Wrist Injury (1786)

Around September 18, 1786, Jefferson dislocated his right wrist in a fall. The date is not certain, although there is an entry in his Memorandum Books for two surgeons on the 18th. According to contemporary reports, the injury occurred when he attempted to jump a fence in the Cours-la-Reine in Paris, France. Two surgeons set his bones, but not well, and he suffered wrist pain for the rest of his life. The accident forced him to stay in his house for a month and his secretary, William Short, had to write his letters for him. For a few months, he used his left hand to write letters including the infamous "Head and Heart" letter on October 12 to Maria Cosway. The dislocation also cut short sightseeing with Maria Cosway and postponed his journey to the south of France.

Primary Source References

1786 September 18. "Pd. two Surgeons 12f."[1]

1786 September 20. (William Franklin to L.G. Le Veillard). "Day before yesterday, Mr. Jefferson dislocated his right wrist when attempting to jump over a fence in the Petit Cours."[2]

1786 September 22. (Jefferson in William Short's handwriting to William Carmichael). "An indisposition likely to continue some time will necessarily retard his answer to the rest."[3]

1786 September 23. (Jefferson in William Short's handwriting to William Stephens Smith). "My dislocated wrist prevents my writing to you in my own hand."[4]

1786 September 25. (James Smith to Jefferson). "Knowing that your excellency has received a dislocation I shall not require an answer in writing with out it is as well as I wish."[5]

1786 October 1. (William Stephens Smith to Jefferson). "We pray for your speedy recovery. Mr. A. is very anxious to know how you hurt yourself. Will you enable me to answer him?"[6]

'1786 October 5. (Jefferson in his left hand to Maria Cosway). "I have passed the night in so much pain that I have not closed my eyes. It is with infinite regret therefore that I must relinquish your charming company for that of a Surgeon whom I have sent for to examine into the cause of this change. I am in hopes it is only the having rattled a little too freely over the pavement yesterday."[7]

1786 October 5. (Maria Cosway to Jefferson). "I am very, very sorry indeed, and... [missing words] for having been the Cause of your pains in the [Night]."[8]

1786 October 9. (John Trumbull to Jefferson). "I am very sorry to learn from them [the Cosways] the unfortunate accident which has happen'd to you; much pain it must have cost you; and it will require great attention lest the consequences should be still more disagreeable than the present suffering. Your intended tour I hope you will not undertake untill your Arm is perfectly able to bear the motion of the Carriage."[9]

1786 October 13. (Jefferson to John Trumball). "I intended to have visited the South of France this fall, but am prevented by this unlucky accident to my wrist which I cannot in the least use yet. We are now however satisfied that it is set, and that time alone is necessary for it's restablishment. In the mean time the left hand is learning to perform the functions of the right. This however it does awkwardly and slowly. It is with pleasure it executes that of assuring you of the sincere esteem which I have the honor to be Dear Sir your friend and servant."[10]

1786 October 15. (Jefferson to Vergennes). "The accident of dislocated wrist has for some time past prevented me the honor of paying my respects to the King and to yourself at Versailles. The slowness of the cure seems likely to delay that honor for some time to come."[11]

1786 October 22. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell. It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may. As yet I have no use of that hand, and as the other is an awkward scribe, I must be sententious and not waste words."[12]

1786 November 2. (John Banister, Jr. to Jefferson). "Mr. Short in a letter he wrote me gave me the disagreeable intelligence of your having been prevented undertaking your intended journey by the ill effects of a fall the consequences or which I hope are not serious."[13]

1786 November 3. (John Trumbell to Jefferson). "I am very sorry to learn that the hurt of your Arm is of such tedious consequence. Yet your philosophy draws good from the evil, and the accomplishment of writing with the left hand, which you have already, a merveille, is some consolation."[14]

1786 November 19. (Jefferson to Maria Cosway). "I begin, my dear Madam, to write a little with the right hand, and you are by promise, as well as by inclination entitled to it’s first homage. But I write with pain and must be short...The friendly letter I have received from you might have been taken as a release from my promise: but you are saved by a cruel cramp in my hand which admonishes me in every line to condense my thoughts and words."[15]

