December. It’s a time to pull our families close, bundle up against
the cold and celebrate the holidays. It’s a great time of year for
eggnog, gift giving, warm fireplaces and year-end sentimentality.
It is, however, a terrible time to go riding all over your estate
in a pouring, freezing rain.
We know that foul weather didn’t kill George Washington. It seems
after his long, wet, cold ride on Dec. 12, 1799, he ended up with a
sore throat. It could have been a common cold, the kind of thing we
attack with Ny-Quil and cough drops for a few days before it goes on
its way. His doctors, charged with making him feel better, offered
more and more unpleasant treatments and bled him of perhaps a third of
his blood, which weakened him enough to kill him on Dec. 14, 1799.
Very few dates are as widely commemorated numismatically as Dec.
14, 1799. Among American historical dates, July 4, 1776, would
probably earn first rank if anyone was to sit down and count, and
Washington’s birthday may even rank second, but undoubtedly the day of
his death would not be far behind.
The most obvious commemoratives are the Washington Funeral medals,
struck by Jacob Perkins for use in Washington memorial events in
Boston in February 1800.
The most common of several types, depicting a funeral urn on the
reverse, renders his death date as “OB. D.14.1799,” short for “obit”
or “died” in Latin. The very scarce oval Funeral medals present his
death date the same way, though the popular Skull and Crossbones type
actually gets the date wrong — they say Dec. 15 instead of 14.
The 1800 REPUB. AMERI. penny token, cataloged as Baker 69 in
Medallic Portraits of Washington by W.S. Baker, displayed the date of
Washington’s death underneath his bust, where another variety, Baker
68, had once displayed its date of striking, 1796. For some reason,
the engraver of the REPUB. AMERI. (thought to be Thomas Wyon) rendered
Washington’s date of death as Dec. 21, 1799.
At first thought, this may seem to be an old-style date from the
Julian calendar (last used in 1752 in England), but it’s actually just
plain incorrect. The Washington Fame medal of 1803 also states the
date as Dec. 21, while the ca. 1840 “Ugly Head” Washington medal
states the day of Washington’s death as either Dec. 12 or Dec. 17,
depending upon who is reading it.
Among the other medals that focus on the exact day that Washington
died are the 1800 Hero of Freedom medal (Baker 79), the 1800 Westwood
medal (Baker 80), the rare 1800 Victor Sine Clade medal and dozens
more struck later in the 19th century.
John Kraljevich Jr.
is an independent professional
numismatist and researcher
specializing in early American coinage.