Mount Vernon – Death Chamber Sealed

AFTER the General’s death Mrs. Washington, following a custom then prevalent, closed his bed-chamber and moved into another. She chose the room at the south end of the third floor, directly over the one she had occupied with the General, because from its solitary dormer window she could see her husband’s tomb. She continued to occupy this room as long as she lived.

In the afternoon of his last day the General called his wife to his bedside and asked her to go below to his library and from his desk there bring his two wills. This she did, He examined them, declared one of them to be superseded by the other, and requested her to burn the earlier, which she did.

The destroyed will was probably the one drawn for Washington by his attorney, Edmund Pendleton, in Philadelphia, when he was commissioned Commander­in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army. In his letter to Mrs. Washington, telling her of the new military career he had then entered upon, he said ;

“As life is always uncertain, and common prudence dictates to every man the necessity of settling his temporal concerns, while it is in his power, and while the mind is calm and undisturbed, I have, since I came to this place (for I had not time to do it before I left home) got Colonel Pendleton to draft a will for me, by the directions I gave him, which will I now enclose. The pro-vision made for you in case of my death, will, I hope, be agreeable.”

This was, in fact, probably the second will Washington had made at the time he caused it to be drawn. When in the late fifties he left for the western campaign and put John Augustine Washington in charge of his estate, he told his brother that if he fell in the war he would leave Mount Vernon to him. Washington was too methodical and thorough a man not to have embodied such a promise in a will, and no doubt he made his first will at this time.

The document which he finally ordered preserved, and by which the future proprietorship of Mount Vernon and of its furnishings and belongings was determined, was com­pleted by him July 9, 1799. The concluding paragraph discloses four points of interest: he prepared the will without legal advice, he provided for arbitration in case of dispute, he omitted the final ” 9 ” in the dating, and he signed it without witnesses.

He bequeathed the whole of his Mount Vernon estate, real and personal, to his wife “for the term of her natural life.” He gave her and her heirs “forever all the household furniture of every kind, except that otherwise disposed of. To his nephew Bushrod Washington, who had risen to the distinction of a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, he gave his library and all his papers relating to his civil and military ad-ministration of the affairs of the country. He directed the return of the Wallace Oak Box to the Earl of Buchan. The crabtree walking-stick with the gold head, which Benjamin Franklin bequeathed to him, he gave to his brother Charles Washington. Two other gold-headed canes engraved with the Washington arms, and two spyglasses used during the war, he gave “the friends and acquaintances of my juvenile years, Lawrence Washington and Robert Washington of Cho-. tanck,” to his “compatriot in arms and old and intimate friend,” Doctor Craik, he gave his writing desk and chair; to Doctor David Stuart, his telescope and large shaving and dressing table; to Bryan Fairfax, a Bible in three large volumes; to General de LaFayette, “a pair of finely wrought steel pistols taken from the enemy in the Revolutionary war”; to Tobias Lear, the use, rent free, during the remainder of his life, of the farm where he lived about four miles east of Mount Vernon mansion; and, finally, “To each of my nephews William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington and Samuel Wash­ington, I give one of the swords or cutteaux of which I may die possessed, and they are to chuse in the order they are named: These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood except it be for self-defence, or in defence of their Country and it’s rights, and in the latter case to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands to the relinquishment thereof.”

A natural pendant to the will of General Washington and of the most valued evidence in realizing the char­acter of the furnishings of the mansion during his life-time, is the inventory of his personal effects made by those charged with their final appraisement. If it makes no mention of some objects otherwise known to have been in the house, it does place many valuable and curious things in the rooms where Washington and his guests were accustomed to see them.

In the large room in the north end, variously styled the New Room, the New Dining Room and the Banquet Room—were twenty-seven mahogany chairs, two side-boards, and large looking-glasses, four silver-plated lamps, on each sideboard, “an Image and China flower Pot,” two “Elegant Lustres,” two candlestands, and two “Fire Skreens.” On the walls hung the ornately framed engraving of Louis XVI sent by that monarch to the General, “2 large Gilt frame Pictures represent­ing falls of Rivers, 4 do. representing water Courses, 1 do. Small ‘Likeness of Gen. W —n,’ 4 Small Prints (1 under each lamp), 1 Painting `Moonlight,’ 2 Prints ‘Death of Montgomery,’ 2. do. ‘Battles of Bunker Hill,’ 2 do ‘Dead Soldier,’ 1 likeness ‘Saint John, and 1 do Virgin Mary.’