1786 November 19. (Jefferson to Zachariah Loreilhe). "A dislocated wrist has for two months passed disabled me from writing myself. I begin to write a little, but with pain. I am strongly advised to go to the waters of Aix, for the reestablishment of my arm, and am inclined to do it, if business permits."[16]

1786 November 29. (John Trumball to Jefferson). "I am sorry to learn from Colo. S. that his last letters from you were still written with the left hand. I hope however that ere this time you begin to recover the use of the right."[17]

1786 December 14. (Jefferson to Elizabeth Wayles Eppes). "I am obliged to cease writing. An unfortunate dislocation of my right wrist has disabled me from writing three months. I have as yet no use of it, except that I can write a little, but slowly and in great pain. I shall set out in a few days to the South of France to try the effect of some mineral waters there."[18]

1786 December 15. (Jefferson to Eliza House Trist). "The true cause of the delay has been an unlucky dislocation of my wrist which has disabled me from writing three months. I only begin to write a little now, but with pain."[19]

1786 December 16. (Jefferson to James Madison). "After a very long silence, I am at length able to write to you. An unlucky dislocation of my right wrist has disabled me from using my pen for three months. I now begin to use it a little, but with great pain; so that this letter must be taken up at such intervals as the state of my hand will permit, and will probably be the work of some days. Tho' the joint seems to be well set, the swelling does not abate, nor the use of it return. I am therefore on the point of setting out for the South of France to try the use of some mineral waters there, by immersion. This journey will be of 2. or 3. months."[20]

1786 December 17. (William Carmichael to Jefferson). "An Article I saw in the Gazette of Paris some time ago, gives me some uneasiness for your health."[21]

1786 December 17. (Jefferson to Charles Thomson). "A dislocation of my right wrist has for three months past disabled me from writing except with my left hand, which was too slow and awkward to be employed but in cases of necessity. I begin to have so much use of my wrist as to be able it write, but it is slowly and in pain."[22]

1786 December 18. (Jefferson to James Monroe). "My last to you was of the 11th. of August. Soon after that date I got my right wrist dislocated, which has till now deprived me of the use of my pen: and even now I can use it but slowly and with pain."[23]

1786 December 20. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "'Not having any letters on my file unanswered, I shall not trouble you further.' --Is this you? --Did you count to 10. distinctly between the origin of that thought, and the committing it to paper? How could you, my dear Sir, add reproach to misfortune with a poor cripple who but now begins to use his pen a little, and that with so much pain that it is real martyrdom?...My wrist forbids my adding more than assurances of the sincere esteem with which I am Dr. Sir your friend and servant."[24]

1786 December 21. (Jefferson to Abigail Adams). "AN unfortunate dislocation of my right wrist has for three months deprived me of the honor of writing to you. I begin now to use my pen a little, but it is in great pain, and I have no other use of my hand. The swelling has remained obstinately the same for two months past, and the joint, tho I believe well set, does not become more flexible. I am strongly advised to go to some mineral waters at Aix in Provence, and I have it in contemplation."[25]

1786 December 23. (Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin). "A dislocated wrist, not yet re-established, obliges me to conclude here with assurances..."[26]

1786 December 23. (Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson). "A dislocation of my right wrist, which happened to me about a month after the date of my last letter to you has disabled me from writing 3. months. I do it now in pain and only in cases of necessity or of strong inclination having as yet no other use of my hand."[27]

1786 December 24. (Jefferson to James Maury). "Your favor of the 17th. of Sep. came to hand a few days after a dislocation of my right wrist had disabled me from writing. I only now begin to write a little, and that with pain."[28]

1786 December 25. (Jefferson to C.W.F. Dumas). "A dislocation of my right wrist has for upwards of three months prevented me the honour of writing to you. I begin to use it a little for the pen, but it is with great pain."[29]

1786 December 26. (Jefferson to William Carmichael). "A note from me of the 22d. of Sep. apprised you it would be some time before I shall be able to answer your letters. I did not then expect it would have been so long. A dislocation of my right wrist three or four days before that has disabled me from writing till lately, and I know write in great pain and only in cases of necessity."[30]

1786 December 27. (Jefferson to Thomas Barclay). "For American news I must refer you to Mr. Carmichael, a dislocation of my right wrist making it still painful to me to write. It recovers so slowly that I am much disposed to take the advice of my Surgeon and try some mineral waters in Provence."[31]

