Tuesday, March 12, 2019

George Washington: Death of a Child


George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759.  He was 26, she was 27.  Washington suddenly found himself responsible for a ready-made family.  Martha Parke “Patsy” Custis aged two, and John Parke “Jackie” Custis aged four.  In addition to the normal duties of a father in terms of providing love, warmth, and sympathy, George Washington was also charged with being the administrator of the children’s business affairs, which were not inconsiderable, considering that their late father, Daniel Parke Custis was perhaps the wealthiest man in Virginia.  Martha Washington, herself, was required to relinquish her rights in the dower share of her late husband’s estate to the management of her new husband (If unmarried, Martha would have received 1/3 of Daniel’s Parke Custis’ estate for her use and maintenance during her lifetime.  As it was the use of this money was left to the decisions of her new husband, George Washington). By all accounts George Washington was not only a loving husband and step father, but a conscientious guardian of the property rights of both his wife and her children. 

The stage was set for familial peace and tranquility, but fate took a hand.  By the time Patsy was eleven, she was plagued with seizures. Patsy was afflicted with epilepsy. The progression of Patsy’s epilepsy can be traced in George Washington’s diaries but only with difficulty.  Washington’s diary entries are sparse, and never betray his inner emotions, which were under tight control.

George and Martha Washington were willing to try almost anything, even improbable folk remedies. The distraught parents relied, mainly, on conventional 18th-century medical treatments for epilepsy.  This was doomed from the start.  In colonial times, most physicians were either self-trained or trained by another physician.  No medical college existed in the colonies before the Revolution.  Lack of knowledge of the causes and cures of most diseases, effective medicines and pain-killers, and instruments such as the thermometer and stethoscope handicapped colonial doctors. The doctor's principal role was to provide comfort and support, set broken bones, and prescribe herbal remedies.  Theories of medicine at the time were based on the notion that disease was caused by an imbalance in bodily "humors," or fluids. The practice of bloodletting for almost any disease was universal.  Doctors also employed emetics, diuretics and leeches.  The cures often killed the patient more quickly than did the disease.

The Washingtons consulted with numerous doctors to no avail.  Patsy's seizures increased. George Washington kept a log of these episodes.  During an eighty-six day period, Patsy had seizures on twenty-six days.

Around four in the afternoon on June 19, 1773, after everyone had finished dinner, Patsy (aged 17) and a girl friend were talking quietly. Patsy went to her room to retrieve a letter. Hearing a strange noise coming from Patsy's room, her friend found Patsy in the throes of a life-threatening seizure.
Martha Washington was frantic.  George Washington knelt beside his beloved step daughter he had raised from infancy with tears running down his cheeks.  She was dead within two minutes.

In a letter to his brother-in-law written the following day, George Washington relayed the news that Patsy, described as his "Sweet Innocent Girl," had been buried earlier in the day and that the situation had “… reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery.”

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

A quick look at murder most foul in the Virginia of colonial times and the early Republic. Behind the facade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets evil lurks.

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