The Earthquake That Drowned Thomas Jefferson's Sister

The mysterious death of Elizabeth Jefferson
The Rivanna River ©Scott Clark
On the afternoon of February 21, 1774, Virginia was rocked by the first earthquake in its recorded history. Somewhere between a 6.5 and 7.5 magnitude, it was strong enough to rip buildings from their foundations. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson wrote that it “shook the houses so sensibly that every body run out of doors.”

We don’t know how much the shaking may have startled Jefferson’s little sister Elizabeth, who disappeared after the quake. What we do know, according to Jefferson’s account book, is that she was found three days later and buried eleven days after that.

After reading about her death in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, I wanted to know everything I could about this story that had all the makings of a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style family mystery – a bizarre disaster, a missing sister, even a body of water!

What I found was that only a few scant details survived. What surprised me even more was how that didn’t stop two biographers – one a Pulitzer Prize winner – from sensationalizing the facts with their own scintillating details. These authors also jumped to some egregiously shaky conclusions about Elizabeth Jefferson's life and death.


One tantalizing piece of evidence we have about 30-year-old Elizabeth indicates she was “feeble minded.” Most of what we know about her comes from a single letter written almost a hundred years after her death.

Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Sarah Randolph was writing a book about him based on letters and family memories, and she wrote to family friend Wilson Miles Cary about Elizabeth’s death. He responded, “I have always understood that she was very feeble minded if not an idiot – that she and her maid drowned together while attempting to cross the Rivanna in a skiff.”

Jefferson's Monticello is located just across the Rivanna River from Shadwell, his birthplace and the home of his sister in 1774.
Randolph didn’t speculate on whether an earthquake or a boating accident killed her great-great aunt. Her book’s only mention of Elizabeth was that she was “rather deficient in intellect.” That sounds positively flattering compared to the way later biographers reveled in playing up her mental limitations.

This includes Page Smith, author of Thomas Jefferson: A Revealing Biography. Smith plugged Cary’s “very feeble minded if not an idiot” quote into his tawdry thesaurus and decided the best possible way to describe Elizabeth was by saying she was “perilously close to being mentally retarded.”

Is it just me, or does that sound way worse than plain old retarded? Smith’s book came out in 1976, so perhaps he was too perilously close to missing his Bicentennial deadline to rein in the adverbs.

A more famous Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone, also danced ineptly around Elizabeth’s intelligence in his Pulitzer Prize winning six-volume “Jefferson and His Time.”
Whether [Jefferson’s mother Jane] exhausted herself in bearing Thomas, or there was some mishap in the delivery, the child she bore just after him was subnormal. The later story of this unfortunate girl can wait, but at least it can be said here that Elizabeth Jefferson afforded little companionship to her well-endowed brother.
Jefferson was so damn brilliant, you see, that his mother was simply exhausted after pushing out his giant well-endowed brain. So exhausted that the “unfortunate girl” who fell from her loins a year later couldn’t possibly provide any companionship to the extraordinary Thomas Jefferson, by far the best thing that ever came out of Jane Jefferson’s tired vagina.

Years later as president, Jefferson had a pet mockingbird named Dick who would follow him around the house, eat from his mouth, and make music with him. Dick was his “constant companion." Just to be clear, Malone couldn't imagine Thomas finding any companionship with his subnormal sister, but Dick the Bird was just the ticket.

The irony of a brainiac future president having a mentally challenged sister was just too great for these writers to resist. The problem is the evidence is so miniscule – a letter written a century after her death, and the fact that Jefferson handled his sister’s finances. His account books show he had to check with the executors of their father’s estate to approve purchases ensuring she “should be well dressed.” This would be an unusual arrangement for a typical adult woman, but it surely doesn’t mean she was bad company.

What these exaggerations from Smith and Malone insinuate but never directly ask is the question that makes this story so compelling. Did Elizabeth Jefferson’s intellectual disability have something to do with her death? Maybe that's what Smith meant by “perilously close” – she didn’t fully qualify for the R word, but she was impaired enough to be a walking time bomb.

But even if Elizabeth’s limitations somehow led to her death, it doesn’t explain how her maid (presumably of typical intelligence) also managed to drown in an earthquake. The maid’s odd presence solely in Cary’s letter makes me wonder if she ever existed at all. Jefferson never mentioned finding and burying anyone but his sister. If Elizabeth was disabled, it might seem neglectful to leave her unattended. If she ran off by herself and ended up dead, rumors of neglect could be avoided by saying her trusty maid was with her the whole time. With the fictional caretaker off the map, no one could refute the story.