In the little parlor on the east front were a looking-glass, a tea table, a settee, ten Windsor chairs, a “Likeness of Gen’. Washington in an Ovolo frame, do. LaFayette, do. Dr. Franklin”; prints representing Storms at Sea, the naval battle between the Bon Homme Richard and the Seraphis, “the distressed situa­tion of the Quebec &c.,” the whale fishery at Davies Streights, another of the Greenland Streights, and nine gilt frames containing “the likenesses of a Deer,” “Painted likeness of an Alloe,” “wrought work contg, chickens in a basket,” and six other different paintings.

In the front or west parlor were eleven mahogany chairs, a tea table, a “Sopha, 1 Elegant looking-glass,” three lamps and two mirrors, five china flower pots, three portraits of the General, two of Mrs. Washington, other portraits of Mr. Law, Mrs. Lear, George Washington LaFayette, Nellie Custis, John and Martha Custis as children, Martha when grown, and one of LaFayette and his family, all in gilt frames.

Apart from the tea table, “2 dining tables,” a mahog­any sideboard, an Ovolo looking-glass, “1 large case” and “2 knife cases,’ and ten mahogany chairs, the Dining Room contained “1 large gilt frame print the death of the Earl of Chatham, i do. Genl. Woolfe, 1 do. Penns Treaty with Indians, 1 do. David Rittenhouse, 1 do Dr Franklin, 1 do Gen’ Washington, 1 do Gen’l Greene, 1 do America, 1 do Gent. Fayette on Closusion ‘Conclusion?] of the late war, 1 do Gen’. Wayne, i do the Washington family of Mount Vernon, 1 do Alfred visit­ing his noblemen, and 1 do do dividing his loaf with the Pilgrim.”

The room opposite the East Parlor was furnished as a bedroom with bedstead, small table, looking-glass, and four mahogany or walnut chairs. In a gilt frame on the wall hung “a battle fought ‘by Cavalry.”

There were fourteen mahogany chairs in the Passage, or Central Hall, an “Image” over the door into each of the four adjoining rooms, a “Spye Glass” through which the General and his guests observed the life on the Potomac, a thermometer which may have been the one recommended by “Doctor Priestly or Mr. Madison,” the “Key of the Bastille with its Representation,” and prints of Diana deceived by Venus, Dancing Shepherds, Morning, Evening, the River Po, Constantine’s Arch, and the General himself. Along the wall of the stairway ascending to the second floor were other prints of Musical Shepherds, Moonlight, Thunderstorm, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Death of Montgomery. In the upper passage a looking-glass is the sole object enumerated.

The details of one bedroom, the General’s, will serve for all: “Bed, Bedstead & Curtains,” a looking-glass which was the least expensive in the house, dressing table, one writing table and chair, an easy chair, two other mahogany chairs, the only clock listed in the in­ventory, a chest of drawers, six paintings of the members of Mrs. Washington’s family, five small drawings, pictures of the Countess of Huntington, General Knox, “A Parson,” and five other small pictures. In the adjoining “closet were one mahogany and two leather trunks and a washbasin valued at fifty cents.

There were carpets in all the rooms, likewise “Irons, Shovel, Tongs and Fender.” In the passage outside the General’s room there were “3 Pictures nailed to the house.” In the “Garret” the inventory accounts for “two furnished bedrooms and the Lumber Rooms,” in which were furniture, trunks, chests, pictures, fire screens, a side saddle, books, a warming pan, “2 Surveyors Machines,” and “2 sets Platteaux” valued at one hundred dollars, probably the mirrors for the state dining table.

Among the interesting objects in the Study or Lbrary were the General’s Tambour secretary and its circular desk chair, two copying presses, numerous pistols, “7 Swords & 1 blade, 4 canes, 7 guns, 11 Spye Glasses, Trumbuls Prints, 1 Case Surveyors ln-strumts’., 1 Traveling Ink Case, 1 Globe, 1 Chest of Tools, 1 Compass staff, 1 Case Dentists Instrumts.,

Setts money weights, 1 Telescope, 1 Box Paints,” Houdon’s bust of the General, a plaster profile, two seals with ivory handles, his Masonic emblems, addi­tional surveying instruments, some Indian presents, and an iron chest containing securities, jewelry, medals, and a variety of other things, including a portrait of Lawrence Washington.

The inventory contains a list of the books in Wash­ington’s library, but it is full of inaccuracies. More-over, it does not furnish satisfactory material for a study of Washington’s taste in reading, for the books represent his selection only in part. Many were gifts, and some he subscribed to for various motives other than original interest in the subject matter. The list includes about eight hundred titles. It is interesting to observe that the books on all other than agricultural topics were in the cases behind glass. The books on farm­ing, however, were “on the table,” where the General could reach them handily. This subject formed the principal and almost the only topic of his reading.

