The mysterious death of Elizabeth Jefferson
On the afternoon of February 21, 1774, Virginia was rocked by the first earthquake in its recorded history. Somewhere around a magnitude 4.5, it was strong enough to rip buildings from their foundations. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson wrote that it “shook the houses so sensibly that every body run out of doors.”
We don’t know how much the shaking may have startled Jefferson’s little sister Elizabeth, who disappeared after the quake. What we do know, according to Jefferson’s account book, is that she was found three days later and buried eleven days after that.
After reading about her death in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, I wanted to know everything I could about this story that had all the makings of a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style family mystery – a bizarre disaster, a missing sister, even a body of water!
What I found was that only a few scant details survived. What surprised me even more was how that didn’t stop two biographers – one a Pulitzer Prize winner – from sensationalizing the facts with their own scintillating details. These authors also jumped to some egregiously shaky conclusions about Elizabeth Jefferson’s life and death.
One tantalizing piece of evidence we have about 30-year-old Elizabeth indicates she was “feeble minded.” Most of what we know about her comes from a single letter written almost a hundred years after her death.
Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Sarah Randolph was writing a book about him based on letters and family memories, and she wrote to family friend Wilson Miles Cary about Elizabeth’s death. He responded, “I have always understood that she was very feeble minded if not an idiot – that she and her maid drowned together while attempting to cross the Rivanna in a skiff.”
|Jefferson’s Monticello is located just across the Rivanna River from Shadwell, his birthplace and the home of his sister in 1774.|
Randolph didn’t speculate on whether an earthquake or a boating accident killed her great-great aunt. Her book’s only mention of Elizabeth was that she was “rather deficient in intellect.” That sounds positively flattering compared to the way later biographers reveled in playing up her mental limitations.
This includes Page Smith, author of Thomas Jefferson: A Revealing Biography. Smith plugged Cary’s “very feeble minded if not an idiot” quote into his tawdry thesaurus and decided the best possible way to describe Elizabeth was by saying she was “perilously close to being mentally retarded.”
Is it just me, or does that sound way worse than actual mental retardation? Smith’s book came out in 1976, so perhaps he was too perilously close to missing his Bicentennial deadline to rein in the adverbs.
A more famous Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone, also danced ineptly around Elizabeth’s intelligence in his Pulitzer Prize winning six-volume “Jefferson and His Time.”
Whether [Jefferson’s mother Jane] exhausted herself in bearing Thomas, or there was some mishap in the delivery, the child she bore just after him was subnormal. The later story of this unfortunate girl can wait, but at least it can be said here that Elizabeth Jefferson afforded little companionship to her well-endowed brother.
Jefferson was so damn brilliant, you see, that his mother was simply exhausted after pushing out his giant well-endowed brain. So exhausted that the “unfortunate girl” who fell from her loins a year later couldn’t possibly provide any companionship to the extraordinary Thomas Jefferson, by far the best thing that ever came out of Jane Jefferson’s tired vagina.
Years later as president, Jefferson had a pet mockingbird named Dick who would follow him around the house, eat from his mouth, and make music with him. Dick was his “constant companion.” Just to be clear, Malone couldn’t imagine Thomas finding any companionship with his subnormal sister, but Dick the Bird was just the ticket.
The irony of a brainiac future president having a mentally challenged sister was just too great for these writers to resist. The problem is the evidence is so minuscule – a letter written a century after her death, and the fact that Jefferson handled his sister’s finances. His account books show he had to check with the executors of their father’s estate to approve purchases ensuring she “should be well dressed.” This would be an unusual arrangement for a typical adult woman, but it surely doesn’t mean she was bad company.
What these exaggerations from Smith and Malone insinuate but never directly ask is the question that makes this story so compelling. Did Elizabeth Jefferson’s intellectual disability have something to do with her death? Maybe that’s what Smith meant by “perilously close” – she didn’t fully qualify for the R word, but she was impaired enough to be a walking time bomb.
But even if Elizabeth’s limitations somehow led to her death, it doesn’t explain how her maid (presumably of typical intelligence) also managed to drown in an earthquake. The maid’s odd presence solely in Cary’s letter makes me wonder if she ever existed at all. Jefferson never mentioned finding and burying anyone but his sister. If Elizabeth was disabled, it might seem neglectful to leave her unattended. If she ran off by herself and ended up dead, rumors of neglect could be avoided by saying her trusty maid was with her the whole time. With the fictional caretaker off the map, no one could refute the story.
MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE
Another mystery in this family drama is what exactly Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote in his account book, “My sister Elizabeth was found last Thursday being Feb. 24.” Page Smith was one of the first biographers to connect the earthquake to Elizabeth’s death, and he gleefully filled in his own details about Elizabeth’s state:
On February 21, 1774, Monticello was shaken by a strong earthquake, which drove everyone from the house. In the excitement Jefferson’s afflicted sister, Elizabeth, then in her thirtieth year, disappeared. It was two days before she was found, more dead than alive. She died a few days later and was buried in the family plot near Dabney Carr.
I have to admire Smith’s style. He knows history can only be recounted with the action-packed language of Lifetime TV movie titles like Shaken, Disappeared, and Buried or awesome band names like “Afflicted Sister.”
But Smith’s most outrageous phrase, and the literary darling he should have killed, is “more dead than alive.” Because it’s completely pulled out of his ass. It can only be a guess based on the ambiguity of Jefferson’s notes – was Elizabeth dead or alive when she was “found” on February 24th? Smith didn’t know, so he hedged his bets on some quasi-state of being that’s more bullshit that fact.
One problem with the killer earthquake story is that we can’t even be sure Elizabeth’s death happened after the quake. An entry in the family prayer book believed to have been written by Jefferson himself listed the date of her death as January 1, 1773 – 14 months earlier than his account book. If he couldn’t nail that down, what hope do we have of piecing together a few disparate notes?
Jon Meacham, also a Pulitzer-winner, had the same source material as Malone and Smith, but wisely chose not to embellish the supposed facts. He wrote:
In the furor, Elizabeth Jefferson, Thomas’s reputedly mentally disabled sister, disappeared from Shadwell. She was found, dead, three days later, after apparently drowning in the Rivanna.
If the cause of death choices were a) earthquake or b) drowning, Meacham chose c) all of the above. But with qualifying words like “reputedly” and “apparently” he’s really saying “seriously though, who the hell knows?”
I’d like to imagine a scenario where everything fits together, but I have trouble with an earthquake strong enough to shake someone out of a boat later that day. Throw in the slave maid and it’s even more implausible, like an all-female version of Huckleberry Finn with the ending from Thelma and Louise. As titillating as it sounds, the earthquake to drowning sequence is just too hard to swallow as anything but a possible coincidence.
I used to think biographers were bound by facts, but using facts as a springboard to jump to conclusions sounds way more fun. I want in on this game.
Let me take a look at one of the primary sources for this story – Thomas Jefferson’s account book for March 1774. Like my biographer friends above, I’ll do my best to take a closer look at the facts and then distort them.
|From Dumas Malone’s “Jefferson the Virginian.”|
From these entries we know when Elizabeth was found, when she was buried, and that the Rivanna River was flooding.
But take another look at the top two notes:
I don’t know how much Elizabeth Jefferson weighed, but I’m guessing it was perilously close to 118 pounds.
Clearly, Elizabeth Jefferson – the feeble-minded girl who Dumas Malone felt had less value to her family than a bird – ended life as a grisly (and gristly) gift from Thomas Jefferson to his unsuspecting mother.
So there you have it. I found two pieces of evidence and connected them to come up with a salacious theory. I’m not sure what happens next. Do I have to reach out to the people at Pulitzer, or will they just leave my award in the comments?
Unfortunately, the only undisputed fact here is that we’ll never know exactly what happened to Elizabeth Jefferson. The truth is likely buried along with her in the Monticello cemetery, and that might be how her family wanted it. Maybe it was too painful for them to write about, or maybe they felt some need to cover up whatever tragedy occurred that winter. Every family has secrets, and this was the South, where they have to use armoires because their closets are so full of skeletons.
Questions like this are part of what makes history so thrilling to me. Even though I’m hopelessly addicted to having instant access to answers at my fingertips, I also love a good unsolved mystery. Especially one I can really sink my teeth into.
UPDATE – October 14, 2020 – I completely missed the fact that the identify of the enslaved maid who died with Elizabeth Jefferson is known. Her name is Little Sall, and we explored this more in our podcast episode “Elizabeth Jefferson’s Earthquake Drowning.”