Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Charles Hentz was Jackson County's Best Known Antebellum Doctor

Dr. Hentz was the son of famed 19th century
novelist Caroline Lee Hentz, the probable
creator of the Bellamy Bridge ghost legend.
By Dale Cox

The best known of Jackson County’s antebellum “plantation doctors” was Dr. Charles Hentz. A son of the famed 19th century novelist Caroline Lee Hentz, he came to the county in 1848 hoping to make a living by providing medical services to the area’s growing planting community.

Practicing first at Port Jackson on the Chattahoochee River and later in Marianna, Hentz tended to families and slaves on plantations of all sizes and his diary and autobiography provide a fascinating glimpse of life on these farms. His knowledge of medicine was rudimentary at best. A good example was his treatment of Betsy Owens, a young woman of 20 who lived at Owens Hill near today’s Parramore community:

Sunday, January 14. Most beautiful morning. I rode to Mrs Owens; found her daughter Betsy, a stout good looking maid of about 20, very sick; prescribed, came home to late dinner….

Monday, January 15. Rode to Mrs. Owens again. Met the old lady, ere getting there, looking for her son, going to Billy Hair’s after him, talked about her daughter & returned; dissected my hawk all afternoon….

The problem with Hentz’s treatment of Betsy Owens was that he prescribed for her a high dose of calomel. Then used as a laxative, calomel is better known today as Mercury Chloride. Highly toxic, when administered in high doses it can lead to salivating (excessive drooling), hair and tooth loss and even death. Its use as a medicine was discontinued by around 1860, although in England it continued to be used as an ingredient in dental powder, leading to widespread mercury poisoning in that country.

Hentz overdosed Betsy Owens with calomel and within two days received an urgent message that she was salivating. Noting in his diary that he was “sorry to hear it,” Hentz mounted his horse and made the long ride from Port Jackson to Owens Hill, where he “found her quite perplexingly ill.” He reduced the dose, bemoaning the fact that he would not be paid for his services. Finally, four days after he initially dosed Betsy with enough calomel to cause mercury poisoning, she began to show signs of improvement:

Thursday, January 18. I went to widow Owens’ again this morning, am getting quite tired of the road, for the very good reason that my labor will meet with no pecuniary remuneration. I had the satisfaction to find Miss Betsy improving. The day has been charming, bright and beautiful….

Betsy would continue to experience problems for several more days, but Hentz was finally able to end his “treatment” of her. As bad as things went for Betsy Owens, they went even worse for some of Hentz’s other patients. Robert Crawford, for example, died in agony after taking medicine prescribed by Hentz with assistance from a doctor called in from Bainbridge, Georgia:

…He arose violently from bed, with several terrified cries, & rushed out, notwithstanding all efforts of bystanders to the contrary. He struggled violently, & gradually sunk to the floor in convulsions, in which he died, rolling his eyes fearfully; gritting his teeth; gasping & convulsed; he died in about 10 minutes….

Not all of Hentz’s visits went so poorly. He spent much of his time sewing up injuries, setting broken bones and taking care of other everyday medical needs for the planters of Jackson County. His diary indicates that he treated slaves with as much care as he did their white owners and that he was often called to their bedsides by the planters themselves.

One such visit, to the Wood plantation between Marianna and Port Jackson, turned into quite an escapade:

…Went to Mrs. Wood’s after dinner, saw some ailing negroes, sat in the parlor for the afternoon…Miss Kate King sang some, I had carried my flute & played a little. We all tryed the Chloroform, as Miss K. wished to see its effects, both ladies looked happy & embraced each other, & I felt like a thunderstorm, made great stamping & noise; ate some more fine watermelon; a good peach & a good fig….

In addition to his accounts of medical visits to plantations far and wide, Hentz’s diary provides fascinating insights to daily life and social customs in Jackson County during the plantation era. He describes boisterous election day gatherings, quiet Christmas Days spent reading, church services attended by whites and blacks alike, hunting expeditions along the Chipola and Chattahoochee Rivers and even fishing in Blue Spring.

Note: This article is excerpted from my 2010 book, The Early History of Jackson County, Florida: The Civil War Years. It is available locally at Chipola River Book & Tea in Downtown Marianna (across the street from the Battle of Marianna Monument) or you can order online at the upper right of this page.


Anonymous said...

Calomel was not dicontinuted as a medicine until 1940's or 1950's. I was born in 1940, and as a child probably 8 or 9 years old, my mother would go to a pharmacist and get what she called a "through" of calomel for my sister and me. This was done about once a year when my mother determined that my sister and I were not getting along together as we should. The best I remember the small tablets were administered every hour thoughout the day followed by a laxative (milk of magnesium in our case). I remember my sister and I becoming very ill about the middle of the afternoon after several of the tablets. The nausea was what I remember most. We would lie together in the bed "sick as dogs", and comfort each other. On one occasion I remember my saying "I love you Donna, and I'll never fuss with you again".

Hugh said...

I have "A Southern Practice" in front of me. It was given me by my daughter in law who is a descendant of Dr. Charles Hentz. The book is fascinating and gave me more insight into southern plantation life, prior to the Civil War, than any other book I have ever read.