The Last Illness & Death of President, General, & Masonic Brother George Washington

The replica Lodge Room of Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22, located in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, in Alexandria, Virginia holds many historical significant replicas associated with the memory of George Washington.  The most poignant and moving if these replicas is Washington's old bedchamber clock, which was stopped at 10:20 PM, the exact moment of his death.  This precious time-piece evokes the curiosity of visitors, many of whom inquire about the nature of the general's final illness and subsequent death.  This brochure provides a brief summary of the circumstances of Washington's last hours, an event which will be memorable in the history of America, and perhaps of the world.

At about 10:00 o'clock Thursday morning, December 12, 1799, the General, as he was accustomed, rode out to his farms.   Soon after he left, the weather turned nasty with rain, hail, and snow falling alternately and a cold wind blowing.  When he returned home shortly after 3:00 o'clock; his neck appeared to be wet and snow was hanging from his hair, but he said that his greatcoat had kept him dry.  He came to dinner without changing his dress, and in the evening, he appeared as well as usual.  A heavy snow fell on Friday, which prevented the General from riding out as usual.  He had taken cold, undoubtedly from his exposure the previous day, and complained of a sore throat.  He had a hoarseness, which increased in the evening.   On Washington's retiring, his private secretary suggested "that he had better take something to remove his cold."  He replied, "No, you know I never take anything for a cold.  Let it go as it came."

Between 2:00 and 3:00 o'clock on Saturday morning, he woke Mrs. Washington and told her that he was very unwell, and he had an ague.  (An ague was a malarial type of fever.)  Martha observed that he could hardly speak, and was breathing with difficulty.  She wanted to get up and call a servant, but he would not permit her to do so, fearing that she might take a cold.   When daylight appeared, Caroline, one of the servants, came into the room and made a fire.  Martha immediately sent her to call Tobias Lear, Washington's private secretary.   On arriving, Lear found the general breathing with difficulty and hardly able to utter a word.   Washington probably anticipated that when his family physician, Dr. James Clark, who had served with him in every major battle of the Revolutionary Was, arrived, that he would prescribe "Bleeding," as this was a common practice during that period.

At the General's request, Lear instantly sent for  Albin Rawins, an overseer at Mount Vernon, who was skilled at bleeding.  Also a mixture of molasses, vinegar and butter, was prepared, to try its effect on the throat; but he could not swallow a drop.  Whenever he attempted it, he appeared to be distressed, he convulsed, and almost suffocated.  Shortly after sunrise, Rawlins caem into the room and prepared to bleed him.  Washington observed the orifice wasn't large enough.  However the blood ran freely.   Mrs. Washington was not convinced that bleeding was proper, and she begged that not much be taken.  But, Washington insisted, and said "More, more."

In the meantime, before Dr. Craik arrived, Martha had Lear send for Dr. Gustavus Brown, who lived in Port Tobacco, Maryland, just across the river from Mount Vernon.  Dr. Craik had advised the family that in the event of any serious health problems, they should immediately call fro Dr. Brown;  Craik had the highest respect for Brown's medical skills.  Between 8:00 and 9:00 o'clock, Lear dispatched a messenger for Dr. Brown.  Soon after, Dr. Craik arrived and upon examining the General, he took more blood.   Craik also prepared a gargle of vinegar and sage tea, but in attempting to use the gargle, the General was almost suffocated.  At about 11:00 o'clock, Dr. Craik became seriously concerned that Dr. Brown would not arrive in time, and requested that a messenger be sent for Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, who like himself was a resident of nearby Alexandria.   At this time Dr. Craik bled the General again.  No effect, however, was produced by it, and he remained in the same state, unable to swallow anything.   Dr. Dick arrived at 3:00 o'clock and Dr. Brown soon after.   These three doctors examined the General, and after a brief consultation, Dr. Brown and Dr. Carik diagnosed the illness as quinsy, which was tonsil related.  The records indicate that Dr. Brown was more assertive in that diagnosis;  Dr. Craik appeared passive but agreed, probably with some reluctance, that it was quinsy.  Dr. Dick did not concur.

