"Cherokee Chief and Confederate Colonel William Holland Thomas"
Insanity and Syphilis: Fact or Fiction?
Introduction: Did Chief William Holland Thomas frequent "Red Light Districts" and contract syphilis? Was he insane? In this study the facts shall be examined
and the objective is to present only facts and dispel myths and falsehoods regarding one of Western North Carolina's most prominent citizens,
William Holland Thomas. Several books, websites, and editorials declare that Thomas was insane, plagued with syphilis,
and one author even states that Thomas frequented Red Light Districts. No one, however, has presented a single primary
source supporting any of the aforementioned claims.
Paul A. Thomsen, in his book Rebel Chief: The Motley Life of Colonel William Holland Thomas, C.S.A.
(New York: Forge Books, September 2004), offers a basic study regarding the Indian Agent and Cherokee Chief Will
Thomas and briefly covers the history of the William Holland Thomas Legion (North Carolina's only American Civil War legion and it recruited Cherokees and mountaineers).
There are flaws in Paul Thomsen's research in Rebel Chief: The Motley Life of Colonel William
Holland Thomas, C.S.A., pp. 8, 109, 232, and 284. On page 232, respectively, Thomsen states that Chief
Thomas had "an undiagnosed illness, (likely tertiary syphilis), probably contracted while visiting the Red Light District."
Thomsen's speculative proposition, based totally on
Thomsen's opinion and 113 years after the death of Chief Thomas, would be scorned in a debate and dismissed in a court of
law. His proposition is a supposition and is stated without one source or
fact and is the weakest argument based only on sheer speculation, supposition, conjecture or inference. Also on page
232, Thomsen states, "Lieutenant Colonel Major Stringfield." There is, however, no said rank. It is either Lieutenant Colonel
Thomas's violent emotional outbursts, however, were initially recorded during the Civil War, and based on a present-day
diagnosis may have been attributed to: "Nervous Breakdown," Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder
(MDD) or Clinical Depression, senility or dementia, or perhaps a combination of maladies. Paul Thomsen omits any of these
possibilities and simply states "syphilis."
author and historian, Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers,
states that "Thomas suffered from Dementia," and historian John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation,
p. 387, declares that "Apparently he [William Holland Thomas] suffered from what years later would be named Alzheimer’s
Disease or a related ailment."
In an editorial review from Publishers Weekly, they write
about Paul A. Thomsen's research: "Frequently convoluted prose makes this book a tough read, and the author makes many
assumptions about Thomas’s motives." In the November 30,
2005, "Smoky Mountain News" Reading Room, Gary Carden states: "Yet, in the hand of Paul A. Thomsen, the “Rebel
Chief” becomes as leaden and colorless as biographer Thomsen’s inept and wooden prose." Unfortunately,
based on Thomsen's flawed conclusion, editors are now stating that Chief Thomas died from syphilis. Please see editorial reviews, Rebel Chief: The Motley Life of Colonel William Holland Thomas C.S.A.
With the title "REBEL, COLONEL, and C.S.A.," Paul A. Thomsen
offers a less than impressive study regarding Colonel Thomas's American Civil War service (1861-1865). There is very
little explanation and exploration into his "military service and Confederate strategy." For example, Thomas's military
strategy clarifies or defines why he was court-martialed. There are also minor errors regarding the Thomas Legion. On one
page, Thomsen even refers to the Sixteenth North Carolina Infantry Regiment as the "Sixteenth North Carolina Infantry Division."
There wasn't a Sixteenth North Carolina Infantry Division. Moreover, regarding Thomas and the Civil War, this study
lacks primary sources and references and is considered a freshman study at best.
Consequently, there is not one picture or map
in this study. How can the reader envision, interconnect and relate to Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, the Thomas Legion and its field officers, the legion's skirmishes and battles, Thomas
(with the exception of the cover picture), Sarah Love Thomas, the Qualla Boundary, Stekoa Fields, the discussed cities, towns,
counties and regions, and the Cherokees without one picture or map? What is western North Carolina and what counties are included?
How does western North Carolina relate to East Tennessee, northern Georgia, southwest Virginia, and "Upstate" South Carolina?
Including one cartographic era map would have been a start.
How would anyone relate and cope with the following nightmarish
and traumatic situations, experiences and conditions?
