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.
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.
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.
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.
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.