A Nail in the Head

Mary Taylor’s home remedy for insanity

DR. JOHN McCLANAHAN TATE faithfully served the citizens of the Greenville area of Virginia’s southern Augusta County as their physician from 1853 up until his death of Bright’s disease in December 1896. In those 43 years, he treated probably too many accidents to count, but he certainly had to remember the bizarre case of Mary C. Taylor, a Greenville woman who claimed to cure her splitting headaches by a very unusual means.

On July 16, 1875, word reached Dr. Tate at his home that Mrs. Taylor, the 35-year-old wife of Robert Taylor and the mother of seven children, Lucy, Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Malinda, John, and Irvine, needed prompt medical attention. Upon arriving at the Taylor home about three miles outside of Greenville, Mrs. Taylor’s second-oldest daughter, 16-year-old Augusta, met the doctor at the gate and anxiously explained that while combing her mother’s hair, the comb hung on something on the back of her head. Separating the strands, the girl discovered to her horror a nail driven into her mother’s skull almost up to the head.

Upon examination by Dr. Tate, the eerily composed Mary confessed that four days earlier she had been driven to the brink of insanity by violent headaches, so she took the flat side of a hatchet and drove a 6-penny (2” long) nail into her skull herself in a last-ditch attempt to stop them. Upon her daughter’s discovery, she had begged the girl to keep her unusual “cure” a secret, but the mortified Augusta called Dr. Tate anyway.

According to the Staunton Vindicator newspaper, Dr. Tate convinced Mary that the nail had to be removed because of the potentially deadly tetanus risk, despite her fervent claims that she wanted the nail left alone because her headaches had finally ceased. Still, using a farrier’s horseshoe nail puller, and “with much difficulty” and with “the use of some force,” Dr. Tate was finally able to extract the nail from Mrs. Taylor’s skull. He treated the exterior of the wound with a period-appropriate dressing.

After the extraction Augusta explained to Dr. Tate in confidence that her mother had in the recent past been a patient at Western State Lunatic Asylum (now Western State Hospital) in Staunton, and for some time had been considered “partially deranged.”

Is it possible the “deranged” woman by dumb luck stumbled upon a cure for both headaches and her form of derangement? The Alexandria Gazette reported July 26 that “The patient is doing well … The strangest thing about it is that Mrs. Taylor’s mind has been perfectly restored by this remarkable operation.”

By 1880 Mary seemed to have recovered well enough to have two more children, Hayden in late 1875 and Katie in 1877. There is no record she ever returned to Western State Asylum.

“It is a very remarkable case,” reported the Richmond Daily Dispatch, “and one of much interest to the medical community.”

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Read more “American Grotesk Historytelling” at www.dalebrumfield.net. My latest book “Railroaded” is available at all online sellers.

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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