Notice of Sherman Sayles’ suicide attempt appeared in newspapers throughout the country. It’s hard to know if my great-grandfather, Clifton Sayles, subscribed to any of them. He may not have learned of his younger brother’s peril until the Chase City, Virginia family was contacted by administrators at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, D.C.
Sherman had traveled in and out of their lives since he left the Mecklenburg County farm in 1880. I am certain the news stunned them. What had happened to their boy? What should Clifton, his mother Serena, and wife Anna tell the kids, particularly Alice? What would the neighbors say? What would happen if Sherman couldn’t be cured? Where would he go? What must they do? Were they allowed to visit? Should they visit?
All of the questions swirled just as summer’s responsibilities were heating up. The Sayles would have likely had the bulk of their winter and spring oats cut; and the wheat cut and shocked, stacked and housed. Corn and tobacco would have been growing steadily. Their Irish potato crop would have been dug and readied for shipment. But tobacco, the cash crop, would soon have to be topped and later hilled, cut and hung. Corn would have to be picked, shucked, and stored; timber would need to be felled, cut and stacked for winter heating and cooking. Fruits and vegetables were coming in daily, and the drying and canning for the winter table was a constant chore.
What if the family tended to its business at hand and waited to see Sherman? What would happen to Sherman?
With some inquiries, Serena and Clifton might have found relief in the national reputation that Superintendent William Godding had built at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Modeled on the Moral Treatment, Sherman wouldn’t be restrained but encouraged to enjoy the outdoors. Every building and garden, every view and path had been constructed to aid in a patient’s recovery.
Furthermore, the hospital had a farm on site, which meant Sherman would eat fresh cucumbers, radishes, watermelons, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, corn, and small fruits, as well as fresh dairy products and beef and pork.
In addition, Sherman would receive the latest advances in hydrotherapy under the supervision of Dr. George Foster. Depending on his condition, the physician would prescribe wet towel wraps, continuous baths, or showers to relieve his restlessness and agitation. Maybe by Thanksgiving Sherman would be feeling more hopeful, more in control of his life.
The week before Thanksgiving, Clifton crossed the St. Elizabeth’s campus, leaves crunching underfoot, and climbed the steps to the entrance of Toner Hall, the convalescent residence to which Sherman had been moved. A nurse could have accompanied him to one of the building’s sitting rooms, where he might have found Sherman seated in a rocking chair.
The visit did not go as planned.
Sherman was distant and unresponsive. Sullen.
Clifton returned one more time, only to be met by open hostility.
In my mind, I see Clifton take a train crossing the Potomac to Fredricksburg, then transferring to a train to Richmond, thinking the whole time of his baby brother. I imagine his preoccupied stride across the platform in Richmond to the Southern Railway coach to carry him home to Chase City. I wonder if he had to walk from the train station down Main Street to the farm, late at night, alone and struggling to understand what was to happen next. Would anyone have waited up for him to hear his report? Or was it around the breakfast table the next day that he would share his disconcerting memories with Serena, Anna, and Alice–his eldest child, so fond of her Uncle Sherman.
By Tuesday, November 22nd, the family had made decisions. Clifton sat down and penned this letter:
As I was compelled to leave Washington without seeing you, I have taken the liberty of writing.
The second time I went to see my brother he either did not, or would not recognize; and acted in a very suspicious manner altogether.
Now I do not claim to understand his mental condition; but I do say this, he acted very ungratefully to say the least. I have consulted with my mother since my return and we have come to the conclusion that the place for him to remain is right where he is. I would consider it unsafe for him to be here at liberty for years to come. Of course, I am entirely ignorant as to how long the U.S. Government will take care of him. I am also ignorant as to whether or not his regiment has been mustered out of the service: but he was certainly in the performance of military duty at the time of his mental attack. I do not wish to give you the impression that we are acting in an unnatural manner towards him; but I will never forget to my dying day, the tigerish glare he gave me the second time I went to see him.
Whenever in your opinion he is sufficiently recovered to rejoin his regiment, we think that is the proper place for him. We would be very grateful indeed to you if you would take the trouble to write occasionally in regard to his condition. Please withhold nothing.
summer’s responsibilities: “Weather and Crops,” Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia,) 6 July 1898, page 7; accessed digitally on Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com) 12 March 2021.
St. Elizabeths Hospital: “The Records of St. Elizabeths Hospital at the National Archives,” Frances M. McMillen and James S. Kane, Prologue Magazine, Institutional Memory, Summer 2010, Vol. 42, No. 2; digitally accessed at the National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2010/summer/institutional.html), 12 Feb 2021.
St. Elizabeths Hospital: “St. Elizabeths Hospital, Historic District,” Thomas Otto, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.; accessed digitally (http://dcpreservation-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/St-Elizabeths-Brochure.pdf) February 2021.
penned this letter: Christopher Sherman Sayles, QO1-563669951, St. Elizabeths Hospital (Washington, D.C.) patient record, Case number 10778, created 1898-1903; copy from National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., received February 2020.