Patrick Henry’s Crazy Wife in the Basement

Patrick Henry

My boy is doing a school report on Patrick Henry. Something I didn’t know about Patrick Henry is that his wife went insane in 1771 and was subsequently kept in a straitjacket in the basement of the family home.

This throws a whole new light on the “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. There’s even a novel that suggests the phrase was first spoken by Henry’s wife!

My first thought was: As the husband of an insane person myself, I can tell you that it stirs up a whirlwind of things in your mind, including the sense that there are in fact fates worse than death.

And my second thought was: I wish these darn California houses had a basement . . .

  26 comments for “Patrick Henry’s Crazy Wife in the Basement

  1. Stefanie Fernandez
    27 Aug 2006 at 3:33 pm

    His wife had post-partem depression and she was never in a straight jacket! Yes, she did live in a basement but she also had a HUGE fireplace, servants, all the comforts she could ever want, and a view of the garden. So if you want to contine being a loserfish and believing that fine, but she was never mistreated or wanted “freedom” from a straight jacket.

  2. PE
    29 Aug 2006 at 10:52 pm

    Hi Stefanie —

    Thanks for your comment, even though you called me a loserfish.

    Since I wasn’t there, I have to rely on historical sources, which differ in their description of the case. Some, as you probably know, do specifically refer to a straitjacket; I didn’t make it up.

    Everyone agrees about the basement though, so let’s think about that for a minute. Why did this woman have to be confined to the basement? That’s not a common treatment for post-partum depression, is it? Why couldn’t she enjoy the servants, the fireplace and the view of the garden from the main house with the rest of the family?

    Again, I wasn’t there, but people who are uncontrollably violent may need to be physically isolated or restrained, for their own safety as much as anything.

    • Jujubees
      12 Mar 2018 at 5:51 pm

      Please read more in history… Sarah was placed in the basement (Sunnyside of the home) because insanity was considered taboo. The way you worded your comment made you sound like an idiot… (And my second thought was: I wish these darn California houses had a basement . . .) Glad I’m not related to you. Patrick Henry loved his wife and chose to keep her home rather than at the torments of the insane asylum of that day. And please note…Sarah never was quoted as saying “give me liberty or give me death” in fact she was mute a few years after her 6th baby was born.

  3. Stefanie Fernandez
    26 Sep 2006 at 1:26 pm

    Well it was either the basement or the mental “hospital”, which was more like a prison. She the main reason was that she was hurting herself and the children, as most post partem depression victims do.

  4. Brandon
    26 Oct 2006 at 9:33 am

    They thought she might kill her children, so they locked her in a basement and isolated her from them. She was never allowed alone with them again.

  5. Brandon
    26 Oct 2006 at 9:35 am

    They feared she might kill her children, so they locked her down in the basement. But yes, she was “cared” for. However, she was never allowed alone with her daughters again. That much is true.

  6. krista deems
    19 Oct 2007 at 11:06 am

    yay that is great there is a novel call or give me death by ann rinaldi read it its about his family peace out girl scott

  7. Charlotte Mayr
    20 Dec 2007 at 7:02 pm

    i read that book, “or give me death”, its extremely good. and i do recomend it to anyone who’s interested in Patrick Henry. what i dont get is, if he wife was basically a prisioner (yes, i do realise that it was for her on good, and for her family’s good) then why the heck would he say his most famous line, “give me liberty or give me death”? i mean, im only 13, but isnt that kind of being a hyporcrit? (dont know how to spell that, sorry).

  8. melodey
    4 Nov 2008 at 5:44 pm

    wow you guys helped me a lot my little girl is doing a report on him and it helped her so much.

  9. Gray Eye
    25 Nov 2008 at 9:58 am

    I have had to read the same book, now I’m doing somesort of collage (cant spell :P) but anyway it seems nearly impossiable to find any pictures of his family or his wife. Thanks for the brief history. 🙂 The book is acctualy surprisingly accurate for a fictatious work, and I do recomend it to anyone visitng this site.

  10. The Pilot
    4 Dec 2008 at 6:27 am

    When they locked her in the basement that was probably the best thing to do that they knew about at the time. I wonder what we do today that we think is humane and appropriate, that in 200 years future people will look back on and think is cruel or barbarous.

