Warm Springs

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Thomas Jefferson was a member of the Rockfish Gap Commission, charged with locating a site for a state university. He attended a 3-day meeting that began on August 1, 1818, at the Mountain House, a resort inn at Rockfish Gap. After the meeting he travelled on horseback with James Breckenridge to Warm Springs[1] in Bath County, VA., arriving on August 8. It seems Jefferson went to the springs hoping to find relief from his rheumatism, a disease characterized by inflamation and pain of the joints. What was initially meant to be a short stay was extended to three weeks visiting various local springs, taking the waters and sightseeing. Initally he found the excursion pleasant and beneficial, but gradually he became bored, and ultimately he broke out in painful boils on his buttocks. These boils may have been a staphylococcus infection, accompanied by a fever and pain, making sitting excruciating.[2]

The following are excerpts from Jefferson's correspondence regarding his experiences on his spa respite.

Warm Springs, Aug. 7, 1818. TJ als to MJR "An attack of rheumatism in the knee yesterday, without retarding my journey, affects my walking. I have tried once to-day the delicious bath and shall do it twice a day hereafter. The company here is about 45. The table is very well kept by Mr. Fry, and every thing else well.... but little gay company here at this time, and I rather expect to pass a dull time."[3]

Warm Springs, Aug. 14, 1818. TJ als to MJR "... having been now here a week and continued to bathe 3 times a day, quarter of an hour at a time. I continue well, as I was when I came. Having no symptom to judge by at that time I presume the seeds of my rheumatism eradicated, and desirous to prevent the necessity of ever coming here a 2d time, I believe I shall yeild to the general advice of a three week course. So dull a place, and so distressing an ennui I never before knew. I have visited the rock on the high mountain, the hotsprings, and yesterday the falling spring, 15. miles from here; so that there remains no other excursion: to enliven the two remaining weeks.... I believe in fact that the spring with the Hot and Warm are those of the first merit. The sweet springs retain esteem, but in limited cases."[4] (The high mountain was probably the Warm Springs or Jackson's Mountain. Hot Springs is in Bath County, as is Warm Springs. Falling springs may have actually been Flowing Springs, northeast of Warn Springs.)

Warm Springs, Aug. 21, 1818. TJ als to MJR "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."[5]

Monticello, Sept. 11, 1818. TJ als to Francis Wayles Eppes "I am lately returned from the warm springs with my health entirely prostrated by the use of the waters. They produced an imposthume and eruptions which with the torment of the journey back reduced me to the last stage of weakness and exhaustion. I am getting better, but still obliged to lie night and day in the same reclined posture which renders writing painful."[6] (Jefferson stated that he was treated with "unctions of mercury and sulphur." This is another instance where the cure nearly killed the patient, for it seems Jefferson ingested these toxic medications. He was ill for about three months, only improving once he discontinued using the medications.)


  1. This article is based on a Memorandum from Diane Ehrenpreis to Susan Stein, 25 February 2003
  2. Memorandum Book, vol. 2, 1997, p. 1346, & Betts and Bear, The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson. 1995, pp. 423-27
  3. Betts & Bear, p. 424.
  4. Betts & Bear, p. 425.
  5. Betts & Bear, p. 426.
  6. Betts & Bear, p. 427.

See Also

Further Sources

Betts, Edwin Moms, and James Adam Bear, Jr., eds. The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia for Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1995. Pages 423-27.

Lewis, Charlene M. Boyer. Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790-1860. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001 Pages 74 and 82.

Loth, Galder, ed. The Virginia Landmarks Register. Charlottesville: University Press of Virgini'a for the Virginia Landmarks Board, 1987. Pages 49-50.