Insanity and Syphilis: Fact or Fiction?

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"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 or Major.


Chief 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."

However, 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.
Civil 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 Holland Thomas
"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 history.

He 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 white chief.

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).

To study Will Thomas's Civil War service, consider "Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers" by Vernon H. Crow.
To understand and fathom the sociopolitical and geopolitical tone of western North Carolina and the American Civil War, purchase "
The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (Civil War America)" by John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney.

Matt Parker
Please email your questions, comments, and feedback to
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.

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