The Tigerish Glare: part three

Recap The Tigerish Glare: Part One and Part Two

On the evening of 29 June 1898, Private Sherman Sayles of the 3rd Missouri Regiment complained of a headache to the night nurse, who notified Camp Alger medical attendant Private Lake. While Lake went to the dispensary to mix some morphine, Private Sayles pulled out a penknife and sliced open his left wrist. Fellows in nearby cots yelled, and someone ran to retrieve Private Lake. By the time Lake and the attending surgeon, Major Stunkard, got cot-side, Sherman had lost a great deal of blood.

The wound was tended, and by morning Major Stunkard pronounced the soldier out of danger, physically. Clearly Sherman Sayles needed further care, care that tended to his mental health as well as his physical well being. Stunkard transferred the soldier to the hospital at Fort Myers (Virginia) where further evaluation determined that Sayles required intensive therapy.

As quickly as orders could trickle through bureaucracy Sherman was transferred across the Potomac to the Government Asylum for the Insane, locally known as St. Elizabeths Hospital, in southeast Washington, D.C. 

On 5 July 1898 Sherman Sayles walked across the campus of St. Elizabeths under the shade of red oaks, silver maples and tulip trees, past vegetable and ornamental gardens, and chicken houses and pigeon coops. He climbed up the steps of a three-story brick building, crossed its white-trimmed porch and entered Oak Hall. A nurse guided the 36-year-old to a large room brightly lit by enormous windows. Beds lined the walls, each with its own privacy screen. From this crowded ward Sherman Sayles, my great-granduncle, would begin his treatment for acute suicidal melancholia.

Several months passed before his brother–my great-grandfather–paid the former soldier a visit. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and trees were now bare. Clifton D. Sayles 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. He was shown to a pleasant sitting room, filled with light and plants and rockers. There he met a brother he probably hadn’t seen in years. Clifton had remained on the family farm, raising his own kids in the Mecklenburg County, Virginia community, while Sherman had moved from Virginia to New York to Missouri. The man that sat before him on that November day was not one he remembered. In fact Clifton was alarmed by his brother’s appearance and behavior. Cliff returned home and consulted with his mother, Serena C. Sayles, sitting to pen this letter to Sherman’s attending physician the following Tuesday.

To Dr. George Foster from Clifton D. Sayles, November 22, 1898

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 me; 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. 

Clifton ended his letter with a plea:

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.


Part Three

I feel such empathy for Clifton, for I have also been in the position of traveling all day to reach a loved one who found themselves in an disconcerting place, with strangers, living with unrelenting need and suffering.

I can vividly imagine Clifton trying to share family news only to be mocked; or suggesting a walk to enjoy the view over the Anacostia River only to be mimicked. I can envision that moment when Cliff gathered his coat to leave that first day, and Sherman melted into his chair, hands covering his face. And weeping.

“I’m sorry.”

His hands brushed the words over his body.

“I’m sorry for ALL of THIS.”

Across the ages I can imagine Clifton’s promise to return, a swirl of questions around family duty and his brother’s needs accompanying him to his night lodgings. And ALL of the queries settled upon his next visit, when Sherman sat as if ready to pounce–shoulders hunched, face contorted, with a fixed tigerish glare.

In that instant there was the heart-rending recognition that he couldn’t care for his brother.

Clifton had to leave him, there, helpless to escape his condition. To be tended by strangers who may or may not have cared. But there, where he would be fed, and clothed, and washed, and watched over–where he would be safe.


The Sunday after his brother’s visit, Sherman packed his belongings and followed an attendant from the second-story ward in Toner Hall to one of the Oaks buildings, to yet another ward chock-a-block with beds.

In spite of the hydrotherapy, music and art opportunities, and the beauty of the grounds, Sherman continued to have suicidal thoughts and delusions that someone was out to hurt him. He frequently refused to eat his meals, for fear that they contained poison. Sometimes he would eat, only to purge immediately afterward.

By September of 1900, Sherman was emaciated, weighing in at only 110 pounds. Still the staff kept encouraging him to eat, dodging his verbal assaults and the occasional thrown glass.

This was an era of immense overcrowding at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In spite of the efforts to treat patients for recovery, many remained institutionalized, unable to recapture their ability to live on their own. And the acute cases continued to be admitted.

The need for caregivers far outstripped the supply of trained nurses and attendants. The bare minimum was probably all that each patient could be assured of–clean clothes, clean linens, three meals a day, and assistance with morning and evening ablutions.

