SL Note: these interviews of TB patients and caregivers were primarily conducted by A.M. Ree Rickard in 1987 for a college course. There are some inaccuracies in the history in the introductory matter, but it is being presented as she wrote it in 1987.
SARANAC LAKE: THE TOWN THAT THRIVED ON ILLNESS
An Oral History
Independent Study Project for 6 graduate credits by A.M. Ree Rickard for Prof. A. Waller, Instructor.
Doctor Edward Livingston Trudeau, the father of tuberculosis therapy, came to Saranac Lake in 1873 to die – and enjoyed forty-three more years of life. He also made the village and the Adirondacks a promised land for thousands. His lifework helped build Saranac Lake into one of the most unique places in America.
Trudeau, the son of a New York doctor and French mother, was raised in Paris. At seventeen, he returned to New York as a rich, young man to enjoy the social scene. Questing after his only serious interests, fishing and hunting, he and his friends made a sojourn to Paul Smith’s, a hunting lodge near Saranac Lake. He never forgot the trip.
He might have gone on to become a naval officer had his brother not caught tuberculosis. For most people, that diagnosis is a death sentence. Until the end of the last century little was known about the disease. Until 1860 there were no sanatoria for the tubercular. Some of the big city hospitals had wards where the sick might lie quietly until the end. Standard cough mixtures were the only medicines. Any changes in temperature in the sick room were considered dangerous, and windows were kept tightly closed.
As late as 1875 tuberculosis was the leading killer in America. In the 1930’s eighty-six people per hundred thousand were dying of the disease. What was this disease that held the same fear and dread as cancer does today?
Tuberculosis is primarily a disease of the lungs, but it can attack any part of the body. The agent of infection is a bacterium – the tubercle-bacillus – named for the tuber-like structures that form when the body’s immune system responds to it. Various kinds of cells rush to surround the bacteria and isolate it, making microscopic modules. As the disease progresses, these eventually agglomerate into cheesy masses. Such a mass may become ulcerated, causing a discharge of the infected material which results in a cavity and a progressive spreading of the disease. (1)
It is interesting that the tubercular bacillus bears a striking resemblance to the leprosy bacillus since in most parts of the country the fear of contagion caused TB patients to be treated as lepers.
The early stages of pulmonary tuberculosis, such as listlessness, gradual weight loss, and vague pains in the chest, are mild and easily overlooked or ignored. Often, people were not diagnosed as tubercular until they had one or more cavities in their lungs. By then, the symptoms most often associated with consumption – cough, night sweats, expectoration of purulent sputum, spitting of blood – had appeared, but the disease may have been at work for a year or more. Because the body’s defenses had been worn down by an extended period of active infection, chance of recovery was very poor.
In 1868 Trudeau nursed his tubercular brother and shared the same tightly closed room with him, only to see him die. The death had a profound effect. Trudeau, now a more serious-minded young man, decided to study medicine. By the time he completed his course and had married, he broke down with tuberculosis. Believing that he only had a short time to live, he decided to spend that time where he had once been happy and to use his last strength hunting; he went to Paul Smith’s in the summer of 1873. Trudeau recovered sufficiently to return to the city. He was back in the Adirondacks in the spring of 1874, ill, and this time with his wife and children. He was determined to stay the winter. His own physician encouraged him but others assured Trudeau it would kill him. He survived that winter and the next. His health improved so much that he deiced to stay on, having shown that fresh air and even winter air do not necessarily kill the tuberculous. He found a permanent residence in the river edge hamlet of Saranac Lake. His health improved steadily, although he suffered many setbacks in later years. Returning to his practice, Trudeau decided to open a sanatorium for other TB sufferers where they could enjoy the pure, cold mountain air of Saranac Lake.
Even though Trudeau proved in himself that life outdoors could help the tuberculous, he was not the first to discover it. Beginning with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a surgeon in Washington’s army, a small number of doctors had been suggesting this for almost a century. Nor was Trudeau the first to sense the value of the Adirondack region in helping the tuberculous. The first doctor to settle in the Adirondacks, a Dr. Asa Post, came to Elizabethtown from Vermont in 1792 “for the cure of his consumption.” In 1852 a local historian said, “In my explorations of the country, I have met with repeated instances of individuals who had reached their forest homes, in advanced stages of pulmonary affection, in whom the disease had been arrested and the sufferer restored to comparative health.” (2)
In 1882 news reached Trudeau that the German bacteriologist Koch had discovered the tubercle bacillus and its relation to the cause of the disease. He went to New York to learn what he might of the new science of bacteriology. Returning to Saranac Lake he founded the first tuberculosis laboratory in the world, in most primitive surroundings. When Trudeau arrived in Saranac Lake it was a village of a single school house, a sawmill, and a small hotel for guides and lumbermen. The clerk at the only store doubled as the telegraph operator. (3)
Trudeau, in 1884, opened a one room cottage with two patients as the start of the Adirondack Cottage Sanitorium (later renamed Trudeau Sanitorium). It was the first nonprofit sanatorium in America; costs were so low that part of a patient’s bill had to be met from outside contributions. Trudeau was joined by some of his colleagues from New York. They felt that for medical and hygienic reasons, patients should be relatively segregated rather than collected in a single, large building. And so a sanatorium of small cottages, in which the personal intimacy and human scale of home was preserved, came into being.
