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William & Waldo Fitz Randolph Letters

The following is a four-part story that originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent.

Original letters are all housed at the West Virginia and Regional History Center in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Part I

William Fitz Randolph of Greenbrier Run was a sheriff, Justice of the Peace, farmer, surveyor, militia clerk and a man whose vision led to the establishment of Doddridge County’s first high school. Of all of the local historical characters I’ve researched so far, none do I wish I could have met more than William Fitz Randolph. After sharing his story with you, I hope you will see him as I do, as an intelligent, kind man whose passion for education was surpassed only by his devotion to his family.


This article is actually a lead-in to next week’s article, which will reveal the drama of a series of emotional correspondences between William Fitz Randolph and his son Waldo, who was an unwilling, and perhaps unwarranted, resident of Western State Insane Asylum in Staunton, Virginia.

William & Mary Fitz Randolph

William Fitz Randolph was born in 1800 in Salem, (West) Virginia, a son of Jonathan Fitz Randolph and Mary Davis. He was the grandson of Samuel Fitz Randolph, who founded the town of New Salem, Virginia (now Salem, WV) in 1794.  

William Fitz Randolph of Greenbrier Run

William Fitz Randolph

In 1823 William Fitz Randolph married Mary Bond Davis in Harrison County. In about 1826 they settled on Greenbrier Run, in present-day Doddridge County, about four miles south of Salem. By 1844 they had had twelve children and had already lost two of the twelve. Five-year-old daughter Lydia died in 1837 and four-year-old Sarah Jane died in 1844. Some of their children eventually settled in Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.


Deputy Surveyor

William started surveying around 1825 and eventually became the deputy surveyor for Harrison County under the tutelage of Thomas Haymond. He surveyed for Lewis Maxwell from 1826 to 1835. I have copies of several surveys made by William F. Randolph in the 1830s. Most of his surveying was conducted near Salem, New Milton and West Union.

The West Union Academy,

ca. 1860

The West Union Academy

William Fitz Randolph was the driving force behind a subscription high school known as the West Union Academy. Construction of Doddridge County’ first institution of higher education started in 1852. The following paragraphs are taken from Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America, Vol. II and A History of Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia:

“The academy was organized and established mainly through the joint efforts of Rev. Azor Estee and William F. Randolph, the latter of whom was its largest stockholder and its leading spirit throughout the entire period of its active history.


He, together with his father, Jonathan F. Randolph; his uncle, Jesse F. Randolph; his brothers, Jepthah F. Randolph, Peter F. Randolph, Samuel Preston F. Randolph, and Isaac F. Randolph; his brothers-in-law, John S. Davis and Eliona Davis; and his son-in-law, Richard Ford; held a preponderance of the stock. ...

“The fundamental weakness of the West Union Academy was the fact that while it was undertaken as a denominational school for which there was a crying need, it was also undertaken as a financial enterprise which was expected to pay handsome dividends to the stockholders. When these financial hopes were not fulfilled and the real character of the situation dawned upon the promoters of the enterprise, they became disappointed and discouraged. Those who could have supported it as a philanthropic institution refused to do so, and those who would have done so, were unable.


“...Of its students, there went later to Alfred, New York, to attend Alfred Academy and University, five of the children of William F. Randolph; viz., Preston, Esther, Judson, Jethro, and Silas. ...


“...The first named of these, Preston F. Randolph, afterward became the most potent educational factor which has ever appeared in the counties of Harrison, Doddridge, and Ritchie, of West Virginia.”

The West Union Academy was located directly across the road from today’s Emmanuel Methodist Church in West Union. It closed its doors as a school only a few short years after its construction in 1852. During the Civil War, the building served as a Regimental Hospital and was later converted to a residence.

Photographs of William F. Randolph Papers at West Virginia & Regional History Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Receipt for books purchased for the West Union Academy and a list of local subscription school teachers.)

William’s Private Papers a Treasure Trove

William Fitz Randolph’s personal papers are preserved and housed at the West Virginia & Regional History Center on the campus of WVU in Morgantown. From these papers, I found that William was involved in every aspect of planning, building and running the West Union Academy. His papers also include contracts for subscription schools in New Salem and on Greenbrier Run in Doddridge County. Several of his children taught at these schools. The teacher’s rate of pay per student for each subject per 60-day session was $2.00 for spelling, reading and writing and $3.00 for arithmetic, grammar, English, analysis, geography and philosophy. One session typically lasted sixty days. Families of the students were also responsible for boarding and feeding the teacher.

