Friday, April 15, 2016

Public Bathing - Thomas Jefferson & the hot, mineral baths at Warm Springs, Virginia

"You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other," John Adams (1735-1826) wrote Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in July 1813.  Often at each other's throats, the former presidents were mellowing in their old age as infirmities began to set in.

Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States, was the victim of a variety of physical disorders including stress-induced headaches, periods of intense diarrhea, painful joints, several bone fractures, probably prostatic cancer, & declining kidney function. Intermittently he experienced depression, & insomnia; as he was an anxious, probably compulsively controlled person.  (Sounds familiar.)

An engraving of a 73-year-old Thomas Jefferson by John Neagle, after an 1816 painting by Bass Otis

Thomas Jefferson was in his mid-70s, when he visited the mineral waters at Warm Springs.  Warm Springs, later called the Jefferson Pools, is located in Bath County, Virginia.  Jefferson first mentioned being disabled by "rheumatism" in summer 1811.  By 1818, he wrote of his most severe attack of rheumatism ever, accompanied by life-threatening constipation. Taking the waters at Warm Springs, Virginia, may have helped the rheumatism & probably acted as a colonic, but Jefferson expressed some negative responses to the experience.

In 1761, an octagonal Pool House was built at Warm Springs for use by ladies & gentlemen alike, though at alternate times from early morning to late evenings. 

1768 Delle Terme Porrenttae, by Italian botanist Ferdinando Bassi, features illustrations including this one, of individuals bathing in a lake or healthy mineral spring.

Jefferson had first written about Virginia's warm, mineral springs, in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, “There are several medicinal springs, some of which are indubitably efficacious, while others seem to owe their reputation as much to fancy and change of air and regimen, as to their real virtues.”  There were 2 pools at Warm Springs, 35 feet in diameter & fed by the spring through loose cobbles at the bottom of the pools. The temperature of the water varied only a degree or two from its usual 96.   

When John Howell Briggs, who had represented Sussex County at the 1788 Virginia Ratifying Convention, visited in July 1804, he found indifferent accommodations & indifferent food. Yet, he said, “the bath at the Warm Springs is most luxurious. It is inclosed with an octangular wall; about ten yards across and in the center about 5 feet 6 inches deep, shallower at the sides.”  In 1805, Virginian John Baylor noted in a letter that the springs’ buildings were constructed of logs, and he mentioned the offensive smell of the water like “a dirty Barrel of a gun.” 

A year later, Virginian Alexander Dick wrote in his 1806 journal of log huts at Warm Springs; the smell of the copious spring; & of 50 to 60 people with attendant servants, horses, & carriages.  In 1808-09, John Caldwell of New York toured Virginia & published letters about what he saw, "The warm springs, from whence I date this letter, are five miles from the hot springs; here is, perhaps, the largest and most elegant bath in the world. The water is blood warm, and bubbling out of the rock underneath, can be raised or lowered at the pleasure of the bathers."

Edward Beyer’s print of Warm Springs published in 1857 in Album of Virginia: or, Illustration of the Old Dominion. Edward Beyer, a German artist, spent 2 years traveling, sketching, & painting throughout Virginia.

With the hope of helping his aching joints, Thomas Jefferson visited Warm Springs in 1818.  His initial assessment of the effect of the spring water was positive, but his visit led to near-disastrous results. On August 4, he wrote his daughter, Martha Washington Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) , “Every body tells me the time I allot to the Springs is too short. That 2. or 3. weeks bathing will be essential. I shall know better when I get there.” Three days later Jefferson wrote Martha that he had journeyed by horseback to the springs  & had “tried once to-day the delicious bath and shall do it twice a day hereafter.” He described the table as well kept  & the other guests numbering about 45, “but little gay company here at this time, and I rather expect to pass a dull dull a place, and distressing an ennui I never before knew. … the spring with the Hot and Warm are those of the first merit. The sweet springs retain esteem, but in limited cases.”