Another mystery in this family drama is what exactly Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote in his account book, “My sister Elizabeth was found last Thursday being Feb. 24.” Page Smith was one of the first biographers to connect the earthquake to Elizabeth’s death, and he gleefully filled in his own details about Elizabeth’s state:
On February 21, 1774, Monticello was shaken by a strong earthquake, which drove everyone from the house. In the excitement Jefferson’s afflicted sister, Elizabeth, then in her thirtieth year, disappeared. It was two days before she was found, more dead than alive. She died a few days later and was buried in the family plot near Dabney Carr.
I have to admire Smith's style. He knows history can only be recounted with the action-packed language of Lifetime TV movie titles like Shaken, Disappeared, and Buried or awesome band names like "Afflicted Sister."

But Smith’s most outrageous phrase, and the literary darling he should have killed, is "more dead than alive." Because it’s completely pulled out of his ass. It can only be a guess based on the ambiguity of Jefferson’s notes – was Elizabeth dead or alive when she was “found” on February 24th? Smith didn't know, so he hedged his bets on some quasi-state of being that's more bullshit that fact.

One problem with the killer earthquake story is that we can't even be sure Elizabeth's death happened after the quake. An entry in the family prayer book believed to have been written by Jefferson himself listed the date of her death as January 1, 1773 – 14 months earlier than his account book. If he couldn't nail that down, what hope do we have of piecing together a few disparate notes?

Jon Meacham, also a Pulitzer-winner, had the same source material as Malone and Smith, but wisely chose not to embellish the supposed facts. He wrote:
In the furor, Elizabeth Jefferson, Thomas’s reputedly mentally disabled sister, disappeared from Shadwell. She was found, dead, three days later, after apparently drowning in the Rivanna.
If the cause of death choices were a) earthquake or b) drowning, Meacham chose c) all of the above. But with qualifying words like “reputedly” and “apparently” he's really saying "seriously though, who the hell knows?"

I'd like to imagine a scenario where everything fits together, but I have trouble with an earthquake strong enough to shake someone out of a boat later that day. Throw in the slave maid and it's even more implausible, like an all-female version of Huckleberry Finn with the ending from Thelma and Louise. As titillating as it sounds, the earthquake to drowning sequence is just too hard to swallow as anything but a possible coincidence.


I used to think biographers were bound by facts, but using facts as a springboard to jump to conclusions sounds way more fun. I want in on this game.

Let me take a look at one of the primary sources for this story – Thomas Jefferson’s account book for March 1774. Like my biographer friends above, I'll do my best to take a closer look at the facts and then distort them.
From Dumas Malone's "Jefferson the Virginian."
From these entries we know when Elizabeth was found, when she was buried, and that the Rivanna River was flooding.

But take another look at the top two notes:
I don’t know how much Elizabeth Jefferson weighed, but I’m guessing it was perilously close to 118 pounds.

Clearly, Elizabeth Jefferson – the feeble-minded girl who Dumas Malone felt had less value to her family than a bird – ended life as a grisly (and gristly) gift from Thomas Jefferson to his unsuspecting mother.

So there you have it. I found two pieces of evidence and connected them to come up with a salacious theory. I’m not sure what happens next. Do I have to reach out to the people at Pulitzer, or will they just leave my award in the comments?

Unfortunately, the only undisputed fact here is that we’ll never know exactly what happened to Elizabeth Jefferson. The truth is likely buried along with her in the Monticello cemetery, and that might be how her family wanted it. Maybe it was too painful for them to write about, or maybe they felt some need to cover up whatever tragedy occurred that winter. Every family has secrets, and this was the South, where they have to use armoires because their closets are so full of skeletons.

Questions like this are part of what makes history so thrilling to me. Even though I’m hopelessly addicted to having instant access to answers at my fingertips, I also love a good unsolved mystery. Especially one I can really sink my teeth into.

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Thomas Jefferson's Deleted Scenes from the Declaration of Independence

Some of "the best" bits that didn't make the final cut.
Clippy was a Loyalist.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for writing the Declaration of Independence, but the final version Congress passed was not the version he submitted. Nearly a quarter of his words were cut. Jefferson referred to the edits as "mutilations" and John Adams said “they obliterated some of the best of it.”


To understand what was cut out and why, it’s helpful to think of those passages as deleted scenes and the Declaration itself as a Hollywood film. Thomas Jefferson was the hot young writer, Congress was the bureaucratic studio, John Adams was the passionate director, and Benjamin Franklin was the old producer trying to keep everyone on track and lounging around on the casting couch.

There was a lot riding on this production. The Declaration was meant to encourage weary soldiers, convince fence-sitters of the king’s tyranny, and attract foreign allies to America's aid. It needed to thrill and chill its audience like a summer blockbuster and inspire them like heart-wrenching Oscar-bait.

It had to be a critically-acclaimed populist propaganda film that played well domestically and internationally – Die Hard, Schindler's List, and Field of Dreams all in one. The pressure was on for Jefferson.

One of the parts he hated most was getting notes. It's frustrating process for any writer which can involve months of trying to please various people while maintaining a shred of creative integrity. For Thomas Jefferson, the process was condensed into one grueling night in the Pennsylvania State House where he writhed in silent discomfort as his masterpiece was eviscerated before his eyes.

