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Tag Archives: mental health

- Virginia Untold: Lancaster County Fiduciary Records 1657-1872


Parr, Nathaniel, engraver, [Slave factories, or compounds, maintained by traders from four European nations on the Gulf of Guinea in what is now Nigeria], published 1746. Illus. in: A New and general collection of voyages / Thomas Astley. London, 1746, vol. 3, p. 64. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the addition of the Lancaster County Fiduciary Records, 1657-1872, to Virginia Untold. This collection contains the earliest records added to Virginia Untold, and the largest number of names added from a single locality so far—over 20,000. Fiduciary records primarily consist of estate administrator settlements, estate inventories, dower allotments, estate divisions, estate sales, and guardian accounts that record a detailed list of all personal property owned by individuals, including enslaved people.

These records demonstrate the rapid growth of slavery in Virginia from the “20. and odd Negroes” who arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Two estate inventories recorded in 1670 named a combined total of 60 enslaved people. As the records progress into the 18th and 19th centuries, the number of enslaved people owned by individuals exploded. In some cases, a single person could own hundreds of enslaved people, and their residences were not confined to Lancaster County. For example, the estate inventory of Rawleigh W. Downman recorded in 1781, lists nearly 150 enslaved people who lived on estates he owned in Lancaster, Richmond, Stafford, and Fauquier counties.

Many of these fiduciary records document additional information about enslaved people, beyond a name and assigned monetary value. The authors often included comments about individual enslaved people which, though limited to a couple of words or short phrases, shed … read more »

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- Anatomy of a Marriage


Residence of Nannie and William Shelley, circa 1900s, Arlington County Chancery Cause Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055.

Divorces reveal much about the inner-workings of a family, usually much more than outsiders should ever discover. While processing the Arlington County chancery causes, I came across a divorce case that filled two whole boxes. That’s .90 cubic feet of possible scandal and mayhem! The case Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055, was quite the interesting case featuring interracial relationships, mental institutions, and an overly dramatic, possibly unstable daughter.

In 1907, Nannie Shelley sued for divorce, alleging infidelity and physical and mental abuse. She claimed William Shelley treated her not as a wife but as if she were a “despised and hated slave.” He forbade her any social relations and made her religion a “matter of scorn and ridicule.” He choked her and dragged her across the floor and finally threatened to kill her saying he would “try the McCue act on her.” (At the time of this divorce case, former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue’s alleged murder of his wife and subsequent trial was much in the news.)

Nannie suffered a nervous condition, supposedly as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment, that William used as an excuse to incarcerate her for three months in a “private mad house.” Although not declared legally insane, three doctors examined her and determined she suffered from paranoia. Nannie believed she ought to have been … read more »

- Two Faces: The Personal Files of Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette


Photo of Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette, undated, Records of Western State Hosptial, 1825-2000, Box 114, Folder 7, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Processing the records of a state agency director can often be unsatisfying.  While the folders of historically important correspondence, reports, and meeting minutes describe the inner workings of an agency, they usually reveal very little about the individuals running it.  However, that is not always the case.  While processing what initially appeared to be unremarkable 20th century Western State Hospital (WSH) superintendent’s records, I discovered a treasure trove of personal material related to one of Virginia’s most (in)famous physicians, Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette.

A celebrated physician and psychiatrist during the early decades of the 20th century, Dr. DeJarnette is most famous for his support and involvement in the eugenics movement, which included support for sterilization of the “feeble minded,” alcoholics, drug addicts, and those suffering from other mental illnesses.  He penned the pro-eugenics poem “Mendel’s Law” and lobbied prominently in favor of Virginia’s 1924 compulsory sterilization law.  Dr. DeJarnette also served as an expert witness in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927), which upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s sterilization legislation.  Though his deeds were revered during his lifetime, Dr. DeJarnette’s legacy is something most find rather repugnant today.  Due to DeJarnette’s eugenics advocacy, the Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services in 2001 changed the name of the DeJarnette Center for Human Development (formerly DeJarnette State … read more »