Caesar Rodney life one of history and mystery

Yesterday at Sand N Stones we were talking about Caesar Rodney.  There was a statement made…. When was the last time, you got on your horse, and rode up to Philadelphia 30 plus hours in the cold rain, with cancer  to break a tie, which impacted this great nation in profound ways?

Tucked inside of a report that I did on this great Delawareian, was a newspaper article that I saved from The Delaware State News dated Sunday, July 3, 2011 Vol 111, No. 333 titled Rodney’s Life one of history and mystery by Jamie-Leigh Bissett.

His Dover- for Delawareans, Caesar Rodney is the star of Independence Day.

legendary ride to Philadelphia and tie breaking vote in 1776 are firmly rooted in Delaware and American history.

But there are details of his life to much speculation – including what he looked like and the health problems he endured.

Rodney never posed for a portrait and historians tell us he kept part of his face veiled because of cancer – what he once called “that horrid and most obstinate disorder” – on his face.

“Because there are no documented portraits of Rodney, which is unusual for someone of his prominence, we don’t know what he physically looked like, “ said Russ McCabe, former state archivist and Delaware historian.

Through his words John Adams pained an unflattering picture of Rodney. “He was the oddest-looking man in the world” Adams one wrote. “He is tall, thin and slender as a reed, and pale; his face is no bigger than an apple.”

Actor Tim Parati is someone who has experienced the challenge of portraying Rodney. When he hot the role of Rodney in the HBO miniseries “John Adams” in 2008, he turned to the internet and immediately read Adams’ quote.“I said, ‘Really?’ Oddest looking man?” Mr. Parati remembered with a chuckle. “I was shocked to find out he had cancer of the face and I was worried what that was going to entail as far as wardrobe and makeup was concerned.”

Mr. Parati and the costume designer later found out that the kind of cancer Caesar Rodney had was not known, nor how long he suffered or what it specifically was about his face that caused Mr. Adams to declare him the “offset looking man in the world?”

Mr. McCabe wonders why Rodney never sat for a portrait. “If his head was in fact the size of a large apple, it might explain why there are no portraits of him, said Mr. McCabe. But with his popularity, you would think he could find an artist who would have depicted him in a positive light.”


Though there were no formal pictures of Caesar Rodney done during his lifetime, presumably because of the scars that were caused by his face cancer, this portrait was created in the 19th century.

Rodney’s condition

Caesar Rodney began seeking treatment for his cancer in 1768, according to Jane Harrington Scott’s book “A Gentleman as Well as a Whig: Caesar Rodney and the American Revolution.”

Excerpts of the book were provided to the Delaware State news by Constance Cooper, chief curator with the Delaware Historical Society, “I got to Philadelphia on Saturday and on Monday applied to the doctors concerning the sore on my nose, who all upon examination pronounced it a cancer,” Rodney said in a letter to his brother, Tomas on June 7, 1768. The letter goes on to say that doctors recommended that he go to England for treatment. But because of the “growing controversy with Britain,” he never went.

Ms. Cooper considered what may have happened if Rodney went to England. “He might have stayed in England like some people had done, or after treatment he might have come back home,” said Ms Cooper. “It is one of the great ‘what ifs’ in Delaware History.”

The book says Rodney instead visited with James Hamilton, the ex-governor of Pennsylvania what had been diagnosed with a similar skin cancer.  “(Hamilton) gave (Rodney) some of his own medicines and pledged to visit Caesar every day to see if there were working ‘in the same manner as with him,” the book said.

Caesar Rodney underwent surgery to remove the “sore” on his nose in June 1768. “The doctor extracted the hard-crusted matter which had risen so high, and it has left a hole I believer quite to the bone and extends for length from the corner of my eye above halfway down my nose,” Rodney wrote.  “Such a sore must take some considerable time to cure up – if ever it does. However, since it has been extracted, I am perfectly easy as to any pain.”

