Washington Week: The Account of Washington’s Death by Lear

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s original historical societies and repository of great, momentous pieces of American history, has in its collection the first-hand account of Washington’s death by Tobias Lear, friend and aide.  Below is an article:

By Lee Arnold, librarian emeritus, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Perhaps the most important words from the only eye-witness account on the death of George Washington are the ones Lear highlighted within a rectangle: and he expired without a struggle or a sigh! To emphasize the point, he added two thick mourning lines at the bottom of the page.

Close-up of the larger document. Courtesy: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

New Hampshire-born Tobias Lear became George Washington’s private secretary in 1786. Not only was he early on treated as a member of the family, he eventually became one—marrying not one, but two Washington relatives. After his first wife died of yellow fever in 1793, Lear married Frances Bassett Washington, widow of George’s nephew, George Augustine Washington. When Frances passed from TB in 1796, he married Frances Dandridge Henley, niece of Martha Washington. Lear served the Washingtons in the official presidential residence in Philadelphia as well as at their beloved Mount Vernon. Under Jefferson he served as the U.S. envoy to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He later served as a counsel general in North Africa.

But it was Lear’s detailed descriptions of Washington’s initial symptoms, his various treatments by three physicians, deathbed interactions with Mrs. Washington and others in the household, and eventually Washington’s demise which will be Lear’s lasting legacy. Washington was out in a cold December storm and began to complain of a sore throat. He kept getting worse and doctors were called. Among their treatments, A mixture of Molasses, Vinegar & butter was prepared to try its effects in the throat. Then came the blood-letting. Mrs. Washington worried that too much was being let. Washington ignored her protests and urged for “more, more!”

Close-up of the larger document. Courtesy: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

After a point Washington knew that it was a battle he couldn’t win. Lear records Washington instructing them to “Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.” After Dr. Craik closed Washington’s eyes, Mrs. Washington asked Lear if her husband was “gone.” Lear indicated that he was. “Tis well,” said she in the same voice, “All is now over, I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!”

The diary, as an artifact, is also interesting. The day after Washington’s death, Lear had Dr. Craik read what he recorded and attest to its accuracy—Craik signed and dated the page. Lear records measuring the cadaver for the coffin (Washington was: 6 feet 3 ½ inches exact; 1 foot 9 inches across the shoulders and 2 feet 9 inches across the elbows.). Later in the diary Lear switches to the 1801 voyage to Haiti to begin his post as envoy. Besides taking his son, Lincoln, with him, he gives details packing, among other things, clothes, books, pistols, glassware, chinaware, stationary and 2 barrels containing Hams. The diary has its original boards, covered in comb-etched paste-paper. Over the years those two heavy iron gall ink mourning lines, on the December 14, 1799 “death page,” started to eat through the paper, nearly perforating it. HSP had the entire volume conserved (paper, binding and boards) so that the words of Lear, stated at the diary’s beginning, would be realized: This day being marked by an event which will be memorable in the History of America, and perhaps of the World.

Courtesy: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

There are other notable Washington family/Tobias Lear materials at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. “A Booke of Cookery” and “A Booke of Sweetmeats” [commonly known as Martha Washington’s cookbook], is a 17th century bound manuscript given to Martha Washington by her first mother-in-law, Frances Parke Custis. Mrs. Washington had kept and used this personal, one-of-a-kind cookbook for over fifty years. In 1799 she presented it to her granddaughter, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, as a wedding present when she married Lawrence Lewis. The cookbook passed down from mother to daughter until 1892 when the Lewis family donated it to HSP [Washington family papers, #696].

George Washington’s Letters to John Cadwalader concerning crossing the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton, December 24-26, 1776 were deposited by the Cadwalader Estate in 1939. The Estate turned them into a gift in 1947 [Cadwalader collection, #1454]. Henri Christophe’s Letter to Tobias Lear [written in French, from Christophe, while Lear was U.S. envoy to Haiti under Jefferson], December 19, 1801. Christophe later became the only monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti (1811-1820) [Simon Gratz autograph collection, #250A]. Assembled in 1882, Howard Edwards’ Washingtoniana case contains a personal letter, images of Washington and locket of his hair. This tattered case holds what some may consider a shrine to George Washington. The personal letter, written to Washington’s brother-in-law Burwell Bassett, is unique not in its content but that it was both written and signed by George Washington. There are two images of Washington: one a black and white print and the other appearing to be an original watercolor. But perhaps the most unusual item is the locket of Washington’s hair. According to the composer of the case, it was “Presented by John Perrie, son of Martin Perrie, Washington’s Hair Dresser, in 1781, to my Relative, the late Anthony M. Buckley” [Washington family papers, #696]. Washington household journal [when Philadelphia was the national capital], 1793-1797. This journal documents expenses the Washingtons incurred while residing in Philadelphia. Remnants of the President’s House foundations remain at Market and Sixth streets and now are part of the National Park Service [Washington family papers, #696]. George Washington’s Pocket diary [kept while at Mount Vernon], January 1 – June 21, 1796. Researchers who are looking for government secrets or revelations may be disappointed. Washington mainly records facts about the weather [Washington family papers, #696].

Founded in 1824, HSP is one of the largest history libraries in the nation, show-casing collections on regional and national history and offering a manuscript collection renowned for its holdings that span from the 16th – 21st centuries. HSP also contains one of the largest family history collections on the East Coast, containing genealogical material from every state east of the Mississippi River. The collection consists of some 600,000 books, pamphlets, serials and microfilm reels; 20 million manuscripts; and over 300,000 graphics items, making it one of the nation’s largest non-governmental repositories of documentary materials. HSP holds many national treasures, such as the first two handwritten drafts of the United States Constitution, an original printer’s proof of the Declaration of Independence and the earliest surviving American photograph.

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