Thomas had endured the most horrible series of various traumatic stressors:
Indian Agent Thomas had spent numerous stressful years lobbying
Washington to secure the right for a number of Cherokees to remain in North Carolina. Senator Thomas experienced years of
constant political infighting with rivals. Colonel Thomas, advanced in years, had endured four exhaustive years
of combat, witnessed death and dismemberment of several comrades, handled dead bodies, absorbed the traumatic loss of comrades, evaded assassination
attempts, faced imminent death, killed during the Civil War, was helpless to prevent others' deaths, endured
several court-martials, and witnessed his beloved Cherokees starvation in 1864. Furthermore, by 1865, he was a defeated
Rebel of the "Lost Cause," and how would the Victor, the United States, respond to Thomas and his rebellious
Indians? Would his many exhaustive but fruitful years as mediator and voice of the Indians be crushed as the Rebellion
was crushed? What will become of his rebellious Indians? Chief Thomas and his Cherokees faced a very uncertain and questionable
future. He also witnessed mumps, measles, and smallpox kill more than one hundred Cherokees (letter written by Thomas concerning smallpox).
His selflessness and profound generosity kept him in debt
and on the constant brink of bankruptcy, and he also endured several lawsuits (William Holland Thomas and the Results of the Civil War: The Emotional,
Financial, and Physical Toll). His father had died months before his birth and while Thomas was
in Washington conducting business, his adopted father, Chief Yonaguska died. Will's mother passed away on October
1, 1874, while his wife died on May 15, 1877. Furthermore, mental illnesses, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), pervaded many Civil War veterans during the Reconstruction Era.
War and Illness: During the Civil War there was no shell shock, battle fatigue, or Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder (PTSD) to help explain and legitimize a mysterious condition. Poor diet was common during the Civil War and it caused innumerable physical and mental illnesses
and complications. Magnesium is a mineral needed by every cell of your body. About half of your body’s magnesium stores
are found inside cells of body tissues and organs, and half are combined with calcium and phosphorous in bone. Only one percent
of magnesium in your body is found in blood. The body works very hard to keep blood levels of magnesium constant. Magnesium
is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function and keeps
heart rhythm steady. Low magnesium levels in today’s hospitals are a common imbalance found in critically ill patients
from gastrointestinal losses. These losses (causing hypomagnesium) take the form of drainage from nasogastric suction, diarrhea,
or fistulas. Let us look as some of the symptoms and characteristics resulting from magnesium deficiency found in patients:
Symptoms and characteristics of magnesium deficiency include: hyperexcitability, dizziness, muscle weakness and fatigue.
Severe magnesium deficiency can cause hypocalcemia, low serum potassium levels (hypokalemia), retention of sodium, low circulating
levels of parathyroid hormone (PTH), neurological and muscular symptoms (tremor, muscle spasms, tetany), loss of appetite,
nausea, vomiting, personality changes (irritability, mental disorientation, mental confusion) and death from heart failure.
Magnesium plays an important role in carbohydrate metabolism and its deficiency may worsen insulin resistance, a condition
that often precedes diabetes, or may be a consequence of insulin resistance. Deficiency can cause irregular heart beat.
Conclusion: William Holland Thomas
was never diagnosed with syphilis and there is not one source reflecting that Thomas ever frequented Red Light Districts.