And though the surgery was thought to have cured Caesar Rodney of his cancer at the time, a letter from his doctor, Thomas Bond of Philadelphia on April 26, 1770 proved otherwise. “I am greatly concerned at the return of your cancer, especially so near the eye.” The doctor wrote. He went onto describe how he was going to cover the hole in Rodney’s face with plaster for 5 or 6 days, followed by the application of a “Sperma Cali” ointment and by a “dry lint.”

Ms. Scott’s book said Rodney bottled face cancer as well as asthma for the rest of his life. The book said the treatments and regular travels to Philadelphia took their toll on Rodney especially his wallet. “I am necessarily at a very considerable expense; my cash is running very low.” He was quoted as saying in 1782. “If there is any money due to me which ought to come through your hands, you will oblige me exceedingly by… transmitting it to me… as soon as possible.”

Despite the hardships, however, Caesar Rodney remained hopeful about his disease. “I am determined to persevere, it is a matter of … no less than life or death,” he said. “The doctors must conquer the cancer, or the cancer will conquer me.”

Had he lived today

Dr. rishi Sawhney, medical director of the Bayhealth Cancer Institute, said he is not sure whether Caesar Rodney died as a result of his cancer, nor does he know what kind of cancer it was.  But the fact that it disfigured his face meant that the disease was probably in the advanced stages.  He said had Rodney been alive today, his cancer would probably not have progressed to such an advance stage.

“(His) cancer could have been picked up at an earlier stage with face screenings,” Dr. Sawhney said. “Today, medical professionals examine healthy people by looking at their skin to see if they can catch the early signs of cancer before it advances or disfigures a person. But, even if it had progressed to the paint of disfigurement, Dr. Sawhney said reconstructive surgery could have done wonders for his appearance.

He said Caesar Rodney would have also benefited from pain medicine that is widely available to cancer patients today rather than suffer like he did on his famous ride north. With no pictures available of Rodney or his face, with no official prognosis from a physician, Dr. Sawhney said he can only speculate about what kind of cancer he might have had.

One thing that is known is that Rodney suffered from some form of skin cancer of which there are two main categories: melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. He said even with a picture of Rodney’s face, it would be difficult to determine the type of skin cancer because both melanoma and non-melanoma look the same to the naked eye. When a patient comes in today with skin cancer, Dr. Sawhney said a biopsy is required to make a diagnosis.

He did say that if he had to speculate, he would venture to say that Caesar Rodney had non-melanoma cancer for one simple fact: melanoma usually spreads throughout the body and even affects a person’s internal organs. “It is not common that an untreated melanoma with remain dormant for that many years, though it is possible,” Dr. Sawhney said.

Fact versus fiction


Caesar Rodney statue in Rodney Square in Wilmington DE  Photo

Ms. Cooper said even through Caesar Rodney’s trip to Philadelphia to cast the winning vote for independence has been well documented through the years, there are some “facts’ about the ride and his life that she questions.

The first was the famous silk veil that he wore during his ride to “prevent” upsetting onlookers. I’ve never seen documentation about him wearing a mask or a veil. Maybe that is more legendary than anything else, “she said.

Mr. Parati said costume designers on the set, who worked tirelessly to make sure everything was as authentic as possible, had trouble with Rodney’s legendary scarf. “There are no formal portraits of him, so it was hard to tell what he had done, so we went with the green scarf. We went with what we had,” he said.

Mr. Parati said little was known about how he would have worn the scarf. “At first, we wrapped it around my head, but it looked like (Jocob) Marley from (Charles Dickens’s novel “A Christmas Carol”) – like I had a toothache or something. It was too comical, so we went with the more fashionable head wrap,” he said. “With any movie, you do take some artistic license. We did as much research as we could about what would look best for the production and for the costume design.”

Mr. Parati said makeup artist also painted “cancer spots” and scars on the left side of his face to demonstrate Rodney’s cancer.

Mr. McCabe said Ms. Cooper could very well be right about her supposition what there is no proof that Rodney actually wore a silk veil.  “There is no first-person documentation about the veil so she may be right” he said.

