Monday, March 29, 2010

Passover at the Gratz's

In April 1835, Julia Hoffman, the daughter of Rebeccca's late friend Maria Fenno Hoffman, was visiting with the Gratz's. She wrote to her brother George:

"This week is Passover. It commenced on Monday evening with the Passover supper eaten as it is ordered in the bible with the bitter herbs. At that I was not present as no Christian is permitted to be there. After the first supper we had tea and then portions of the Psalms read in English. For the rest of the week all goes on as usual except that we are eating hard crackers instead of bread. They are like sea biscuits [a kind of cracker eaten by sailors] only made very thin and are really quite good. The modern Jews certainly do not suffer from hard living in this week for there are some very good dishes and cakes invented especially for it. One thing they have called Haroseth which is an intended imitation of brick and mortar and is one of the best kinds of confectionery I have ever tasted."

Rebecca Gratz's recipe for Haroset may survive; if it does turn up in a collection of documents I have just begun to read, I will present it to you before next Passover.

(For more information about Julia Hoffman, see the post dated February 2, 2010. Julia's letter is in the Fenno-Hoffman Papers at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rebecca Gratz on the Transportation Revolution in Antebellum America

In 1848 Rebecca wrote that her brother Ben's ward Mary Boswell, in from Kentucky, had been invited to a "Fancy Ball" in New York City:

"Whether Mary will go or not, I cannot tell -- she went a few weeks ago (when her Uncle Jo had some business there) to an Opera. Since the Railroad affords such easy travelling--an 100 miles to a frolic is no such great affair -- five hours will suffice. When we had to travel in stages [by stagecoach], it took some time to make up one's mind for the journey -- and two days were necessary to complete it."

That -- in a nutshell -- describes the great revolution in land transportation which took place during the thirty years preceding the Civil War: from two days to New York by stage to five hours by train for Philadelphians. And the trains could carry freight as well.

Mary Boswell, who had studied voice, had probably gone to New York for an Italian opera, a musical form which had gained popularity with American audiences in the first half of the nineteenth century. Hearing her sing arias from Italian operas gave Rebecca a taste for another phenomenon with which she had been unfamiliar in her youth.

(The letter quoted is in The Letters of Rebecca Gratz, which is accessible through Google Books.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Treating Sarah's Malady. Part 2

(See the post dated March 2, 2010, for Part 1. Note that Sarah Gratz was called Sally by her family.)

After Sarah's blistering, Rebecca wrote to her brother Jo: "You will find our dear Sally is not better and of course little comfort [is] enjoyed by the rest of the family. She is now suffering great pain from a blister but I hope it will prove beneficial. It will at least keep her in her room a few days which must be useful as I can perceive company and exercise increase her disease."

When their youngest brother Benjamin was able to get leave to come home for Yom Kippur, Sarah created emotional havoc. After he returned to camp, Rebecca wrote to him: "We have had no more such scenes as distrest you so much . . . [the doctors] have changed Sally's medicine. They now give her some powders that will confine her to her room (not ever easy) and I have some prospect of getting a very good nurse . . ." Sedation, then, was another method physicians used to counter her symptoms temporarily.

Sarah herself added a postscript to this letter, describing, "the formidable visit of Physicians." She maintained, "I sit alone and of course quarrel with no one." She also mentioned that she had been bled and felt "more tranquil today." The third treatment of choice was bleeding which was the universal panacea, and weakened Sarah enough to quiet her for a time.

The letters of September 1814 are the only ones from the time of Sarah's illness which give any hint of the strain her disorder was having on the family. The comfortable, loving home which Rebecca associated with her mother and would certainly have wished to maintain for her brothers was impossible with Sarah jibing at her siblings constantly. Also from September is a receipt for the repair of pieces of jewelry; perhaps this is just a coincidence but Sarah's energies may have led her to destructiveness. There is no indication that she was delusional or a danger to herself or others, but it is clear that Rebecca's plan for a nurse meant that Sarah needed to be under constant watch. (We don't know if a nurse was ever employed.)