John Adams vehemently defended Jefferson’s script, “fighting tirelessly for every word,” but Congress had final cut and multiple interests to serve.


Many changes were minor and served only to make the declaration slightly less incendiary. I go through a similar process with my emails, doing one last pass before sending to soften phrases like “screw you” to “best regards.”

Instead of saying they must “expunge” their former system of government, Congress changed it to “alter.” The King’s “unremitting” injuries became “repeated.” Even the very first sentence was toned down. Jefferson’s draft said “When, in the order of human events, it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained…” which was tweaked to “…it becomes necessary for a people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another.”

Jefferson's intro evoked Tim Robbins basking in the rain after his triumphant prison break in The Shawshank Redemption, and they watered it down to Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz saying, "I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow." It’s kind of amazing the whole Declaration of Independence wasn’t edited down to become The Polite Notification of Bother.


One of the most memorable terms in the document wasn’t even Jefferson’s. His original draft said “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” I was surprised to discover Benjamin Franklin suggested the bolder “self-evident." I felt the same way when I found out one of the best lines in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was actually improvised by Sean Connery.
INDIANA JONES: How did you know she was a Nazi?
PROFESSOR HENRY JONES: She talks in her sleep.   
As it turns out, dirty old men make the best edits.


When we think of the Declaration today, we think of the Preamble – the first two paragraphs. But most of the document was devoted to blaming King George III for all America’s troubles (it’s easier to focus hate on a person than an institution). But it comes off sounding like the rants of a jilted lover from Sex and the City.

“These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection,” Jefferson wrote, “and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren.” Jefferson loved Britain so hard even though she treated him bad; he had to man up and break it off.

He further resolved, “We must endeavor to forget our former love for them...We might have been a free and a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity.” Moving on is so tough because they could have been so good together. But that uppity broad, Britain, was too good for him now. Plus he needed his space anyway.

Those agonizing feelings of lost love were all scrapped. All that remained was the hopeful sentiment that Americans must hold the British “as we hold the rest of the mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.” Jefferson’s wounded breakup letter became a calmer plea of “Can we still be friends?”


The greatest deleted scene from Jefferson’s Declaration was meant to be its climax. Jefferson fiercely accused King George of committing all manner of violent, tyrannous acts he “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” This was the thrills and chills section, where the king encouraged “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

All of those grievances made the cut, but the most heinous of all was too controversial to pass.

Jefferson blamed King George for the horrors of the slave trade, saying: 
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.
Jefferson used the term "Christian" sarcastically, to point out how un-Christian he found the practice of slavery. He was basically blaming King George III for the slave trade, even though it existed long before he came along.

King George III, our Declaration's great antagonist. And possibly the influence for Disney's monochromatic Cruella De Vil.
One reason this didn’t make the final cut was that more than a third of the Congress owned slaves. Jefferson himself had about 200 while he was denouncing the act on paper. Also, many understood how absurdly hypocritical it was to bring up the plight of slaves whose life and liberty were stolen when those same people were not included in the Preamble’s “all men are created equal” part.

Jefferson went on to say King George “is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them.” This, to me, is an even stranger argument. How dare you take away the freedom of these poor slaves and then encourage them to fight for their freedom against us, their masters? His climactic scene was full of plot holes.

Slavery was a lifelong conundrum for Jefferson. His first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave, and as David McCullough puts it, “in countless ways he had been carried ever since by slaves.” Had his attempt to condemn the slave trade made the final cut, it might have expedited the end of slavery in America, or at least encouraged Jefferson to do something about the heinous institution when he was president.

He often spoke in favor of abolition, but he didn’t think the idea was popular enough to succeed in his lifetime. Jefferson died a slaveowner, freeing only five slaves in his will. All five were related to Sally Hemings.


Jefferson’s original version of the Declaration was not distributed to the world, but it didn’t die that night in State House. He felt so strongly about his draft that he sent his director's cut to friends, along with the final theatrical version and a note saying, “I enclose you a copy of the Declaration of Independence as agreed to by the house, and also as originally framed. You will judge whether it is the better or worse for the critics.”

The Declaration was approved by Congress on July 4th, 1776 and despite Jefferson's feelings about its inadequacy, it was a hit – more of a sleeper hit than an instant blockbuster, as it gained prominence over time. For all the studio meddling, it surpassed its goals of rousing the American people and inspiring others worldwide. 

It was also on July 4th, in 1826 – exactly 50 years later – that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. In the last letter he ever wrote, Jefferson said, "let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them." Adams's last words were reportedly "Thomas Jefferson survives," but he was wrong. Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.

Both men survive in the American spirit of Independence Day, a holiday synonymous today with fireworks, barbecues, patriotism, and a pretty good weekend at the box office.