It’s December 14, 1799, and in a candle-lit chamber in Mount Vernon, Virginia, a group huddles around George Washington’s bedside. Bloodstained instruments have been used to slice open the former president’s body, meaning his skin is now demarcated with scores of crimson lines. And the stench of sickness lies heavy in the air as doctors debate the cause of their charge’s mysterious illness in hushed voices. Their efforts are in vain, though: Washington won’t see out the night.
But how did America’s first president find himself in this dire position? Well, December 12 – just two days before his death – began like any other. Washington had left office several years earlier, and he now devoted his time to running his sizable estate of Mount Vernon. And as you may expect, overseeing hundreds of slaves and thousands of acres of land was no easy task. So, as was his custom, the former leader set out to survey his land on horseback.