  11. 8 Jan 2009 at 5:44 pm

    hi i am also doing a report on him does anyone know what book i can get at an elementary book place

  12. tracie
    20 Mar 2009 at 9:38 am

    Patrick Henry’s wife most likely had postpardem psychosis rather than depression and the fact that she was locked away was probably because this disorder was not recognized until 1850. They didn’t know how to treat her. They were still under the Elizabethan belief of the four humors that existed within everyone and when those humors were out of balance sometimes they would drain fluid for that person’s body.

  13. donna keeler
    4 Jul 2009 at 9:39 am

    Someone needs to do their homework. I lived next door to Patick Henry’s birthplace (that’s the one with the crazy wife) in Virginia for many years, and you really should take the tour before you defend the noble Mr. Henry’s personal life. Her room in the basement (as it is preserved to this day) is hardly more than a dark, gloomy cell more below ground than above ground as basements were in those days – actually, it’s in the foundation of the house. The fireplace is quite small (hardly adequate for what can be very cold, Va. winters), and if she could “see a garden” she had to stand on her tiptoes to do so through a very small window. In fact, my horse’s stall is larger than her accommodations were. Then, there’s the problem of the math — her age when married and her age at her death are well known – if you add the number of children she had in very rapid succession – it’s obvious that several of the last children (maybe even the last 2 or 3) were conceived while she was so “mad” she had to be locked in the basement. Obviously, Mr. Henry had the key. Perhaps he was a patriot, but a decent human being – not so much. When the poor lady finally died (I guess to escape Mr. Henry’s abuse), she was buried in an unmarked grave because of the “shame” of her illness. Shame on you Mr. Henry.

  14. Nancy Simpson
    17 Jul 2009 at 11:12 pm

    No offense, Donna, but your supposition of his “cruelty” is predicated upon his understanding that pregnancy was related to her postpartum psychosis. In modern times, Rusty Yates was told this by the doctors and continued to have children anyway–but I don’t think we can assume that Mr. Henry had any idea of the connection between pregnancy and psychosis. Most likely, as with many women with postpartum psychosis, she had times of lucidity that may have lead him to believe that the troubles were over. As Tracie pointed out this disorder was not even recognized until 1850 and I do not think we can assume that Mr. Henry would have had any idea that sex was related to the “humors”, nor can we assume that she was psychotic all the time.

  15. Ginny
    25 Oct 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I know this thread is probably dead but I just wanted to toss in my two cents. I would never say Patrick Henry was a great person, since obviously I never met him. It’s very difficult to know what sort of person someone was, simply based on historical and personal accounts that may add up to little truth. I imagine that, like all people, he had good and bad qaulities. You can have a great conversation with a guy at a party, and walk away thinking he is a wonderful person, then find out later that he openly cheats on his significant other.

    As for the children born after his wife’s confinement, whether the fact appeals to our modern sensibilities, marriage in those days was based on something very different then today. A husband and wife had a responsibility to produce as many children as possible. There was always a chance that a child would die, so you couldn’t simply stop at three, and hope for the best. And it’s possible even his wife might have wanted more children, thinking that might cure her.

    I’m fully of the belief that people living in the past should not be judged by today’s standards. For one thing they are not here to defend themselves. For another, keep in mind what a previous poster said about the future. 200 years from now humans may look open us with absolute digust and censure for eating meat or keeping animals, including human criminals, in captivity. Think about how you would defend your practices and beliefs to them.

  16. Siobhan
    19 Nov 2009 at 10:36 am

    wow. now that is just amazing!i wounder what made her go mad, and which wife it was!

  17. veronica garrett
    11 Dec 2009 at 10:41 am

    some 1 told me patrick henry was gay is that true??? i am 14 and im doing a paper on him and i would like to know thats all. thnx

  18. 21 Nov 2010 at 3:29 pm

    in my personal opinion, i agree with the previous comments about what people would think 200 years from now. you think keeping a “mad” woman in your basment is barbaric, for all you know people may do this again in 200 years or so. Then again they may think it is preposterous along with texting. We also may be debating on the same matter.

  19. yay!
    30 Nov 2010 at 2:06 pm

    same wit me. Im supposed to write 10, 250 word essays by next thursday!!!!!! I just found out about this today!!!!!!!!!!!!!Lets say, I’m scr00ged

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