Dr. William Thornton raced death across the frozen Virginia countryside on the morning of December 15, 1799. If his horse could dash to the doorstep of Mount Vernon before George Washington succumbed to a sudden viral infection, the physician harbored no doubt he could save the life of his friend and benefactor.

When he arrived and stepped inside Mount Vernon’s drawing room, however, Thornton saw family and friends grieving over Washington’s corpse—frozen solid from the frigid temperatures since his death the night before. The bereaved told a shocked Thornton that he had arrived too late to prevent the former president’s demise.

No, Thornton thought. No, he hadn’t. The brash doctor then startled the mourners by proclaiming that he could bring Washington back to life.

William Thornton Was an Accomplished Polymath

Hardly a quack or real-life Frankenstein, Thornton was considered a genius, says Jonathan Horn, author of Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle. “He was a figure of the Enlightenment, a Thomas Jefferson-type character who believed that science and reason could solve almost every problem,” he says.

Born in the British West Indies in 1759, Thornton attended medical school in Scotland before moving to the United States in 1787 and gaining American citizenship. Although Thornton had no architectural training, Washington selected the brilliant polymath’s design for the new U.S. Capitol in 1793 and the following year appointed him as one of the three commissioners overseeing construction of Washington, D.C.

As part of his studies of the science of sleep, Thornton recorded dozens of reported cases of animals and people who were revived from states of suspended animation after appearing to be dead. He joined the Royal Humane Society, which had been founded in London in 1774 to promote the innovative medical technique of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, first described in 1744 by surgeon William Tossack, to restart breathing and heartbeats in apparent drowning victims.

Washington Feared Being Buried Alive

At a time when doctors occasionally mistook the comatose for the dead, taphephobia—the fear of a premature burial—was so pervasive it led to the invention of safety coffins, such as one model that included a string that its occupant could pull to ring an above-ground bell as a signal that they had been mistakenly buried alive.

Washington feared an unintentional live burial as he laid on his deathbed on the evening of December 14, 1799. The founding father’s final instruction to his secretary, Tobias Lear, was to let at least two days pass before the burial of his body.

Washington had endured an excruciating 48 hours after contracting a virulent throat infection, believed to have been acute epiglottitis, that made it difficult to swallow and breathe. As Washington slowly choked to death, doctors and a Mount Vernon overseer drained 40 percent of his blood—more than two liters—in a belief that the four bloodlettings would correct an imbalance of the four primary humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile—thought to be causing the infection.

Doctors also applied blisters of cantharides, coated his throat with wheat poultices and administered enemas and purgatives until Washington politely requested that the physicians stop their efforts.

When news of the 67-year-old former president’s illness reached Washington, D.C., Thornton made the familiar journey to Mount Vernon, where he was a frequent overnight guest. Although he wasn’t Washington’s personal doctor and never practiced medicine after arriving in the United States, Thornton possessed the “fullest confidence of being able to relieve him” by performing an innovative, but extremely rare surgical technique—a tracheotomy.

Upon his encounter with Washington’s stiff body, Thornton thought back to cases he had read of fish being restored to life after freezing and plotted the late president’s resurrection. He proposed to thaw Washington’s corpse in cold water before warming it with blankets. He would then open a passage to his lungs with a tracheotomy and, as he recalled in the 1820s, “inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration.” To compensate for the blood taken from Washington, Thornton’s final step would be to transfuse the patient with lamb’s blood.

“He looks at it not from a religious angle, but a science angle and sees the processes that killed Washington and thinks he can reverse them,” Horn says. Thornton explained his reasoning behind the unorthodox prescription. “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.”

Nobody else at Mount Vernon, however, shared the doctor’s confidence. “I was not seconded in this proposal; for it was deemed unavailing,” Thornton wrote.  “It was doubted by some whether if it were possible, it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor and renown.” Especially after the excruciating end that Washington had endured, his family wished to honor the instructions he had given to his doctors the day before: “I pray you to take no more trouble about me, let me go off quietly.”

Thornton Wanted Washington’s Body Moved to the Capitol

Blocked in his attempt to revive Washington, Thornton was still not content to let the country’s first president rest in peace at Mount Vernon. Although Washington left instructions in his will to be buried at his estate, Thornton hoped he would be interred instead in a dedicated burial chamber he had designed below the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. “If he couldn’t make Washington rise from his deathbed,” Horn says, “he could at least have the Capitol rise over his body.”

Within days of Washington’s death, President John Adams asked Martha Washington, who was the executor of her husband’s will, if she would move his body to the U.S. Capitol. So frequently separated from her husband during his life, Martha had planned to spend eternity buried at his side, but the grieving widow once again agreed to sacrifice her wishes for the good of the country.

When Congress learned through Lear of Martha’s desire to be entombed next to her husband, it agreed to make room in the Capitol crypt for her as well. Beset by shortages of money and materials—and a fire set by British troops during the War of 1812—construction of the Capitol dragged over the ensuing decades.

As the centennial of Washington’s birthday approached in 1832, opposition to the movement of his body grew. “The idea meets resistance at this point from Virginians who believed his body belonged to them and should stay in Virginia,” Horn says. After Washington’s remains were placed in a newly constructed tomb at Mount Vernon, the idea eventually died—never to be resurrected again. The Mount Vernon tomb houses Washington’s remains, those of his wife, as well as 25 other family members.

HISTORY Vault: George Washington

This three-part special series brings to life America's founding father, whose name is known to all, but whose epic story is understood by few.