There was no extra time to make sure that patients kept in touch with families, or that families were kept apprised of their loved one’s condition. Nothing in the patient record indicates that Clifton was ever made aware of his brother’s disordered eating or suicidal ideation; or that family news of the deaths of their mother and Cliff’s wife, Anna, reached Sherman. And with Washington, D.C. a series of train rides away, Clifton and his kids were not able to just drop by.

Sherman lived without a strong social support network, in wards intended to hold 18 beds and bedside tables but kitted out at the turn of the century with 30 to 40 beds; and 30 to 40 men’s perspiration, farts, snores, grunts, mutterings, sneezes and coughs, guffaws and shouts.

Sherman was surly when interacting with staff or other patients, and prone to withdraw from the hospital’s social life. Nurses would find him sitting on the side of his bed with his face buried in his hands, or haunched in a corner.

Month after month passed. As more patients were admitted, chronic patients like Sherman were moved from one building to another. After one such relocation Sherman appeared to improve a bit, taking his restless agitation out for long walks most every day. His thinking seemed more rational, his cooperation more consistent.

But the contrary behavior reappeared, with Sherman loudly refusing to cooperate in treatment “considered beneficial for his condition.” Occasionally he threw his food and dishes across the dining hall. He deliberately provoked his fellow patients. His language was often profane and vulgar. When the former private was “high-tempered” he beat himself on the face and body and claimed that his attendants struck him. Other times Sherman stole out of bed when he thought the attendant wasn’t watching and “slyly struck other patients who were unable to defend themselves.”

And always the food or the medications were suspected of containing poison. Only certain doctors and nurses could successfully cajole Sherman into consuming them.

In June of 1903 Sherman developed chronic diarrhea. Bedridden he also developed pressure sores.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approached, the diarrhea suddenly stopped, replaced by intermittent nausea and vomiting. Though increasingly debilitated, Sherman managed to vigorously refuse any attempts to take his temperature, or to give him hypodermic or oral medications. In the evening of 18 November, Sherman’s speech was reduced to a whisper; he grew still, only his chest moved with shallow, rapid breaths.

There was no last visit from Clifton, no one to sit bedside, to keep final watch over Sherman. Only a nurse bore witness to his final exhale.

A headstone in St. Elizabeths East Cemetery marks the grave of Private Christopher Sherman Sayles.

St. Elizabeths Hospital East Cemetery, photo by Historical Congressional Cemetery Archivist: accessed on Find A Grave (findagrave.com).


Source:

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.

The Tigerish Glare: part two

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:

Doctor Foster

Dr.  Sir

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.

Continued in The Tigerish Glare: Part three


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.

Rebecca Eulelia Dodson Sayles: Sunday’s Obituary

"Lilly" Rebecca Eulelia Dodson Sayles

Born on 15 August 1856 in Regiment 22 of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Lillie Dodson was one of ten children:  Greene, Virginia, Harvey, Henry, Dora, Molly, Adlaide, Rebecca Eulelia (Lillie), Edward, and William Rowlett (Bud).  Her parents, James H. and Sarah Jane Rowlett Dodson, farmed land just off the Boydton Road south of The City.

Mr. Dodson was a planter and slave owner.  Miss Rowlett moved with her parents from (Chesterfield County, Virginia) and settled on land adjoining the Dodson plantation.  They were united in marriage in (1844) in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

Mr. Dodson built the old Dodson home and moved into it when Lillie was three years old, about 1859.  She said she could remember walking across from the “Old House,” climbing over the felled trees, carrying her dolls.  The house had not been completed, and as the War soon started, he never did finish it.

Mr. Dodson gave each of his children a tract of land for a homestead.  He gave the Dodson house and a certain number of acres to the three unmarried daughters, Dora, Molly and Lillie.

…Soon after moving to Virginia with his parents in 1870, Clifton Sayles paid court to Lillie Dodson (a neighbor girl).  Her parents were still living, and twas too soon after “The War between the States: ended; feelings still ran high.  For Clifton’s father, Ira Sayles, had been a Captain in the Federal Army, and Lillie’s brother, Greene Dodson, had been killed while serving in the Confederate Army; consequently Lillie’s parents did not favor the suit, and Clifton married another girl.

This wife, Anna McCullough, died sometime after the census date of 1900, and Clifton again paid court to Miss Lilly, who had remained single.

