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George Washington: The Strange Circumstances Surrounding His Death

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A curious tale

Tobias Lear V was an in law of and the personal secretary to the first recorded president of the United States. In his diary, he has given a first-hand eyewitness account of the events that led up to the death of George Washington. To this day there has been much disagreement as to why this founding father died but you can read the tale and decide for yourself. The official cause of death was a sore throat (acute bacterial epiglottitis. Details provided by Lear suggest there may have been other reasons. Please keep in mind that antibiotics were not available as they are today and that the people attending to Washington were doing the best they could with the knowledge they had It all began on Thursday, December 12th, 1799 after General Washington is said to have ridden out to his farms around 10:00 AM and returned home to Mount Vernon after 3 PM. Tobias records that it had begun to rain and snow while Washington was out and although he was soaking wet he did not change his clothing before eating dinner.. On Friday his voice was hoarse and he complained of a sore throat. Somewhere between two and three AM the president woke his wife Martha who noticed he could not breathe well and could barely speak. Tobias was called in and asked to find an overseer named Mr. Rawlins. Washington desired this man to try bloodletting before a doctor was called, It was believed in those days that allowing someone to bleed would rid their body of germs.


Bloodletting and home remedies

After sending for a doctor and also Rawlins the faithful Tobias says he went back to Washington's side. A home remedy mixture of Molasses, Vinegar & butter was prepared but the General could not swallow any of it. He became distressed, began having convulsions, and almost suffocated. Rawlins showed up just after sunrise and made the incision in the president's arm and the blood ran freely., Mrs. Washington was not convinced the bloodletting was safe or that it would work for her husband. so she asked that only a little of his blood would be taken. and half a pint of blood was released. Washington continued to show signs of distress so a piece of flannel was dipped in salvilatila (AKA salvila tila), which is Liden sage found in Mexico. The wet cloth was placed around his neck. and they bathed his feet bathed in warm water but the general found no relief. Two physicians had been sent for and the first to arrive was Dr. Craik who after examining the General, put a blister of Cantharides on his throat. This was a poultice made from dead dried beetles. Craik then induced more bloodletting and asked for vinegar, & sage tea, but the General was not able to swallow it and again almost suffocated while trying to cough it up.

Additional natural cures

The doctor then tried having Washington inhale the steam from vinegar and hot water which he did but nothing changed. About eleven o’clock Dr. Craik requested that Dr. Dick be sent for, as he did not believe Dr. Brown would come in time. Bloodletting was done a third time but yielded no results. A glister (enema) was administered around 12 o'clock, which produced a bowel movement but did not change Washington's state. Doctor Dick arrived at about 3 o’clk, and Dr. Brown arrived right behind him. The General was bled a fourth time and his blood ran very slowly and was thick. The doctors confirmed and Calomel & tarter but saw no change. Around 4:30 Washington asked for his wife and instructed her to get two will from his desk. Martha was asked to burn one and put the other in her closet. Washington then told Tobias that he felt he was dying and gave him instructions on some tasks to carry out. As the afternoon progressed Washington had more difficulty breathing and changed his position in the bed several times. The General thanked Tobias for his assistance in seeking to help him find a comfortable position.




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Tobias Lear V

Tobias Lear V

Death and the aftermath

About 5:00 Dr. Craik returned to the room and as he neared the bed Washington said to him, "Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go, I believed from my first attack, that I should not survive it; my breath cannot last long". Sometime prior to 6:00, the three physicians returned to the room and Washington thanked them for attending to him and announced that he felt himself "going." he asked that nothing more be done for him and that he be allowed to go peacefully. Around 8:00 the three doctors returned to the room and applied blisters and cataplasms of wheat bran to the General'sfeet and legs. Around 10:00 Washington said to Tobias “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.” Tobias was so stunned he could not speak and the General asked “Do you understand me? to which he replied yes! and the reply from Washington was “Tis well.”George Washington passed away between 10:00 and 11:00 and about ten minutes before he died Tobias was holding his hand when the General pulled away and checked his own pulse. His breathing became much easier. Tobias went to Dr. Craik, who was sitting by the fire; and as they approached the bed the General’s hand fell from his wrist. The doctor closed his eyes and Tobias placed Washington's hand to his breast. Martha came into the room and after realizing her husband was gone replied "Tis well."

Professionals disagree

There has been much controversy surrounding the actual cause of death of the nation's first president. Some believe he lost too much blood as there are reports that about 80 ounces or 40% of his blood was released.The thinking was that if you removed the blood it would reduce the inflation but this did not happen. There are others who say he should not have died from a throat infection and that a tracheotomy should have been performed to help him breathe. There have been medical pro9fessiohnals who have said Washington probably died from a peritonsillar abscess, pneumonia, or even epiglottitis, which is a severe bacterial infection of the epiglottis at the back of the throat which can basically strangle you to death. Did the General "catch his death from cold" as older generations would say because he did not take off his wet clothes or was there something more going on. At this point, we probably will never know for certain.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Cheryl E Preston

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