In November 1814 Rebecca reported that Sarah had "lost all the exuberance of spirits that annoyed her so much last summer . . . now more languid, her nerves are so much shaken by these extremes that every sudden change alarms me." The few letters which exist from 1815-1816 make no mention of further episodes although their number is so small that Sarah could easily have endured another attack in the months intervening.

Then at the beginning of February 1817 Rebecca wrote to her friend Maria Fenno Hoffman that Sarah was sick, her disorder characterized by "sleepless nights," a symptom she had suffered in earlier manic episodes. This time the doctor ordered that she be dieted and bled, two sure ways to weaken her. Still, not sleeping could have been due to physical problems and dieting and bleeding could have been ordered for virtually everything. The disease which was affecting her is uncertain, but the outcome was not.

Sarah Gratz died on February 20, 1817. There are no letters describing her last days. Perhaps her death was tied to her nervous disorder: an accident or a suicide. Or perhaps the treatments to weaken her manic symptoms also weakened her body so much that she was susceptible to a physical disease which killed her.

(Rebecca's letter to Jo is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. The other three letters are in the Gratz Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Treating Sarah's Malady. Part 1

(For the first post about Sarah Gratz and bipolar disorder, click here.)

Medicine, as practiced in antebellum America, was not very different from that of the late Middle Ages. Yet Rebecca Gratz and her family relied completely on their doctors' opinions, and often attributed their recovery to treatments which could not possibly have been responsible.

The placebo effect was probably the physicians' greatest ally, buttressed by patients' renewed confidence in medicine following a real scientific triumph: the smallpox vaccine. Most of Philadelphia's eminent doctors advised their patients to be vaccinated -- with beneficial results which went beyond the subjective. The same men ordered purging and bleeding and their patients accepted these treatments as well.

Her doctors would not have recognized Sarah Gratz's symptoms -- episodes of intense irritability and sleeplessness followed by depression -- as a specific syndrome. (What we call today "bipolar disorder" did not enter the medical literature until the mid-nineteenth century.) They would have realized, however, that it was a disease of the nerves; hence, the trips to places of natural beauty, the accepted remedy for soothing the nervous system.

During the five years of Sarah's illness, family letters referred to her condition only briefly with no hint of its nature or its treatment, except during September 1814, a time of turmoil for not only Sarah, but for the nation. Sarah was already irritable and difficult by the time she and Rebecca reached Saratoga Springs that August. When word was received that the British had burned Washington, everyone scrambled to get home quickly. Rebecca wrote that "the bustle and continual change of travelling, crowded steamboats and company increased [Sally's malady] to a very distressing degree."

Back in Philadelphia, there was no peace at home. The sisters' three younger brothers had been called up to their units and their eldest brother Simon was helping with the civilian defense of the city in the face of what everyone believed was an impending attack by the British. (It never came.) The atmosphere of fear and uncertainty did nothing to alleviate Sarah's symptoms.

Writing to her brothers at military camps outside the city, Rebecca described the methods being used to treat Sarah, all of which had one thing in common: they so debilitated her physically, her manic symptoms weakened as well.

The first of these was blistering, which, along with bleeding and purging, was one of the most frequently used weapons in the medical arsenal. To raise a blister, an irritating substance was applied, usually to the back or the arm. The medical theorists of the time posited that the body could hold only one malady at a time, and, thus, a new disorder (the blister) would drive out Sarah's nervous problem. I feel sure that some practitioners also realized that a new, intense pain would displace the patient's attention from practically anything else from which she was suffering.

(To be continued in the next post here.

(The quote is from an undated letter, but since it is to Benjamin Gratz at Washington Barracks, Kennett Square, it can only be from 1814. It is printed in The Letters of Rebecca Gratz which is accessible through Google Books.)

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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