Martha Washington Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) by James Westhall Ford (American artist, 1794-1866)

In a 2nd letter to his daughter 1 week later on August 14, 1818, Jefferson wrote that he continued to bathe for 15 minutes 3 times a day & presumed that the seeds of his rheumatism were eradicated. He decided to yield to the general advice of a 3 week stay. He wanted “to prevent the necessity of ever coming here a 2d time." 

In his 3rd week of taking the waters at Warm Springs in 1818, Jefferson developed boils on his buttocks. The 50+ mile ride to the spa plus possibly unsanitary conditions there may have led to this illness.  His homeward return ride was a trial. Once at home, for several weeks he conducted his correspondence lying down. He did not ride a horse for several months.  

He wrote his daughter again on August 21, 1818, “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.” 

Jefferson’s letter of September 12, 1818 to Dr. Thomas Cooper (1759-1839), 1st professor of natural science & law in the University of Virginia, stated that he had returned from the Warm Springs several days earlier though not in the condition he had hoped but instead “in prostrated health, from the use of the waters. Their effect, and the journey back reduced me to the last stage of exhaustion; but I am recovering.” He explained the brevity of his letter as a result of not being able to sit erect due to pain.

On October 6, 1818, Jefferson wrote to his old friend, South Carolina Senator Colonel William Alston (1756-1839), “I became seriously affected afterwards by the continuance of the use of the waters. They produced imposthume (abscess), eruption, with fever, colliquative (profuse) sweats and extreme debility. These sufferings, aggravated by the torment of long & rough roads, reduced me to the lowest stage of exhaustion by the time I got home. I have been on the recovery some time, & still am so; but not yet able to sit erect for writing.”

Jefferson wrote John George Jackson (1777–1825), attorney & industrialist, just after Christmas on December 27, 1818, that “my trial of the Warm springs was certainly ill advised. for I went to them in perfect health, and ought to have reflected that remedies of their potency must have effect some way or other. if they find disease they remove it; if none, they make it. altho’ I was reduced very low, I may be said to have been rather on the road to danger, than in actual danger.”

Assessing his 1818 visit to the mineral springs as a past president, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “it would be money well bestowed could the public employ a well educated and experienced physician to attend at each of the medicinal springs, to observe, record, and publish the cases which receive benefit, those receiving none, and those rendered worse by the use of their respective waters.”  (The normally strict constructionist Jefferson had supported the establishment of federal Marine Hospitals in 1798; & of course, negotiated nearly by himself for the Louisiana Purchase less than a decade later.)  

In 1819, Jefferson explained that he was "too feeble to walk much but riding without fatigue six to eight miles per day, and sometimes thirty or forty."  Jefferson's strength declined further in winter 1822, when he wrote that he could walk "only [to] reach my garden, and that with sensible fatigue." 

John Adams, at about age 80 c 1816, by Samuel F.B. Morse

Jefferson wrote. "Man, like the fruit he eats, has his period of ripeness. Like that, too, if he continues longer hanging to the stem, it is but an useless and unsightly appendange."  Six months before his death, John Adams wrote to Jefferson: "I am certainly very near the end of my life. I am far from trifling with the idea of Death which is a great and solemn event. But I contemplate it without terror or dismay." Presidents John Adams & Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826.


Edwin Morris Betts and James Adam Bear, editors, The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1966.

William Burke, The Mineral Springs of Western Virginia, New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846.  

Exhibit inspired by William Burke's work at the University of Virginia Library, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, organized & curated in 2009, by Janet Pearson, under the direction of Joan Echtenkamp Klein.

Analysis of The Water at Warm Springs
Approximate Partial Analysis (Parts per Million)

388.00    Dissolved Solids (Calculated) 
120.00    Iron (Fe)   
    5.40    Sodium (Na) (Calculated)  
194.00    Bicarbonate (HCO3) 194.00
160.00    Sulphate (So4) (by turbidity) 
    1.50    Chloride (Cl)  
      .10    Nitrate (NO3)  
 316.00    Total Hardness (as CA CAO3)