By Mary V. Thompson
Dr. William Thornton
(Architect of the Capitol)
On December 18, 1797, Martha Washington wrote a light-hearted letter to an old friend in Philadelphia, relaying the news that the newly-retired president had “entered into an engagement with Mr[.] Morris and several other Gentlemen not to quit the theatre of this world before the year 1800.” Mrs. Washington went on to say that, “at present there seems to be no danger of his giving them the slip, as neither his health, nor his sprits were ever in greater flow, notwithstanding he adds, he is [descending], and has almost reached the bottom of the hill; -- or in other words, the shades below.”1
George Washington did not make it to 1800. He died on Saturday night, December 14, 1799, after contracting what appears to have been a case of acute epiglottitis, a virulent infection in his throat that began only 48 hours before.
Although people in the late 18th century may not have had to deal with such modern issues as ending the life of a loved one by turning off life-support systems, there were comparable concerns about burying someone who was not actually dead. Shortly before he died, George Washington made a request about his burial to his secretary, Tobias Lear, who later recorded the scene: “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”.2
G. Washington in his Last Illness, 1800 by Unknown Artist (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Many people at the time knew of cases in which a seemingly dead person came back to life. An acquaintance of the Washingtons, a young minister's wife, recorded a story told to her by an older gentleman in the summer of 1790, relating the story of an illness he had suffered as a young man of twenty, when, on "the afternoon of the ninth day of his indisposition…he expired.” Most of the family and even the doctor were convinced that the boy was dead, but his mother would not permit them to prepare the body for burial. Therefore, “in compliance with what they believed a weakness, resulting from the depths of her sorrow, they consented the deceased should remain, for some time upon the bed of death.” The body lay there through “the residue of the afternoon, the ensuing evening, and through the whole of the long winter night, until the ensuing morning, the body continued an undoubted cor[p]se--when lo! to the astonishment of numbers, who waited the event, with a gentle sigh the heart stricken young Man once more opened his eyes, upon the fleeting scenes of time.”3
At least one friend wanted to help the process of “resuscitation” along after George Washington’s death in 1799. William Thornton was a physician, trained in the best medical schools in Europe, who also designed the Library Company of Philadelphia (1789), the United States Capitol (1792), and a number of important homes in the DC area, including the Octagon, Woodlawn, and Tudor Place. He was appointed one of three commissioners for the new federal city (1793-1828) and was named first superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office in 1802. Twenty years after Washington’s death, Thornton wrote that when the former president was suffering through his final illness, a family member invited Thornton to Mount Vernon to see if he could help. Thornton left for the estate, in the “fullest confidence of being able to relieve him by tracheotomy.” He was shocked to discover that Washington had died before his arrival and was now “laid out a stiffened Corpse. My feelings at that moment I cannot express! I was overwhelmed with the loss of the best friend I had on Earth.” But Thornton had a backup plan:
The weather was very cold, & he [Washington] remained in a frozen state, for several Days. I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner. First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, & by degrees & by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the Lungs by the Trachaea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb. If these means had been resorted to, & had failed all that could be done would have been done, but I was not seconded in this proposal; for it was deemed unavailing. I reasoned thus. He died by the loss of blood & the want of air. Restore these with the heat that had subsequently been deducted, and as the organization was in every respect perfect, there was no doubt in my mind that his restoration was possible.
Twenty years later, Thornton still seemed a little miffed that people questioned his idea, wondering “whether if it were possible it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor & renown; free from the frailties of age, in the full enjoyment of every faculty, & prepared for eternity.” Thornton at least got his way, after insisting that the body be enclosed within a lead coffin, so that Washington could eventually be buried at the United States Capitol.4 That move never happened.
George Washington’s marble sarcophagus within the New Tomb at Mount Vernon (Rob Shenk)
Portrait of Bushrod Washington by Henry Bendridge, 1783
George Washington wasn’t the only member of the family to worry about being buried too soon. His nephew, United States Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon from his uncle, was even more explicit about what he wanted done after his death and took the step of confiding them to his doctor:
My desire is that when the event happens, the sheet on which I am then laying may be employed as a Winding Sheet and at once thrown round my Person and tied about my middle with a Pocket [sic] Handkerchief--the common Practice of washing the Body is to be avoided- my thumbs are not to be tied together--nor anything put on my face or any restraint upon my Person by Bandages, &c. My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides--particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place and having been kept so long as to ascertain whether decay may have occurred or not, the coffin is to be closed up.5