The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Today, August 25th, marks the 227th anniversary of the death of George Washington’s mother, Mary. Mary lived to be 82 years old, and suffered from breast cancer during her final years.
Few biographers have been neutral in their treatment of Mother Washington, a woman of great significance in George’s life. Some writers have offered overly sentimental descriptions of this matron, whereas others have been critical, and even harsh in their evaluation of her role as George’s mother.
Mary Ball married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731. Their marriage produced six children: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred. When Augustine died twelve years later, a significant portion of the family’s property went to Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage. Mary raised their five surviving children at their Ferry Farm home, keeping the family together. In 1772, at the insistence of her children, an aging Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Betty.
In the summer of 1789, Mother Washington’s health was rapidly deteriorating. Betty wrote to her older brother George,
“I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad. …she is sensible of it and is perfectly resigned… …the doctors think if they could get some hemlock it would be of service to her breast.”
19th-century illustration of hemlock or Conium maculatum (from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant that “affects the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle and causes death through respiratory failure,” was a traditional treatment for breast cancer in the early 1700s. Although doctors in England had largely abandoned this treatment by the late 1780s, when Mary Washington was suffering from this disease, it is evident that local doctors were not up-to-date on the most recent treatments.
It seems likely that hemlock was indeed administered to Mary. Burgess Ball wrote to George on the 25th of August, 1789:
“The Cause of her dissolution (I believe) was the Cancer on her breast, but for about 15 days she has been deprived of her speech and for the five last days she has remained in a sleep.”
These symptoms that Mary experienced in her final days, such as loss of speech and prolonged unconsciousness, seem consistent with hemlock poisoning, which attacks the nervous system and can cause comas. Side effects include loss of speech (Steger 1972:71; http://www.webmd.com/).
George publically recognized his mother’s role in his life at a 1784 event where he addressed the citizens of Fredericksburg, when he referred to her, “…by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led to Manhood”.
After his mother’s death, himself recovering from surgery to his left thigh (Abbot et al. 1992b, pp. 75-77), George consoled his grieving sister Betty Washington Lewis in a letter dated September 13, 1789:
“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score. Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator….”
On August 28th, Betty Lewis and her children buried Mary Washington near a rock outcropping known today as “meditation rock” (Hetzel 1903:5). The letter conveying the news of her death had still not reached her son George (Hetzel 1903:1), preventing him from attending the ceremony (cf. Rejai and Phillips 2000:15). The burial site was part of the Lewis family’s Fredericksburg plantation. This was a favorite spot of Mary’s, to sit, read the Bible, and spend time with her grandchildren.
For some time, Mary’s grave had no permanent marker. An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon stirred concerned local residents into action (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 21) and an effort was begun to place a marker on Mary’s final resting place in 1826. While a cornerstone for a marker was laid in 1833, construction failed to materialize a suitable memorial before 1893 when the Mary Washington Memorial Association brought this effort to fruition (NRHP 2002 Section 7 p. 16, Section 8, pp. 22, 27). In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, as well as his Vice President, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, a senator from Virginia, and thousands of citizens attended the dedication of the completed memorial (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 28).
This Saturday, August 27th, you can commemorate Mary Washington’s death with the Washington Heritage Museums at the grave of Mary Washington. A reception (cost $10) at the Mary Washington House on Charles Street follows. For event details, visit washingtonheritagemuseums.org.
Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
Abbot, W. W., Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Beverly H. Runge, Beverly S. Kirsch, and Debra B. Kessler
1992 The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Volume 1. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.
Hetzel, Susan Riviere
1903 The Building of a Monument Press of Wickersham Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
2002 National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District,
http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Fredericksburg/1115262_Washington_Avenue_HD_2002_Final_Nomination.pdf (accessed August 11, 2016).
Rejai, Mostafa and Kay Phillips
2000 The Young George Washington in Phychobiographical Perspective. The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, New York.
Steger, Robert E.
1972 Native Plants Poisonous to Humans. Journal of Range Management 25(1):71-72.