Patrick Henry Locked Up His Mentally Ill Wife
On the eve of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry famously exclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!” But what most people aren’t aware of is that this founding father didn’t afford his wife the same freedom — and kept her locked up in the cellar.
Henry’s wife, Sarah, began to mentally decline around 1771 following the birth of their last child, Edward. At first, she appeared to be merely emotionally unsettled but then began to act out violently. Henry’s mother wrote, “We feel Sarah is losing her mind after the birth of little Neddy.”
Eventually, Sarah had to be restrained in a strait-dress to keep her from self-harm.
Henry resolved to keep her restrained in a room in the cellar of his plantation and ordered a slave of his to tend to her.
Despite the condition in which she was kept, some could even reasonably argue that Henry’s choice was better than the alternative, which was to send her to the Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The asylum had just recently opened by the time Henry’s wife had become particularly ill. But the treatments at Eastern State Hospital ranged from bleeding and blistering to being purposefully subjected to shock, pain, and terror. Patients were dunked into water while restrained.
Henry’s decision to leave her at home, even without medical assistance and shut in a room, was perhaps better than the alternative.
The woman died of unknown causes in 1775 and was buried in Henry’s backyard.