. That’s more than one guest per day. Washington wanted peace and quiet on his estate, but as long as he was America’s first president, he would never have that peace.
The worst cold of his life
On December 12, 1799, the weather outdoors was frigid and alternated between rain, snow, and sleet. However, Washington didn’t let this ruin his daily routine of riding outdoors for six hours. He returned home later than usual and when it was time for dinner, Washington’s frequent guests had already arrived. Not wanting to be rude, Washington ate dinner in his wet clothes.
The next day, the weather was even worse with heavy snowfall. Yet again, Washington went riding, but later that evening, he experienced chest congestion. He called for Martha, telling her he had a sore throat and he had trouble breathing. Worried over her husband’s condition, Martha sent for Washington’s physician of more than 40 years, Dr. James Craik. While they waited for Craik to arrive, Washington was bled—a common medical practice using leeches in the 18th century that was intended to increase blood circulation and break up blood clots. However, due to Washington’s poor health, this practice only caused more harm.
His sudden death
Washington’s health continued to weaken. Craik, assisted by two additional doctors, tried everything that was available in the 18th century: bleeding him multiple times, giving him herbal teas, and an enema [an injection of fluid, most often mineral oil, to empty his bowel]. Washington nearly choked to death when the doctors gave him a drink of molasses butter and vinegar. Craik also tried applying a toxic tonic to Washington’s inflamed throat, but this only caused more blisters. At this point, doctors knew there was nothing they could do for their patient.
According to historians, Washington died sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67 years old. Having a fear of being buried alive, Washington requested that his body wouldn’t be laid to rest until four days later, on December 18. While Washington’s death was sudden, his legacy and leadership have withstood the test of time.