William went to great lengths to ensure that his children were well educated. After the West Union Academy closed, he sent Esther, Silas, Judson, Preston and Jethro to Alfred University in New York to receive their secondary education. “Alfred was founded in 1836 as the Select School by Seventh Day Baptists as a

non-sectarian institution. Unusual for the time, the school was co-educational. It was also racially integrated, and enrolled its first African-American student and two Native American students in the 1850s, becoming the second college in the nation after Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, to do so.”  [Wikipedia]


Contained in William’s personal papers is a contract between him and Rev. Azor Estee, stating that Estee was to take William’s son Silas to Petersburg, New York and let Silas work for him (Estee) to pay for an advanced education and religious instruction. William stipulates that if Silas is in any way unhappy or wants to return home, Estee was to let him return to Doddridge County immediately.


180th Virginia Militia

Harrison County, of which Doddridge was a part of until 1845, was attached to the 11th Regiment of the 12th Brigade of the Virginia Militia. This militia was a compulsory armed force consisting of all male citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia capable of bearing arms. They held regularly scheduled drills intended to prepare them for a military invasion.


When Doddridge was formed in 1845, the county was required to maintain its own military regiment. William Fitz Randolph was appointed Clerk of the new 180th Regiment of the Virginia Militia. As Clerk, William was responsible for administering military drills and overseeing the financial burden of maintaining a militia, or home guard as it was sometimes called. His personal papers contain muster rolls and exemptions for the 180th Regiment from the 1840s and 1850s.


A Family in Torment

I will leave you here, around 1850, with William, his wife and nine children productively living on Greenbrier Run. However, things are about to take a turn for the worse. The Fitz Randolph family is about to experience an unfortunate set of circumstances that leads William to send his beloved son Waldo hundreds of miles away to an insane asylum, from which he will never return. Next week I will share with you letters written between William and Waldo that relate the story of a son begging to come home and a father coming to grips with the realization that his son will never be well again, despite the best treatment that money could buy.

Part II

The Calamitous Malady of Waldo Fitz Randolph

Western Insane Asylum as it appeared when Waldo was there.

Last week I introduced you to William Fitz Randolph, grandson of Salem founder Samuel Fitz Randolph, and his wife and twelve children. I left off in 1850, with William, his wife and nine children living on Greenbrier Run in Doddridge County, four miles south of Salem.


The following story can be told only because in 1982 William Fitz Randolph’s personal papers were donated to the West Virginia and Regional History Center in Morgantown. One folder contains a series of letters between William and his oldest son Waldo, starting shortly after Waldo was institutionalized for epilepsy on November 3, 1851.


How It All Started

In August 1850 twenty three-year-old son Waldo Fitz Randolph was living with his affluent family on Greenbrier Run. But that was about to change. Sometime in his late teens, around 1844, Waldo started having “fits,” as he

called them. William most likely had little knowledge of what was afflicting his son. After seven years of these spells, William took his son to the esteemed Western Lunatic Asylum in Staunton, Virginia for diagnosis and treatment. Epilepsy had for years been viewed as a mental disability, so epileptics were routinely sent to lunatic asylums.


Western Lunatic Asylum

We can only assume that William took Waldo to Western Lunatic Asylum because it was the closest mental institution to where they lived. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, later called Weston State Hospital, was not in operation until 1864. The Western Lunatic Asylum, under the directorship of the highly respected Dr. Francis T. Stribling, had a reputation as the nation’s foremost facility of its kind.

Dr. Francis T. Stribling was appointed director of Western Lunatic Asylum in 1840 and served until his death in 1874. Dr. Stribling embraced the concept of “Moral Medicine” for his patients. He was a reformer who worked closely with activist Dorothea Dix from 1849 to 1874 in their shared efforts to understand and treat mental health patients in humane treatment facilities. He was one of the original thirteen founders of the American Psychiatric Association.


Dr. Stribling routinely corresponded with the families of his patients. The following are excerpts from letters between William, Waldo and Dr. Stribling. The first letter between Waldo and William is dated November 21, 1851, just eighteen days after his admission to the asylum. I am sharing only a small portion of the letters I have, but in them Waldo is continually complaining of mistreatment and begging to come home. Dr. Stribling told William that patients with epilepsy were prone to paranoia and hallucinations. I was initially skeptical of the doctor’s explanation, but from all that I’ve read, Stribling strictly adhered to the moral treatment of his patients. Nonetheless, the conduct of nurses, orderlies and other staff members with regard to the patients is open to speculation.

