The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].

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George’s First Job

When visitors come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm, they can stand in what were once the fields of the Washington family’s farm, where they grew tobacco and other crops. While living here, Augustine Washington, George’s father, taught his sons – George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles – to see opportunity in land.

Ferry Farm Aerial View

Aerial view of the present-day Washington house replica, work yard, hen yard, and archaeological digs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Joe Brooks, EagleOne Photography

Growing up at Ferry Farm, George Washington learned that land was wealth. He learned how to run a plantation and to manage the enslaved workers who lived and toiled on his family’s farms. He learned what crops to grow and livestock to raise, how to care for them, and how to put them to use.  George Washington was many things at different points in his life – diplomat, politician, general, president –  but, throughout his sixty plus years, he was always a farmer.

To George and the other Europeans who settled in British North America in the 1700s, land and its natural resources were privately owned commodities or raw materials to be bought or sold. Land was used to create goods for market or was sold for profit.  In other words, land was valuable and owning a lot of land made you wealthy.

Before growing anything on a farm, Washington and his fellow colonial-era farmers had to own land and the land they owned had to be defined legally. It had to have boundaries, so they and other people knew it belong to them.  If land was wealth, it was vitally important to know how much land you owned.

Creating these boundaries was the job of a surveyor and being a surveyor was, after his lifelong work as a farmer, George Washington’s first job.

Young George Washington, Surveyor

An ink sketch from 1956 imaging a young George Washington surveying. Credit: National Park Service / Wikipedia

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines surveying as “determining the area of any portion of the earth’s surface.”

Today, surveyors use the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite imagery, lasers, and other advanced digital equipment to do their work more quickly and more accurately. When George Washington was a surveyor, he used simple tools compared to today but, 200-years-ago, these simple tools were as advanced technologically speaking as today’s surveying equipment.  Indeed, in the 1700s, surveying was relatively brand new.  The word itself first appeared only in 1682.

Although a relatively new science, young George Washington was probably familiar with surveying from an early age.  His father Augustine owned “1 Set Surveyors Instruments,” according to the probate inventory made of Augustine’s property after his death in 1743.

The state-of-the-art instruments of a surveyor in the 1700s included a surveying compass on a tripod used to figure out the bearing and direction of a proposed boundary line.  A surveying compass included “sighting vanes” used to point “the compass by peering through the slit in one of the vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other vane with a target or object” along boundary line.  These targets were often just trees (sometimes marked in some fashion with a hatchet), boulders, steams, or any other landmarks.

Surveyor's Compass

Surveyor’s compass by David Rittenhouse, believed to be given to George Washington in 1782. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

Measuring the distance between these targets set the property’s boundaries as well as its acreage. These distances were measured using chains carried by the surveyor’s assistants known as chainmen.  A full surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long and 100 links and eighty of these chains equaled one mile. “Dragging a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia’s forests was impractical.” These long chains snagged on trees and other vegetation so surveyors in the colonies used a chain that was only 33 feet long with 50 links.

Surveying Chain

Surveyor’s chain, c1830. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

George Washington began a survey by choosing a starting landmark as well as a landmark to travel towards.  He recorded the direction of the line using his surveying compass.  Then, to measure the distance, the rear chainman held one end of the chain at the starting point while the lead chainman walked a straight line toward the ending target.  As the surveyor, George constantly checked the compass to make sure the chainmen followed his line.  Keeping the line straight sometimes meant the lead chainman hacked his way straight through brush and undergrowth.  Once the he reached the end of the chain, the lead chainman pinned it to the ground and the rear chainman brought up the other end. They then repeated the process until the ending point of the line was reached. The rear chainman picked up the pins as they walked.

Fifteen-year-old George Washington made one of his first surveys on February 27, 1747 when he measured out his older half-brother Lawrence’s turnip field at Mount Vernon. According to Ledger Book Zero, Washington bought a Gunter scale, essentially a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to solve the trigonometry problems common to surveying, from his cousin Baily on September 20, 1747.

Thirteen months later, on March 11, 1748, George accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, the Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Virginia’s frontier to survey land for Thomas, Lord Fairfax.  Young Washington kept a journal of his experiences.

In 1749, at age 17, George was commissioned the surveyor of the new county of Culpeper by the College of William & Mary, which appointed all county surveyors in Virginia This was unusual for someone this young to be appointed.  A year later, he began a two-year period of off-and-on trips throughout Virginia’s Frederick County, which at the time encompassed a vast swath of frontier land that today makes up nine separate counties in two states“By 1752, Washington completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres.”

In the later 1750s, George began to focus his work life more on soldiering (the French and Indian War) and farming. He never completely stopped surveying or acquiring land, however. In 1771, he surveyed Ferry Farm in preparation to sell the property and he surveyed for the last time in 1799, the year he died.

