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.

write with intention

When I began my genealogy blog ten years ago, the ‘sphere was fresh, unknown territory. The prospect of reaching an audience, even unidentified, was exhilarating. The possibility of attracting lost relatives and exchanging family records was intoxicating.

Blog posts flowed out regularly.

Comments and followers multiplied.

Cousins-many-times-removed shared stories, tips, maps, and letters.

Until one day I realized that my story cache, specifically Ira Sayles’ tales, didn’t fit a blog post format. And blogging was a chore, not a joy.

Time to reassess. How can Shoots, Roots, and Leaves function as a space of curiosity and joy, that complements the deeper dive I will be doing offline?

Not sure. Yet.

Leave your ideas and requests for future posts in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

Transcript Tuesday: General Affidavit for Pension Claim of Serena C. Sayles, 27 August 1895

GENERAL AFFIDAVIT

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss:

In the matter of the application for pension of Mrs. Serena C. Sayles, widow of Ira Sayles, Co. H. 130. Regt. N.Y. Inf.

On this 27thday of August, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and ninety-five, personally appeared before me, a Notary in and for the aforesaid County, duly authorized to administer oaths J.M. Sloan, aged 64 years, a resident of Chase City in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Va. Whose Post-office address is Chase City and M.V.B. Webb, aged 57 years, a resident of Chase City Va in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Va whose post-office address is Chase City Va well known to me to be respectable and entitled to credit, and who, being duly sworn, declare in relation to the aforesaid case as follows:

From the Records.

190 acres of land Value $570

Personal property              50/ $620

Taxes –                               $7.00

The income from said land for several years has barely paid the taxes, and she has no other income.  In order to eke out an uncertain existence, she has to resort to selling a little timber, but even that resource will soon be exhausted. We deem her case both worthy and urgent. 

Can’t see how she keeps body and soul together. 

If she was not too proud, would, no doubt ask help of her neighbors. Her land is mostly Old Field pines, poor and almost worthless. We hope she may soon be helped, by her Government that owes the debt, because fro services of her husband, now deceased.

We have made the foregoing statement without suggestion or dictation from any one. 

We don’t think her land would bring $250- if sold today. 

We further declare that we have no interest in said case, and are not concerned in its prosecution. 

Signed

J.M. Sloan

M.V.B. Webb

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss: Sworn to and subscribed before me this day by the above named affiants, and I certify that I read said affidavit to said affiants, including the words ______ erased, and the words _______ added, and acquainted them with its contents before they executed the same. I further certify that I am in nowise interested in said case, nor am I concerned in its prosecution; and that said affiants are personally known to me, and that they are credible persons. 

Signed

N. H. Williams

Notary Public.

Note.–This may be sworn to before a Clerk of Court, Notary Public, Justice of the Peace, or any officer who has the right to administer an oath. 

Entered into the Pension Office files by James Tanner, Attorney at Law, Washington, D.C., 30 Aug 1895.

Believe You This?

In a letter to brother James dated 10 April 1872, Ira Sayles sent both sympathy and sermon to his ailing 50 year old sibling whose diagnosis of palsy had been shared in a March note.

Palsy by definition in the 1870s was a chronic condition involving some sort of paralysis. A person had three alternatives in seeking a recovery:

  • medicinal remedies,

“There is no pain that Centaur Liniments will not relieve, no swelling it will not subdue, and no lameness it will not cure.” (1)

  • a physician’s treatment,

Dr. Clark A Miner of Chicago the Celebrated Chronic Disease Specialist will make his next visit to Austin, August 13th and 14th till ‘Noon at the Fleck House where he can be consulted free upon any disease in his specialties…Scrofula, Syphilis, Consumption, Kidney Disease, Piles, Paralysis, Palsy, Female Complaints of Whatever Character…Almost hopeless cases are successfully treated.” (2)

  • or, as Ira preaches, ” A sincere, calm trust in Providence is of more consequence than all else.”