Dr.Dick's opinion was that the symptoms suggested, not quinsy, but a violent inflammation of the membranes of the throat.  Dr. Dick proposed a tracheotomy to relieve the General's difficulty in breathing, but he was overruled by the older doctors as being too radical.  That procedure was newly reported from England, but had never been done in America.  It is interesting to note that both Craik and Brown were educated at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and were much older than Dr. Dick.  Dick was born in Pennsylvania and was 37 years olf when Washington died.   After rejecting Dick's proposal to perform the tracheotomy, the General was bled again;  this was about 32 ounces for a total of 5 pints of blood.   historians generally agree that Washington was bled on four occasions; first by Albin Rawlins at dawn; Dr. Craik did two more bleedings at midmorning and early afternoon; and a final bleeding was done at about 3:30 PM.  One can only speculate about the actual cause of death, but excessive bleeding was at least partially responsible.  There are those in the medical profession today who offer this probability;  Washington died of asphyxia - he could not breathe due to a swollen larynx.   This condition was the result of a violent inflammation of the epiglottis, the shock from the loss of blood, and dehydration.   One can empathize and appreciate the agonizing frustration and sense of helplessness  those doctors must have felt.

At about 10:00 o'clock, the General spoke his last words.  After several attempts and with difficulty, he was able to give his final instructions for his burial to his secretary, Tobias Lear.   It was reported that about ten minutes before he expired, his breathing became easier.   He lay quietly.  He felt his own pulse and then expired at 10:20 o'clock.   Dr. Dick is reported to have cut the catgut cord that suspended the pendulum weight of his bedchamber clock at precisely that time, stopping the clock forever.

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As a matter of general interest, as well as to show the noble character of Dr. Brown, the following is an abstract of a letter to Dr. James Craik written by him Dr. Brown shortly after Washington' death.   The abstract referred to was published in the "American Historical Records' by Lossing, 1873, vol. 11, page 506.

                                                                                                                                                           Port Tobacco, January 21, 1800
Sir:
I have lately met Dr. Dick again in consultation and the high opinion that I formed of him were  in conference last month, concerning the situation of our illustrious friend, has been confirmed.   You remember how, by his clear reasoning and evident knowledge of the cause of the symptoms, after the examination of the General, he assured us that it was not really quinsy, which we supposed it to be, but a violent inflammation of the membranes of the throat, which it had almost closed, and which if not immediately  arrested would result in death.  You must remember he was averse to bleeding the General, and I have often thought that if we had acted  accordingly to his suggestion, when he said, "he needs all his strength - bleeding will diminish it," and taken no more blood from him , our good friend might have been alive now.   But we were governed by the best light we had, we thought we were right, and so we were justified.

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In concluding this brochure, we offer the following slice of preservabla trivia.   During the spring of 1997, a visitor to the Replica Lodge Room remarked that she had recently moved to Virginia from Ohio.  she had purchased a home on "Tis-Well" Drive in the mount Vernon area.   Her neighbors had indicated that: Tis-Well" Drive was in some way connected with George Washington, although they could not say exactly.   She asked the Curator if he had any knowledge linking this unusual street name to Washington.   The Curator was able to provide the following quote from Tobias Lear, Washington's private secretary.

At about 10 o'clock, he (Washington) made several attempts to speak to me; at length he said, "I am just going.  Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead."  I bowed assent, for for I could not speak.  He then looked at me again, and said, "Do you understand me?"  I replied, "Yes."  "Tis well" he said.   These are the last words the General ever uttered.  That street near mount Vernon is named Tis Well Drive to commemorate those final words of this magnificent man.

John P. Riddell, Curator, The Replica Lodge Room
of Alexandria-Washington Lodge #22