Patrick and Sarah Henry: Mental illness in 18th century America

This post originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s blog O Say Can You See

Smithsonian Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman’s Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum’s disability history collections and write blog posts sharing their research. The blogs are part of the celebrations commemorating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the American Disabilities Act.

Rose Gallenberger, M.A. student, UMass Department of History

“Give me liberty, or give me death!” School children learn these words that Patrick Henry exclaimed on the eve of the American Revolution. However, that is nearly all most Americans know about this Founding Father from Virginia. This year’s anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is a good time to recover the history of how people in the past, including statesmen such as Patrick Henry, understood disability. Henry’s wife, Sarah Shelton Henry, dealt with depression and violent outbursts. Despite recommendations, together they refused to place her in a hospital, instead providing care for her at home until her death.

Violet postage stamp featuring portrait of Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry postage stamp, issued October 1958. Collections of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Patrick and Sarah knew each other from childhood and fell in love. They married in 1754 at a very young age, even by 18th century American standards. He was 18 and she 16, and together they had six children. After the sixth child, Sarah became increasingly unwell.

There is little information on the specific nature of Sarah’s illness, nor is there a record of Sarah’s participation in decisions about her treatment. But there is no doubt that she experienced mental instability. She was ill in 1774 with signs dating back to 1767. She was emotionally unsettled and became violent at times, to the point that she had to be restrained by a strait-dress (an early form of a strait-jacket) to prevent her from harming herself and others. Patrick knew he had to do something to help his wife and care for his family.

Mental illness was understood very differently in the 18th century compared to now. The populace generally viewed it as sinful and criminal, a sign of the devil. A new hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Eastern State Hospital, opened in 1773 specifically for the mentally ill. It served as an alternative to prison or other punishments. The treatments were harsh but also common—patients were bled, blistered, subjected to pain, shock, and terror. They were dunked in water and restrained, resulting in injury or death. The fact that there was an institution separate from almshouses and hospitals for treating the mentally ill is noteworthy. Eastern State Hospital represented progress in care for the mentally ill.

Color photo of large brick building with turret in center, white windows, on grassy lawn

The Hospital’s rebuilt original 1773 building as it stands today in Williamsburg, Virginia Reconstruction. Photograph by Ryan Lintelman via Wikimedia Commons. February 28, 2006.

Patrick Henry, who had spent much time in Williamsburg, knew about the hospital and refused to send Sarah there. The Henrys were a family of some wealth, and this probably helped in the decision for Sarah to remain at their home, Scotchtown Plantation. They created a small apartment for her in a sunny section of the mansion’s basement. Patrick assigned a slave to serve as a nurse to her, and he also aided directly in her care. He and the children visited her often, and their eldest daughter and her husband moved home to help care for her mother. Sarah died in 1775, possibly of suicide, but historians do not know the exact cause of her death.

White building with steps at entrance and grassy lawn, color photo.

Scotchtown, residence of Patrick and Sarah Shelton Henry. Courtesy of Preservation Virginia.

Patrick had the option to send Sarah away to an institution, and although ground-breaking at the time, hospitalization would have resulted in a much lower quality of life for his wife. Whether his decision was a result of love for his wife or concern for his reputation and political ambition, his approach to mental illness was remarkably innovative for the 18th century. The example of Sarah Shelton Henry and the Eastern State Hospital mark the beginning of a wave of reform in the approach to mental illness and disability.

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