In the colonial age, land was wealth and was how many colonials, including George Washington, made their living.  As such, early Americans wanted to know what land they owned as well as how much they owned.  Surveyors, like George Washington, measured the land and created boundaries so ownership would be clear.  “At one time, Washington owned nearly 70,000 acres between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.”  Surveying was Washington’s first job and allowed him to begin to build vast amounts of land holdings and thus wealth. This wealth, in part, propelled him to the heights of colonial American society and politics.  He began this journey as a surveyor while living at Ferry Farm.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

“Ya Basic”: Washington and “The Bread and Butter Ball”

It was in February 1760 that George and Martha attended a ball that fell short of his expectations. As he somewhat whimsically recorded in his diary, the tables lacked linen, beverages were watered down, and the food offered compared to basic prison fare. In today’s slang, George might characterize the uninspiring party as, “Ya Basic,” an insult meaning unadorned and simple. This blog post considers the origins of George’s refined taste, and the lofty heights to which his social expectations had risen by his late twenties. By this point in Washington’s life, he expected certain amenities and refreshments at such festivities, groomed as he was from childhood in graceful civility and elegant dress

In 1758, George’s careful attention to attire, good looks, and courtesy contributed significantly to winning the widow Martha Dandridge Custis’s attention. George was trained in etiquette from a young age. Under his mother Mary’s training at Ferry Farm, George read The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior and committed these winning guidelines for manners to memory.

Now, imagine it is mid-February 1760. George and Martha are beginning their second year of marriage. As a wealthy widow, Martha brought property and wealth to the union that propelled George to the upper tiers of Virginia colonial society overnight. Together, they had the resources to shape their Mount Vernon home and landscape to their liking. The mansion house at Mount Vernon was enlarged from its original footprint, but at this point in time was not yet expanded to its final (just over 11,000 square foot) size. The young couple set about purchasing household goods, food, and clothing that celebrated their prosperous position and growing influence in Virginia colonial society and that anticipated their continued social assent. George is about to turn 29 years old. The world is his oyster.

02417v

An imagining of the “Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.” Lithograph by Lemercier from a painting by Julius Brutus Steans, c. 1853, in the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At a time when such items were luxuries, George’s parents furnished their Ferry Farm home with table linens and napkins (collectively known as napery) in abundance. We know this thanks to the survival of the 1743 probate inventory conducted at the death of Washington’s father, Augustine. Augustine’s inventory carefully enumerated that thirteen tablecloths protected their dining surfaces and over 30 napkins kept Washington family faces spotless. Many of the napkins were made from white linen, a high maintenance color choice. The family’s profuse employment of such fussy napkins was possible through the efforts of their enslaved workers: Lucy, Sue, Judy, Nan, Betty, Jenny, Phillis, and Hannah. At least some of these enslaved females frequently toiled at cleaning these indulgent white luxuries.

Linens on the Augustine Washington 1743 Probate Inventory

Section listing the family’s linens on the probate inventory done in 1743 following the death of Augustine Washington, George’s father.

Knowing how to use napkins and tablecloths was the focus of a number of guidelines included in The Rules of Civility, which were foundational lessons that George and his siblings practiced under their parents’ guidance. This childhood training allowed each of the Washingtons to wield their napkins and utensils with well-honed grace as adults. Polite behavior not only made a good impression, it dramatically increased social opportunities, and distinguished the Washingtons from ‘less polished’ colonists, most of whom lacked napery, forks, or the opportunity to practice refined etiquette.

Similarly, bedclothes were a luxury that George took for granted prior to his travels to the mountains in the western portion of the Virginia colony during the spring of 1748. In an early example of his reaction upon encountering unexpected rusticity, Washington’s diary indicates that he and his companions stayed at Isaac Pennington’s, in present-day Berryville, Virginia. It was clearly the first time that George had encountered a mattress made from straw and which, furthermore, lacked sheets but did have “…only one thread bear blanket with double its weight of vermin such as Lice Fleas etc.”  The pragmatic Washington vowed to sleep outdoors by a campfire during his travels from that time forward.

The following night he stayed in (present-day) Winchester, Virginia, and was relieved to discover the inn featured “…a good feather bed with clean sheets….” However, just ten days later, George was appalled by the lack of a tablecloth and of utensils during supper at the home of a Justice of the Peace in Frederick County. He compensated, using his own utensils which he had thoughtfully brought along for the trip. Washington’s personal table utensils were originally intended for his backcountry, deep woods, prepared-around-the-campfire meals. That these basic utensils had to be employed at the home of a Justice of the Peace took young Washington by surprise.

These brief encounters with startling rusticity – a lack of table linen and utensils, primitive straw mattresses, a shortage of bedclothes, or flea-infested beds — were so unusual to this young Virginian that George noted them as part of his otherwise concise diary entries. Table linen, bedclothes, clean laundry, and table utensils were part of his take-for-granted world of this gentleman. For most Virginia colonists of the time, these items represented extravagant treats, not basic necessities.