Washington’s letters to Lear disclosed the parlor as having been furnished in blue. An investigation* of the walls and woodwork of the passage and the upper rooms, made in 1897, revealed other interesting facts about the interior color scheme of the house. The side- wall panels, the ceiling, and the stair-skirting were a delicate French gray, almost a robin-egg blue. The doors, trim, door-heads, chair rail, washboard, windows, stair-skirting battons, and cornice were painted ivory white with a china gloss finish.

The wall of the stairway leading to the second floor was made of “a buff or yellow mortar,” in some places white coated. The walls of the river bedroom on the north side of the upper hall were originally gray with mantel and other woodwork in white, which was also the color treatment of the bedroom over the family dining-room. The walls of the General’s bedroom were gray, the mantel was white, the washboard was stained and varnished.

After the General’s death Mrs. Washington found herself confronted with a problem in the slaves on the estate. They gave the gravest concern. Washington would gladly have freed his slaves, but the situation was complicated by their intermarriage with the dower slaves whom he could not free. They came to Mount Vernon by his marriage with the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, to whose heirs they reverted by law. Regarding his slaves his will said:

“Upon the decease of wife it is my will and desire, that all the slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom—To emancipate them during her life, would tho earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties, on account of their inter-mixture by marriages with the Dower negroes as to excite the most painful sensations,—if not disagreeable consequences from the latter while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same proprietor, it not being in my power under the tenure by which the dower Negroes are held to manumit them And whereas among those who will receive freedom accord­ing to this devise there may be some who from old age, or bodily infirmities & others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves, it is my will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably clothed and fed by my heirs while they live and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court . . . taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation.”

Mrs. Washington’s grandson, and a member of the family at the time, says in his memoirs that “the slaves were left to be emancipated at the death of Mrs. Washington; but it was found necessary (for prudential reasons) to give them their freedom in one year after the General’s decease.” Some light may be thrown on this statement by the remarks of Edward Everett Hale, who in his eightieth year, in 1902, said:

“I have been assured by gentlemen who lived in northern Virginia that the universal impression there was that the slaves of the Washington plantation hurried Martha Washington’s death because their own liberty was secured by Washington’s will after her death. I do not believe that this bad statement can be authenticated, but there is no doubt, I believe, that Madison made a similar will liberating his slaves after Mrs. Madison’s death and that he changed his will on account of this rumor with regard to the Washington slaves.”

Martha Washington spent the remaining days of her life quietly at the mansion surrounded by her grand-children and great-grandchildren. Among the latter was a second daughter, christened Angela, born to Lawrence and Nellie Lewis at Mount Vernon in 1801. The days of gayety had passed. There was, however, a constant stream of visitors who came to view the scenes of Washington’s domestic life and to lay their homage at his tomb; among them President Adams himself, who journeyed thither from Philadelphia.

When Mrs. Washington, who sat at the foot of her husband’s bed, was told that he was no more, she said in a plain voice: “‘Tis well. All is over now. I have no more trials to pass through. I shall soon follow him.” These prophetic words were realized a little more than two years later. In the early days of May, 1802, she was prostrated by a fever. She soon anticipated her end, took the sacrament from Mr. Davis, “sent for a white gown, which she had previously laid by for her last dress,” and passed away on the 22d day of the month. The wooden door she had ordered for the tomb now swung aside for her, and she was laid to rest by the side of the great man whose partner she had been for forty years.

Martha’s death terminated her life interest in Mount Vernon. There now came into effect the clause in the General’s will which bequeathed the main tract of more than four thousand acres between Dogue Creek and Little Hunting Creek, “together with the Mansion House and all other buildings and improvements thereon,” to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, son of John Augustine Washington, “partly in consideration of an intimation to his deceased father, while we were bachelors and he had kindly undertaken to superintend my estate, during my military services in the former war between Great Britain and France, that if I should fall therein, Mount Vernon . . . should become his property.”

The River Farm, that tract of two thousand and twenty-seven acres lying east of Little Hunting Creek, Washington bequeathed to the two sons of George Augustine Washington. The land included the farm of three hundred and sixty acres the use of which the General gave Tobias Lear for the latter’s lifetime. To Lawrence Lewis he gave two thousand acres on the northwest side of the estate.