1787 January 9. (Jefferson to John Jay). "This delay may be well enough ascribed (whenever I shall have received new powers) to a journey I had before apprised the minister that I should be obliged to take some mineral waters in the South of France, to see if by their aid I may recover the use of my right hand, of which a dislocation about 4. months ago threatens to deprive me in a great measure."[32]

1787 January 29. (Abigail Adams to Jefferson). "I received by Col. Franks your obliging favour and am very sorry to find your wrist still continues lame; I have known very salutary effects produced by the use of British oil upon a sprained joint. I have sent a servant to see if I can procure some. You may rest assured that if it does no good: it will not do any injury."[33]

1787 January 30. (Jefferson to James Madison). "In a former letter I mentioned to you the dislocation of my wrist. I can make not the least use of it, except for the single artifice of writing, tho' it is going on five months since the accident happened. I have great anxieties lest I should never recover any considerable use of it. I shall, by the advice of my Surgeons, set out in a fortnight for the waters of Aix in Provence."[34]

1787 February 18. (Jefferson to Thomas Barclay). "I was unlucky enough to dislocate my right wrist five months ago, and tho' it was well set, I can yet make no use of it but to write. I am advised to try mineral waters, and those of Aix in Provence being as much recommended as any others, I am induced to go to them..."[35]

1787 February 18. (Jefferson to William Carmichael). "I was unlucky enough five months ago to dislocate my right wrist, and tho' well set, I have as yet no use of it expect that I can write, but in pain. I am advised to try the use of the mineral waters..."[36]

1787 April 4. (William Short to Jefferson). "I hope you will let me know in your next whether the one [waters] or the other [sunshine] has shewn any influence on your wrist."[37]

1787 April 7. (Jefferson to William Short). "Having taken 40. douches, without any sensible benefit, I thought it useless to continue them. My wrist strengthens slowly: it is to time I look as the surest remedy, and that I believe will restore it at length."[38]

1787 April 14. (Francis Hopkinson to Jefferson). "I am sorry for the Misfortune of your Wrist. I hope it is recovered before this. The next Time you perform this Maneuver I would recommend your left Wrist for the Experiment. You will find it much more convenient than the Right and it can be every bit as well strain'd."[39]

1787 April 23. (James Madison to Jefferson). "The accident to your wrist was first made known to me by these communications. I learnt with satisfaction from Col. Franks that the pain and weakness was apparently going off, and ardently with that your projected trip to the South of France may produce a radical cure."[40]

1787 April 28. (Charles Thomson to Jefferson). "I have received your favour of the 17 Decr. last and am very sorry to hear of your misfortune. I hope before this time you have perfectly recovered the use of your wrist."[41]

1787 May 2. (James Currie to Jefferson). "I was sorry to understand by the Governor E.R. Esqr. you had received an Injury in one of your arms or hands. I hope it is well before you read this letter."[42]

1787 May 5. (Jefferson to William Short). "You enquire kindly of the effect of the waters on my wrist. None at all. But time is doing slowly what they cannot do. It strengthens a little."[43]

1787 June 5. (C.W.F. Dumas to Jefferson). "Short's last letter causes him to hope that TJ has returned to Paris in good health and particularly that he has recovered 'la libre usage d'une main si bien faisante et si utile a la patrie et a l'humanite."[44]

1787 June 6. (Eliza House Trist to Jefferson). "The pain with which you wrote renders indeed the proof of your condecending goodness the more flattering to me; but I could not wish for it untill you recover strength eno' to perform those offices with inconvenience."[45]

1787 July 1. (Jefferson to [John Adams]). "I returned about three weeks ago from a very useless voiage. Useless, I mean, as to the object which first suggested it, that of trying the effects of the mineral waters of Aix en Provence on my hand. I tired these because recommended among six or eight others as equally beneficial, and because they would place me at the beginning of a tour to the seaports..."[46]

1787 July 6. (Jefferson to Miguel de Lardizabel y Uribe). "I have had a journey of between three and four months through the Southern parts of France and Northern Italy. It has been very agreeable but the effects of the waters of Aix were not sensible on my wrist which reestablishes itself slowly."[47]

1787 July 27. (James Monroe to Jefferson). "You mentioned in your last the injury you had sustained in your wrist. How did it happen? I hope you found your trip to the south of advantage."[48]