As he grew, Washington traveled in elevated social circles, allowing him to refine his manners and to adapt new forms of sophisticated behavior. Expectations for comfort and refreshments continued to grow in the colony overall as improved shipping, extended credit, and cheaper goods increased. George had a long association with the aristocratic Fairfax family, who lived next door to his older, half-brother Lawrence whom he frequently visited. Furthermore, Washington was the product of two propertied, multigenerational Virginia families, each of whom had immigrated to the colony during the 1650s. Sustained by a host of enslaved washers, ironers, and cleaners, propertied families surrounded themselves by amenities and practiced manners that quickly became fundamental behaviors among the well-heeled.

Through these experiences, Washington developed an urbane taste and refined style to which many Virginians aspired, but few attained. His marriage to Martha, a wealthy widow, cemented his membership amongst the top families. Their home at Mount Vernon was elegantly furnished and its landscape was groomed to be productive and impressive to visitors. The young couple enjoyed financial security and an extensive social network.

The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

A fanciful early 20th century painting titled “The Victory Ball, 1781” and painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. While Washington was a life-long and avid dancer, it is unlikely he attended any such “victory ball” or “peace ball” traditionally said to have taken place in Fredericksburg after the British defeat at Yorktown. Credit: Wikipedia.

This is why, on a chilly mid-February day in 1760, party hosts Carlyle Laurie and Robert Wilson must have eagerly anticipated this elegant pair of ascendant young Virginians attendance to their ball. George and Martha journeyed to Alexandria for the festivities, where they socialized, dined, and danced. George even indulged in a game of cards (that evening he noted in his account book the loss of seven shillings, about $74.00 in modern currency). While the activities in which guests participated were festive, the refreshments served fell far short of expectations. While Washington’s criticism might seem a trifle petty, his evaluation seems to have been largely limited to his personal diary:

Went to a Ball at Alexandria – where musick and dancing was the chief entertainment. However in a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded great plenty of bread and butter, some biscuets with tea and coffee which the drinkers of coud not distinguish from hot water sweetened. Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs servd the purposes of Table Cloths and Napkins and that no Apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this ball by the stile and title of the bread and butter ball.

We can only imagine the shared glances that more discriminating guests may have exchanged, as they employed their own handkerchiefs in the absence of anticipated napery. Just envision the puckered faces and furrowed brows that guests made as they sipped the weak, tepid tea they were presented upon tables that lacked tablecloths! Were the offerings truly so pitiable, or is it possible that George’s expectations exceeded that which the typical Alexandria social affair could provide?

Dive into George’s diaries to learn more about his fascinating life, humble beginnings, and social ascent. Dorothy Twohig edited Washington’s diary entries, George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment, which is as entertaining to read as it is an invaluable insight into Washington’s lifePlease visit us at his boyhood home in Stafford, Virginia for George Washington’s Birthday at Ferry Farm on Monday, February 18. Unlike Alexandria of old, Fredericksburg table linens abound and refreshments shall be more than bread and butter.  In fact, there shall be birthday cake!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Galke, Laura J. 2009.
“The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits.” Northeast Historical Archaeology 38: 29-48.

Garrett, Nicholas D.
2018 Shipwrecked in the Land of King Tobacco: The First Washington Family Immigrant to America. Independently published.

Levy, Philip
2015 George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape. West Virginia University Press, Morgantown.

Saxton, Martha
2019 The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington, the Mother of our Nation’s Father. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

Twohig, Dorothy
1998 The Making of George Washington. In George Washington and the Virginia Backcountry, edited by Warren R. Hofstra, pp 3-34. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

The President’s Cough

“The day being Rainy & Stormy – myself much disordered by a cold and inflammation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain) was drawn.” – George Washington, October 26, 1789

The sounds of sniffling, hacking, and sneezing, are everywhere, whether at a social events, shopping, or dining out. Here in the midst of our current cold and flu season, I thought readers might enjoy hearing about a historic, 1789-1790 respiratory malady that plagued many Americans and was referred to by contemporaries as “Washington’s influenza” or “the President’s Cough.[1]” So how did this widespread illness become associated with our first president? Read on!

In the fall of 1789 President Washington took advantage of a Congressional recess to embark on a tour of the nation over which he now presided. Capitalizing on his widespread popularity, Washington journeyed to diverse parts of the Atlantic states, in order to assess its industries, its potential, and to gauge the temperament of its diverse citizenry. In part an effort to validate the fragile new administration, Washington hoped the sojourn might demonstrate to Americans everywhere the promise of their new representative government: one in which all voters could participate.* The new administration was untested, and Washington realized its success could not be taken for granted. He appreciated that his own popularity would significantly contribute to its initial success and long term stability.

