Episode 101: Smollop: The Death of George Washington

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Dave:…the poultice caused a spontaneous bowel evacuation.

Gareth: This is the first president of the United States? and they just put beetles on his neck and he shit the bed?!
Dave: He shit the bed.


Washington's tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia
Engraved over its hallowed, ivy-draped doors: “I told you to wear warmer clothes. Love, Martha”.

Picture the scene. 1799, winter, December Thursday. Snow, hail, and freezing rain, which is either God or Mother Nature telling you to go inside and have a hot brandy for the love of all things holy, Mr. President, sir. But, nopity nope. Washington thought this was the primo time to ride his poor horse–who didn’t get a say in the matter–and inspect the grounds of his plantation.

Okay, now he’s done. Warm food, dry clothes, that hot brandy. Nope. Wet britches at the table, to Martha’s chagrin and George’s downfall.

This episode is the one you share with your mother. You give it to her as a gift, and let her have that one big “I TOLD YOU SO” that she has been holding in for decades. Let her let it out. It’s been giving her cramps something awful, let the woman have her mom moment before she pops. You owe her.

Friday: Rinse and repeat, George, even with a sore throat. George, why. Why. Did you like freezing rain that much? Already having symptoms but you still have to survey for trees that you wish to have cut? In a winter storm? George. Dude. My only guess is the pain from those dentures was severely undermining your sound judgment.

Tick tick tick. Saturday. Trouble swallowing or speaking. George sends for estate overseer Albin Rawlins to bleed him, as he does the plantation slaves. Half a pint gone.

1860, 1 of only 3 known photographs of bloodletting procedure. (No, I did not handtint it. But that does look like my handiwork, doesn't it?)
1860, 1 of only 3 known photographs of bloodletting procedure. (No, I did not handtint it, though that is kinda my style, I have to admit.)


Smouldering Scottish pirate doctor man smoulder smoulder
James Smouldering Scottish pirate doctor man smoulder smoulder Craik

Tick tick tick. Three doctors were sent for, James Craik, Washington’s personal doctor, Gustavus Brown, and the unfortunately named Elisha Dick. The first two docs thought it was quinsey, which is basically ulcers that develop as a complication from tonsillitis. The Dick doc thought this were more grave, involving his esphogasus. They all agreed There Will Be Blood.

Tick. A couple of hours pass, and the well-meaning doctors let at least half of Washington’s total blood, counting the previous half a pint.

800px-George_Washington_on_his_death-bed_(1856_engraving)And the clock ran out. The bloodletting may actually be what killed him, because his body, weakened by whatever ailed him, and too fast of a bloodloss, could not recover fast enough, leading to hypovolemic shock. He died the next Saturday, one week and a day after he likely told Martha, “Leave me be, woman, I am by the fire, let me eat, then I shall change my clothing.”

Martha destroyed nearly all of her and George’s correspondence in order to protect his privacy. I choose to think she was sending him sex letters when he was on the battlefield or otherwise engaged, and he was doing the same for her. Don’t ruin it for me, it’s my dream of presidential colonial sexting.

In the years between 1799 and 1837, at least one failed attempt was made to steal Washington’s remains, because ‘Murica!

Washington’s remains were interred in the marble vault shown in the photograph, at Mount Vernon, Virginia, in a ceremony on October 7, 1837. The inner vault was then locked, and the key was thrown into the Potomac River.

So let’s run down the attempts and suggestions real quick:

  • tracheotomy
  • butter
  • vinegar
  • molasses
  • Spanish Fly beetles as a poultice
  • bloodletting, so much bloodletting
  • resurrection through postmortem blood transfusion
  • feet soaking

At what point did they just start flinging stuff at him?


Bands from this episode:

  • Elisha Dick (but of course)
  • George’s Horse
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Afternoon Residue
  • LambBoy
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