How George Washington Died: Bloodletting, Enemas, and the Dangers of 18th Century Medicine

By | May 28, 2020

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Washington on his Deathbed, Junius Brutus Stearns (1810–1885). (Wikimedia Commons)

In his early twenties, he fumbled his way through the Ohio Country alongside the British Army in his first military outing and quite unintentionally became a catalyst for the French and Indian (A.K.A. Seven Years') War. As a more seasoned military man, he led a political insurrection and became the head general in a great Revolutionary War which would mark a sea change on a global scale, as it was the first time a colony had ever won independence from a colonial power. He became a founding father of a new nation and deeply shaped its social, political, and economic landscape for centuries to come. He was unanimously elected the country's first president quickly thereafter, and to this day, he's still remembered as one of the greatest leaders that this relatively young country has ever known.

If you haven't guessed by now, we're talking about George Washington. While he was by no means a perfect man (owning slaves is never a good look), viewed within the context of his time and judged by his momentous impact on history, most Americans still regard him as a great man. In fact, it's the epic adventure of his life that makes his humdrum and arguably preventable death so darn frustrating.

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George Washington, 1796. (Wikimedia Commons)

Manners Were Washington's Downfall

According to a letter Martha Washington wrote in late 1797, the former president joked with a few friends that he intended "not to quit the theatre of this world before the year 1800," as he was curious to see what the new century would bring. However, even the leader of the free world could not escape the hand of fate, and sadly, his last day on Earth would come just two weeks shy of his prediction on December 14, 1799. Although he only enjoyed a short two and a half years of his much-earned retirement, Washington made it a point to live it to the fullest.

Prior to his military and political career, young Washington spent his days as a land surveyor and developed a deep appreciation for exercise in the great outdoors. Now that he wasn't chained to the desk, he spent a lot of his time keeping up his Mount Vernon estate and adventuring out into the surrounding areas. On December 11 of that year, the 67-year-old set out on horseback to oversee his farm despite the bitter cold and light hail. By the time Washington returned home for a late lunch, he was drenched in nearly freezing water but decided not to change out of his clothes because he didn't want to keep his company waiting, knowing that they would not eat without him. While considerate, this turned out to be a pretty bad decision.