Mr. McCabe said the “funny” thing about Caesar Rodney, one of the most well know figures of his era, is “so much of his story seems to be thinly veiled in myth or half-truths.”  “For whatever reason,” he said, “the level of knowledge of his life doesn’t equal the prominent figures of his era.”

Mr. McCabe said there is another legend surrounding Caesar Rodney’s famous ride to Philadelphia that has be debated throughout history. As the story goes, Rodney made a 30-hour trip leaving for Philadelphia from Dover after he heard that Delaware delegates Thomas McKean and George Read were deadlocked on the vote for independence.

As a kid Mr. McCabe said that he heard that Rodney actually began his ride from Sussex County where he had been romancing a lady.

Another “did he?” Or “didn’t he? Questions about Rodney’s ride was, did he make his way north in a thunderstorm on horseback like the famous picture depicts, or did he instead make the trip in a carriage? “It was probably a combination of bot,” McCabe said. “As the story goes he left his home outside Dover in a carriage, but made the vote in his boots and spurs, so perhaps the last leg was on horseback.

225px-Delaware_quarter,_reverse_side,_1999 (1)

Caesar Rodney pictured on the commemorative Delaware quarter.

Rodney’s death

Another possible misconception, Ms. Cooper said, is the cause of his death on June 26, 1784 at the age of 57. No one knows whether he died as a result of his cancer, Ms. Cooper said. “No cause of death was given other than he was in frail health,” she said.

Mr. McCabe said not only was Caesar Rodney’s life veiled in so much mystery, so too was his death. In his last will and testament signed March 27, 1787, Caesar Rodney asked that his bother Thomas, “erect a good substantial brick wall” enclosing the family burial ground at the old Byfield Farm “in the same manner as burial ground are usually enclosed” within 24 months of his death using money raised out of the “rents and profits of my real estate.” This however, was never done.

Mr. McCabe said back in 1997, when he was charged with responsibility of placing a historical marker on the Byfield Farm, he was at the time working with a prominent Dover resident and historian, James Jackson, who was also a descendant of the Rodney family. He said it is thought that about 60 Rodney family members are buried somewhere on the Byfield farm, but because no marker was ever established, no one knows for sure where the cemetery is.

 A historical marker on the corner of Bergold Land and Del. 9 east of Dover and adjacent to the Dover Air Force Base, marks Byfield, the childhood home of Caesar Rodney, where it is believe he and about 60 members of his family are buried.

“Mr. Jackson told me that not too many years after Caesar Rodney’s death, the farm was sold out of the family for payment of debt for whatever reason,” Mr. McCabe said. “His heirs and his executors did not ever get around to doing what he asked as far as a burial place, which lead to the disappearance of any physical evidence of the Rodney family burial ground.”

He went on to say that Rodney’s place of burial has been the subject of great debate of the years and something that has contributed to the air of mystery that surrounds his life. “He’s that Carmen San Diego guy in Delaware history. Where was he and who was he? Mr. McCabe said.

CR’s lasting legacy

With all the mystery that surrounds Caesar Rodney, his life and his cancer, one thing is for sure, according to Mr. McCabe: “I honestly believe if you had to give the title of ‘Mr. Delaware’ to just one person, it would be Caesar Rodney,” he said. Not just because of the distinction that he was a signer of the distinction that he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but because he had such a distinguished career.”

Mr. McCabe said even through Caesar Rodney will never be forgotten, he believes Delaware’s founding father deserves to have a place where people can go to publicly remember him. “At some point in time, I am hopeful that there is an effort undertaken to mark his grave,” he said. “He choose to lie in an unmarked grave, and with what he achieved. That is something that could be done and should be done.”

Written by Staff writer Jamie-Leigh Bissett for the Delaware State News published Sunday July 3, 2011

A monument in memory of Caesar Rodney can be found within the walls of Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Dover on the corner of State and Water Streets. The marker reads “Statesman, soldier and signer of the Declaration of Independence.”


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