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 rumoured to be a witch and this helped instil a deep fear of witches into Rhoda.
Nancy confronted Rhoda about it and 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.
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 use her long fingernails to scratch at her eyes until she went blind. 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. 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.