Consequently, Paul Thomsen has not proven his argument that Will Thomas frequented any Red Light District or contracted and
died with syphilis. However, William Thomas was diagnosed with Dementia. Since Thomas's violent emotional outbursts were initially recorded during the Civil War, a strong argument
can easily be made stating that Thomas had PTSD, MDD, dementia or senility, or a combination of maladies. And in 1867, at the age of 62, he was admitted to the North Carolina Insane
Asylum at Raleigh. Subsequently, on May 12, 1883, Thomas was admitted to the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum at Morganton (currently Broughton Hospital, it catered to western North Carolina, and is approximately 200
miles west of Raleigh). During the era, did asylums diagnose patients with syphilis? Yes. In 1883 and 1884,
the North Carolina Insane Asylum diagnosed only one patient with syphilis and the patient wasn't Thomas
(one patient constitutes less than one percent of total admissions). During the Reconstruction, moreover, asylums were
filled with Civil War veterans that exhibited PTSD and MDD (please view: North Carolina Insane Asylum: Patient Admission
and Diagnosis Facts and European Medicine and Scientific Advances, the
American Civil War). In the many documents and letters, regarding Thomas, he was a strong
advocate of the Temperance Society and Christianity. Also, during Thomas's lifetime, in the numerous documents and letters
written from, to, and about Thomas no one ever mentions or states syphilis. As a defendant in the 1870s, the
courts even allowed the elderly Thomas to testify (reflecting a sound mind). On December 8, 1875, Sarah Love Thomas (Will's
wife) had written to her sister Maria Love Stringfield. Sarah stated that her husband Will had mental anxiety, and, in
the many letters written by Sarah, she never mentioned syphilis. Why state that Thomas most likely visited Red Light
Districts and contracted and died with syphilis? Why make a proposition without one fact or source 113 years later? One
may also ask, why didn't Paul Thomsen further speculate "why" Sarah Love Thomas died at the age of 45? Was Thomas also
suffering from syphilis and insanity? There is no definitive answer and until any facts surface it should only be viewed as
total speculation. However, after spending thousands of hours studying William Holland Thomas and the Thomas Legion,
it's this writer's view that during stages or periods of William's life he perhaps suffered from Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), dietary deficiencies, and, in the latter years, what
is currently referred to as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Analysis / Findings: Chief William
"Cherokee Chief, Confederate Colonel, Lawyer, Entrepreneur,
and Politician: William Holland Thomas."
Thomas never knew his father, was raised by a single mother
in a lowly mountain home, lacked any formal education, but is one of the most prominent figures in Western North Carolina's
lived to the ripe old age of 88 and was admitted to an asylum, however, there is no official record or document stating that
he was diagnosed with syphilis. Thomas is the only white man to
serve as a Cherokee chief. As Indian agent, he was in Washington during the Treaty of New Echota negotiations and successfully
lobbied for the right for a number of Cherokees to remain in North Carolina; these Indians are the present-day Eastern Band.
He was very instrumental in the preservation of the Cherokees during their forced march west, "Trail of Tears," in 1838. His
intervention provided safe haven for approximately 1000 Cherokees and, furthermore, it is noteworthy that his intervention
is currently reflected with over 12,000 Cherokees residing in Western North Carolina. It is widely believed that without Thomas's
intervention there would not be the Eastern Band, and, to this day, the Band bestows honor and gratitude to their great
An alternative but brief history of William Holland Thomas is "Confederate Colonel and Cherokee Chief: The Life of William
Holland Thomas" by E. Stanley Godbold, Jr. and Mattie U. Russell (However, Godbold and Russell state, without one primary source, that Thomas
was declared insane. They also make an inference to syphilis).
Note: Through the years, as a minister, the writer has
visited numerous nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals and witnessed the behavior of patients diagnosed with various mental
and psychiatric diseases and disorders. Two close relatives were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and, at times, one
exhibited very violent and uncontrollable rage. The medical/mental health care profession has made great advancements
since the 1800s and, thankfully, unlike the 1800s, many maladies can presently be properly diagnosed and to a degree controlled.
Retired from the US military and diagnosed with MDD and PTSD, I understand how an individual may perhaps think, feel, and
even act-- and Thomas' symptoms (unfortunately) resonate with truth.
Recommended Reading: Shook over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam,
and the Civil War. Description: Eric T. Dean Jr., a lawyer whose
interest in the Civil War prompted him to return to school to obtain a Ph.D. in history, makes a unique contribution to Civil
War studies with his research on the psychological effects of the war on its veterans. Digging through the pension records
of Civil War vets, Dean documents the great number who, suffering from severe psychological problems triggered by intense
combat experience, were dutifully provided with disability pensions by the U.S. government. Continued below...
Dean's central thesis--that these veterans provide a mirror for the
experiences of their counterparts in Vietnam a century later--is supported with lucid reasoning. Of particular interest are
the many stories of intense Civil War combat and its psychological aftereffects, including
many cases of Civil War veterans committed to asylums well into the 1890s--case studies seldom found in standard histories
which offer painful testimony to the war's enormous impact on the nation.
