October 03, 2003

Cellar Dweller

Courtesy "Great American Scandals" by Michael Farquhar.

"Give me liberty or give me death," Patrick Henry famously demanded on the eve of the American Revolution. His wife, Sarah, might have said the same thing, since she was confined in the basement of the couple's Virginia estate for almost four years. Not that the accommodations were all that bad...partially aboveground, letting in plenty of light and fresh air...Yet it wasn't quite the Ritz, especially when Sarah found herself in a straitjacket. What had driven the poor woman to such an unfortunate state?

It seems her children were part of the problem. She had five of them, starting when she was seventeen, but after the birth of the sixth in 1771, Sarah lost it. She exhibited what Patrick Henry biographer Robert Meade calls "a strange antipathy" toward her children. It might be called postpartum psychosis today. Sarah's "antipathy" became so dangerous that she had to be kept away from the kids. But Patrick Henry was a loyal husband and knew how horrific insane asylums of the day could be. So, the family lived upstairs while Sarah ranted and raved below. It was in this sad state that she died in 1775 at age thirty-seven.

Posted by Jennifer at October 3, 2003 05:46 AM


I would to be interested in knowing how the author decided that this qualifies as a scandal.

Posted by: Pete at October 3, 2003 06:35 AM

Jen, have you ever been to Williamsburg? The Public Hospital (http://www.history.org/Almanack/places/hb/hbhos.cfm) has a small and somewhat gruesome exhibit of how mental patients were treated in the 18th-19th centuries.

Posted by: Nic at October 3, 2003 06:51 AM

Pete, I wouldn't get hung up on semantics. Maybe it was scandalous at the time. I found it interesting.

Nic, I have been to Williamsburg, but the day we went the hospital was closed...or had just closed. I've been outside it. :-(

Posted by: Jennifer at October 3, 2003 07:34 AM
I would to be interested in knowing how the author decided that this qualifies as a scandal.

How can having someone locked in a basement for four years, including an insane relative, not be qualified as a scandal, even in that day and age?

Posted by: The Bartender at October 3, 2003 12:44 PM

Hi. I am the author of A Treasury of Great American Scandals. To answer Pete's question, I use scandals in the broadest possible sense as a catch-all in the book title: Unhappy family relationships, famous feuds, nasty campaigns, strange behavior, etc. Not all fall under the strict definition of "scandal," but can you think of a better word to capture the essence of all this?

Posted by: Michael Farquhar at October 8, 2003 08:16 AM