[WASHINGTON, George]. LEAR, Tobias (1762-1816). Autograph letter signed ("Tobias Lear") TO WASHINGTON'S STEP-GRANDCHILDREN Lawrence Lewis & George Washington Parke Custis, Mount Vernon, 15 December 1799. 1 full page, 4to (9 13/16 x 7¾ in.), very minor spotting, neatly inlaid, verso docketed by both recipients.
LEAR TO WASHINGTON'S FAMILY, ANNOUNCING "OUR BELOVED FRIEND GENERAL WASHINGTON IS NO MORE!"
A highly important letter in which Lear, Washington's friend and trusted personal secretary, notifies two of Washington's closest relations (Eleanor ["Nellie"] Parke Custis and her husband Lawrence and G.W.P. Custis, Washington's adopted ward) of the momentous passing of "our beloved friend," and gives a first-hand narrative of Washington's last hours. In his own journal (no longer extant) Lear termed the death of Washington an event "which will be memorable in the History of America, and perhaps of the World." Here, he writes, "My dear Friends. It is with extreme pain that I write to communicate to you a melancholly [sic] event. Our beloved friend General Washington is no more! He died last evening between 10 & 11 o'cl[oc]k. He complained of a cold and a sore throat on Friday; but considered it only as a trifling complaint. About 3 o'cl[oc]k on Saturday Morning he felt himself ill, and Dr. [James] Craik was sent for. He came & soon after we sent for Dr. Dick of Alex[andri]a. and for Dr. [Gustavas] Brown of Port Tobacco who came without delay; but medicine was in vain. He suffered extremely; but not a groan or complaint escaped him. While I write I can scarcely believe but it is a dream."
"Mrs. Washington & Mrs. Lewis bear the afflicting loss with as much virtuous fortitude as could be expected. I sent for Mr. Law and Mr. Peter & their wives [Martha Washington's grand-daughters] last night. Mr. Peter has arrived & the others are expected every moment. You are both Executors with [the] Genls. Wife together with Col. Wm. Washington. Geo. S. Washington and Saml. Washington. God bless & preserve you my friends & may you return to us speedily...."
Lear is our foremost source of information on the death of Washington. On the morning of December 12, 1799, with temperatures near freezing, Washington set out on horseback to tour the Mount Vernon estate; during his five-hour ride the precipitation changed from snow to rain to sleet and back to snow. The next day the 68-year-old former President awoke with a bad sore throat and over the course of the next 24 hours his condition gradually worsened. The diagnosis of his physicians, Doctors Craik, Dick and Brown was "inflammatory quinsy," but their treatments-repeated bleeding, poultices, inhalants and blistering as a counter-irritant--progressively weakened their patient. Finally, Washington told them to "take no more trouble about me, let me go off quietly; I cannot last long." To Lear, who had remained at his bedside, he whispered "I am just going! Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead. Do you understand me?" "Yes, sir," Lear replied. "'Tis well," were Washington's last words. A few minutes later, while attempting to take his own pulse, he died.
As Lear notes, both George Washington Parke Custis and Lawrence Lewis were named as executors under Washington's will. Another account of Washington's death, dated one day after this letter, was sold here recently (10 December 1999, lot 223, $26,000).