General George Washington will forever be remembered in American history for his bravery, principles and the integrity that led him to become the first President of the United States.
Washington’s death was an excruciating one that caused him to endure his final hours in pain and anguish. Here are some facts about his final days and the events that occurred immediately after his passing.
His Diagnosis and Treatments
Ever since 1799, there has been plenty of speculation as to whether or not Washington was a victim of medical malpractice or if he died of natural causes. An article that was written in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. David Morens stated that accusations of malpractice “were very much in the air during and immediately after the great man died.”
Morens goes on to say, however, that he would not consider it to be a malpractice in context of today’s usage. What remains troubling is that out of the three doctors who provided care to Washington, no two agreed about the means of treatment.
Morens hints that the doctors were probably protecting their reputation to avoid potential charges. Washington’s diagnosis was also up for debate and to this day it remains unclear as to what eventually took his life, whether it was an acute infection, malpractice, or a combination of both.
A Vile Concoction
It can be hard to imagine the pain that Washington felt as the hours passed and his infected throat became more red and inflamed without any relief in sight. To help with the swelling in the early morning hours, Washington’s personal security, Col. Thomas Lear provided the president a tonic of molasses, butter, and vinegar.
Washington had labored breathing and could barely speak, let alone drink a horrible concoction that he could not swallow. His attempts were met with choking, distress, and convulsions. When that didn’t work, Washington was notified to gargle with vinegar and sage tea, followed by bouts of suffocation and expectorating phlegm. His difficulty grasping his breath worsened as the hours passed by and did so 10 minutes prior to his passing.
After Washington’s retirement, he spent most of his time working outside on the lands of his estate at Mount Vernon. Even though the intolerable winter conditions of snow, rain, hail and high winds, Washington pushed through for five long hours, seeing to it that his work was completed for the day.
Priding himself on his punctuality, he remained in his damp clothes throughout dinner. The following day, he subjected his immunity to the harsh outdoors yet again, even though he had developed a painful sore throat throughout the night. THis would be the last day Washington would roam his estate. Retiring for the evening with worsening symptoms that would cause him to awake in agony around 3:00 A.M., Had it not been for his fixated and stubborn ways, Washington would have lived to see spring, Instead, three physicians were summoned, sealing his fate.
The Spanish Fly
As Washington’s condition worsened, his discomfort reached new heights upon the tortuous applications of Spanish Fly. This powdered concoction was applied to the very source causing Washington’s agony, his throat.
Spanish Fly (cantharides) is a poisonous extract from the dried bodies of the beetle Cantharis vesicatoria. It causes blistering and has been used criminally as an aphrodisiac, often with dire consequences. In fact, it has been known to poison African cattle via contaminated drinking water, causing excitement, diarrhea, and inflammation of the kidneys.
It was assumed that the “treatment” would draw out the toxins plaguing Washington’s haggard body, not knowing the blistering pain was further exhausting his immunity. This senseless and excruciating false remedy continued throughout the day.
Criticism and Irony
News traveled much slower in the late 18th century, and in December 1799, it took four full days for word of Washington’s passing to reach Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, Congress was in session when notified, while Washington’s funeral was taking place hundreds of miles away at Mount Vernon.
As Washington was lowered into the ground, so was the harsh criticism he had faced in life. He had been viewed by many as a sell-out to the British, but this was overshadowed by the loss of the country’s founding father and dignified hero. Interestingly enough, the Union Washington so courageously fought to establish would be threatened nearly 69 later by Robert E. Lee, the son of the man who had spoken the infamous words, “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”