Andrew Sheffield was a woman with a man's name. Throughout her life this symbolic disjunction characterized her story. In 1890, forty years of age and unmarried, she was considered by neighbors and family to be eccentric and possibly insane. Living alone in rural northern Alabama, she had conducted an affair with her doctor who was supplying her with the opiate chloral hydrate to which she was addicted. When she was arrested for attempting to burn down the house of a neighbor who was feuding with the doctor, her prominent family had her forcibly committed to Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa in order to avoid a sensational trial. Shortly after her commitment, her father shot and killed the doctor for "tainting the family name."
Sheffield's letters commence where this family drama ends. The letters, nearly one hundred in all, span her thirty years of confinement. The early letters document this extremely intelligent woman's vigorous efforts, through pleas to various governors, to win her release and transfer to the women's penitentiary. Later letters focus more on the details of life in a Victorian insane asylum in the deep South.
Her letters help us better understand the full range of behavior among women in the Victorian South and the limits of Southern womanhood near the end of the nineteenth century. They are also unique in providing valuable information on life inside a mental hospital at the turn of the century from a patient's perspective. These illuminating letters, together with the editor's extensive commentary, are excellent sources for the study of Southern, medical, social, and women's history in the turn-of-the-century South.
John S. Hughes is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas. He holds a Ph.D. in American legal and medical history from Rice University. He is author of In Law's Darkness: Isaac Ray and the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century America and articles in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Journal of Southern History, and Missouri Review. He is also contributor to Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian American and The Constitution, Law, and Society: Critical Aspects of the Nineteenth-Century Experience.