The Death of George Washington

The Death of George Washington - Photo

The solemn stare of one man’s face adorns every single US one dollar bill. He is among others, who also stood as the face of the nation, but his heroic deeds in life led him to where he is now. The most recognizable face in United States history. George Washington was a man portrayed in a sizable myth, yet as simple as any other person. His actions in the Revolutionary War, immortalized through paintings, his face etched into every dollar bill, truly symbolize his role in American history. His immortal legacy was paid no mind by death, however. His path ended on December 14th, 1799. Surrounded by his family at his family plantation Mount Vernon, he passed in a way unsuited in modern times for a man of his stature. He was losing almost 40 percent of blood through the accepted science of the day, bloodletting. He seemingly suffered greatly in his final hours. His death ushered in a nationwide, sixty-nine-day period of mourning, ending in commemorations on his birthday. An unheard-of spectacle in today’s political sphere. His place in history needs no explanation, but on this day in history, December 14th, 1799, he left this world behind.

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His Life

George Washington was born on February 22nd, 1732, on his family plantation in Pope Creek, Virginia. His parents, Augustine Washington and Mary Bell Washington raised him to tend to the plantation, the livestock, and the surrounding farmland. Washington was raised as many other colonial children were. Slavery was fully implemented during this time, and he went on to own over 300 slaves during his lifetime; later in his life, opposing the institution. He died granting freedom to his slaves, but only after the passing of his wife, Martha. While doing little to abolish the act of slavery, he was a man who gazed a little further into the future, perhaps than his contemporaries. His first military action was seen during the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War. He joined the military as a commander in 1752, with no military experience behind him, and shortly after retired to live the life of a plantation owner. Washington returned to his home Mount Vernon in 1759, which he inherited from his brother Lawerence, who had died of Tuberculosis in 1752. George’s fate was still far off in the distance, but he had come to enjoy success in life.

He served on the House of Burgesses, in Virginia, until 1774. His yearning for independence from the British, along with that of his colleagues, began to grow here. As taxes in the colonies began to increase, so did the desire for freedom. By 1774, when the Continental Congress was formed, Washington was well on his way to becoming the father of the American government. He became “Commander In Chief” of the Continental Army that year and led the fledgling United States to a hard-earned victory over the British. In 1789 Washington was elected the first official president of the United States. Serving two terms, he helped establish American foreign and domestic policy ideals. Retiring to Mount Vernon again in 1796, he lived a peaceful life with his wife until his death. 

The Death of George Washington

It was just a day like any other at Mount Vernon, albeit chilly. The start of Winter, and Washington was out tending to business on his plantation. The weather on December 12th, 1799, was slightly strenuous on the now older Washington. It shifted from rain, hail, and finally snow as the temperature cooled. Due to a prompt dinner time, Washington remained in his wet and soggy outdoor gear and refused to remove them. Soon enough, the military hero was feeling the effects of his decision. A strong cough had developed by the morning. The temperature continued to plunge, and around two in the morning, Washington was awoken by aches and pains throughout his whole body. Refusing to let his wife fetch help, fearing she would catch a cold herself, he sent an enslaved woman to do so. The snowstorm continued to develop, as did his sickness. Over the next 48 hours, three separate doctors would tend to Washington. He was treated with the methods at the time, which were limited to bloodletting and forcing hot molasses and vinegar down his throat. These antidotes resulted in nearly choking the beloved leader to death, and nearly 40% of his blood was drained. His condition only worsened as the hours passed.

By December 14th, Washington had selected one of the two wills he had written out. With no child of his own, he left his estate in the hands of Martha, her children, and his friend and close associate, Dr. Tobias Lear. Somewhere between ten and eleven at night, he passed out of this world into the next. The mythic figure that built a nation gone to the winds. His death triggered a 69-day mourning period across the young nation that ended on his birthday. February 22nd, 1800. Mount Vernon became the earliest form of domestic tourism in the US. Americans would travel far and wide to see their former leader’s stately abode. It would later become a national landmark in 1960. 

What happened?

While there are many theories as to why George Washington died, we may never know the actual cause of the matter. Medicine was not yet advanced enough to pinpoint what caused his terminal maladies. There are numerous theories, however. Most commonly, diphtheria is cited, along with a septic sore throat, acute pneumonia, croup, quinsy, and something called Ludwig’s Angina. We may never know, but assuredly the archaic methods provided by his doctors did him no good. He may have lived a little further, able to see his dreams unfold before him as America churned and toiled itself into the nation it would become today. The exact cause of his death remains a mystery, but the moral of the story here is don’t sit around in wet, cold clothes! Keep reading our blog until the next edition of “This Day in History” for all things spooky, uneasy, unnatural, and downright unholy.