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The Death Of A Hero
Mortally ill as his century dwindled to its close, Washington was helped to his grave by physicians who clung to typical eighteenth-century remedies. But he died as nobly as he had lived
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
“About half past 4 o’clock,” Lear recorded, “he desired me to ask Mrs. Washington to come to his bedside—when he requested her to go down into his room & take from his desk two wills which she would find there, and bring them to him, which she did.—Upon looking at them, he gave her one, which he observed was useless, as it was superceded by the other, and desired her to burn it, which she did, and then took the other & put it away into her closet.
“After this was done, I returned again to his bedside and took his hand. He said to me, ‘I find I am going, my breath cannot continue long; I believed from the first attack it would be fatal, do you arrange & record all my late military letters & papers—arrange my accounts & settle my books, as you know more about them than any one else, and let Mr. Rawlins finish recording my other letters, which he has begun.’
“I told him this should be done. He then asked, if I recollected any thing which it was essential for him to do, as he had but a very short time to continue with us. I told him, that I could recollect nothing, but that I hoped he was not so near his end. He observed, smiling, that he certainly was, and that, as it was the debt which we must all pay, he looked at the event with perfect resignation.”
As the afternoon wore on, the pain in Washington’s throat and his distress at his difficulty in breathing increased. He continually asked, “in so low & broken a voice as at times hardly to be understood,” what time it was. He tried for a while sitting up by the fire, but, finding no relief, asked to be returned to his bed. Then he kept trying to shift his tall frame into a more comfortable position. The smaller Lear would lie down on the bed beside him “to raise him, and turn him with as much ease as possible.” Washington would mumble the hope that he was not giving too much trouble. To one of Lear’s assurances of his eagerness to help, Washington replied, “Well, it is a debt we must pay to each other, and I hope when you want aid of this kind you will find it.”
He asked when his nephew Lawrence Lewis and his step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis would return from a trip. Lear said he believed about the twentieth of the month. “He made no reply to it.”
Craik came in and approached the bedside. “Doctor,” Washington managed to enunciate, “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. … My breath cannot last long.” Lear noted: “The Doctor pressed his hand, but could not utter a word. He retired from the bedside, and sat by the fire absorbed in grief.”
The other two physicians entered. They ordered that the sufferer be painfully pulled up into a sitting position. “[A]fter repeated efforts to be understood,” so wrote Craik and Dick, he “succeeded in expressing a desire that he might be permitted to die without further interruption.” As Lear quoted him, “I feel myself going, I thank you for your attention, you had better not take any more trouble about me; but let me go off quietly; I cannot last long.” Medical science, however, cannot give up trying. The doctors, although they admitted they were “without a ray of hope,” applied blisters and also poultices of wheat bran to Washington’s legs and feet.
Everyone noted that at no point in his illness did Washington complain or speak of his agony. As the evening lengthened into night, he limited his convulsive efforts at speech to asking what time it was. His breathing became a little easier, and then a fear struck him—the fear of being buried alive. Summoning all his powers, he managed, after several false starts, to say to Lear, “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.”
Lear bowed assent, being too moved for words. Washington fixed his gaze. “Do you understand me?”
”‘Tis well.” These seem to have been the hero’s last words.
The night dragged slowly on. The two younger doctors, not being intimates of the family, waited downstairs. From the windows of the second floor room, lamplight threw glistening squares on meager snow. Within, Dr. Craik sat, as he had for hours, staring into the fire. Washington’s body servant, Christopher, stood by the bed, a post he had not deserted since morning, although Washington had several times motioned him to sit down. A group of house servants —“Caroline, Molly and Charlotte,” and some others—stood near the door. Lear was hovering around the head of the bed, intently trying to interpret every gesture and do what he could to ease the sufferer. Martha was sitting near the foot of the bed.
No one thought to look at a clock, so we only know for sure that it was approaching midnight when Washington withdrew his hand from Lear’s and felt his own pulse. Lear called Craik, who came to the bedside. Washington lifted his arm and then his “hand fell from his wrist.” As Lear reached out for the limp hand, Craik put his own hand over Washington’s eyes. There was no struggle, not even a sigh.
In a calm, controlled voice, Martha asked, “Is he gone?”