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Washington's Mount Vernon - Sidebar: December '99 American History

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1999 
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Washington's Mount Vernon

As Mount Vernon honors the bicentennial of George Washington's death this year, his plantation looks very much alive. Historic interpreters–some dressed in mourning clothes, others in work garb–wander through the property, engaging twentieth-century folk in dialogues about "the master's passing." Inside the white, columned manor house, fake bloody rags and wrinkled bedclothes in the main bedchamber re-create the scene from December 14, 1799, the day Washington died.

His death spurred an outpouring of grief on a national scale. The first president of the United States, and a man who refused to be crowned king of the colonies, achieved the status of demi-god in death. "George Washington . . . like Joshua of Old, commanded the sun and the moon to stand still, and they obeyed him," reflected Benjamin Franklin with a bit of hyperbole. Mount Vernon hopes to attract a similar amount of attention with tours, exhibits, and a re-creation of Washington's December 18 funeral, scheduled to be broadcast on the cable outlet C-SPAN.

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Does this focus on death depress visitors? Far from it, says Sally McDonough of Mount Vernon's public relations office. "We were fearful of pushing the envelope," she says, "but people are interested in death and mourning rituals. These bicentennial programs have been some of our most popular."

To re-create that fateful day, visitors begin with the multi-media show, "Washington is No More," which takes place inside a reconstructed greenhouse decked in crepe and dimly lit by faux candles. The 10-minute video, audio, and 3-D imagery show comes across as part History Channel and part Disney World. Based on the account of Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary, it recalls Martha Washington's deathbed vigil, the doctors' efforts to save her husband, and the subsequent funeral. Lear–reanimated as a spooky talking portrait via computer technology–remembers, "Yesterday we laid the General's body in the coffin and I beheld for the last time that face which shall be seen no more here." Meanwhile, through a scrim, the audience glimpses a coffin in the dining room.

Funeral procession tours (daily at 10:30, 12:30, and 2:30) are led by a guide, who explains how three doctors attempted to save Washington with "a mixture of molasses and vinegar and butter" and four bleedings, administered with a pocketknife-like tool (displayed in facsimile). But these efforts were in vain, the guide says, as she leads people to the old tomb, where Washington was interred on December 18. A brass key opens the door to the brick mausoleum, which is dark and empty. Shortly before his sudden death, Washington had requested a new family tomb be built down the hill. He was reinterred there in 1831. Tours conclude at the second tomb, where volunteers lay a wreath on Washington's sarcophagus and read elegies, such as an anonymous schoolgirl's 1800 lament, "Frail things shall pass, thy name shall never die. Rescued from fate by immortality."

Thanks to 100 new and different artifacts–many of them Washington's personal possessions–the mansion also feels very 1799 in 1999. Washington's study spills over with muskets, maps, and an early copy press, while his Chippendale-style chair, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, helps set the deathbed scene. "The mansion looks more authentic than ever," says Michael C. Quinn, Mount Vernon's deputy director for programs.

A new Mount Vernon Museum displays artifacts linked to the last 10 years of Washington's life. Highlights include an inlaid desk he used, Martha's mourning ring (with a lock of her husband's hair), and a recently restored 1785 bust of the late president by Jean Antoine Houdon. Personal items–his silver spurs, glasses that held his beloved Madeira–recall Washington the man.

Events in late 1999 include Revolutionary War-flavored Veterans Day activities on November 11 and "George Washington's Final Hours" held December 11 through 14. The bicentennial culminates in the re-creation of Washington's funeral on December 18. Using historic records, including the Freemasons' account of the last rites, Mount Vernon will display a mahogany coffin in the large dining room, where visitors can pay their last respects from December 15 to 17. The following day, 200 mourners, including descendants of Mount Vernon slaves, Freemasons, and cavalry members in period dress, will march the coffin to the old tomb. Tourists are invited to join the procession.

Mount Vernon wants these programs to ignite interest in the long-dead patriot. "When Washington died, it rippled across the nation," says Quinn. "While it was a sad time, it also caused a great appreciation of his legacy. That's what we are trying to do, celebrate George Washington."

Jennifer Barger

VISITOR INFORMATION Mount Vernon is located 16 miles south of Washington, D.C., via the George Washington Memorial Parkway. There is an admission charge. For opening hours and more information, call (703) 780-2000 or visit www.gwashington1999.org. [ Top ] [ Cover]



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