“Not in His Right Mind”: Paul Revere and Mental Illness in the Early Republic

By: Nina Rodwin

black and white photograph of 19th century hospital building

Worcester State Hospital, 1905

​In May 1788, Paul Revere’s 22-year-old daughter Frances married silversmith Thomas Eayres. Revere encouraged the couple to start their lives in Worcester, sensing that Eayres’ industriousness and “good morals” would help establish him as a new tradesman in town.[1] While little is known about Frances and Thomas’s marriage, the couple had four children by the late 1790s.[2] Although Revere was initially confident in Eayres’ abilities, his son-in-law’s behavior changed and grew worse over “several years.”[3] By July 1798, Eayres had become “so bad” that Revere felt there was no choice but to send him to the countryside for recuperation and removal from his family and society.[4] However, Revere was aware that Eayres would need more medical care than the ‘common Farmers’ could provide. He hired Dr. Samuel Willard, a physician in Uxbridge known for treating the mentally ill.[5] Revere exchanged letters with Dr. Willard, inquiring about Eayres’ treatment and condition. During this time Revere also wrote to Eayres’ immediate family, encouraging them to contribute to their son’s care. The letters between Dr. Willard, Paul Revere, and Eayres’ family illustrate some of the treatment options and attitudes towards the mentally ill in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

While her husband’s ordeal is relatively well documented, there is little information about Frances’ life besides the dates of her birth, baptism, marriage and death. We know that Frances named her children (Thomas, Maria, Joseph and Paul) after members of her family. She suffered the loss of at least one infant. There are no surviving documents to shed light on her thoughts of her marriage, or her husband’s troublesome behavior. According to Paul Revere, by July 1798 Frances no longer lived with Thomas and was in very poor health herself. He informed Dr. Willard that Eayres “frequently gits [sic] home in the Night,” returning to his home in Boston “which distresses her [Frances] much.”[6] Just 11 months later, Frances died, ending, (according to Revere) “a life of Trouble, Anxiety, and pain.”[7]

While Revere made preparations for Frances’ funeral, he also reached out to Matthew Davis, Thomas’ brother. Although Revere informed Davis that he would take care of Frances and Thomas’ children, he insisted he needed financial assistance for Thomas’ care. Revere informed Davis that the “poor man” had been “Confined at a house in Dorchester” for three weeks.[8] He suggested that Davis use “the Estate” to pay Eayres’ boarding fees quickly, as Revere feared that Thomas’ caretakers would soon learn of Frances death, and would be “gitting [sic] clear of him.”[9] Unfortunately, Revere’s request was ignored. As months, and then years went by, Revere grew increasingly frustrated with Davis, and was forced to negotiate Eayres’ treatment with Dr. Willard.

During the late 18th century, the diagnosing and treatment of the mentally ill was undergoing small, but significant changes. Unlike the 17th century, most physicians understood that mental illness was not a spiritual or supernatural affliction, but was rather a medical condition.[10] On the other hand, the treatment options and terms for diagnosis were very limited, and did not yet resemble our contemporary designations. Eayres was being treated during the age of Enlightenment, a period when moderation, reason and control of one’s emotions were seen as key for maintaining one’s health. We can see how these beliefs framed Revere’s decisions. When he introduced Dr. Willard to Eayres, Revere describes Eayres as being without reason, and Willard used similar terms to describe his professional goals, explaining that his work helped his “fellow men in the restoration of [their] reason.”[11]

In the only surviving letter written by Eayres, he described himself as being “discomposed.”[12] When Revere sent updates to Eayres’ brother, he explained that Eayres was “quite distracted.”[13] A year later, Revere warned that Eayres’ “fits of Insanity” were increasing, and that his “intellects were much impaired.”[14] Although Dr. Willard’s letters do not provide any further clues regarding Eayres’ behavior, the doctor did describe his theory on mental illness. Dr. Willard believed “the fibers of the Brain” worked “like a high toned instrument.”[15] “The strings” of Eayres’ brain were affected by “every rude touch,” including the “Seasons and even the air itself.”[16]