Other semiprivate sanatoria eventually opened in or near Saranac Lake, including Stonywold, run by Con Edison, Gabriels run by the Sisters of Mercy, and Will Rogers for patients in the theatrical profession. New York State opened Raybrook Sanitorium at the turn of the century. Many of the tuberculosis centers in America that opened their doors between 1900 and 1930 were staffed by men and women who had studied and often been cured at Saranac Lake. The Trudeau School for medical personnel – thirty days of intensive training annually in all that was new and best in pulmonary diseases – was opened in 1916 and continued until the late fifties.
Out of Trudeau’s work came a unique village. The steadily increasing number of health seekers coming to Saranac Lake were finding quarters in every type of structure from tents to hotels. To keep pace with the need for space for these people, a large private sanitoria industry developed with the appearance of many boarding cottages in the village. After 1900 these cure cottages, run exclusively for the sick and served by many doctors who themselves had been cured in Saranac Lake, began to flourish. As Saranac Lake’s reputation grew, the number of cottages increased. By 1920 more than one hundred and fifty of them, with room for four to thirty patients, cared for the two thousand patients who were in the village. The big screened porch, a part of the cure, became feature of Saranac Lake architecture. Many cottages were run by devoted people, often nurses or ex-patients, who felt that the career of caring for the sick was a service and acted accordingly. Some, however, saw a fine opportunity to get rich. Costs in the cottages were usually moderate. The economic base of the town, indeed its only industry, was tuberculosis. For over a half century, businesses boomed.
Today, it is difficult for us to understand what it meant in Trudeau’s day – and in fact on into the late forties – to be diagnosed as tubercular. Tuberculosis was a death knell, the end of a normal life and the beginning of months or years of enforced idleness, banishment and hopelessness. TB meant a sanitorium and one might as well be exiled from life itself.
Currently the discovery of a tubercular lesion on the lung usually means nothing more inconvenient than a year or more’s course of a combination of drugs, probably isoniazid, rifampin, and ethambutale. (4) While taking this the patient in most cases will not even break the normal stride of his or her life. Though TB is still a leading cause of death in the Third World, in America the discovery of streptomycin in 1944 triggered the end of the disease as a major killer. Today there are fewer than 3,000 deaths annually from TB in the U.S. Until 1933 it was not required for all states to report the tubercular death figures, but Anthony Lowell, in his book Tuberculosis, estimates that in 1930, among a population of 120,000,000, the disease killed 88,000 Americans.
In its heyday Saranac Lake was exciting and alive. People from all walks of life, from every culture, religion, and race flocked to the village to cure the TB that gave them a common bond. Because of the variety among this transient population, the village was uncommonly cosmopolitan for a place its size. The full-time residents, influenced by the rich texture of their sick guests, were open-minded and open-armed. Saranac was a welcome, nourishing place in which to live. It was to this environment that my family moved in 1948, seeking relief for my little sister’s asthma. Doctors in our hometown, Auburn, NY, had suggested the clean air in either Saranac Lake or Arizona. My sister, Caroline (Stacy), licked the asthma, but as a family we all became addicted to the glorious Adirondack Mountains.
Our father ran the Railway Express office located at the train station. My earliest memories of that place are of patients being helped off the rain in litters and of seeing the boxes containing the corpses of those who didn’t make it being loaded on to the baggage cars. I used to gaze at those silent, wooden boxes with curiosity and wonder. Throughout my neighborhood there were a dozen cure cottages with interesting people lounging in cure chairs on the screened porches. I remember my first conversation with some patients in the Sageman Cottage, two doors from my house. I asked them what they were doing there, and a young man said, “This is a prison.” I knew they didn’t seem like “bad” people. More mystery. I was four years old. I soon learned, like all children of the village, that these people were “curing” for TB and were contagious so best kept away from. What with fears of polio and TB, I never was allowed to go to a public beach until we moved ten years later. My mother warned us especially not to go to Trudeau Sanitorium which was located a half mile down our street. Naturally, as soon as I could ride a two wheeler, Trudeau was my constant haunt. The place was irresistible. The grounds were beautiful. There was a charming chapel made of rough stone and wood and a small but impressive brick library with two large white columns and screened-in reading porches, on either end. The cottages were painted in pale earth tones. The tiny post office shared quarters with a barber shop that sprouted the traditional red, white, and blue revolving symbol. While most patients were conventionally dressed, some strolled in bathrobes and slippers. There were people with colorful outfits, some even wore turbans on their heads, a few women were in saris, many spoke with accents. All of the patients were extremely friendly to a little girl. I was enchanted. If you stood by watching, long enough, you’d be invited to join in the croquet game on a beautiful manicured lawn in front of the administration building. When an over anxious nurse would shoo you away, the lap of the statue of Edward Livingston Trudeau, hidden in a cedar grove overlooking the Saranac River Valley, was a safe haven until she was otherwise occupied. It was the only place in the town, to my knowledge, where the bittersweet sounds of the mourning dove could be heard. They too felt at home there.