Dr. Francis Taliaferro Stribling

Nov 21, 1851, Waldo to William:

“… The first day after you left I was shut up in a house and the next morning the door was opened and I stepped out a few times and because I done that I was tied to the bed and my hands tied to my body and so kept all the time and not permitted to handle the food that was brought to me. The man would feed me himself and my clothes was taken off and kept off all the time and by being tied so, had to lay on the bed without any clothes on me a right smart of the time, for the man would not put them on when I would ask him to. And when about two weeks had passed so, the doctor told the man to untie me and not to do it anymore. …


“... I think I had rather keep my fits than to stay at this place very much longer in the position they are allowed to keep me in. It would be very pleasing with me for you to return to this place at the end of the month.”

Image of original letter housed at West Virginia & Regional History Center, Morgantown, West Virginia.

Dec 8, 1851, William to Waldo:

“... I do not think it strange that you are kept in the house, not always allowed to eat what you want, nor permitted to have many clothes on. I saw your room when I was there. I think it is a warm comfortable one and you have no great need of under clothing. Besides this, the doctor might think it best for you not to use heavy clothes while taking medicine lest it should not have the desired effect. …”

Jan 30, 1852, Dr. Stribling to William:

“... He [Waldo] is in the care of a kind attendant who watches him closely and whenever the weather is suitable has him out exercising and sometimes employed in carrying wood. …

“...There can be no doubt that his mental disorder results from epilepsy, thence I cannot encourage you in the least as to his prospects. We will of course do all we can to mitigate his affliction, but I have never heard such a case cured.”

March 14, 1852, William to Dr. Stribling:

“Dr. Sir, yours of 30 Jan came to hand in due time. Although such information was not very unexpected, it is nevertheless afflictive indeed to learn that the prospects in my son's case is such that no encouragement can be given. I accept the information kindly and thankfully if there is nothing in the reach of human skill and medicine to cure the calamitous malady and relieve its unfortunate victim. I wish to be resigned to the afflictive dispensation of providence.

“I hope that no pains will (be) spared to render him comfortable and reconcile him to his lot. This I suppose is the most that his best friends can do for him. Such cases are sore calamities indeed.


“Having no acquaintance, and but little previous knowledge or information with regard to such institutions, it seemed like a calamity even heavier than death to have a child go there, but since visiting that Institute, and seeing and learning its arrangements, conveniences and order, it has been a source of considerable consolation to me to think that such charitable institutions are prepared for the reception, comfort, restraint and care of this unfortunate class of individuals.

“We have received but one letter from Waldo, and one from you. We wish to hear from you often.”

Mar 26, 1852, Waldo to William:

“I have quite a desire to get to [religious] meeting for I have not been to any meeting since I was at home. I want you, if you please, to come here to be company with me. I understand that the doctor is quite willing for me to go away if some of you will come to be company for me.”

May 28th 1852, Waldo to William:

"...I have had one of them spells this week and two others in this month before. And the doctors are giving me medicine still three times a day.

"The boss of the house has had me to go out with him and several of the men that stay here in this house with me to work. ...

"...The doctor seems to talk a little like as if he thinks he can stop the fits yet, but I do not know how it may be.

"I have perceived I know some alteration like in my mind when the fits come on me now, but whether it is a sign of the fits getting stopped or not, I do not know.

"I have quite a desire to go to meetings, but it is a thing that the doctors do not agree to my doing."

June 6, 1852, William to Waldo:

"I think it well for you to go out and work at some light work that will not fatigue you when the weather is pleasant and your health will permit it.


"It is not convenient for any of us to go to see you soon and if it was, I do not expect that we would do as well for you as the doctors and others you are with can. They will do all that can be done to care for you and make you comfortable. We indeed feel glad that you have got so good a place to stay at. We want you to be contented, helpful and accommodating to all those with whom you associate."


June 16, 1852, Waldo to William:

"... I still have a desire to try to serve the Lord and it is my duty still, I think, to bear with patience the afflictions, trials and temptations that I have to go through here in this world. I do want to do what is right in all cases, but I have been in some trouble in regard to some of the men that do stay with me in the house. For some of them have asked me to do some things that is not right, I am quite sure. But it is my place to do the best I can now."


