Elizabeth Jefferson’s Earthquake Drowning (Podcast)


The mysterious deaths of Elizabeth Jefferson and Little Sall

In this episode, we explore the lives and mysterious deaths of Elizabeth Jefferson and her enslaved body servant Little Sall, who drowned in the Rivanna River just days after the first recorded earthquake in Virginia’s history.

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Show Notes

Monticello with the Rivanna River in the background, from Monticello.org

In 2014, I wrote a post called The Earthquake That Drowned Thomas Jefferson’s Sister, and it was something I always hoped to revisit. Digging into it more for a podcast episode, I was thrilled to come across a book called The Jeffersons at Shadwell by Susan Kern. It filled in some of the details I’d been missing, and really painted a picture of what life was like for Thomas Jefferson and his family in his pre-Declaration days.

Susan Kern’s book sheds light on the early years of Thomas Jefferson and his family, and the families they enslaved.

This episode is really the story of two families – the Jefferson family and the Evans family, of siblings Thomas and Elizabeth Jefferson, and their enslaved counterparts Jupiter and Little Sall Evans.

Jupiter Evans was Thomas Jefferson’s body servant from the time he was young, by design. He was the same age as Thomas and they likely grew up together as playmates while Jupiter was being groomed to serve Thomas. Jupiter’s handiwork can still be seen at Monticello, in the columns of the east entrance, for example.

Monticello’s entrance columns constructed in part by Jupiter Evans. Photos by Kit Gentry.

But Jupiter’s sister Little Sall – and the woman she served, Elizabeth Jefferson – left behind very little.

There is reason to believe that Elizabeth Jefferson had intellectual disabilities, based on how Thomas took care of her finances and an account of her death from a family friend. Though we know so little about her life, several biographers of Jefferson have irresponsibly and insensitively speculated about Elizabeth’s abilities and her worth to her brother. (This part hits particularly close to home for Jess, who works with children with special needs.)

One example of this writing is from famed Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone:

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.

Ew, Dumas.

This is an episode of tragic and mysterious deaths and family secrets and piecing together what’s left behind.

I can’t promise any less death in next week’s episode, but I can promise a lot less tragedy – and a lot more drugs.

Listen now:

 


Sources:

The Jeffersons at Shadwell by Susan Kern
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharf
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
Jefferson: A Revealing Biography by Page Smith
Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn M. Brodie
Jefferson the Virginian by Dumas Malone
The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson by Sarah N. Randolph
The Randolphs of Virginia by Jonathan Daniels
“Elizabeth Jefferson,” Monticello.org
Virginia Tech Geosciences
“Memorandum Books, 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/02-01-02-0008. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series, Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, vol. 1, ed. James A Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 354–383.] See footnote 13.
Elegy On The Death Of A Poor Idiot, The Christian Observer, Volume 1 1802, page 169
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