George Washington was bled to death by doctors who were treating him for a cold. Bloodletting was a common medical practice at the time in order to remove “dirty blood,” when in reality it only weakens the patient. Half or more of his blood was removed within a few hours.
On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his plantation on horseback, in snow, hail, and freezing rain—later that evening eating his supper without changing from his wet clothes. That Friday he awoke with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse as the day progressed, yet still rode out in the heavy snow, marking trees on the estate that he wanted cut. Sometime around 3 a.m. that Saturday, he suddenly awoke with severe difficulty breathing and almost completely unable to speak or swallow. A firm believer in bloodletting, a standard medical practice of that era which he had used to treat various ailments of enslaved Africans on his plantation, he ordered estate overseer Albin Rawlins to remove half a pint of his blood. A total of three physicians were sent for, including Washington’s personal physician Dr. James Craik along with Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick. Craik and Brown thought that Washington had what they diagnosed as “quinsey” or “quincy”, while Dick, the younger man, thought the condition was more serious or a “violent inflammation of the throat”. By the time the three physicians had finished their treatments and bloodletting of the President, there had been a massive volume of blood loss—half or more of his total blood content being removed over the course of just a few hours. Recognizing that the bloodletting and other treatments were failing, Dr. Dick proposed performing an emergency tracheotomy, a procedure that few American physicians were familiar with at the time, as a last-ditch effort to save Washington’s life; but the other two doctors rejected this proposal.
Washington died at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799, aged 67. In his journal, Lear recorded Washington’s last words as being “‘Tis well.”
The diagnosis of Washington’s final illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day he died. In the days immediately following his death, Craik and Dick’s published account stated that they felt his symptoms had been consistent with what they called “cynanche trachealis”, a term of that period for describing severe inflammation of the structures of the upper airway. Even at that early date, there were accusations of medical malpractice, with some believing that Washington had been bled to death. Various modern medical authors have speculated that Washington probably died from a severe case of epiglottitis which was complicated by the given treatments (all of which were accepted medical practice in Washington’s day)—most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock.
Throughout the world, men and women were saddened by Washington’s death. Napoleon ordered 10 days of mourning throughout France; in the United States, thousands wore mourning clothes for months. To protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence between her husband and her following his death. Only a total of five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to Martha.
On December 18, 1799, a funeral was held at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Congress passed a joint resolution to construct a marble monument in the United States Capitol for his body, supported by Martha. In December 1800, the United States House passed an appropriations bill for $200,000 to build the mausoleum, which was to be a pyramid that had a base 100 feet (30 m) square. Southern opposition to the plan defeated the measure because they felt it was best to have his body remain at Mount Vernon.
In 1831, for the centennial of his birth, a new tomb was constructed to receive his remains. That year, an unsuccessful attempt was made to steal the body of Washington. Despite this, a joint Congressional committee in early 1832 debated the removal of Washington’s body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol, built by Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South. Congressman Wiley Thompson of Georgia expressed the fear of Southerners when he said:
Remove the remains of our venerated Washington from their association with the remains of his consort and his ancestors, from Mount Vernon and from his native State, and deposit them in this capitol, and then let a severance of the Union occur, and behold the remains of Washington on a shore foreign to his native soil.
His remains were moved on October 7, 1837 to the new tomb constructed at Mount Vernon, presented by John Struthers of Philadelphia. After the ceremony, the inner vault’s door was closed and the key was thrown into the Potomac.