If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
One of [Martha’s] responsibilities as manager of the Mount Vernon estate was acting as primary caregiver to family members as well as to enslaved and non-enslaved workers. This emphasis on the physical wellbeing of herself and of those around her influenced Martha’s everyday decisions and interactions.
Wealth bought Patsy many luxuries: fine clothes and jewelry, a harpsicord and dancing lessons, excursions to Williamsburg, a pet parrot, and other pleasant things. It could not buy her good health, however. From a very early age, Patsy was afflicted with epilepsy. As she entered adolescence, the disease began to grow ominously worse, much to the distress of her family.
Martha Washington died on Saturday, May 22, 1802. She outlived two husbands, her four biological children, several siblings, her favorite niece, and many friends. Unsurprisingly, the editors of the forthcoming volume of Martha’s correspondence have discovered one theme that has continually appeared—concern for loved ones’ health and her subsequent advice. Martha was never far-removed from loss.
It may have started with a headache and a fever, or just a general feeling of malaise. It could have struck after a night’s rest, when his morning routine of rising from bed was painfully curtailed by a severe backache unlike any he’d experienced before. A chill running throughout his body—abnormal in the extreme heat of the tropical climate of Barbados—could have been the first signal that something wasn’t right. However the illness chose to first present itself, within a few days a rash appeared on his skin. Less than two days from their emergence, the eruptions grew and spread, covering his entire body.1 George Washington was only 19 years old. He was on an adventure in the West Indies, and he had smallpox.
George Washington’s false teeth were not wooden, as you may have heard. They were actually made from a variety of materials, including human teeth. According to the accounting record in Mount Vernon’s Ledger Book B, the teeth may have been pulled from Washington’s slaves.
Martha, sitting at the foot of her partner’s bed, saw George’s quiet become quieter. “Is he gone?” she asked. George’s secretary (and Martha’s friend) Tobias Lear couldn’t speak. He held up his hand in assent. Martha said simply, “‘Tis well. All is now over I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!” She was wrong.
As a child, I had a morbid curiosity about death. When I was eight years old, a family friend gave me what I thought was the greatest Christmas present ever: a copy of the book, Hollywood Heaven, which detailed the lives and (more importantly) the deaths of film and television celebrities.
TOPICS: George Washington, Health and Medicine, Washington’s Presidency by James E. Guba, Copy Editor, and Philander D. Chase, former Editor-in-Chief In the middle of June 1789, only about six weeks after George Washington had been inaugurated first president of the United States with great fanfare at New York’s Federal Hall, […]