Woodrow Wilson’s health took a precipitous turn on January 30, 1924. His physician and friend, Dr. Cary T. Grayson, who was on a hunting trip with Bernard Baruch in South Carolina, was urgently summoned back to the S Street residence of Woodrow and Edith Wilson by telegram.
“Mr. Wilson passed a restless night and has lost strength. He has suddenly taken a decided turn for the worse and I regard his condition as very serious.”
Wilson’s oldest daughter, Margaret, was in New York City. Contacted by phone, she took the first train to Washington, and arrived later that day. A cablegram was sent to Jessie Wilson Sayre in Bangkok, where she was living with her husband, Francis B. Sayre, who served as advisor in foreign affairs to the King of Siam. The youngest of the three Wilson girls, Nell, was reached by telegram at her home in California. She and her husband, William Gibbs McAdoo, Wilson’s former Treasury Secretary, set out by train, but arrived days later, after her father’s death but in time for the funeral.
Once Dr. Grayson arrived back at the Wilson home, he and the other physicians issued a bulletin to the press at 10:25 p.m. on Friday night, February 1st. It read “Mr. Wilson’s temperature is normal; respirations 20; pulse 96. He has gradually lost ground. He has no pain. Our chief present concern is to ensure a restful night.”
The newspapers of the time, and Dr. Grayson’s own account written in his book Woodrow Wilson: An Intimate Memoir, reported that when Grayson informed Wilson of the seriousness of his condition and the nearness of death, he replied “I am ready. The machinery is worn out.”
Edith Bolling Wilson described those days in her book, My Memoir: “Bulletins were issued. People thronged the street outside, friends began to call, flowers and messages to pour in. My dear one lay in a stupor, but when I would leave the room for a moment and return, he would lift his hand to take mind. Night succeeded day, and the day the night, the hours ticking on unheeded. Thus passed Friday and Saturday, the first and second of February.”
At 8:30 in the evening on Feb. 2nd, doctors Grayson, Ruffin, and Fowler issued a longer update to the press. “There has been no radical change in Mr. Wilson’s condition during the day, but rather a gradual wearing away process. He is now profoundly prostrated. He has had no pain or serious discomfort of any kind. He has slept the greater part of the day and anodynes have been unnecessary. The heart’s action is feeble but regular and not unduly rapid. Respiration is easy. There is no fever. Practically no nourishment has been taken during the day.”
Twelve hours later, a single line issued by Dr. Grayson on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 3rd, read: “Mr. Wilson is unconscious and his pulse is very weak.”
By this time, hundreds of people had gathered outside the home on S Street. The New York Times described the scene at 10 a.m. on Sunday when a group distributed little cards on which was written the words: “Peace on earth, good will to men.” The Times article went on: “When these had been given out a well-dressed woman in a fur coat stepped away from the curb a few feet into the roadway, knelt on both knees, and bowed her head in prayer. Immediately the group of fifty or so persons who had been with her followed her example. All knelt in silent prayer.”
By the time Dr. Grayson emerged at 11:20 a.m. to read his final bulletin, the throngs on the street had swelled to more than a thousand. People strained to hear Dr. Grayson as he read: “Mr. Wilson died at eleven fifteen this morning. His heart’s action became feebler and feebler, and the heart muscle was so fatigued that it refused to act any longer. The end came peacefully. The remote causes of death lie in his ill health which began more than four years ago, namely, arterio-sclerosis with hemiplegia. The immediate cause of death was exhaustion following a digestive disturbance which began in the early part of last week but did not reach an acute stage until the early morning hours of February first.”
John Milton Cooper, in his book Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, translated the medical terms into layman’s language. The president had died from hardening of the arteries and paralysis.
The death certificate listed “Asthenia,” or weakness and loss of strength as a contributory cause.
Newspapers reported that Grayson had tears streaming down his face and his voice trembled as he read the announcement of Wilson’s death. Even the people at the edges of the crowd who couldn’t hear his words were able to guess the import of his statement.
As Dr. Grayson later reported in An Intimate Memoir, Wilson “died without struggle, his wife and daughter (Margaret) on one side of the bed, I on the other holding his pulse, and at the foot of the bed, two nurses.”
The following day, Feb. 4th, President Calvin Coolidge wrote to Grayson,“…I trust that you and Mrs. Wilson will know that my entire desire is not to intrude, but to offer every possible assistance. While I have no jurisdiction over the Capital, I should be pleased to use my good offices in arranging to have the body of President Wilson lie in state there for any period that might be desired… Anything that the State, War and Navy Departments can do, I should be glad to have done, if you will let me know. My desire is to assure you of every possible facility of the Government for anything that you may want, without intruding in any way upon your grief or making suggestions of my own…”
In the end, Mrs. Wilson chose a small private funeral service in the S Street house with only family and close friends in attendance. Burial followed in the Bethlehem Chapel of the National Cathedral, then only partially finished.
Grayson described the burial in his book, An Intimate Memoir:
“The cathedral chapel was crowded. President Coolidge and his wife were there and so were the members of the Cabinet, the Ambassadors and Ministers from foreign lands, many delegations of representative organizations throughout the land, and a group of his old associates from Princeton. Had the cathedral been completed, it could have been filled over and over again many times. As it was, the comparatively small space compelled the exclusion of thousands who wished to be there… It is symbolic of his career that his body should lie on Mount Saint Alban, the highest spot in the Capital City of the land. But it is only the body that lies there, the worn out machinery, as he described it to me in his last connected sentence. His spirit cannot die. It will survive to guide and direct generations yet unborn. It will survive the hot debates which seem so important today and are so forgotten tomorrow.”
Note: The primary resources quoted and pictured above are part of the Grayson Collection housed in the archives of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. Special thanks to the Grayson family for all they have done to continue Woodrow Wilson’s legacy through the papers of Cary T. Grayson.
Written by WWPL volunteer Danna Faulds