“To enlarge the sphere of social happiness is worthy [of] the benevolent design of the Masonic Institution; and it is most fervently to be wished, that the conduct of every member of the fraternity, as well as those publications which discover the principles which actuate them may tend to convince Mankind that the grand object of Masonry is to promote the happiness of the human race . . . I sincerely pray that the Great Architect of the Universe may bless you and receive you hereafter into his immortal Temple.” — George Washington
On Thursday, December 12, 1799, George Washington rode out to inspect portions of his five farms, as he had nearly every day since the end of his presidency. Unfortunately on this particular day, he was caught in the rain, wind and sleet of a terrible winter storm. When he returned that afternoon, his hair caked with snow, he was quite wet in spite of his woolen greatcoat.
The next day, he went out into three inches of new snow and freezing weather and insisted on marking trees he wanted cut down. His throat was sore, and he became hoarse as the day progressed. By late evening, it was clear that he was having trouble breathing.
On Saturday morning, he had a severe fever and could hardly speak. He asked his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, to send for his family physician, Dr. James Craik, who had served with the general during the French and Indian War and all through the revolution. Washington’s wife Martha also sent for Dr. Gustavus Brown, who was living across the river from Mount Vernon in Maryland, in case Craik was otherwise detained.
Washington anticipated that Dr. Craik would prescribe “bleeding” to draw off the “bad blood” that was believed to cause fever and illness, so, he also had Lear send for Albin Rawlins,one of Washington’s overseers from his nearby Union Farm, a veterinarian who was also proficient in the practice of bloodletting. The general wanted him to get an early start, even if the doctors hadn’t yet arrived. Martha was alarmed over the amount of blood that Rawlins drained from her husband, even though Washington kept encouraging him to draw “More! More!”
Dr. Craik arrived shortly thereafter and concurred that bleeding was the proper treatment, especially since the general couldn’t manage to swallow any throat-soothing mixtures that were offered. One attempt to gargle nearly choked him to death. Craik drew more blood, but he desperately wanted another opinion. Since Dr. Brown had not yet arrived, he sent for Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, a resident of Alexandria and Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, where Washington was a member.
Eventually, all three doctors were in attendance and attempted to diagnose Washington’s deteriorating condition. Brown and Craik decided it was “quinsy,” an inflammation related to tonsillitis. Dr. Dick was considerably younger than the other two physicians, and his education was more recent and better informed in new methods of diagnosis. He believed that Washington’s throat membranes had swollen shut. The general was literally choking to death, and he recommended an immediate tracheotomy. Such a radical procedure had never been done in the United States at that time, and Brown and Craik rejected both the diagnosis and Dick’s recommendation. The two older doctors continued to bleed him over the protests of both Martha and Dick, eventually drawing nearly five pints of blood from the dying man – almost half his body’s blood supply. Unbeknownst to them, his larynx had swollen shut and he was dying of asphyxia aggravated by dehydration and the loss of blood.
A few minutes before ten o’clock on Saturday night, as the helpless doctors looked on, Washington whispered his final words to Lear.
“I am just going; Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand?” Lear promised he would do as Washington asked. The general nodded slightly, and said, “’Tis well”.
For a moment, his breathing became less labored, less ragged. A short time later, he felt for his own pulse and then died. The father of the nation, its greatest war hero, its first president, quietly slipped away into history. His friend, his doctor and his Masonic brother, Dr. Elisha Dick, turned away from the scene, knowing that he might very well have saved him had he been allowed to do what he knew was right. Doctor Craik would later admit with great sorrow that Dr. Dick had been correct and that their friend might have survived if they had listened to him.
Brother Dick walked across the general’s bedroom to the clock that sat on the fireplace mantel. He reached into his pocket for his folding knife, opened the back of the clock, and sliced through the catgut string that operated its mechanism. The ticking stopped, and the hands froze at 10:20, where they remain to this day in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial’s museum.