Clifton Duvall Sayles, born April 11, 1851, in Alfred, N.Y., and Rebecca Eulelia (Lillie) Dodson were united in marriage January 9, 1901 in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.  Born to this union:  Anna Florette, born December 4, 1901.

At the time of her marriage, Lillie traded her share in the home with Ed, for his share, called the “Old House” tract, and she later sold it.  Ed, Dora and Molly remained single and continued to live at the Dodson home until their deaths in the 1920s (at which time the land was bequeathed to the adopted son, George Strickland.)

George …was a real son to them.  He continued to care for and look after them untill their final illnesses and deaths.  He called Ed “Master Ed” and said Aunt Dora and Aunt Molly and called their sister Aunt Lillie.  In appreciation of the love and care George bestowed on (them) Ed Dodson deeded George Ricks Strickland the old Dodson home place.

Around 1920, George Strickland drove a wagon over to the Sayles home and paid court to Florette.  They were married September 28, 1921 in the Baptist parsonage in Chase City, Virginia by the Rev. H. L. Williams.  Four sons were born to this union:  George Sidney, Clifford Ricks, Paul Warren, and Norman Scott.  The family survived the depression by returning to the Dodson farm.

At around the same time, Clifton Sayles died, leaving Lillie a widow;  she moved in with her daughter and nephew to help raise the four boys–and made certain that cookies were a regular part of their diet.

from left: Sidney, George Strickland, Paul, Florette Sayles Strickland, Norman, Clifford, Lillie Dodson Sayles

Source:  Strickland, Anna Florette.  Some Genealogical Facts of the Strickland-Sayles Family.  Chase City, VA: Handwritten, March 1976.

Surname Saturday–Sayles

Serena White Sayles–are you there?

That is what I ask every time I sort the Sayles’ family records.

My grandmother was a miracle baby.  Anna Florette Sayles was born in December 1901, less than a year after Lilly Dodson and Clifton Duvall Sayles married, a second shot at happiness that these two grabbed.  Clifton had paid court to Lilly shortly after arriving in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, but in the early 1870’s feelings ran high about Yankees.  Lilly’s oldest brother, Greene, and an uncle, Benjamin F. Dodson, had been killed in the Seige of Petersburg, 1864; Clifton’s father had served as captain in the 130th New York State Volunteer Infantry in 1863.  And Lilly’s parents, James and Sarah Rowlett Dodson, would not hear of Lilly marrying the young New Yorker.

Clifton stayed on the farm purchased in 1869 by his dad, Ira, and married Annie McCullough in 1879.  His mother, Serena White Sayles, had moved by that time to Mecklenburg County, while father Ira had returned to teach in New York.  The 1880s found Serena helping Clifton raise a family and teaching at private Chase City schools, while Ira Sayles traveled the east coast collecting and analyzing rock specimens for the young United States Geological Survey.

Ira fell ill in 1892 and finally settled in with Serena, Clifton and Annie, and several of his grandchildren.  He filed for a pension under the 1890 Civil War pension program and after his death 24 June 1894, Serena filed to receive the widow’s pension.  She had a cat and some books. Serena received the pension from 1897 until her death 16 July 1899.

Annie died sometime between 1 June 1900 and January 1901.

And Clifton, age 50,  immediately paid court to Lilly, who had never married.  She accepted his proposal and they were wed in Chase City, 9 January 1901. At the age of 45 Lilly had her first and only child, her miracle, my grandmother, 21 December of that same year.

It is Florette’s handwritten family history that has clued me in to how special Serena was. Brought up in western New York during the 1830s Serena attended Alfred Academy where she met fellow student Ira Sayles.  They married and remained in the Alfred Academy family through its growth to a college.  In fact, Serena taught after she was married, quite an avant garde position for a woman.  That much was conveyed through family lore.  I have found all sorts of letters, poems, scientific notes, and journal articles that Ira wrote. Given Ira’s considerable correspondence that is public I keep hoping that sooner or later I will trip over letters he and Serena exchanged.  But so far I have nothing.

What and who was Serena? This educated woman who loved French? This New Yorker of Seventh Day Baptist sensibilities, who relocated from a thriving women’s suffragist community to a sleepy agricultural county in southside Virginia?  What did Serena do? Who did she befriend? How did she keep up her French and her thinking? Did Serena write poetry, like Ira?  Because my grandmother was the child of the second marriage, those details she would never have heard.  And the children of Clifton and Annie, whom Serena help raise, have long left the collective memory of my family’s lore.  I just keep wondering.

Serena–are you out there?