Sunday, June 23, 2019

Thomas Jefferson at Warm Springs, in Virginia

Virginia's Warm Springs is in present-day Bath County. The Warm Springs are 5 miles from Hot Springs located in the aptly named Bath County of Virginia. Legend has it that before Virginia was a colony, a young Native American happened on the spring when he was weary and dispirited. Coming upon the narrow valley filled with water, he first tasted, and then plunged into, the warm waters. Refreshed and invigorated, he continued his trek the next day successfully reaching his destination. Whether this tale is true is debatable, but the waters were used both for bathing and therapy in the later part of the eighteenth century. In the western area of Virginia, Warm Springs and Sweet Springs were the first 2 Virginia springs to be visited by colonial settlers.

Apparently Thomas Jefferson's daughter was one of the first members of the family to visit Warm Springs. On July 31st, 1795 Jefferson wrote his daughter, Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph, “We have no letter from you since your arrival at the Warm-springs, but are told you are gone on to the sweet springs.”  Presumably Martha’s spring visits had happier results than her father’s later visits.

Thomas Jefferson was at Warm Springs in August 1817 and saw the need for a resident physician to attend those seeking healing at the various springs. He wrote, “it would be money well bestowed could the public employ a well educated and experienced physician to attend at each of the medicinal springs, to observe, record, and publish the cases which recieve benefit, those recieving none, and those rendered worse by the use of their respective waters.” “… tried once to-day the delicious bath and shall do it twice a day hereafter … but little gay company here at this time, and I rather expect to pass a dull time.”

Jefferson would visit again the following year.  He was a member of the Rockfish Gap Commission, appointed by the Governor of Virginia and charged with recommending a site for a state university. The commission members gathered at the Mountain House, a resort inn at Rockfish Gap, for a three-day meeting that began on August 1, 1818. After attending the meeting, Jefferson traveled on horseback with James Breckenridge to Warm Springs in Bath County, Virginia, where they arrived on August 8.

It seems that Jefferson went to the springs hoping to find relief from rheumatism, a disease characterized by inflammation and pain of the joints. What was meant to be a short stay was extended to three weeks, with Jefferson visiting various local springs, taking the waters, and sightseeing. Initially, he found the excursion pleasant and beneficial. Gradually, however, he became bored and, ultimately, he broke out in boils on his buttocks, which made sitting excruciatingly painful. The boils may have been a staphylococcus infection, accompanied by a fever.

When Thomas Jefferson revisited Warm Springs in 1818, his initial assessment of the effect of the spring water was positive but his visit led to near-disastrous results. On August 4, he wrote his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, “Every body tells me the time I allot to the Springs is too short. That 2. or 3. weeks bathing will be essential. I shall know better when I get there.” 

"An attack of rheumatism in the knee yesterday, without retarding my journey, affects my walking. I have tried once to-day the delicious bath and shall do it twice a day hereafter. The company here is about 45. The table is very well kept by Mr. Fry, and every thing else well. ... but little gay company here at this time, and I rather expect to pass a dull time." 1818 August 7. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph).

"... having been now here a week and continued to bathe 3 times a day, quarter of an hour at a time. I continue well, as I was when I came. Having no symptom to judge by at that time I presume the seeds of my rheumatism eradicated, and desirous to prevent the necessity of ever coming here a 2d time, I believe I shall yield to the general advice of a three week course. So dull a place, and so distressing an ennui I never before knew. I have visited the rock on the high mountain, the hot springs, and yesterday the falling spring, 15. miles from here; so that there remains no other excursion: to enliven the two remaining weeks. ... I believe in fact that the spring with the Hot and Warm are those of the first merit. The sweet springs retain esteem, but in limited cases." 1818 August 14. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph).

"I do not know what may be the effect of this course of bathing on my constitution; but I am under great threats that it will work it's effect thro' a system of boils. A large swelling on my seat, increasing for several days past in size and hardness disables me from sitting but on the corner of a chair. Another swelling begins to manifest itself to-day on the other seat."  1818 August 21. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph).

"I am lately returned from the warm springs with my health entirely prostrated by the use of the waters. They produced an imposthume and eruptions which with the torment of the journey back reduced me to the last stage of weakness and exhaustion. I am getting better, but still obliged to lie night and day in the same reclined posture which renders writing painful."  1818 September 11. (Jefferson to Francis Wayles Eppes).

Jefferson’s letter of September 12, 1818 to Dr. Thomas Cooper stated that he had returned from the Warm Springs several days earlier though not in the condition he had hoped but instead “in prostrated health, from the use of the waters. Their effect, and the journey back reduced me to the last stage of exhaustion; but I am recovering.” He explained his brevity in writing as a result of not being able to sit erect due to pain.

On October 6, 1818, Jefferson wrote to Colonel William Alston who must have provided some “gay company” to Jefferson during his visit to the springs as he was sending Alston wine and hoping for him to visit Monticello. He tells the colonel, “I became seriously affected afterwards by the continuance of the use of the waters. They produced imposthume [abscess], eruption, with fever, colliquative [profuse] sweats and extreme debility. These sufferings, aggravated by the torment of long & rough roads, reduced me to the lowest stage of exhaustion by the time I got home. I have been on the recovery some time, & still am so; but not yet able to sit erect for writing.”

On December 27, 1818, Jefferson wrote John Jackson that he appreciated the kind interest Jackson had concerning Jefferson’s health and claimed, “my trial of the Warm springs was certainly ill advised. for I went to them in perfect health, and ought to have reflected that remedies of their potency must have effect some way or other. if they find disease they remove it; if none, they make it. altho’ I was reduced very low, I may be said to have been rather on the road to danger, than in actual danger.”

Martha Jefferson Randolph image from Rufus W. Griswold, The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington. New and rev. ed. (New York, 1856), plate opposite 219. First ed., 1855.

Martha (“Patsy”) Jefferson(1772-1836) was born at Monticello in Albemarle County, Virginia, one of the 6 children of Thomas & Martha Wayles Jefferson.  When Patsy was 10 years old her mother died, & over the following years she became increasingly close to her father. In 1784, Patsy accompanied her father to Paris, where she attended the Abbaye Royale de Panthémont convent school.  Later that year Patsy returned to Virginia with her father & came to marry her 2nd cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph (1768-1828). They had 11 children. When her father became President, Jefferson sought to establish a presidential culture that more resembled life on Virginia plantation abolishing the elegant “levee” receptions of the presidencies of Washington & Adams. Patsy served as hostess for her father on numerous social occasions during his presidency, & worked to implement her father’s more egalitarian style by calling first on socially prominent women new to the capital instead of expecting them to call upon her.  After her father retired from public life, she moved into Monticello with him, where she continued to preside as mistress of the house, even while her husband served as governor of Virginia.  She was forced to sell Monticello after her father’s death in 1826, and died 10 years later at the age of 64.