William Bodkin tells us the fascinating story of William Thornton, the man who wanted to resurrect George Washington after his death.

 

Humanity has often exhibited a desire to exalt the great individuals of an age; indeed, the study of history itself often lends itself to not just the memorialization of these men and women, but their continued veneration after their time on earth. Occasionally, this veneration takes on a desire to keep the person’s physical body present with us. For example, the newly canonized Pope John XXIII lies in state at the Vatican for pilgrims to visit. At the other end of the spectrum, Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Russian Soviet Federative Republic and then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, lies still in his mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. And following the death of George Washington, first President of the United States of America, one individual had quite a different plan; not to have the great general and widely hailed ‘Father’ of the United States lie in perpetual state, but to bring him back from the dead.

 Washington on his Deathbed by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851.

Washington on his Deathbed by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851.

William Thornton was a medical doctor, schooled at the University of Edinburgh. Not content with this simple profession, he was also an inventor, painter, and architect (though he lacked formal training in the latter). He designed the United States Capitol building, served as the first ‘Architect of the Capitol’ and the First Superintendent of the United State Patent Office.[1] Often described as an authentic ‘polymath’, he was a Renaissance man of the American Enlightenment.

 

WASHINGTON AND BEING BURIED ALIVE

Thornton shared with many of the time the preoccupation with the dangers of being buried alive, or with people returning from what seemed an all but conclusive death. In his youth in Britain, Thornton had been a member of the “Royal Humane Society,” which despite its familiar name, was devoted not to the protection of animals, but was rather a group organized and devoted to preventing human drownings and to attempt to resuscitate the newly or near drowned.[2]

George Washington shared these views. That is to say, while he did not share Thornton’s preoccupation with bringing back the newly dead, he wanted to make certain he was not buried alive. In the hours before his death from “acute bacterial epiglottitis”[3], an infection of the entrance to the larynx that made it all but impossible for him to eat, Washington instructed his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, to have him “decently buried” and to “not let me be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.”[4]

As Washington lay in his final illness in December 1799, Thornton, long a friend of the President, was invited by one of Martha Washington’s granddaughters to tend to the dying man.[5]  Thornton, then supervising construction of rental property in the District of Columbia that Washington owned,[6] left for Mount Vernon at once, confident of being able to relieve Washington of his discomfort by means of a tracheotomy. But Washington died on December 14, 1799, a few days before Thornton made it to Mount Vernon to attend to him. Thornton himself describes his reaction:

When we arrived, to my unspeakable grief, we found him laid out a stiffened corpse. My feelings at that moment I cannot express! I was overwhelmed with the loss of the best friend I had on earth.[7]

 

True to form, though, death would not deter Thornton from his efforts to save his new nation’s first president:

The weather was very cold, and he remained in a frozen state for many days. I proposed to attempt his restoration in the following manner. First and by degrees and by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the Lungs by the Trachea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb. If these means had been resorted to, and had failed all that could be done would have been done, but I was not seconded in this proposal; for it was deemed unavailing. I reasoned thus. He died by the loss of blood and the want of air. Restore these with the heat that had subsequently been deducted, and as the organization was in every respect perfect, there was no doubt in my mind that his restoration was possible.[8]

 

LIVING FOREVER

Calmer heads, however, prevailed and Thornton was prevented from enacting his plan. Perhaps as a consolation for a friend, Thornton’s demand that Washington’s body be enclosed within a lead coffin was granted,[9] but his stated reason for doing so, that Washington might be entombed one day in an eventual monument to honor him in the District that now bears his name never materialized.  Martha Washington insisted her husband remain in the family vault at Mount Vernon.[10]

Thornton remained a believer in the merits of his plan, wondering if it were possible, or if it would be right, to attempt to bring back to life “one who had parted full of honor and renown; free of the frailties of age, in the full enjoyment of every faculty, prepared for eternity.”[11] Was Thornton a genius or madman?  His widow, perhaps quite naturally, believed the former, recording in her diary that the good doctor had been told by a member of Congress that he was living a hundred years too soon and that his views were to vast to be embraced by the men of the time.[12]

If Thornton was ahead of his time, it is likely that it was more than 250 years, and not a century as that unnamed Congressman speculated. Recently, studies were published suggesting that blood transfusions from younger animals, that use their stem cells, may hold the key to reversing certain effects of the aging process.[13] The wisdom of this, to be sure, must also be debated. Would the United States have benefited from having George Washington bestride it in perpetuity? Could anything have been accomplished had John Adams and Thomas Jefferson been alive to quarrel with each other for the last few centuries, instead of their proxies and ideological inheritors undertaking the task? Fortunately for us, these questions, though tantalizing closer, remain for historians, scientists, and philosophers to debate until they (possibly) become reality.

 

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[1] Paulson, George. Dr.William Thornton’s Views of Sleep, Dreams and Resuscitation.  Journal of the History of Neuroscience, 18:25-46 (2009)(“Paulson”).

[2] Paulson, 42

[3] Mitgang, Herbert, “Death of a President: A 200 Year Old Malpractice Debate,” New York Times, December 14, 1999

[4] Thompson, Mary V. “Death Defied: Dr. Thornton’s Radical Idea of Bringing George Washington Back to Life”  George Washington’s Mount Vernon website, www.mountvernon.org

[5] Paulson, 44

[6] Paulson, 44

[7] Harris, C.M., ed. “The Papers of William Thornton,” University of Virginia Press (2009), p. 528 (“Harris”).

[8] Harris, 528.

[9] Thompson

[10] Paulson, 44

[11] Harris, 528

[12] Paulson, 44.

[13] Villeda, Saul, et. al. “Young Blood Reverses Age-Related Impairments in Cognitive Function and Synaptic Plasticity in Mice (Nature, 2014).

 

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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