The peaceful river town of Guntersville, Alabama, (pre-TVA, imagine Guntersville without the lake) was shaken in the summer of 1890 by the killing of well-known doctor Buck May by perhaps the most well-known political figure of Marshall County, James L. Sheffield.
Sheffield was elected sheriff at the age of 25 and served from 1844-57, elected representative of Marshall County 1855, 1857 and 1865.
He was a member of the Alabama secession convention of 1861 and opposed secession, but when Alabama voted to secede, he threw his effort behind the state. He raised the 48th Alabama Regiment in Marshall County and spent over $50,000 of his own money to outfit it.
He was a brigade commander at Gettysburg and wrote a battlefield report in The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion on his troops’ actions around Devil’s Den and Little Roundtop. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1882 and was elected to the Alabama State Senate in 1886. For any political office in Marshall County that he ran, his election was almost a certainty.
James Sheffield married Mary Ann Adkins Street in 1844. Mary Ann had so much more wealth than Sheffield at the time that a pre-nuptial agreement was reached before marriage. In the years prior to the Civil War, he became a successful planter and landowner and in the Census of 1860 was listed as a retired farmer. The marriage produced seven children of which Andrew Moore Sheffield (a female) was born in 1849.
So to say this killing was a shock to the area around Guntersville and Marshall County was a bit of an understatement. The events that led up to this confrontation would make for a Victorian soap opera.
The Census of 1880 listed Dr. May as a boarder in the Sheffield household in which Sheffield’s daughter Andrew also resided. Records show that Dr. May and James Sheffield were partners in a mercantile business in Guntersville.
According to Andrew’s later letters about the mid-1880s, she became addicted to chloral hydrate, a sleep medication of the day. Dr. May prescribed and also furnished her with the chloral hydrate as a means of controlling her for sexual and other purposes.
One of the “other purposes” of this manipulative relationship was when May forced her to attempt to burn down the house of a neighbor with whom he was feuding. She was caught in the act before any damage could occur, but she was arrested for arson, a felony.
Her father, Col. James Sheffield, returned from his job in Montgomery and, after a brief verbal confrontation with Dr. May at his daughter’s house in Warrenton, shot and killed Dr. May.
Andrew advanced the theory in her later letters that her family had her committed to the Alabama Insane Hospital, later named Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, to keep her away from her father’s trial and avoid her own trial on arson charges as well as to help salvage the family’s wounded reputation.
Her half-brother, Thomas Adkins Street, who was Probate Judge of Marshall County at the time, engineered her committal to the Alabama Insane Hospital and told officials there that the family had considered Andrew insane since childhood.
Andrew admitted that for the last 10 years, neighbors an acquaintances had considered her insane because of her addiction to chloral hydrate and around 1880, when she was around 30, she suffered a “disappointment in love” which left her devastated. She told her doctors, “When younger, I passed for a very handsome woman.”
Her father’s trial was in November after she had been committed in July and he was acquitted. The records and testimony from that trial cannot be located in court records or county archives.
With her committal in July of 1890, Andrew would spend the next 30 years, the remainder of her life, institionalized there. What makes her life well documented is her penchant for writing letters.
Her “mania for writing letters” was the only madness she ever admitted. During this time (1890 to 1920), she wrote over 100 letters to persons in authority, mostly governors of the State of Alabama and her doctors.
In 1993, 103 years after her committal, the University of South Carolina press published a book, “The Letters of a Victorian Madwoman,” in which 90 of Andrew Sheffield’s letters are presented and edited by John. S. Hughes. Victorian in the title refers to the time period marked by the reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901).
In these letters, she argued articulately that she was sane and not insane and she should be removed from the insane hospital and placed in regular prison. The problem was she had not been convicted in a court of law for her crime of arson and governors had not power in the committal or release of patients in the insane hospital.
Andrew’s letters show an intense pride in her father whom she said was “as near a good man as any man, even the best.”
“His motto was do right and he did do right, did not preach one thing and practice another, his charity knew no bounds, was charitable almost to a fault,” she wrote.
According to her letters, he tried valiantly to save her from her broken heart and addition. She said he gave her “travel, spent his money with a lavish hand and told her doctors if they gave her an opiate, he would prosicute them.”
His dilemma with Andrew’s addiction sounds eerily similar to what parents face today in our opiate crisis. James Sheffield died in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1892 at the age of 73.
Her letters reveal not only Andrew’s history and situation, but also give insight into the care and treatment of the mentally ill in a turn of the century facility. The Alabama Insane Hospital, later Bryce Hospital (after 1892), was supposedly on the cutting edge of treatment for the time.
According to her letters, she was never physically restrained such as in a straight jacket. But she was assigned to the back wards, where the more violent inmates were sent, which she felt was punishment. The residents of the back wards had less freedom and were deprived of the company of the more rational patients. One of her letters was particularly sad when she asked for permission to attend the circus in Tuscaloosa but was given permission too late to attend.
Around World War I (1918), Andrew developed a nutritional disorder, pellagra, cased by niacin (Vitamin B3) deficiency in her diet. It is characterized by the "3 D’s," dermatitis, dementia or depression, and diarrhea, with her dermatitis also occurring in her mouth.
The condition occurs in places and institutions where the diet is primarily maize based. If untreated or if the diet is not corrected, it is usually fatal.
Doctors at the time did not understand the cause of pellagra and, as a result, hers was never treated. Andrew’s health was captive to her situation. She almost certainly had a Vitamin D deficiency because she frequently was not allowed to go on walks for fresh air and sunshine around the grounds with nurses and other patients. In one of her letters, she asked to buy oranges, apples and sugar with her money that was held in an account in the main office. The oranges and apples would have helped with her diet issues, but she was never allowed to buy them.
She passed away in March 1920 at the age of 71. She was buried at Bryce Hospital, but her grave was later moved because of construction of River Road, which was later renamed Jack Warner Parkway. Many students and travelers on that road never realize they are traveling an area that was once one of Bryce Hospital’s many cemeteries.
The year 2020 will mark 100 years since Andrew Sheffield’s passing. If she could come back today, she would be amazed at all the advances made in knowledge and technology in that 100 years. There have been more advances in the last 100 years than all the advances made in all the total history prior.
She might also be upset by frustrated efforts to locate her grave, which is in area that is under lock and key because of vandalism. She might in fact by so upset that she would likely fire off a few letters to Gov. Kay Ivey.