[WASHINGTON, George.] LEAR, Tobias. Autograph letter, unsigned, to John Halsey, Mount Vernon 13 December 1799. 1 page, 4to, with George Washington’s watermark.
ORDERING MADEIRA WINE FOR WASHINGTON ONE DAY BEFORE HIS DEATH
Lear tells Halsey, a New York merchant, that a Mr. J. M. Pintard had offered to sell George Washington “one or two pipes” of Madeira wine “at three dollars per gallon.” The wine was in the custody of Halsey in New York and Lear had written Pintard to take him up on the offer. But, worrying that Pintard may have already left the country, he asks the merchant “to send to the General one pipe of the wine mentioned, upon the terms expressed…” In an unintentionally poignant postscript he adds: “You will be pleased to address your answer to His Excellency General Washington.” The next day, however, Washington was dead.
It was a stunningly fast moving tragedy. Washington seemed in good health on the morning of 13 December—certainly the fact that his secretary could make such casual plans about wine shows there was no dire sense of urgency, no death-bed vigil taking place in the Washington household. The General made a horseback inspection of his plantation in wet and wintry weather and returned complaining of a cough and hoarseness. Thinking he was suffering from nothing worse than the cold Martha Washington had recently experienced, he took to his bed, but woke up at 2 a.m. with fever and severe shortness of breath. Martha called for Tobias Lear, who summoned Washington’s physician, Dr. James Craik and the plantation overseer, George Rawlins, an “expert” in bleeding. Lear would be a witness and chronicler of the tragedy that unfolded over the next 20 hours, as Craik and a sequence of other physicians administered a disastrous and painful regimen of bleedings and blisters. They extracted an astonishing 80 ounces of blood—40% of his body’s supply—in a 12 hour period. At about 10 p.m., with Lear and Martha Washington at his side, George Washington died. Medical historians think the illness was likely acute bacterial epiglottitis, an infection and swelling of the tissue just above the larynx, causing a blockage of the windpipe. Modern treatment with breathing tubes or an emergency tracheostomy, followed by antibiotics to treat the underlying infection, would have saved Washington’s life. The blood loss and dehydration caused by his well-meaning but ill-equipped attendants almost certainly hastened his end.