Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sarah Gratz's Mysterious Malady

Sarah (called Sally) Gratz was two years older than Rebecca and was probably closer to her than any of her other siblings. Certainly Rebecca would write that Sally was "the darling of my infant years and the sharer of every after scene of my life and the faithful sympathizer of all my cares." Both were intelligent, sensible women with literary interests and many of the same friends. Their difference: Sarah had an edge which Rebecca lacked. She did not suffer fools gladly, liked to argue and if argument was socially inappropriate would show her irritation through smirks, sighs and maybe even some muttering under her breath. (At first, I was rather taken with a young woman who could not always meet the standards of deportment of the day, but as Sarah's story unfolded I came to feel that her behavior might have been an early symptom of her malady.)

As they entered their thirties unmarried, Rebecca and Sarah must have had the consolation of each other's companionship in their role as housekeepers for their unmarried brothers. However, in 1811-12, something began to happen to Sarah and thereafter recurrent mention in the family correspondence is made of her unspecified ill health. Rebecca took her to Harper's Ferry (a considerable trip) in 1812 and to the seashore at Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1813, with the hope that the natural beauty and healthful air of these places would improve Sally's condition.

In 1813 Rebecca had originally planned to take Sally to Saratoga Springs and stop on the way to visit their Aunt Shinah near Troy, New York. Their Uncle Nicholas had been pleading with them to come because Shinah's health was deteriorating and he felt she would benefit from their company. But at the last minute the trip was cancelled -- due to Sally's ill health -- in favor of the short stay at the Jersey shore later in the season. Uncle Nicholas was hurt by his nieces' "apparent neglect," and Rebecca, probably stung by his criticism, must have determined to see her aunt as soon as it was feasible.

In August 1814, the two sisters set out for Troy and Saratoga Springs. The trip must have started with Sally in good health but quickly become a nightmare. We get some sense of its difficulties through the letters of their friend Eliza Fenno Verplanck who was supposed to meet the Gratz sisters at Troy, and go on to the spa with them. When Eliza arrived at Troy, she learned that the Rebecca and Sarah had already left for Ballston Spa, another watering place close by Saratoga; at Ballston, she found they had gone on to Saratoga. This is not characteristic behavior for Rebecca, and we finally find out what was happening, after Eliza met them at last in Saratoga Springs. In a letter to her sister, Eliza wrote:

"Sally's case I think a hopeless one, her conduct at times would warrant the belief of a possession by an evil spirit, but at other times she is sunk in dejection and you cannot but feel the strongest sympathy for her. Poor Becky has a life of suffering too, her patience and forbearance exceeds all belief; her days and nights are sacrificed to Sally's whims and her feelings are either shocked by some instance of folly or she is tormented with the fear of her [Sally's] sinking into melancholy."

It is always questionable to diagnose someone two hundred years after the fact, but it would seem most likely that Sarah suffered from bipolar disorder (old name: manic depression). Rebecca also had a nephew Gratz Etting who gave up his legal career and returned to Philadelphia to live with his parents because from time to time he became a "perfect maniac" and had to be taken into private care. This, too, is suggestive of bipolar, especially since there is often a genetic component to the disorder. If there was in fact a hereditary risk in the family, the Gratz's were fairly lucky: only Sarah and Gratz Etting seem to have suffered.

To learn how doctors treated Sarah's malady, click here.

(Rebecca's description of her relationship with Sarah is from a letter dated January 26, 1818, in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. Nicholas Schuyler's letter of September 1, 1813, is from the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. Eliza Fenno Verplanck's letter is in the Fenno-Hoffman Papers at the University of Michigan. The description of Gratz Etting as a "perfect maniac" is from a letter from Maria Gist Gratz [Benjamin's wife] to her mother Mrs. Charles Scott, dated January 9, 1831, and is in the Gratz Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.)

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