Dr. Willard’s treatment for Earyes included an unnamed medication that Revere initially rejected due to its high cost. Although the two men continually negotiated the cost of Eayres’ care, Revere ultimately believed Dr. Willard to be the “best judge.”[17] Revere agreed with the doctor’s plan to put Eayres “to work.”[18] He believed Willard’s “humanity” would shield Eayres from being “pushed farther than He is able to bear.”[19] Although there is no information about the kind of “hard Labor” Eayres performed, Dr. Willard’s letters demonstrate that the physician tried to treat his patient as a member of the family.[20] Eayres was allowed to ride Dr. Willard’s horse, socialized with many visitors, and joined the physician’s family for dinner.

Although Dr. Willard cared for Eayres with the gentler treatments of this era, the behaviors of Eayres’ family illustrate how many people still viewed mental illness. Matthew Davis was not only ignoring letters Revere knew he had received, he also refused to pay back Revere for the cost of boarding Eayres. Revere was infuriated when he discovered that Eayres had been sent by carriage to visit his family, who turned him away and “would not see him.”[21] Although Revere acknowledged that his letters to the family were “severe,” he insisted that the family had “provoked it.”[22] As Revere noted, if it wasn’t for him, Eayres would have ended up “confined in one of the Cells of the Alms House!”[23]

Revere was willing to raise and financially support his grandchildren, but he felt he could no longer afford the care Eayres required. On October 25th 1802, Revere traveled to the County Court and declared his son-in-law “non compos mentis.[24] This legal term declared that Eayres was “incapable to take care of himself.”[25] Revere decided that Jedidiah Lincoln (Revere’s son-in-law) would become Eayres’ legal guardian until Thomas Jr. could take over the guardianship of his father. Records indicate that Thomas Jr. took up this responsibility by 1812, but there is no record of when Thomas Earyes died. According to historian Esther Forbes, Eayres spent the rest of his life living with Dr. Willard in Uxbridge.

The treatment and understanding of mental illness continued to progress during the 1800s. Rather than simply confining patients for the sake of public safety, physicians attempted to use medicine, occupational therapy, and dedicated hospitals to cure patients. One of the first hospitals to treat the mentally ill was opened in Philadelphia by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Boston no longer sent patients to the dedicated “maniac house” (almshouse) once Worcester State Lunatic Hospital opened in 1833.[26] While Thomas Eayres unlikely survived long enough to experience many of these changes, his story illustrates the struggles that families had in caring for mentally ill members. While we can never know exactly what Eayres thought about his confinement, or what behaviors sparked Revere’s concern, it is evident that he attempted to care for his son-in-law with dignity and kindness, in the best manner that he could.

Nina Rodwin is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House

[1] Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, 385.

[2] Donald M. Nielsen, The Revere Family, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register Vol 145, No 4.

[3] Paul Revere to Dr. Willard, 9 July 1798, The Paul Revere Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Lincoln, History of Worcester, MA. https://books.google.com/books?id=8MRCObZ79wEC&pg=PA222#v=onepage&q&f=false

[6] PR to Dr. Willard, 9 July 1798.

[7] PR to Matthew Davis, 9 June 1799.

[8] PR to Davis, 9 June 1799.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mary Ann Jimenez, Changing Faces of Madness, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Brandeis University Press 1987.

[11] Forbes, 405.

[12] Thomas Eayres to PR, 24 March 1801.

[13] Forbes, 402.

[14] PR to Davis, 5 April 1803.

[15] Forbes, 405.

[16] Ibid.

[17] PR to Dr. Willard 16 November 1801.

[18] PR to Dr. Willard 16 November 1801.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] PR to Matthew Davis, 26 September 1802.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Donald Nielsen, The Revere Family.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Changing Face of Madness.