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.
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.
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.
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.
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.