Thomas Jefferson was a member of the Rockfish Gap Commission, appointed by the Governor of Virginia and charged with recommending a site for a state university. The commission members gathered at the Mountain House, a resort inn at Rockfish Gap, for a three-day meeting that began on August 1, 1818. After attending the meeting, Jefferson traveled on horseback with James Breckenridge to Warm Springs in Bath County, Virginia, where they arrived on August 8.
It seems that Jefferson went to the springs hoping to find relief from rheumatism, a disease characterized by inflammation and pain of the joints. What was meant to be a short stay was extended to three weeks, with Jefferson visiting various local springs, taking the waters, and sightseeing. Initially, he found the excursion pleasant and beneficial. Gradually, however, he became bored and, ultimately, he broke out in boils on his buttocks, which made sitting excruciatingly painful. The boils may have been a staphylococcus infection, accompanied by a fever.1
- Diane Ehrenpreis, 2/25/03
Primary Source References
1818 August 7. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "An attack of rheumatism in the knee yesterday, without retarding my journey, affects my walking. I have tried once to-day the delicious bath and shall do it twice a day hereafter. The company here is about 45. The table is very well kept by Mr. Fry, and every thing else well. ... but little gay company here at this time, and I rather expect to pass a dull time."2
1818 August 14. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "... having been now here a week and continued to bathe 3 times a day, quarter of an hour at a time. I continue well, as I was when I came. Having no symptom to judge by at that time I presume the seeds of my rheumatism eradicated, and desirous to prevent the necessity of ever coming here a 2d time, I believe I shall yield to the general advice of a three week course. So dull a place, and so distressing an ennui I never before knew. I have visited the rock on the high mountain, the hot springs, and yesterday the falling spring, 15. miles from here; so that there remains no other excursion: to enliven the two remaining weeks. ... I believe in fact that the spring with the Hot and Warm are those of the first merit. The sweet springs retain esteem, but in limited cases."3
1818 August 21. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I do not know what may be the effect of this course of bathing on my constitution; but I am under great threats that it will work it's effect thro' a system of boils. A large swelling on my seat, increasing for several days past in size and hardness disables me from sitting but on the corner of a chair. Another swelling begins to manifest itself to-day on the other seat."4
1818 September 11. (Jefferson to Francis Wayles Eppes). "I am lately returned from the warm springs with my health entirely prostrated by the use of the waters. They produced an imposthume and eruptions which with the torment of the journey back reduced me to the last stage of weakness and exhaustion. I am getting better, but still obliged to lie night and day in the same reclined posture which renders writing painful."5
3.Ibid., 425. The high mountain was probably Warm Springs or Jackson's Mountain. Hot Springs is in Bath County, as is Warm Springs. Falling springs may have been Flowing Springs, northeast of Warm Springs.
5.Ibid., 427. Jefferson stated that he was treated with "unctions of mercury and sulphur." This is an instance in which the cure nearly killed the patient, for it seems Jefferson ingested these toxic medications. He was ill for about three months and improved only after discontinuing the medications.