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Encounters 19, The Widow Washington

March 13, 2017

In late November, 1799, Nelly gave birth to a daughter, Frances Parke Lewis, at Mount Vernon, all the women gathered around her as was the custom… like cheerleaders at a game. Birthing was no game, but I’m sure the support was welcomed. The birth was difficult, and Nelly was ordered to stay in bed until she was fully recovered. Meanwhile, probably feeling useless, her husband and brother rode off to look after some property they planned to expand.

The winter was exceptionally cold and wet, but George rode around the plantation every day. On December 12 he returned from his ride wet and shivering, but he did not change his damp clothes before dinner. A cold the next day did not deter him from going out again, and in the middle of the night he experienced difficulty breathing. The next morning Martha called for a doctor, soon joined by two others. They fired all their weapons; bleeding, purging, blistering, vomiting, and leeches. To no avail, for the infection gradually closed the windpipe. Martha sat beside him. On December 14th he stopped breathing. Martha was too filled with grief to cry.

Family members gathered at Mount Vernon. Two hundred soldiers from the Virginia militia came from Alexandria, accompanied by a military band. Neighbors and friends arrived in carriages and on horseback. Martha did not take part in the farewell to her husband: she was desolate and inconsolable.

The nation mourned. Church bells tolled. A memorial service was held in Philadelphia, attended by 4,000 people. There “Lighthorse” Harry Lee delivered the eulogy, claiming “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Eventually the guests left, the correspondence was answered and still more arrived. The will was read. George had provided for his widow and bestowed the estate throughout the family. He had freed 123 slaves, and Martha freed those she could. They both had come to realize slavery was a huge problem in the country.

Martha’s light had been extinguished, but she carried on. In May 1802 she became ill with a “stomach upset” called “bilious fever,” and shortly before her 71st birthday, she passed away. “Fortitude and resignation were displayed throughout her illness,” and “she met her death as a relief from the infirmities and melancholy of old age,”said Nelly’s husband, Thomas Law. She was placed in the family tomb at the side of her husband, “a worthy partner to one of the worthiest of men.”

Stay tuned for the conclusion to An Encounter with Martha Washington, the 1sr First Lady.



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