In his letters to his father, Waldo seemed to vacillate between resignation to his plight and stubborn resolve that he would be cured. He was also frustrated that he was never permitted to attend church services.


This was intended to conclude last week’s article about William Fitz Randolph, but after reviewing all the material I’ve collected, I find that there must actually be a third part. Rarely have I had the opportunity to read such first-hand accounts of people and events that happened in Doddridge County over 160 years ago. I want to do this story justice, so next week I will share more of these letters and tell you of Waldo’s ultimate fate.

Part III

The Continuing Torment of Waldo Fitz Randolph

Moving along from where we left off last week, it is now the Fall of 1852, and the 25-year-old Waldo Fitz Randolph has been at the Western Lunatic Asylum in Staunton, Virginia for two years for treatment of epilepsy. Dr. Francis T. Stribling, the esteemed director of the institution, has informed Waldo’s father, William Fitz Randolph of Greenbrier Run, that Waldo’s condition will probably never improve. In his letters Waldo continues to beg his father to come to the asylum and take him home.


Waldo’s biggest complaint was that he was not permitted to attend religious meetings with the other residents. The Fitz Randolphs were devout Seventh Day Baptists and were very active in the New Salem church, so Waldo was raised going to church on a regular basis. After consulting with Dr. Stribling, William tried to explain to Waldo why he was not allowed to attend church services at the asylum:


August 9, 1852, William to Waldo:

"We have no doubt but you do feel anxious to go to meeting, but the directors of the institute think best for those who have fits not to go. The doctor says in his counting to me that he wishes much that he could let you go to meeting consistent with the interests of others, but fears it might be of bad consequence. I suppose that many affected people who are under the doctor's care attend meetings there whose minds are not very strong, and were you or any other person to go there and take a fit in the midst of such a congregation, much evil consequences might follow. You may therefore see that it would not be prudent for the doctor to allow epileptics to attend meetings. I suppose you can have as many good books and papers as you wish to read. We hope you will content yourself by reading and otherwise believing with the doctor that it is decidedly best for you, as well as all others who have convulsions, not to go into congregations of insane people."


Dr. Stribling’s reason for not allowing Waldo to attend church services with patients with “weak minds” makes sense, but why did the institute not provide religious services for those patients who had epilepsy? There were a significant number of epileptics at the asylum when Waldo was there, so it seems rather cruel that they were not afforded the same opportunities as those who were deemed “insane.”


Waldo was also unhappy about having no contact with women at the asylum, a fact that he mentioned in several of his letters.


September 8, 1853, Waldo to William:

"I Waldo Randolph have read the Bible through twelve times and am now reading it the 13th time. I have got to the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy the eighth day of September 1853. I have gotten no letter from you my father this year one thousand eight hundred and fifty three yet. It is my wish or desire that you would write to me and let me know what things you have left here with me. I believe that I have not talked with any woman since you was here with me. And that was in the eleventh month 1851."

October 9, 1853, Waldo to William:

"I do intend to try to write in this letter that you may know that it is my intention to inform you that it is my desire to inform you that it is my desire to inform you that I have a desire to inform you that I may undertake to write to you as often as I may receive letters from you.


"Now as to my part, the people do have me to work about five days every week nearly.


"In answer to your inquiry about what things I left for you, I would say that I did not leave much.


"Now as to my part, I would like quite well to go to meeting for there is a house close to the house that I do stay in and there is a meeting once every week, but the doctor will not let me go to any meeting."

October 9, 1853, Dr. Stribling to William:

"Your poor son was seized with an epileptic attack after writing the first few lines of this letter and hence the repetition which you perceive in the third paragraph.

His condition both of body and mind continues without material change. His convulsions vary but little in frequency or degree. He looks pale and badly, but does not complain of being sick.


"You ask us to give him all articles which belong to him if we think it safe to do so. He has been deprived of nothing except his knife and you will at once see the propriety of this. It is a delusion to which he frequently gives expression that he is robbed or otherwise deprived of his clothing, letters, books, etc.”

July 3, 1854, William to Dr. Stribling:

"We have been visited by death as well as sickness in our family lately. Waldo's mother and brother Ezra, aged 24 years who was still making his home with us, both died recently of nervous fever [typhoid fever]. Not knowing how news of this kind might affect Waldo's mind, I thought best to keep it from him until I could get your opinion on the subject.”


