Sunday, June 8, 2014

52 Ancestors #23: Margaret (Rice) McGhee and the Staunton Lunatic Asylum

Ancestor Name: Margaret (Rice) McGhee

Margaret Rice was born in 1811 and was the grand daughter of David Rice, a Presbyterian minister, known as the Apostle of Kentucky for his work with the Kentucky Abolition Society beginning in the 1790s. When she was 23 years old she married Samuel Henry McGhee, who was 12 years her senior. The couple had seven children between 1832 and 1845. Samuel was a taciturn Scot and brooked no dissension to his point of view. Margaret apparently had a temper and was prone to violent outbursts.

Samuel Henry McGhee II courtesy of member murph39

Margaret spent most of her adult life at the Staunton Lunatic Asylum and during some of her time there kept a log, or diary. Her great granddaughter, Ann (Rice) Biggerstaff wrote Rice and McGhee Families of Bedford County, Virginia in 1982. She includes parts of Margaret's diary in the book:

"The earliest date in the log that I have is December 23, 1857. By April 17, 1858 she was at home but on May 9, 1858 she writes: 'I determine to leave' and on May 18, she writes: 'Arrive at Staunton as a patient.'

Margaret wrote, 'I determine to leave.' The words she chose, leave no doubt as to who was responsible for this incarceration. Peg Maupin wrote, 'I have always been told that great grandmother went to Staunton. She would feel a spell coming on and would ask to be taken to Staunton.' It is possible that the foundation for this was based on an interpretation of this particular entry or on the other hand it might be the actually remembered record of her visits.

One month after her re-entry she made an application for discharge and wrote to Mr. McGhee. It was after another appeal to Mr. McGhee on August 16 that she attempted suicide. In her deepest depression she blamed her 'unjust imprisonment' on 'those who were stronger than Mr. McGhee and forced him to remove her from her home and her children.' On August 16, 1858 she wrote: 'Sent letter to Mr. McGhee.' The next day her single entry was: 'Ate dinner in my room and cried.' The entry for August 23 was longer: 'I wish all my children to know, as my experience may be useful to them, that my health has been better and all my feelings more under the control of reason since I confined myself chiefly to milk and vegetable diet, which enables me to see clearly and follow faithfully the dictates of God -- who bids me come and not wait to be forced to his presence...On this day I swallowed a dose of powdered glass hoping it will relieve my children of my useless existence.'

Western State Hospital, formerly known as the Staunton Lunatic Asylum;
photograph courtesy of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and
Developmental Services

Five days later, she wrote: 'I am nearly recovered from the burning pain in my stomach and bowels from the glass I took.' The next day her entry was: 'I am afraid to make another attempt to kill myself lest I only disable myself and have my family saddled with the expense of a special attendant.'

August 30: 'From the pain I feel this morning I hope the dose I took will not be so powerless as I yesterday feared and I pray if the men ever feel remorse for my untimely end they will do what they will to make it up to my poor wronged childen. I feel that I have done Mr. McGhee injustice in blaming him for what he was driven to do to me.'

August 31: 'I attempted to take another dose of glass but threw up. Got D [doctor] to apply for employment for me.'

September 2: 'Wrote to Mr. McGhee and kept to my bed. Found my letter could do no good, tore it up.'

September 23: 'I feel worse. D says he has advised Mr. McGhee to take me home.'

Gradually she shifts the blame for her incarceration from Mr. McGhee to D and the staff at the institution. Over several weeks they urge her not to lie in bed and to eat more. She is thoroughly depressed and refuses to speak. Sometimes she blows out the candle and covers up her head when D comes to see her.

On December 7 she is told that Mr. McGhee seems not to intend taking her again. 

March 5: 'D in. I would not speak. He paused to see if I was all right and I slammed the door after him.'

March 14: 'D offers me books. I want a discharge.'

March 23: 'D came but I gave him a note desiring him to keep away.'

In April she sent a note to Dr. Stribbling expressing her wish to go home, but she was still at Staunton on 23 May 1859 when the journal ends."

Sometime near the beginning of the Civil War all of the patients of the Staunton Lunatic Asylum were sent to their homes because it was felt the hospital could not insure their safety." 

So she got her wish at long last and was able to return home. She died on 14 December 1871. Margaret (Rice) McGhee's great granddaughters believed she asked to be buried at Staunton for she spent so much of her life there.

Margaret (Rice) McGhee's headstone. She was buried at the Western State Hospital Cemetery;
photograph courtesy of member murph39

Margaret Rice was born on 1 March 1811 in Virginia to William Rice and his second wife, Jane (Walker) Rice. On 23 June 1831 Margaret married Samuel Henry McGhee. Together they had seven children and lived their entire lives in Bedford County, Virginia. Margaret died on 14 December 1871 and is buried at the Western State Hospital Cemetery. Her husband, Samuel, died on 25 February 1877 and is buried in Berkeley Cemetery in Forest, Virginia. The author of Rice and McGhee Families of Bedford County, Virginia, Ann (Rice) Biggerstaff, descends from Samuel and Margaret's daughter, Elizabeth Frances McGhee.