Lot 24
  • 24

(Washington, George) Tobias Lear

50,000 - 70,000 USD
81,250 USD
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  • (Washington, George) Tobias Lear
  • Autograph letter signed ("Tobias Lear") to Col. Burgess Ball, providing a first-hand account of the final illness and death of George Washington
  • ink on paper; paper stock
1 1/4 pages (9 x 7 5/8 in.; 230 x 195 mm), Mount Vernon, 15 December 1799, integral address leaf; address leaf detached and mounted on heavier wove paper stock and hinged to letter, letter expertly silked. Matted and framed with a transcription of the letter and images of Lear and Washington's deathbed.


The James S. Copley Library (Sotheby's, 15 October 2010, lot 635)

Catalogue Note

The final hours and death of George Washington, as told by his faithful secretary and companion, Tobias Lear. He writes Col. Burgess Ball, who was married to one of Washington's nieces, Frances, "Alas, he is no more! These hands performed the last act of friendship to that greatest good man, between ten and eleven o'clock last night. He expired after a brief illness of about twenty hours." Lear is our principal source of information on the death of Washington. On Thursday morning, 12 December, Washington set out for a tour of his plantation. He had not been out long when a change in the weather first brought snow, then sleet, followed by a cold, steady rain that turned back to snow before he had completed his circuit. By the time he reached home, he had been out in the raw weather for more than five hours.

"On Friday he complained of a cold; but gave himself little trouble about it. On Saturday morning he became ill." Washington developed a hoarse throat along with the cold but refused all remedies, preferring instead for the cold to run its own course. In spite of the hoarseness, he read aloud to the family from the latest newspapers and gazettes. Sometime in the middle of the night, Washington awoke and told Martha he was ill.  His breathing was labored and he could barely speak.  Yet fearful Martha would herself catch a dangerous cold, he insisted she  stay in bed rather than venture out into the chilled hallways to seek help. Instead they waited until a servant came to light the morning fire at about 7 a.m. Washington's friend and personal physician, Dr. James Craik, was immediately summoned.

"Doctor Craik was sent for. The symptoms appeared alarming, an inflammation having taken place in his throat, which terminated in the disorder called the quincy. — Doctor Dick of Alex[andria] and Doctor Brown of Port Tobacco were called in, and every medical aid used; but in vain."  Repeated applications of poultices, inhalants, and blisterings were administered. At Washington's request, several bleedings were performed; some were extremely painful as a scarificator (a spring-loaded device filled with several small blades designed to cut into blood vessels just below the skin) was employed. The frequent bleedings drew three quarts of blood and likely hastened Washington's death.

The attending physicians had diagnosed Washington with "inflammatory quinsy" (i.e., acute tonsilitis) but doctors today believe Washington was afflicted with an acute streptococchal infection of the larynx, which caused a painful swelling of the interior of the larynx resulting in suffocation. A tracheostomy probably would have saved his life, and indeed one was suggested by the youngest doctor in attendance, Elisha Dick, but the technique was considered unsafe by the elder physicians.

"He bore his distress with astonishing fortitude, he resigned his breath with the greatest composure, having the full possession of his reason to the last moment." As the clock struck ten, Lear saw that Washington wanted him to approach. In a broken voice he said: "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead." Washington looked at Lear directly and said: "Do you understand me." Lear answered "Yes, sir."  Washington's last words were "'Tis well," and he expired while taking his own pulse. Lear took the hand and clasped it to his breast while Dr. Craik laid his hands over Washington's eyes. When Martha realized that her husband had died, she repeated his very last words, adding "All is now over. I have no more trials to pass through. I shall soon follow him." In his letter to Ball, Lear remarked: "Mrs. Washington bore the afflicting stroke with a pious resignation and fortitude which shew that her hopes were placed beyond this life."

The next morning, Lear began penning letters to Washington's executors, neighbors, friends, and family members whom Martha wished to be informed of the funeral arrangements. This letter is one of only three of these missives to appear at auction since 1925.