Much of this letter could have been delivered from a pulpit. Ira writes long detailed paragraphs that delineate his belief system.

“I have spent years in studying these matters, and my Father has gradually opened to me the whole scheme, scope and aim of human life, with all the human faculties and susceptibilities. He gave us the exhibition of the Life of Jesus, as the modle(sic) of a perfect man. Through Him He promises to confer on the perfect man Immortal Life; and, in the resuscitation of the mangled carcass of Jesus, after a death of nearly three days, He demonstrates His power to fulfill His promises.”

Words not at all out of the ordinary for a devout Christian.

But Ira then goes on to weave the language of science into this religious doctrine.

The death and resurrection of Jesus he states is “strictly scientific, if we make our scientific basis broad enough; if we make it too narrow, we fail to reach this great fact.”

“The narrow-based scientist and the narrow-based religionist are forever at loggerheads. Both are dogmatic: both wrong.”


Ira was a citizen scientist, collecting botanical and geological specimens throughout his career as a teacher and academy principal. His keen observations of and theoretical writings about nature earned him local acclaim.

In fact, Ira would be appointed to the United States Geological Survey in 1883 by Secretary of the Interior Henry W. Teller, a former student, where he served as an assistant geologist and assistant paleontologist until his final illness. Ira was a scientist at heart.

And he was also a Christian, his faith formed during the Second Great Awakening spurred by the religious revivals of Charles Finney. He received his education and first teaching opportunities at Alfred University, a school deeply intertwined with the Seventh Day Baptist church.

Separating religion from science, science from religion, embracing both, or one and not the other…this is the stuff of existential debate that has raged from the moment humans began to observe, classify, hypothesize, and offer testable explanations based on facts. It is fascinating to bear witness to my great-great-grandfather’s grappling.

“The scientist sees just to the end of his nose, and thinks that the whole universe. The religionist scarcely sees from our corner of his eye to the other yet he thinks nothing worth seeing, which he don’t (sic) such are the facts in the case. IF your religion rests on a ‘scientific basis’, be sure that your basis is broad enough.”

Believe you this?


1. The St. Cloud journal. (St. Cloud, Minn.), 27 Feb. 1873. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

2. Mower County transcript. (Lansing, Minn.), 02 Sept. 1875. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

Leaf Litter from the Family Tree

The leaves from our deciduous forests are turning yellow, or brown, and dropping with alacrity to the ground.  They carpet every surface–grass, water, rocks, moss, driveways.

Falling LeavesFor years I have used the family tree metaphor to structure my genealogical research.  Only today did it strike me that leaf litter can also be an inspirational metaphor, as in those leaves, those ancestors, that get dropped, and disappear to nurture the soil of the family’s winding tale.

 

And as a review of this deed transcription suggests it is often women who carpet the family forest floor.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 3.02.36 PM

On 15 June 1770, Samuel Whitworth sold 120 acres of land to William Wills Green, my fifth great-grandfather.  The parcel included houses, outbuildings, orchards, woods, water, and parts of Allens Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia…land that lay not far from where my father grew up.

William W Green took possession of the real estate on the same day.  His neighbors included Edward Beavils, Francis Moore Neal, Abram Green, and Thomas Whitworth.

No women were present for the sale.  No dower rights were acknowledged.

 

English common law crossed the ocean with the European settlers from which I descend.  Among the provisions of this legal framework was coverture, the principles enshrined to govern married women, prohibiting their agency to hold property, run businesses, conduct trade,  and act as citizens.

Therefore, though I know from William Wills Green’s last will and testament that he had 10 children, there is no record of their mother in this deed, or among the long list of deeds I have uncovered.  There is no acknowledgement of the women with whom she quilted and cooked; no indication that a midwife helped birth all those babies; no public record of any domestic work that contributed to the Green estate development.

Which is frustrating.  I have to snuffle in the leaf litter of history to discover the women in my past, more imagining than documenting their stories to fill out my family tree.

If you are a women’s studies buff, please leave any sources and ideas for research questions in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.