Rhoda Derry was the beautiful youngest daughter of a farming family living in Adams County, Illinois. At the tender age of 16 she fell desperately in love with a young man who lived on a neighboring farm, his name was Charles Phenix. Charles loved Rhoda back; when the young man proposed marriage, Rhoda promptly accepted.
Charles’s parents weren’t too keen on the teenaged love affair, especially his mother. She threatened Rhoda – said that if she didn’t break it off with Charles that she would put a curse on her. The story goes that Rhoda’s own family had a history of witchcraft, and the young lady very much believed in curses. To say she was petrified doesn’t even cover it; Rhoda became paranoid, the threat of the curse alone was enough to literally drive Rhoda mad. She began hallucinating, was suddenly convinced that a demon named Old Scratch was out to harm her. Rhoda’s parents tried to care for her, but she became too much to handle. Eventually Rhoda was sent to a place for the indigent and the insane.
Today, those who have studied the case believe that the young woman was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and probably seizures. Had Rhoda lived today they could have treated her with medications and therapy, she still could have lived a normal life, but back then all they knew was that the young woman was “Furiously mentally ill” and needed to be locked away every moment of the day, forever. Deemed incurable, Rhoda was sent to Adams County Almshouse where she would remain for more than four decades.
During her stay at this horrific place, Rhoda was terribly abused and neglected. Rhoda was kept in a straw basket for years, in the fetal position with her legs drawn up to her chin. Inside this tiny basket rodents made their home beside her. Eventually Rhoda was put in a wooden box which looked like a crib; this box may have been a small improvement, but not much. Her shoulders were permanently hunched and her legs bent from laying in the same position for so many years, muscles atrophied to the point that she could not physically walk anymore, and at some point Rhoda lost the ability to communicate with others.
In the photo you can see how malnourished Rhonda was, she known for eating every and anything she could get her hands on, which was likely due to starvation. Self harm became common; medical records indicate that Rhoda punched herself in the face so often that she actually knocked her own front teeth out, and that she’d blinded herself from clawing her own eyes out. It’s thought that she may have done this so that she couldn’t see the monsters who tormented her anymore. The fear of “monsters” is troubling – how much of this was self mutilation, and how much of it was inflicted upon her by “monsters”? It’s not like she could tell anyone, but even if she had, who would’ve cared?
After 4 decades of living this way, a good man by the name of Dr George Zeller heard of Rhoda, and he agreed to take her and several other patients in. They arrived at the Peoria State Hospital by train; after all the other patients exited the vehicle and walked to the hospital, staff noticed a laundry basket way in the back. They picked it up and began to carry it up the hill to the hospital – it wasn’t until they felt something moving from inside of the old basket that they realized this was where Rhoda was kept!
Dr Zeller and Rhoda bonded immediately; it is said that during their first meeting, she tugged at his pants leg and smiled at him – this was her first smile in over 40 years! The doctor was horrified at the life she had been subjected to and promptly became very protective of her. He made sure that his staff rid Rhoda’s frail body of the lice she’d been infested with; they bathed her daily, never again would she lay in fecal matter. Rhoda was even given her very own bed! Finally she had someone she trusted, and she was treated as a human being. Rhoda became best friends with a fellow patient, and the two spent all their free time together; she even learned how to get around on her own by walking on her knuckles.
For the rest of her days, Rhoda was surrounded by people who cared for her; sadly this was the time period when everyone was coming down with tuberculosis. Rhoda was not immune, and she passed away on October 9th of 1906. Today she is buried at the Peoria state hospital cemetery in Illinois.
It’s important not to forget what was once done with those who suffered from mental illness. Though there is still much stigma surrounding it, we are getting there. Many of us who lead decent lives today through medication, therapy, etc. would have been locked away forever had we lived 100 years ago. This was often a fate worse than death ♥️ We only know Rhoda’s story because a kind doctor took her in. How many other nameless Rhodas were there?