When the president retired from public life, Martha Washington had hoped for many years with her husband at Mount Vernon. This was not to be. On December 14, 1799, only two and one-half years after leaving the presidency, George Washington died quite suddenly, soon after contracting a virulent throat infection.
Although the nation mourned, Martha was bereft. She had suffered so many losses over the course of her life—having outlived four children, numerous relatives, and two husbands—she almost could not bear the pain. She closed up the second-floor bedroom that she had shared with George and moved to a room on the third floor, where she spent much of her day.
When in public, Martha appeared in her mourning clothes, including a black lace shawl, black gloves, and black kid shoes. She sometimes also wore a mourning locket or ring, containing a strand of her husband’s hair.
Martha’s Second Widowhood
By this time in her life, Martha was sixty-eight years old. In the months after George’s death, Martha received thousands of condolence letters and hundreds of requests for mementos. Visitors flocked to Mount Vernon. Martha handled the onslaught as best she could. Fatigued and grieving, she often delegated routine household tasks and secretarial duties to trusted aides, servants, and family members.
Martha took solace in her family. Her grandchildren, Wash Custis and Nelly Custis Lewis, and Nelly’s husband, along with their two young daughters, still lived at Mount Vernon. Tobias Lear, her niece’s widower and her husband’s former secretary, resided there as well. Her other grandchildren, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law and Martha Parke Custis Peter visited, often bringing their children. These interactions enlivened her days.
Freeing Washington’s Slaves
In the months after George’s death, a new threat to Martha’s security arose. Under the provisions of his will, George had declared that the 123 slaves that he owned outright (separate from the dower slaves that would be distributed among the Custis heirs) were to gain their freedom after his wife’s death. Hearing the news, however, these slaves may have become restive. Rumors circulated about a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon that may have been set by slaves.
Fearing for her life, Martha, at the urging of her nephew Bushrod Washington, decided to free her deceased husband’s slaves. On January 1, 1801, a bit more than a year after George’s death, Washington’s slaves gained their liberty.
Preparing for Death
Almost inevitably, Martha’s thoughts turned toward her own death. Always a religious person, she sought comfort in her faith. In later years, family members recalled that Martha studied the Bible or read devotional literature almost every day. One visitor remarked in 1801, “She speaks of death as a pleasant journey.” 1
Martha’s health, always somewhat precarious, now declined precipitously. Just two and a half years after her husband and to the dismay of her extended family, Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802.
1. Sally Foster Otis to Mary Foster Apthorp, January 13, 1801, Harrison Gray Otis Papers II, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, microfilm reel 3 (1802-1805), 228.