News traveled slowly in those days. Congress was in session in Philadelphia, and they would not know of Washington’s death until the day of the funeral. Martha Washington followed the general’s wishes for his burial. He would never be placed in the crypt being prepared under the rotunda of the Capitol House being built across the river in the new city that would bear his name. Nor would he be enshrined in a new monument that would eventually be erected in geometric alignment with the Congress House and the President’s House. He was, first and foremost, the master of Mount Vernon, a Virginia farmer, and there he would remain.
Washington’s body had been placed on a bed in Mount Vernon’s front drawing room. So that the cold would preserve him, no fires were lit. On December 17, the lead-lined mahogany casket arrived.
The next day, Wednesday, December 18, the procession began to form outside Mount Vernon’s mansion. Servants had cleared the snow between the house and the crypt, and mourners began to gather just before noon. The Virginia Militia was delayed, so the gathering was given a last opportunity to view the body. At 3:00 p.m., the procession at last lined up and made their way to the place of burial. As they went, a schooner anchored out in the Potomac fired its cannon in salute.
The Freemasons of Alexandria Lodge No. 22 assembled to perform their final duty to their fallen brother, sending him on to the celestial lodge above. His friend and brother, Dr. Elisha Dick, performed the Masonic funeral service, and the Reverend James Muir assisted with the prayers and Bible readings.
The Reverend Thomas Davis read the Episcopal Prayer Book’s funeral service and praised Washington’s character and virtues in the sermon that followed. Then, as is still the practice today, the Masons stepped forward to conduct the final ceremony due a Master Mason. Worshipful Master Dick stood at the head of the casket and Reverend Muir at its foot, and they recited the service from memory.
“From time immemorial,” Dr. Dick intoned, “it has been the custom among the fraternity of free and accepted Masons, at the request of a brother upon his death-bed, to accompany his corpse to its place of interment, and there to deposit his remains with the usual formalities.”
He spoke the same words used for all men of the fraternity—dustmen, cobblers, bankers, doctors, blacksmiths and presidents, “whose memory we revere, and whose loss we now deplore.” In death as in life, all Masons meet upon the level, act upon the plumb, and part upon the square, and the loss of one brother weakens the chain by which all Masons are united.
Finally, Dr. Dick approached the body of Washington and deposited within the coffin his Masonic apron – an emblem of innocence and the badge of a Mason. It was followed by a sprig of evergreen representing the acacia plant, a Masonic symbol of immortality and rebirth. When they finished, the lead seal was laid in place, then the casket lid. The wooden box was closed, and a black cloth pall was laid over the top.
Washington’s remains were carried into the vault, and its door was closed. The artillery and infantry assembled nearby simultaneously fired three volleys, the traditional symbolic military ritual marking the end of the battle of life. The funeral party returned to the mansion, and after some light refreshments, sadly went their separate ways.
Several years later, the simple brick crypt was deemed too small for George and Martha’s remains, and perhaps a little too simple. After three decades, a new crypt was built nearby. The gates were flanked with two matching Egyptian-style obelisks, foreshadowing the Washington Monument years before it would be constructed.
Washington’s will is fascinating to read. Apart from the many specific pieces of property he designated to family, friends and servants, he made remarkable provisions for a man of the period. He freed his slaves upon the death of his wife Martha (the majority of them actually belonged to her) and saw to it that those who could not make their own way in the world would be provided for. He left money to start a “free school” for orphans. He established a university.
But one seemingly small passage especially caught my eye as I looked over the carefully handwritten document. In it, he left his military swords to each of his nephews,
“. . . accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.”
Honor remained his watchword, even as he contemplated his own death. Moreover, it was a lesson he insisted be passed on to the next generation. In short, Brother George Washington was in death as he was in life, a living example of Masonic principles of truth, honor, faith, hope and charity.
(excerpted from Solomon's Builders: Freemasons, Founding Fathers and the Secrets of Washington DC)
The Freemasons of Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 will lay a memorial wreath at Washington's tomb this morning at 8:30AM, just as it has done for over 200 years.