Friday, 1 January 2016

The death of George Washington, 1799

George Washington, the first President of the United States, died at Mount Vernon, Virginia, on 14th December 1799. He was 67 years old and had not been President for more than two years although he still had the office of “Senior Officer” of the United States Army (the equivalent of the modern “Chief of Staff”) to which he had been appointed in 1798.

Washington, who spent his final years managing his estate, had been out riding two days previously when he came home cold and exhausted. He developed a sore throat and decided to stay indoors on the following morning.

However, he went out again in the afternoon, which led to his sore throat getting worse, although he refused to be panicked into bothering his doctor.

On the next day, 14th December, he was noticeably worse, with the sore throat having developed into laryngitis. He may also have been suffering from diphtheria and was definitely feverish. Washington’s doctor, James Craik, ordered that the former president be bled, which was the standard practice at the time, and also prescribed a gargle comprising molasses, butter and vinegar.

Whether bleeding ever worked at a medical procedure, which is highly dubious, it certainly did not do so in Washington’s case. The blood loss only served to make him weaker and, as the day progressed, he knew that his end was near. He had a fear of being buried alive and gave instructions that his body should stay above ground for three days just in case of a miraculous revival.

However, no revival took place and Washington’s death at around 10 in the evening turned out to be real enough. His last words were “Tis well”.

© John Welford

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