It is not clear who told Waldo that his mother and brother had died, but according to William, Waldo did not respond in any way upon hearing of their deaths. Dr. Stribling urged William to talk more about the family and see what he remembers. At no time did Waldo express any emotion toward his mother or any of his siblings.


May 8, 1855, Waldo to William:

"I have read the letters that I have received from you my father and my sister, and I do learn in them that my mother and brother Ezra are both dead. And I have had quite a desire for a good while to return to you my father again."


September 8, 1856, William to Waldo:

"Your sister Esther and three oldest brothers, now living, have gone to Alfred, New York.... Do you recollect their names and if so, tell me what they are in your next letter."


September 12, 1856, Waldo to William:

"Now if I do understand the letter that came to me last, it is your desire for me to write in the letter three names of my brothers. And the first is Silas, the second is Judson and the other is Preston. I have got my Bible with me yet and am now reading it through the twenty-fourth time."


In his September 15, 1856 letter to Dr. Stribling, William asked if it would be wise for some of Waldo’s friends to visit him at the asylum and if he could possibly bring Waldo home for a short while. Since Dr. Stribling was out of town at the time, his assistant, Dr. Hamilton, responded to William’s letter. He stated that it would be fine if some of Waldo’s friends came to visit, but he did not think it wise to remove Waldo from the institution unless William was prepared to restrain Waldo. The doctor went on to explain:


"You should be aware of a late occurrence. You poor boy took it into his head that it was his duty to become a eunuch, and in order to accomplish it, he tied a piece of steel wire around his scrotum so tightly that we had some difficulty in removing it. No serious consequences followed, but it was thought prudent to confine his hands until he got rid of the notion, as he might succeed better the next time."


I read nothing in his letters indicating that William ever brought Waldo home again or went to visit him. There is a reference to Waldo’s cousin Franklin Fitz Randolph going to visit Waldo. Franklin was a son of William’s brother Jepthah Fitz Randolph, who lived at New Milton. As time went on, letters between William and Waldo became less and less frequent.


October 28, 1857, William to Waldo:

"... When you wrote some time ago speaking of your brothers, I suppose you had forgotten about Jethro. You may perhaps recollect that you have a brother of that name, a little older than Lewis. We now in sadness tell you that Jethro too is deceased. He went to Alfred Center, New York, where the others were and died there December 27, 1857.


"We sympathize with you in your affliction and privation, but hope you will be able to bear all with that resignation, Christian-like courage, hope and fortitude that you have heretofore exercised. Believing that all things will work together for good to those that love and serve the Lord. May we not hear from you soon?"


November 2, 1857, Waldo to William:

"I do not recollect all the names of my brothers and sisters, but there is one I know that you have not wrote in the letter and that is Lewis. All that are older than him, I know. But them that are younger than him, I don't know the names of them now. I have got my Bible yet and am now reading it through the 26th time."


There were no known correspondences in 1858 and only two letters in 1859. The very last letter is from Dr. Stribling to William:


“'I have not written too often only because I have no material changes to report, as to your son’s condition. His epilepsy continues and as you would naturally infer, his mind becomes gradually weaker. His general health is quite good and he is in all respects as comfortable in his afflicted state as he can be made anywhere."


Death of William

William Fitz Randolph died at age 60 on November 5, 1861, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. This remarkable man from  Greenbrier Run in Doddridge County was not only a sheriff, Justice of the Peace, farmer, surveyor, and militia clerk, he was also a devoted and loving father who spared no expense to educate and give his children every advantage in life, even if it meant never seeing them again. William and his wife Mary are buried at the Seventh Day Baptist Cemetery in Salem.

End of Waldo’s Torment

Waldo Fitz Randolph died on April 11, 1863, age 35, at the Western Lunatic Asylum from the effects of epilepsy, having been institutionalized for 11 years, 5 months, 8 days. His body and mind had been steadily weakened from epileptic fits for over 17 years. In his altered mind, all he wanted to do was go home and attend church, but that was not meant to be. Waldo was buried in the asylum cemetery in Plot 20, Grave 42. Those numbers are important, since the grave markers of the over 2,300 patients buried there have absolutely nothing inscribed on them. Many do not even have headstone. Requiescat in pace, Waldo Fitz Randolph.

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