This particular trip focused upon the New England states. Everywhere that Washington traveled, he was greeted by throngs of enthusiastic well-wishers, and he quickly found crowds craved the opportunity to cheer their victorious general. Americans were especially exuberant when they witnessed the president, not in a suit (the attire of a politician), but rather in his splendid, buff-and-blue Revolutionary War general’s uniform. Washington exuded confidence in this familiar regalia, but his role as a political leader of a democratic republic was less familiar and did not ‘fit’ as well.

Washington's inauguration at philadelphia

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” by J.L.G. Ferris from a postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc. in 1932, which itself was a reproduction of oil painting from the series: “The Pageant of a Nation.” This scene imagines George Washington arriving to be inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Credit: Library of Congress

From a young age, Washington was sensitive to the fact that his appropriate attire, deportment, expressions, and manners made good impressions that paved the way toward success. Elegant appearance and grace were personified by the self-conscious Washington, who first practiced these talents under his parent’s roof. Throughout this trip, if Washington was not in uniform, he often elected to wear black velvet mourning clothes, worn in honor of his late mother, who had recently passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer on August 25, 1789.

While Washington and the crowds who met him throughout his journey presented a stirring spectacle to the eye, the laudatory ceremonies were peppered by the sounds of wheezing and constant hacking from attending throngs and orators alike. The widespread disorder afflicting the new Americans originated in the southern states and Middle Atlantic region. In November, the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut reported that symptoms included “great languor, lowness, …anxiety, frequent sighing, sickness, and violent headache,” muscle aches and difficulty breathing (American Mercury November 9 1789:2). Children and the elderly appeared to escape the worst of the illness. The widespread illness was noted in letters and diaries across the nation. Newspapers recorded the spread of the pervasive illness.

Mere respiratory distress did not dissuade the hacking citizenry from catching a glimpse of their new president and showing their support for their republican government, however. Americans greeted Washington with pageantry and elaborate ceremonies. While well-intended, such rites made the first president – and many Americans – uncomfortable, as these formalities were too similar to the monarchical adulation from which the newly-established nation sought to distance itself. Adoring citizens cheers were interrupted by fits of coughing. Washington referred to it as an “epidemical cold.” The illness, sometimes referred to by contemporaries as an “epidemic catarrh”[2] proved fatal to a few of those so afflicted, which was especially vicious to those in the prime of life.

As he traveled, Washington maintained his correspondence. In a mid-October letter to his beloved – and only – sister Betty Lewis, George noted that he had thus far escaped falling victim to the highly contagious flu that gripped the nation. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, Washington admitted in his October 26 diary entry that he, too, suffered from the popular contagion. Despite the physical discomfort that his illness brought to him, Washington maintained his schedule, allowing each community through which his procession entered, to honor him with various events and dinners.

Despite the hardship of his illness, Washington’s exertions during his travels were an important contributor to the unification of a diverse assembly of states experimenting with democracy.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Breen, T. H.
2016 George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

 

[1] Dorothy Twohig, editor, 1999 George Washington’s Diaries, An Abridgement, p. 351.

* Voting rights varied by state and were generally restricted to free men who owned land.

[2] American Mercury 9 November 1789:2, Pennsylvania Packet 18 November 1789:2

George Washington’s Taphophobia: The Fear of Being Buried Alive

On December 14, 1799, as George Washington lay in his final moments on his death bed, he told his secretary Tobias Lear what were likely his last words. Tobias recalled later:

“About ten o’clk he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said,–‘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.’ I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, ‘Do you understand me?’ I replied Yes. ‘Tis well’ said he”.

George Washington on His Deathbed by John Meister

In his 19th century painting, John Meister imagines “George Washington on His Deathbed”. Credit: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum / Wikipedia

Why did George feel the need to state this on his death bed? These were his last known words, and must have been a thought of importance to Washington. Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, may, in part, explain his final words.

The medical field advances constantly and surprises us every day with new knowledge of the human body. DNA testing, cancer screening, vaccines, bionic limbs… I could go on forever about how the world of medicine has evolved. Today, it’s hard to imagine life before these advances when something as simple as detecting death was not even clear cut.

Technological and medical advancements in the mid-20th century brought us machines that could detect even a very faint heartbeat – the surest sign of life – and, by that time, people were no longer as concerned with accidentally being pronounced dead. Certainly, after embalming became standard, people were even less worried about waking in the grave because one could not survive the embalming process.

In earlier centuries, however, being incorrectly pronounced dead and accidentally buried was a real possibility and a common fear.  George Washington wasn’t alone in taking precaution to ensure he was not buried prematurely.  Several historical figures, the best known being Edgar Allen Poe, were taphophobic, as were some other members of the Washington family.

 

A Brief History of Being Buried Alive (Vivesepulture)

Have you heard the tale of Margorie McCall, whose tombstone in Lurgan, County Armagh in Northern Ireland reads “Margorie McCall, Lived Once, Buried Twice”?  As her story goes, in 1705, poor Margorie fell ill with fever (fever being a catch-all term for illnesses not yet identified). Her husband, a doctor, was sick with worry as many people during the time rapidly succumbed to now treatable ailments. When Margorie died, her husband, aware of how rampantly sickness could spread, had her buried quickly.

