Remembering the passing of a president

Re-enactment: Mount Vernon officials hope the anniversary of George Washington's death will spur visitors to celebrate his life.

December 17, 1999|By Hillel Kuttler | Hillel Kuttler,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- With a grim determination appropriate to their tasks, Virginia Fox, Nancey Drinkwine and Gus Kiorpes tend silently to the hexagonal coffin.

The women smooth the black wool baize lining the oak box and iron out air bubbles, while Kiorpes secures the decorative nickel-plated tacks and cast-iron handles featuring double cherubs.

Nearby, the flag beside the estate's entry gate declines to half-staff. The mansion's shutters have been pulled tightly closed in a show of mourning. Mirrors and paintings are draped in white cloth, the windows and door in black. The family shield has been darkened.

America is about to bury a president.

George Washington died 200 years ago this week, and the staff of his Mount Vernon home in Virginia are attempting to duplicate every detail of his mourning and funeral, which will be re-enacted tomorrow.

The bicentennial officially began Tuesday night, when descendants of those who were with Washington at his death gathered privately beside the very same canopy bed at the same hour, 10: 20 p.m. The mourning period carries through tomorrow's 11 a.m. funeral procession and burial re-enactment.

On what would have been the morning after Washington expired, visitors embarking on tours Wednesday were issued black arm bands. In the dining room, they paid their respects to the white-shrouded form that rested on a simple board. A bereaved Martha Washington double, dressed all in black but for a white mobcap, sat head-in-hand near the foot of her late husband's body.

Today, the day the coffin would have arrived at the home 200 years ago, the faux body will be transferred to the coffin, covered and set atop a maple bier. Tomorrow, it is to be placed on the piazza outside. Visitors will have a chance to file past the coffin until the funeral is re-enacted.

Officials at the site view the proceedings not as a morbid exercise, but as a moment ripe for educating an increasingly distant American public about Washington's legacy.

"The 200th anniversary of his death is really an opportunity to mark his life," explained Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon's associate director for preservation. "He was amazing. People have lost sight of that."

To dramatize the event, 250 re-enactors will play the family, eulogists, bier carriers, pallbearers, military compatriots and other mourners. Because news traveled slowly and the capital then resided in Philadelphia, federal officials were absent then, so will be now.

Tomorrow's re-enactors include 12 descendants of the 1799 mourners. Washington's secretary, Tobias Lear, whose diary provides authoritative accounts of the general's death and funeral, will be represented by Stephen Lear from nearby Alexandria, Va. James H. Whiting of Richmond will be a pallbearer, carrying the same sword his ancestor, Col. Charles Little, carried in 1799.

Molly Welte of Woodbridge, Va., will be there, too. She is descended from George Coryell, who saved the day back on Dec. 18, 1799. A Philadelphia cabinetmaker, Coryell was standing nearby when the procession turned from the mansion onto the estate's South Lane. Just then, one of the bier carriers, Lt. William Moss, stumbled. Coryell jumped in to prevent the bier sliding off the man's shoulder.

To provide the most authentic experience, said Pogue, the four contemporary bier carriers are practicing the near-fall, which they hope to perfect in a dress rehearsal this afternoon.

Those toiling on the project find themselves caught up in its momentousness. Peg Henry-Pokusa, a historical interpreter, dressed all in black, appeared genuinely near tears the other day while leading a funeral tour of the grounds. Physicians still debate Washington's medical treatment, she says, which failed to arrest what would now be a mere strep throat that killed him after just 36 hours. "I don't like to romanticize this one little bit," she said. "It was a very painful day."

Said Virginia Fox, a farm interpreter who was pressed into coffin duty this year: "We were trying to envision what women working on this [then] would have been like. Probably all tear-stained. Now, there's the sense of respect but not the sense of loss."

Twentieth-century inventions solved problems along the way. When stand-ins rehearsed marching with the coffin earlier this week, drizzle caused sections of its inner and outer wool linings to sag. Fox consulted with a hardware store, whose suggestion -- spray Scotchgard on the material -- did the trick.

Kevin Clancy, an Eldersburg restoration artisan, played an unusual role in the commemoration: He made the replica of the lead coffin liner into which Washington was placed.

Clancy labored for two weeks, cutting and molding 540 pounds of metal according to 1837 drawings of the sarcophagus that replaced the first coffin upon Washington's reinterment in a new vault. Because of lead's softness, Clancy was careful to keep it from stretching out of shape and being unable to fit inside the two outer wood coffins.

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