Rhoda Derry was very influential in the Illinois Mental Health Community at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her case brought about sweeping changes to the housing and treatment of patients in mental institutions and led to the closing of many Alms Houses throughout the state of Illinois.
Rhoda grew up in Adams County, Illinois. During her teenage years, she fell in love with a farm boy, Charles Phenix, who lived a short distance from her home. His mother, Nancy, did not want her son to marry Rhoda because of the Derry family’s association with witchcraft. Rhoda’s grandmother was rumored to be a witch and Rhoda’s mother, Rachel, wanted nothing to do with “Old Moll”, as the grandmother was known. Rachel convinced her husband to move the family away and this helped instill a deep fear of witches into Rhoda.
Nancy Phenix learned of Charles’ intentions to marry Rhoda and confronted the girl about it. She threatened to put a hex on Rhoda if she didn’t leave Charles alone. Some believe this was the event that caused Rhoda’s mental spiral into madness because of her fear of witches. Rhoda began to hear voices and claimed to see “Old Scratch”, which was believed to be a name for the devil. She also had visions of Nancy Phenix haunting her home.
The Derry family sent Rhoda to the Jacksonville Mental Hospital but it is believed that the hospital found her incurable and sent her home again. At that point, the family could no longer take care of Rhoda and she was sent to an Alms House in Adams County. These houses were specifically designed to take care of the poor but they also appeared to take in the mentally ill that were outcast from hospitals.
It was during her stay at the Alms House that Rhoda began to become very violent and had to be restrained on numerous occasions. At one point, she claimed she had seen “Old Scratch” and proceeded to blind herself to make the visions stop. She then lived in a world of darkness but her violent streaks continued. The staff at the Alms House felt Rhoda was a danger to both herself and the other patients so they decided to restrain her by placing her in a box covered with a canvas tarp. She could not escape this wooden prison and was confined to it for forty years. Her limbs shriveled due to lack of exercise and when she was finally released from the box, she began to walk with her hands because her legs had atrophied.
In 1904 Dr. George Zeller opened the Peoria Hospital for the Incurable Insane. His methods were shocking to many professionals in the mental health industry at the time because he treated the patients with dignity and believed that a healthy work environment and a fostered work ethic would help the patients tremendously. Patients tended to gardens, lakes, and even a zoo on the property. Zeller forbid the use of restraints on any patient. Rhoda’s tormented path finally led her to this hospital, a haven where she and Zeller shared a fascination in one another. She lived her final days under Zeller’s care and began to show improvement to her mental health and made great progress in her condition.
Because of Rhoda’s cruel treatment at the Alms House, many such institutions were closed across the state and new laws were put into effect that prevented such a case from happening again.
Our hope is to show Rhoda’s story as part documentary and part feature film. We already have many interviews with doctors familiar with her case who work in Illinois Mental Health today. We also have interviews with her 2nd Great Nephew, Doc Derry. He has been helping tremendously, providing information that has opened innumerable areas of exploration into Rhoda’s life story and her voyage through the agony of misunderstood mental illness. We also want to do highly involved reenactments, showcasing some of the story mentioned above to immerse the viewer into Rhoda’s world by conveying her tormented journey. The actors who we have lined up to play the characters have met with Doc and some of the mental health professionals so that they will be able to craft a performance that will do Rhoda justice.