Margorie Mccall Gravestone

The gravestone of Margorie McCall in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. Credit: Charlie Hintz / cultofwierd.com

As soon as the dirt settled, grave robbers aware of Margorie’s wealth decided to loot her grave. She was buried with her wedding ring, which was of considerable value. The grave robbers could not pull off the ring due to swelling, so they used a knife and began to remove the finger. The moment she was cut, a confused Margorie awoke, presumably giving the grave robbers the fright of their lives. They fled, and she wandered back home to make a full recovery, have children, and outlive her husband.

While the grave of Margorie McCall is real, the legend may be just that – a legend. “Lady with the ring” tales existed in several European countries from the 14th through the 18th centuries and continued into American folklore. The place, names, and dates were different, but the fate of the lady remained the same. But why would people believe it? Why was it passed on for centuries?

Well, in part, this and similar stories were spread by anti-premature burial activists (Yes, this was a thing.) in European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some authors even sold pamphlets on the subject of premature burial, and used “lady with the ring”-style stories to agitate fear on the subject. Dr. Franz Hartmann, published a pamphlet entitled Buried Alive: An examination into the occult causes of apparent death, trance and catalepsy in 1894, that was filled with gruesome (and mostly untrue) tales of premature burial. These kinds of stories resonated and instilled taphophobia in everyday people.

 

How to be Sure that Someone is Dead

Taphophobia was a fear with some validity. Indeed, for most of history, the only sure way to determine that life was extinguished from a person was noticeable decomposition.

Just before Hannah Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s sister-in-law, died two years after George’s death, she made a specific request regarding the treatment of her body after death. She wrote in her will that since:

“no physician in the world can possibly tell whether or not a person is dead until putrefaction takes place and many have most assurdly been buried before they were dead…..  I therefore most earnestly pray that I may be allowed to remain in my bed just as I did whilst living until putrefaction by every known sign Justifies my being put into the coffin…” [PDF]

For several reasons – spread of disease, the smell, etc. – not everyone was comfortable with or had the means to allow a corpse to decompose above ground.

So, how did people in earlier centuries make certain that they didn’t bury a living person? One way was to remove the heart of the deceased. Some instances exist of people putting in their will to have their heart removed or to even be decapitated before burial. For those that didn’t want to accidentally have their still-beating heart removed, as this may have been an even worse fate than the premature burial itself, there were other options to be sure that a corpse was really a corpse. Pouring liquid ammonia into the nose, burning the bottoms of the feet with an iron, and pricking needles underneath the fingernails, for example, were ways to rouse a person in a death-like state. As cringe-inducing as all of these options are, it’s not surprising that they would indeed wake someone who was only unconscious. Additionally, tobacco pipe enemas were considered another useful way to rouse the dead. Putting a light source behind the fingers to look for signs of circulation, or a “diaphanous test”, was a less painful way to look for life.

Washington's 'Old' Tomb at Mount Vernon

The Old Tomb where George Washington was originally buried in 1799 before ultimately being moved to the New Tomb, which Washington had ordered built in his will, in 1831. Credit: Sarah Stierch / Wikipedia

Why They Mistook the Living for Dead

Ideally, one just waited the customary three days before burial, but that was not always feasible. During epidemics before the spread of disease was fully understood, hasty burial of the sick was common.

Today, with medical advances and a much better understanding of the human body, the likelihood of misidentifying death is minimal, but it is not unheard of even in the modern era when people suffer rare conditions that cause them to appear dead. There are many death-like conditions that can fool us. Catalepsy, a condition that can leave you unresponsive and immobile for minutes, days, or even weeks was rare and unknown to past physicians. Catalepsy can accompany a variety of mental disorders, which themselves were not well understood, even into the 20th century. “Sleeping sickness”, or African Trypanosomiasis, was a very real condition caused by the bite of a tsetse fly that caused a coma-like state that led to people being presumed dead in the 19th century. Several other conditions that result in unconsciousness even today like seizures, diabetes, dehydration, and low blood pressure could have been the culprits in people being presumed dead before the modern era.

Being shot in the head would also constitute as a condition that could lead doctors, even today, to believe you were dead. But, in May of 1799, about 7 months before George Washington’s death, an article was published in a Philadelphia newspaper telling of a soldier who had been shot in one temple, the bullet exiting the other temple. Even today most would assume death of the victim was imminent.  A grave was even being dug and the soldier prepared for burial. However, a fellow soldier “thought that he noticed symptoms of animation” in the man. Unbelievably, the man was miraculously alive and gaining consciousness. The lucky soldier was attended by a surgeon and made nearly a full recovery, suffering later only some weakness in his eyes.  Had George perhaps heard of this, and possibly have been startled by the fact that this man was nearly buried alive?

