J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

George Washington: Buried Alive?!

On 12 Dec 1799, George Washington caught a cold, which turned into an infected throat. (Acute bacterial epiglottitis, according to this site on his health.) The contemporaneous notes by his secretary, Tobias Lear, describe what happened next in great detail.

The former President’s throat swelled so that he could not swallow any medicine. He called an overseer to bleed him, though his wife Martha feared he would lose too much blood. “A piece of flannel dip’d in salvolatila was put around his neck, and his feet bathed in warm water; but without affording any relief.” Then the professionals arrived:

Dr. [James] Craik came in soon after, and upon examining the General, he put a blister of Cantharides on the throat, took some more blood from him, and had a gargle of Vinegar & sage tea, and ordered some Vinegar and hot water for him to inhale the steam which he did;—but in attempting to use the gargle he was almost suffocated. . . .

Dr. [Elisha Cullen] Dick came in about 3 o’clock, and Dr. [Gustavus] Brown arrived soon after. Upon Dr. Dick’s seeing the General and consulting a few minutes with Dr. Craik he was bled again; the blood came very slow, was thick, and did not produce any symptoms of fainting. Dr. Brown came into the chamber soon after; and upon feeling the General's pulse &c. the Physicians went out together.
Washington began to put his final affairs in order: rechecking his will, authorizing Lear to settle the account books, thanking his doctors. Meanwhile, they debated Dr. Dick’s suggestion of a tracheotomy, which was then a rare and difficult surgery; Dr. Craik decided it was too risky.

On Saturday, 14 December, Washington had one more piece of business to attend to:
About ten o’clk he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, 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 I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, “Do you understand me? I replied “Yes.” “Tis well” said he.
Evidently the general was afraid that he might be interred before he was truly dead. He had once seen one of his slaves revived after being thought dead, and didn’t want that possibility to be discarded too quickly.

Washington died within an hour of that conversation. The next day, 15 December, another doctor—William Thornton—arrived and proposed warming up the body to try the tracheotomy, just in case. Martha Washington declined. Lear wrote:
Mrs. Washington sent for me in the Morning and desired I would send up to Alxa. [Alexandria] and have a Cofiin made: which I did. Doctor Dick measured the body, the dimensions of which were as follows

In length6feet3 1/2inchs.exact.
Across the shoulders1"9""
Across the elbows2" ""
Of course, that was the general’s length lying down.

George Washington was interred on 18 December, four days after he died—fulfilling his last request.


Seamus said...

A fantastic little late Washington tidbit. I like the idea of such a heroic figure being terrified of being buried alive. I imagine that the forced-idleness of a preemptive burial would have driven Washington mad with boredom.

Also, that painting of his "apotheosis" is a miracle. Almost as funny as his chiseled god-torso of the Greenough sculpture.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for having this here, I really needed his burial date and not only did this give me it, but also why it was four days after his death. So, thanks!