On Dec. 13, 1799, George Washington set out on his Mount Vernon estate to mark for felling a copse of (non-cherry) trees. The stroll through his gardens and farm would be the retired president's last. By the end of the following day, Washington was dead.
Tobias Lear, Washington's personal secretary, stood at the pained 67-year-old's bedside throughout. Lear's account offers an intimate look into Washington's final moments, and the stoicism with which the "American Cincinnatus" met death. Emphasis is Lear's own.
"This day being marked by an event which will be memorable in the history of America, and perhaps of the world, I shall give a particular statement of it, to which I was an eye witness.
"On Thursday, Dec. 12, the general rode out to his farms about 10 o'clock, and did not return home till past three. Soon after he went out the weather became very bad, rain, hail and snow falling alternately with a cold wind. . . . I observed to him that I was afraid he had got wet; he said no. . . . He came to dinner (which had been waiting for him) without changing his dress. In the evening, he appeared as well as usual.
"A heavy fall of snow took place on Friday, which prevented the general from riding out as usual. He had taken cold . . . and complained of a sore throat: he however went out in the afternoon. . . . He had a hoarseness, which increased in the evening; but he made light of it. . . . On his retiring I observed to him that he had better take something to remove his cold; He answered, 'No; you know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came.' "
Washington awoke in severe pain early Saturday morning. Lear sent for several physicians who prescribed bleeding, blistering, and an enema. More than 32 ounces of blood was drained on the fourth and final bleeding alone. Washington's condition worsened as the day progressed. Lear continued:
"About 5 o'clock . . . the general said . . . '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 will not last long.' . . . He then said to the physicians, 'I feel myself going, I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me, let me go off quietly; I cannot last long.'
"They found that all which had been done was without effect. . . . He continued in the same situation, uneasy and restless; but without complaining; frequently asking what hour it was. . . .
"About 10 o'clock . . . 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. . . .
"He withdrew his hand from mine, and felt his own pulse. I saw his countenance change. . . . The general's hand fell. . . . I took it in mine and put it into my bosom . . . and he expired without a struggle or a sigh!
"While we were fixed in silent grief, Mrs. Washington (who was sitting at the foot of the bed) asked, with a firm and collected voice, 'Is he gone?' I could not speak; but held up my hand as a signal that he was no more. 'Tis well,' said she in the same voice. 'All is now over, I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!' "
Many modern physicians believe a virulent bacterial infection of the epiglottis - the cartilage flap that prevents food from entering the airways when swallowing - to have caused Washington's death. Lear dutifully saw to Washington's funeral arrangements, including the provision to wait fully three days before burial, ensuring the late president was truly dead and not in a coma.
Tainted by political scandal and unlucky in love, Lear took his own life in 1816. For a scrupulous record keeper, he left neither a note nor a will.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds Lear's diary in its permanent collection. It and many other treasures are available for viewing during a Vault Tour. Visit hsp.org/vault for more information.