 

How to Not Bury Someone Alive

When burial couldn’t wait, or when the deceased or the family of the deceased were really taphopohbic, there were avenues to ensure an escape from the grave, if the dead returned to life. The use of bells was perhaps the most affordable way to watch for premature burial.  Bells were tied to the body and hung on the ground surface above the grave. The bell would ring if there was movement below ground. This is where the term “dead-ringer” originates.

Other inventions required a bit more expense, so not everyone had access to them. “Safety coffins” were gave piece of mind to the loved ones of the deceased. Some featured an air pipe AND an alarm system that indicated movement if a buried person became conscious. Air pipes would be removed once the smell of decomposition set in or a sufficient amount of time had passed.

US371626-0

Patent drawing for a safety coffin. Credit: U.S. Patent Office

The first “waiting mortuary” or Leichenhaus, was designed in Germany in 1792. A worker, called a Leichenhäuser, would be expected to sit vigil at the window of the corpse room and await movement. Workers were not allowed to leave the “patients” for any period of time, and were required to have equipment to resuscitate a person if they stirred.

Similarly, a special vault was once built in Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania that featured air flow and hand wheels on doors for those who awoke in the vault to help them escape. It was used as a safe holding area to give the deceased time to revive before being removed to their grave in another part of the cemetery.

Wildwood Cemetery Vault

Wildwood Cemetery’s special vault in Williamsport, Pennsylvannia as featured in the July 1921 edition of Popular Mechanics.

There were many normal reasons for relocating a family member’s body, just as George Washington’s body was moved into the new vault at Mount Vernon 32 years after his death. What wouldn’t be considered normal, would be to find that the deceased had rolled over, pulled out their hair, or scraped off their fingernails on the interior of the coffin lid. Opening a burial vault for the first time in years to relocate a body, or to inter another family member, only to come to the realization that the person was clearly not dead when they entered the grave, was a common fear. Stories existed of family finding the skeleton of a deceased relative inside a vault but outside of their coffin, having apparently starved to death in the mausoleum. No doubt some of these stories were fictional, but some were probably true as well.

Finally, glass windows allowed people to see into the grave vault. They weren’t always installed just for fear of premature burial. Families have been known to install grave windows for other reasons that have to do with the mourning process. They were a useful tool, however, in being able to make sure the dead had not woken up. Some famous examples of grave windows still exist today.

Grave Window

A window into the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith in the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont. Credit: Vermonter.com

Upon his death in November of 1829, Bushrod Washington, Hannah Bushrod Washington’s son and George Washington’s nephew, requested a special coffin to be placed in for a while before burial on top of a waiting period to be sure he was actually dead:

“My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides–particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place.”

Bushrod Washington

Bushrod Washington was George Washington’s nephew, the son of John Augustine Washington, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Depicted in an engraving made in 1830 by James Barton Longacre from a portrait by Chester Harding. Credit: New York Public Library.

A “phobia” is a word used in terms of an irrational fear. But was taphophobia really irrational in the 18th and 19th centuries or was it simply justified caution? Ultimately, we will never know how many people tragically succumbed to vivesepulture. What we do know is that George Washington made certain that he would not.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Washington, Smallpox, and the Fight for Independence

Living in Colonial America, disease and illness were defining challenges and perpetual threats of human existence.   At the time, there was no concept of infection or germ-theory, no vaccines, no really effective treatments for infectious disease and few public health measures that could reliably curb epidemics.[1]  For colonial Americans, it was not a matter of “if” you would get sick but rather when and would you be strong enough to survive.

George Washington contracted many of the epidemic diseases like malaria, dysentery, and smallpox that plagued colonists and survived despite limited medical intervention.  As a young man in the prime of his life, standing 6’2”tall and weighing over 200 pounds, his body fought a host of illnesses that killed most.  Still, these diseases had lasting effects on Washington’s body and one of the diseases he suffered led to a controversial decision that may have even saved America in its fight for independence.

Smallpox no longer terrifies humanity because it was eradicated in 1977 through a global program of vaccinations.  The devastation this disease caused through history is unrivaled.  By the 17th century, smallpox surpassed all other pandemic diseases as the swiftest and most deadly.[2]

The earliest conclusive evidence for smallpox dates back to 4th century China. It quickly spread through Asia and reached Europe around the 10th century. By the 18th century, it accounted for an estimated 8 to 20% of all deaths.[3] Upon its arrival in the New World, it decimated the Native American population, which had never faced the horrible and highly contagious disease.