There is a tradition that this disposition of Mount Vernon was a disappointment to Mrs. Washington, Nellie Custis, and her husband, Lawrence Lewis. Nellie had more than once indicated to him, the General said, that she and her husband would like “to settle in this neighborhood.” Accordingly he wrote the newly married Lawrence that the two thousand acres off the northwest portion of his estate would become his under the will. It may be tradition errs in ascrib­ing disappointment to Mrs. Washington and her grand-daughter at the bequest of the Mount Vernon mansion. It may be that there was normal harmony between the General’s relatives and his wife’s relatives, but in the light of this tradition an apparent significance attaches to the noticeable infrequency of the visits of Washington’s next of kin to Mount Vernon, except on business, during Mrs. Washington’s lifetime, and to the fact that not a single blood relative of Washington stood at his tomb when he was placed within.

By Lear’s own account Mr. Law, Mr. Peter, and Dr. Stuart were notified by courier the evening the General died. Next day Lear enclosed notices to Judge Bushrod Washington and Colonel William Washington, under cover to Colonel Blackburn, “desiring him to forward them by express.” A slave, Car, was dispatched to New Kent to notify G. W. P. Custis and Lawrence Lewis. A letter was sent to the post-office to John Lewis, “desiring him to give information to his brothers George, Robert & Howell, & to Capt. Sam’l Washington.” No other relatives were notified. The information sent in this way could not have found any of these except the first three in time for them to reach Mount Vernon for the funeral, which was fixed for the fourth day after the General’s death.

Judge Bushrod Washington came to Mrs. Washington’s funeral, but tradition says that Lawrence and Nellie Lewis did not invite him to remain for refreshment, and before leaving his estate he asked a slave to prepare dinner for him, which he ate in a cabin. It has long been said in the neighborhood that when Lawrence Lewis settled at Woodlawn, the mansion he built on the tract his uncle bequeathed him, the relations between that house and Mount Vernon were visibly strained.

The General, by his will, gavé his widow a life interest in Mount Vernon and in everything that pertained to it. The only bequest that he made to “her and her heirs forever” was that of “the household and kitchen furniture of every sort and kind with the liquors and groceries which may be on hand at the time of my decease, to be used and disposed of as she may think proper.” Mrs. Washington, during her widowhood, made frequent gifts to her relatives of objects from the mansion.

By her will she gave to her grandson, G. W. P. Custis, “all the silver plate of every kind, together with the two large plated coolers, the four small plated coolers with the bottle castors, a pipe of wine if there be one in the house at the time of my death—also the set of Cincinnati tea and table china, the bowl that has a ship in it, the fine old china jars which usually stand on thechimney piece in the new room: also all the family pictures of every sort and the pictures painted by his sister, and two small skreens worked by his sister and the other a present from Miss Kitty Brown—also his

choice of prints—also the two girandoles and lustres that stand on them—also the new bedstead which I caused to be made in Philadelphia together with the bed, matrass bolsters and pillows and the white dimity curtains belonging thereto: also two other beds with bolsters and pillows and the white dimity window curtains in the new room—also the iron chest and the desk in my closet which belonged to my first husband; also all my books of every kind except the large bible and prayer book, also the set of tea china that was given me by Mr. Van Braam every piece having M W on it.”

To Nellie Custis Lewis she gave “the large looking glass in the front Parlour and any other looking glass which she may choose—Also one of the new side board tables in the new room—also twelve chairs with green bottoms to be selected by herself also the marble table in the garret, also the two prints of the dead soldier, a print of the Washington family in a box in the Garret and the great chair standing in my chamber; also all the plated ware not herein otherwise bequeathed—” and many other domestic articles.

To her two other grandchildren she gave,-“my writing table and the seat to it standing in my chamber, also the print of Geni. Washington that hangs in the passage” to Mrs. Peter,-“the dressing table and glass that stands in the chamber called the yellow room, and Geni. Washington’s picture painted by Trumbull” to Mrs. Law. “All the wine in bottles in the vaults” was ordered “equally divided between” her granddaughters and her grandson.

Everything else in the mansion not specified in her will was ordered to be sold by the executors “for ready money” for the education of three of her nephews. This sale took place July 20, 1802. Relatives of Gen­eral Washington were extensive purchasers, and it was in this way that they obtained such relics of Mount Vernon as they afterward possessed.

When Bushrod Washington moved into the mansion he found it dismantled of all its objects which he did not buy in at the sale. No, there was one object which escaped bequest as well as sale. It had excited no one’s interest. By some irony of fate this object was the sole and only portrait of the man who, in the uncertainty which surrounds the fact, is generally believed to have built Mount Vernon house, who bequeathed it to his much-loved young brother George, and was thereby the indirect instrument of its great fame. It is not a great work of art, but it has found appreciation since, and is now treasured by another Lawrence Washington, great-great-grandnephew of this one.