Patrick Henry’s Wife


The next time you go to Richmond, Virginia, visit the Patrick Henry House in nearby Hanover County and you will see a first-floor room with bars over the windows and steel locks on the doors. The guide will tell you that Patrick Henry’s wife was crazy, and that Patrick Henry did not want to put her in the insane asylum, so he built this first floor room for her. The guide may not tell you that she was perfectly normal until after she had already had six children, and probably many miscarriages. Most likely she was pregnant every early year of their marriage. Let’s see if you can make the correct diagnosis.

Sarah Shelton was born in 1738 in Rural Plains, VA, the pretty daughter of John and Eleanor Parks Shelton, owner of Hanover Tavern near Richmond. In 1754, at age 16, she married Patrick Henry, who was 18. He was deeply in debt and had no means of supporting them. Their families helped them buy a small farm.

CLUE NUMBER ONE: They ate only corn meal, river fish and smoked bacon.

THE STORY CONTINUES: Even though Patrick Henry had no formal education, he studied law, while his wife and children barely had enough to eat. His father was educated in Scotland and must have taught his son well, because to everyone’s surprise, he passed the bar. He used his great ability to talk to build an active law practice. His wife, who had been a solid citizen, became very depressed after her sixth child was born and would walk around the house screaming and yelling.

CLUE NUMBER TWO: With each successive pregnancy, she became more withdrawn and outlandish in her behavior. She had all the signs of clinical depression.

THE STORY CONTINUES: Patrick Henry did not want to put her in an asylum, so he built the special prison room in their house. As her mind continued to deteriorate, she was kept in the locked dungeon with an attendant. Eventually she died in that room.

CLUE NUMBER THREE: The Virginia colonists in Revolutionary times didn’t eat deep water fish or whole grains; they had a very limited diet.

THE DIAGNOSIS: Most women at that time in rural Virginia suffered from post-partum depression. With each pregnancy, each baby took more omega-3s from the mother’s body to make her depression even worse. Sarah Henry suffered from post-partum depression caused by lack of omega-3 fatty acids in deep water fish, whole grains, nuts and other seeds. She may have eaten mountain trout, but river fish contain no omega-3 fatty acids. The only fish that contain omega-3s are those that eat plankton or other fish that eat plankton. Omega-3s are found only in deep water fish or in farmed fish that are fed fish meal. Now we know that post-partum depression can be caused by lack of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.

THE REST OF THE STORY: Patrick Henry became a very successful lawyer primarily because of his ability to entice a crowd with his eloquence. In 1765, Henry won election to the House of Burgesses. Immediately He became a champion of American rights from Britain.

In 1774, He was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and with Sam Adams, helped start the American Revolution. He said: “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.”

GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH. At the Virginia Convention in March of 1775, Henry gave his most famous speech of his career. He said:

“It is vain, Sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry peace, peace — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God — I know not what course others may take; but as for me, GIVE ME LIBERTY, OR GIVE ME DEATH.”

THE GREAT STATESMAN: Because of his speech, he was appointed chairman of the convention, and his lieutenants were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison and Edmund Pendleton. The plan for arming the colony was drawn and adopted.

THE SECOND MRS. PATRICK HENRY: After his first wife, Sarah Shelton, died at age 37 in 1775, he married Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge. In addition to the six children he had with his first wife, he had nine children with his second wife.

WHAT ARE OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS? Fats are classified into primarily saturated and primarily polyunsaturated fats. Fresh polyunsaturated fats are good because they help to lower cholesterol and prevent heart attacks. Polyunsaturated fats are further classified by their chemical structure into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. You need both omega-3s and omega-6s to be healthy, but they have different functions in your body. You get omega-3s from anything that eats plankton in the ocean; and from many different seeds, including nuts, beans and whole grains.

Some seeds, such as flaxseeds and walnuts, are particularly rich sources of omega-3s, but you don’t need to eat them if you eat plenty of seeds that contain smaller amounts, such as whole grains and beans. To prevent flour from spoiling, the miller removes the germ which contains almost all the omega-3 fatty acids before he grinds grains into flour or corn meal. Therefore you may lack adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids if you eat bakery products and pasta, and do not eat deep-water fish and seeds.

THE EVIDENCE: LACK OF OMEGA-3S AND DEPRESSION: Some people with schizophrenia have an abnormal ratio of fatty acids in their cell membranes, and giving them omega-3 fatty acids corrects both their schizophrenia and membrane abnormalities (1). Depression may be caused by omega-3 deficiency that results from not eating enough nuts, whole grains, beans and other seeds, and seafood (2). Many psychiatrists treat depression with drugs that raise brain levels of serotonin. A diet deficient in omega-3 fatty acids may lower brain levels of serotonin and cause depression. Depression is associated with low levels of red blood cell membrane and low intake of omega-3 fatty acids (3), and a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is associated with depression (4,5).

Depression is 60 times more common in New Zealand (6 percent) than in Japan (.12 percent). The Japanese eat large amounts of ocean fish, rich sources of omega-3s (6). Pregnancy uses up omega-3s which may be the primary cause of post-partum depression. Women with the low blood levels of omega-3s are at increased risk for post-partum depression.

Depression increases a person’s chances of getting a heart attack. Depressed people often have low blood levels of omega-3s and so do people who are likely to suffer heart attacks (6). The association of depression and schizophrenia with heart attacks may be explained by both being caused by low omega-3 fatty acid levels.


1) BK Puri, AJ Richardson, DF Horrobin, T Easton, N Saeed, A Oatridge, JV Hajnal, GM Bydder. Eicosapentaenoic acid treatment in schizophrenia associated with symptom remission, normalisation of blood fatty acids, reduced neuronal membrane phospholipid turnover and structural brain changes. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 2000, Vol 54, Iss 1, pp 57-63.

2) C B. Nemeroff, D Musselman, MD. Emory. Archives of General Psychiatry April, 1999.; 56:381. 3) Edwards R, Peet M, Shay J, Horrobin D. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels in the diet and in red blood cell membranes of depressed patients. J Affect Disord. 1998;48:149-155.

4) Adams PB, Lawson S, Sanigorski A, Sinclair AJ. Arachidonic acid to eicosapentaenoic acid ratio in blood correlates positively with clinical symptoms of depression. Lipids. 1996;31:S-157-161.

5) Maes M, Smith R, Christophe A, Cosyns P, Desnyder R, Meltzer H. Fatty acid composition in major depression: decreased omega 3 fractions in cholesteryl esters and increased C20:4 omega- 6/C20:5 omega-3 ratio in cholesteryl esters and phospholipids. J Affect Disord. 1996;38:35-46.

6) Musselman DL, Evans DL, Nemeroff CB. The relationship of depression to cardiovascular disease: epidemiology, biology, and treatment. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1998;55:580-592.

7) Nutrition Journal 2012, 11:82 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-82.