Smallpox spread easily through overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  Symptoms include fever, intense headaches, pains in the back and legs, vomiting, and eruptions of seeping, smelly pustules on the body.  While left with immunity, survivors face debilitating after-effects like disfiguring scars and blindness.[4]

Smallpox pustules on hand

Smallpox pustules on hand. Credit: Centers for Disease Control

While smallpox was a reoccurring problem for larger coastal cities in British North America, it was less prevalent in more inland rural areas. Virginia experienced only minor outbreaks prior to 1747 when large outbreaks hit Williamsburg and Norfolk County causing panic, public unrest, and eventually public health proclamations.[5]

At the time, many offered advice on how to stave off or even cure the disease.  Recommendations in popular medical manuals, like Domestic Medicine, advocated rest, liquids, and various regimens of blistering, purging, and bleeding but not much more.[6] A particularly interesting remedy Virginian planter William Byrd II advocated included drinking large amounts of water “that had stood two days upon tar”.  These methods perhaps relieved symptoms but did little to prevent one from catching the disease.

Inoculation was the one way available to try and prevent smallpox.  A doctor took a bit of infected matter (i.e. pus from a pustule) from a person suffering from a mild case of smallpox and inserted it under the skin of a healthy patient.[7]  Theoretically, the newly infected patient would then develop a mild case of the infection and after recovery be immune to further breakouts.

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

Many physicians supported this new technique but inoculation had serious drawbacks.  One of the biggest was the mild case of smallpox in the newly infected patient could become a full-blown attack.  Additionally, people who were inoculated became carriers of the disease, capable of infecting individuals who had never had smallpox or who had not undergone inoculation.  This became a volatile issue because of a lack of understanding of population immunity and ineffective quarantine protocols.[8]

Anti-inoculation sentiments rose in Virginia after people recently inoculated returned to the community and outbreaks followed.  Full-scale riots and protests were seen in Norfolk County  and Williamsburg which led to petitions to ban inoculation. In 1769, Virginia prohibited inoculation unless specifically approved by the county courts.[9]

But how does smallpox and inoculation relate to George Washington, Virginia’s most famous son, and America’s fight for independence?

The connection began on November 2, 1751 when George Washington landed in Bridgetown, Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence. They had come from Virginia to the tropical island seeking relief for Lawrence’s tuberculosis.  Two weeks later, George wrote in his journal that he “was strongly attacked with the smallpox”.  He was confined to his sickbed for nearly a month being too ill to keep his daily journal.[10]  After his battle with smallpox, however, Washington became a major proponent of inoculation even though his support ran counter to most of his fellow Virginians.

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

With the Revolutionary War, smallpox increasingly became a deadly complication for the new United States in its fight for independence.  Where soldiers go plagues follow and when Washington took command of the Continental Army in summer of 1775 he wrote to the president of the Continental Congress that he had been, “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Smallpox” and he would “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy”.

Outbreaks were particularly common when there was a large buildup of troops in an area like during the Siege of Boston in 1774 or after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.[11]  Epidemics also broke out in Boston and Philadelphia in summer of 1776 and the attempt by American forces to take Quebec was greatly hindered by smallpox among the soldiers.

In the winter of 1777, Washington decided to have all troops and new recruits inoculated.  As stated in his letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., “finding the Small pox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated.  This Expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.  Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with it usual virulence we should have more to dread from it than the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington understood the great risk he was taking in instituting mass inoculation and effectively incapacitating large numbers of soldiers while they recovered.   The operation was kept secret and done during the winter in the hope that his forces would be healthy and ready to fight in the anticipated summer campaign. Despite some setbacks, Washington’s efforts to eliminate smallpox in the army were largely successful.  While the disease continued to affect soldiers, there were no further epidemic outbreaks among the troops.[12]

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown NHP

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, where the Continental Army quartered for the winter of 1776-77 and where a large portion of Washington’s troops were inoculated. Credit: National Park Service / Steve Santucci

George Washington’s insistence in these preventive health measures and his belief in the effectiveness of inoculation helped the Continental Army conquer smallpox and become a more reliable military force.  Additionally, the success of mass inoculation within the fledgling nation’s military helped encourage the civilian population to use these preventative measures. Inoculation began to gain popularity with Virginians and all of the American people.  So, young Washington’s trip to Barbados when he was nineteen was unsuccessful in helping his brother’s tuberculosis but it did end up giving him a greater appreciation for preventive medicine and the devastating power of epidemic disease.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “The Perpetual Challenge of Infectious Diseases”, Anthony S. Fauci and David M. Morens, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2 February 2012.

[2]  Kotar, S.L., and J.E. Gessler. Smallpox: A History. McFarland, 2013. pg 11

[3] The Seat of Death and Terror: Urbanization, Stunting, and Smallpox by Deborah Oxley, The Economic History Review, November 2003,  pg 5, 627

[4] Kotar, pg 4; Oxley, 628

[5] Kotar, 41

[6] Domestic Medicine, William Buchan, 1769

[7] Oxley, 629

[8] Kotar, 13

[9] Kotar, 41

[10] Kotar, 40

[11] Kotar, 42

[12] “Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War”, Ann M. Becker, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No 2. (Apr. 2004), pg. 424-430

When George Washington Almost Joined the British Royal Navy

Not long ago, we explored Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington and the influence that Lawrence Washington and his wartime service played in stoking George’s interest in military matters.