Recommended Reading: This Republic of Suffering:
Death and the American Civil War. Review
from Publishers Weekly:
Battle is the dramatic centerpiece of Civil War history;
this penetrating study looks instead at the somber aftermath. Historian Faust (Mothers of Invention) notes that the Civil
War introduced America to death on an
unprecedented scale and of an unnatural kind—grisly, random and often ending in an unmarked grave far from home. Continued
the many ways the Civil War generation coped with the trauma: the concept of the Good Death—conscious, composed and
at peace with God; the rise of the embalming industry; the sad attempts of the bereaved to get confirmation of a soldier's
death, sometimes years after war's end; the swelling national movement to recover soldiers' remains and give them decent burials;
the intellectual quest to find meaning—or its absence—in the war's carnage. In the process, she contends, the
nation invented the modern culture of reverence for military death and used the fallen to elaborate its new concern for individual
rights. Faust exhumes a wealth of material—condolence letters, funeral sermons, ads for mourning dresses, poems and
stories from Civil War–era writers—to flesh out her lucid account. The result is an insightful, often moving portrait
of a people torn by grief. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Reading: Gangrene and Glory: Medical
Care during the American Civil War (University of
Illinois Press). Description:
Gangrene and Glory covers practically every aspect of the
'medical related issues' in the Civil War and it illuminates the key players in the development and advancement of medicine
and medical treatment. Regarding the numerous diseases and surgical procedures, Author Frank Freemon discusses what transpired
both on and off the battlefield. The Journal of the American Medical Association states: “In Freemon's vivid account, one almost sees the pus, putrefaction, blood, and maggots and . . .
the unbearable pain and suffering.” Continued below...
Interesting historical accounts, statistical data, and pictures enhance this book. This research is not
limited to the Civil War buff, it is a must read for the individual interested in medicine, medical procedures and surgery,
as well as some of the pioneers--the surgeons that foreshadowed our modern medicine.
Reading: Civil War Medicine: Challenges
and Triumphs (Hardcover: 475 pages). Description: Nothing is left unstudied! Alfred Jay Bollet covers a
multitude of areas in the world of the medical care/treatment featuring early war ill-preparation, being overwhelmed, medical
science, surgery, amputations, wounds, hospitals, drugs, diseases, prison camps and notable individuals of the era. Every
chapter offers added insight via biographies on individuals that had influence on the subject discussed—thus adding
more intrigue to this book. This book is considered very comprehensive and fair to all parties involved…often bringing
to light the importance of doctors and nurses through out the entire war and its aftermath. Continued below...
articles appear throughout the text to embellish points of interest and a nice appendix is provided, as well as countless
charts offering statistical data. Bollet's style is very reader friendly - you don't have to be that “med student”
to enjoy it!
Reading: Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine (Hardcover)
(416 pages) (Random House). Description: A
landmark chronicle of Civil War medicine, Bleeding Blue and Gray is a major contribution to our understanding of America’s
bloodiest conflict. Indeed, eminent surgeon and medical historian Ira M. Rutkow argues that it is impossible to grasp the
harsh realities of the Civil War without an awareness of the state of American medicine at the time. At the outset of the war, the use of ether and chloroform remained crude, and they were often
unavailable in the hellish conditions at the front lines. As a result, many surgical procedures were performed without anesthesia
in the compromised setting of a battleground or a field hospital. This meant that “clinical concerns were often of less
consequence,” writes Rutkow, “than the swiftness of the surgeon’s knife.” Continued below...
Also, in the 1860s, the existence of pathogenic microorganisms was still unknown–many still blamed
“malodorous gasses” for deadly outbreaks of respiratory influenza. As the great Civil War surgeon William Williams
Keen wrote, “we used undisinfected instruments from undisinfected plush-lined cases, and still worse, used marine sponges
which had been used in prior pus cases and had been only washed in tap water.”
Besides the substandard quality of wartime medical supplies and techniques, the
combatants’ utter lack of preparation greatly impaired treatment. In 1861, the Union’s medical corps, mostly ill-qualified and poorly trained, even lacked an ambulance
system. Fortunately, some of these difficulties were ameliorated by the work of numerous relief agencies, especially the United
States Sanitary Commission, led by Frederick Law Olmsted, and tens of thousands of volunteers, among them Louisa May Alcott
and Walt Whitman. From the soldiers who endured the ravages of combat to the
government officials who directed the war machine, from the good Samaritans who organized aid commissions to the nurses who
cared for the wounded, Bleeding Blue and Gray presents a story of suffering, politics, character, and, ultimately, healing. About the Author: Ira
M. Rutkow is a clinical professor of surgery at the University
of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He also holds a doctorate of
public health from Johns Hopkins
University. Dr. Rutkow’s Surgery: An Illustrated History was a
New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He and his wife divide their time between New
York City and the Catskills.