1787 July 28. (Jefferson to Henry Skipwith). "A long journey has prevented me from writing to any of my friends for some time past. This was undertaken with a view to benefit a dislocated and ill-set wrist by the mineral waters of Aix in Provence."[49]

1787 August 12. (Jefferson to George Gilmore). "The accident of a dislocated wrist, badly set, has I fear deprived me for ever of almost every use of my right hand. Nor is the extent of the evil as yet known, the hand withering, the fingers remaining swelled and crooked, and losing rather than gaining in point of suppleness. It is now eleven months since the accident. I am able however to write, tho for a long time I was not so."[50]

1787 December 23. (George Gilmore to Jefferson). "It afforded me pleasure to hear from Mr. Wythe while in Richmond that he supposed you had got over the inconvenience of your luxation. If not let me advise you to abandon cataplasms, poultices and Goulards extract, and rely on a flesh brush, Electricy, and friction with powdered bark, what presumption you'l say, when you have had the skill of the ablest Parisians. I sincerely hope the complaint is removed."[51]

1788 December 16. (Jefferson to George Gilmore). "I thank you for your kind enquiries about my wrist. I followed advice with it till I saw visibly that the joint had never been replaced, and that it was absurd to expect that cataplasms and waters would reduce dislocated bones. From that moment I have done nothing. I have forever lost the use of my hand, except that I can write, and a withered hand and swelled and crooked fingers still remain 27. months after the accident make me fear I do not yet know the worst of it. But this too we will talk over at Monticello, and endeavor that it be the only pain to which our attention may be recalled."[52]

c1810. (Philip Mazzei). “To avert a fall in the Champs Elysees, he dislocated his right wrist and was no longer able to use his right hand.”[53]

Before 1836. (Martha Jefferson Randolph). “At one o’clock he always rode or walked. He frequently walked as far as seven miles in the country. Returning from one of those rambles, he was joined by some friend, and being earnestly engaged in conversation he fell and fractured his wrist. He said nothing at the moment, but holding his suffering limb with the other hand, he continued the conversation till he arrived near to his own house, when, informing his companion of the accident, he left him to send for the surgeon. The fracture was a compound one, and probably much swollen before the arrival of the surgeon; it was not set, and remained ever after weak and stiff. While disabled by the accident, he was in the habit of writing with his left hand, in which he soon became tolerably expert, the writing being well formed, but stiff.”[54]


  1. MB, 1:639.
  2. W.T. Papers, American Philosophical Society. http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/mole/f/franklin/franklinw.htm
  3. PTJ, 10:397.
  4. Ibid, 400.
  5. Ibid, 402.
  6. Ibid, 417-418.
  7. Ibid, 431-432.
  8. Ibid, 433.
  9. Ibid, 438.
  10. Ibid, 460.
  11. Ibid, 467.
  12. 478.
  13. 503.
  14. Ibid, 506.
  15. 542.
  16. Ibid, 543.
  17. Ibid, 556.
  18. Ibid, 594.
  19. Ibid, 600.
  20. Ibid, 602.
  21. Ibid, 607.
  22. Ibid, 608.
  23. Ibid, 611-612.
  24. 620.
  25. Ibid, 621.
  26. Ibid, 624.
  27. Ibid,626.
  28. Ibid, 628.
  29. Ibid, 630.
  30. Ibid, 632.
  31. Ibid, 638.
  32. Ibid, 11:31.
  33. Ibid, 86.
  34. 96.
  35. 163.
  36. Ibid, 164-165.
  37. Ibid, 267.
  38. Ibid, 280.
  39. Ibid, 289.
  40. Ibid, 307.
  41. Ibid, 323.
  42. Ibid, 330.
  43. Ibid, 350.
  44. Ibid, 397.
  45. Ibid, 403.
  46. Ibid, 515-516.
  47. Ibid, 553.
  48. Ibid, 631.
  49. 635-636.
  50. Ibid, 12: 26.
  51. Ibid, 453.
  52. Ibid, 14:361.
  53. http://tjportal.monticello.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=2411 ‘’Philip Mazzei: My Life & Wanders’’]], (Morristown NJ: American Institute of Italian Studies, 1980), 412.
  54. Randall, Life, 1:456.

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