Lawrence fought with the British in the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the early 1740s and spent time aboard the flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon, who commanded British forces during the Battle of Cartegena de Indias.  Lawrence returned to Virginia with stories sure to spark his 10-year-old brother George’s imagination and desire for adventure.  Lawrence’s military service and George’s interest in military things had a fascinating, if perplexing, practical outcome when, late in 1746, Lawrence proposed for 14-year-old George to join the Royal Navy.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

This is a relatively little known and rather mysterious incident in the life of young George Washington.  Few documents survive that address the matter directly.  There are no documents written by George, Lawrence, or Mary Washington that reveal their actions or motivations in the matter.  The three letters that do address the incident were all written by secondary figures involved.

It all began in the fall of 1746 when Lawrence sent two letters — one each for George and Mary respectively – to Fredericksburg via Colonel William Fairfax.  George was to deliver Mary’s himself and keep the one to him a secret from her.  We do not know what either of these letters said.

What we do know is only what William Fairfax told Lawrence in a report dated September 9, 1746 and sent to Lawrence at Mount Vernon.  Fairfax wrote:

“The weather being so sultry, and being necessarily obliged to go about this town to collect several things wanted, I have not yet seen Mrs. Washington.  George has been with us, and says He will be steady and thankfully follow your Advice as his best Friend.  I gave him his Mother’s letter to deliver with Caution not to shew his.  I have spoke to Dr. Spencer who I find is often at the Widow’s and has some influence, to persuade her to think better of your advice in putting Him to Sea with good Recommendation.”[1]

The Dr. Spencer mentioned may have been William Spencer, who often was involved as a witness for land transfers to Lawrence.  The secretiveness of George hiding his letter from Mary and of Lawrence apparently enlisting his business partners to argue in favor of the proposal for George to go to sea emphasize the conspiratorial nature of Lawrence’s efforts.

It appears that, for a time, Lawrence’s manipulations may have worked.  On September 18, 1746, Robert Jackson, a Washington family friend, wrote to Lawrence that “I am afraid Mrs. Washington will not keep up to her first resolution.”  This seems to indicate that she wasn’t against the idea immediately but she did change her mind.  Jackson reported that Mary “seems to intimate a dislike to George’s going to Sea and says several Persons have told her it’s a very bad Scheme.”  He condescendingly dismisses her concerns as “trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers naturally suggest” and expresses frustration that “one word against [George’s] going has more weight than ten for it.”

Jackson noted that William Fairfax was inclined to visit Mary and, moreover, Jackson noted that he himself would “take an opportunity to talk with her and will let you knew her result.”[2]  While Jackson may have let Lawrence know the result, no document has been found to let us know the result of these specific discussions two centuries later.

Action Between Nottingham and Mars, 1746 by Samuel Scott

“Action Between Nottingham and Mars” (1746) by Samuel Scott depicts a British-French naval battle in October 1746 when the Washingtons were debating whether George should join the Royal Navy. Credit: Wikipedia/National Maritime Museum.

At some point, perhaps feeling outnumbered, Mary decided to solicit the advice of her brother Joseph Ball in England.  Dated May 19, 1747, his reply, which is a disdainful rejection of the entire proposal, is worth quoting at length.

“I understand that you are advised and have some thoughts of putting your son George to sea.  I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from ship to ship where he has fifty shillings a month, and make him take twenty-three, and cut and slash and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog.  And as to any considerable preferment in the navy, it is not to be expected, as there are so many gaping for it here who have interest, and he has none.  And if he should get to be master of a Virginia ship (which is very difficult to do), a planter who has three or four hundred acres of land, and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, many live more comfortably, and have his family in better bread than such a master of a ship can . . .  He must not be too hasty to be rich but go on gently and with patience as things will naturally go.  This method without aiming at being a fine gentleman before his time, will carry a man more comfortably and surely thought the world than going to sea, unless it be a great chance indeed.”[3]

Mary must have ultimately and definitely rejected Lawrence’s plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George, of course, did not pursue a career at sea but turned to surveying instead.

Like many incidents in young George Washington’s life, the historical record is elusive and often raises more questions than it answers.  What prompted Lawrence to make the suggestion in the first place?  What were George’s views on the proposal and the debate?  What were Mary’s specific objections?  None of these questions may ever be answered.  Of course, the greatest question raised by the incident is the also unknowable counterfactual one.  Would history have unfolded differently if the man who was supposed to have been the commander of the Continental Army ended up spending his life on the King’s ships?

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] William Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, September 9, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 238, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[2] Robert Jackson to Lawrence Washington, September 18, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 239-40, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[3] Joseph Ball to Mary Washington, May 19, 1747 quoted in Marion Harland’s The Story of Mary Washington, New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1893: 79-80 available at https://archive.org/details/storyofmarywashi00harl [accessed August 26, 2017].