Each day, on my way home from school, it was easy to spot the patients on the street who had submitted to surgery by the drooped shoulders and the slight chest concavity. They never seemed to be in a hurry.
I’ve always had a fascination and a warm place in my heart for those nameless patients who were a large part of my childhood.
Recently a few books have been written about the Saranac Lake cure days. One deals with the architecture of the cure cottages and another is concerned with the numerous famous people who cured in the village, including R. L. Stevenson, Bela Bartok, Somerset Maugham, heads of state, the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, and a few gangsters, among many others. Although these books were most interesting, I was left wanting to know about the life stories of the countless, nameless and ordinary patients who cured in the town of my youth. What were they thinking as they wiled away the time in the cure chairs? How did forced confinement alter the cause of their lives? Just what did they do all day? To satisfy these curiosities and to preserve the memories of some of the patients and caregivers of earlier days, I decided to do an oral history. Not too many are left in the area. The participant’s ages ranged from fifty-seven to eighty-four years. Most former patients, even those hesitant at first, were happy to talk about their experiences, some with surprising results. A couple declined explaining that their bout with TB is a memory that they’d rather not awaken.
The following patients and caregivers have my sincere thanks and respect of their willingness to share their memories.
T. B. Society
HSL Note: This interview subject was most likely Esther Mirick.
She was old now, but memories from the ‘20s and ‘30s, when she had worked for the T.B. Society of Saranac Lake remained bright.
“We were a closer knit community at that time. Everyone had the same project – to help people get well. Everything in the village was geared to the patients’ needs. They were treated here as human beings. Most didn’t want to go home. In the city, when told someone had T.B., they’d think, “Oh! He’s infectious!” Here, they were accepted as a part of the community. Everyone respected the patients’ schedules. Rest time was from two to four p.m. Why, you wouldn’t think of making a phone call at those times! All of the service and delivery people also respected the quiet time. There was so little activity, it was said that from Helen Street hill, you could hear a tire being changed on Main Street!
We’ve always been a service-oriented community. Tuberculosis made us aware of service to each other. The Lend a Hand Society started in the ‘20s for the patients. There were reading rooms and many benches, for resting, placed all around the town.
The T.B. Society was formed to help with the new arrivals.
To give you an idea of the numbers, there were 300-4—transfers a year in the schools. There was a yearly fluctuation of families coming and going. Our schools were first rate in those days.
Many patients got off the train and were taken to the Riverside Hotel. It was there that the doctors would meet with them for the first time to have a conference and an examination. Then, the doctors would place them in types of cottages they needed. Ambulatory cottages were for those who could come downstairs for meals and needed rest and fresh air. Nursing cottages were for those on bed rest and had a trained nurse on duty twenty-four hours a day. Doctors trained the nurses; some were sent to Gabriels, Onchiota or Trudeau Sanitariums. To get into a sanitarium, you had to have a chance for a cure. If you had an advanced case, it was suggested that you get a cottage in the village or have your own home if you afford to bring along your family. Many affluent families came without using their real names. In those days, T.B. was like leprosy.
Sometimes the doctors, up here, were the first to have to tell patients the truth about the extent of their illness. Often their doctors back home had told them that they needed only be here for six months and they’d be well. Sometimes the truth was startling.
T.B. specialists knew very little in the early days in the way of medicine. They gave codeine and heroin for coughs. As time went on, hemorrhage cases decreased because people were drinking more orange juice. Before surgery, not too much could be done in the very advanced cases. Most medication was psychology. Doctors made cottage and house calls twenty-four hours a day. They taught patients to learn to live with what they had and make the best of it. Exercise, fresh air, good nourishment, and plenty or rest were the prescriptions. People learned that they couldn’t burn the candle at both ends but they still had a good social life. There were always boarding house parties and patients played cards and ate together. They visited the patients next door. Trudeau’s philosophy had been to keep people together and not institutionalized. It was a family-like atmosphere with emotional support.
Doctors tried to put people in cottages who were interested in the same things.
The T.B. Society started in 1907 to help out the doctors. They needed a central place to provide for the details. We handled applications to the various sanitariums. We still have the records. On the applications the patients had to give a financial history. We needed to know where the money was coming from to support their stay. Many people arrived without a penny. The village fathers were getting in a panic. We couldn’t turn them away but we weren’t prepared to take care of everybody. We publicized that folks shouldn’t come unless they could support themselves. There were so many people on welfare.
Two young, sick boys supported themselves by writing little pamphlets called “Beanie Barnett’s Trotty Veck.” They were little tracts with quips and quotes on a wide range of topics including humor and philosophy. They were little treasures and very popular fifty years ago. People looked forward to reading them. I often gave a subscription for gifts and there were well received.
Sometimes all we could provide was a shoulder. There were loads of love affairs. They didn’t call them boyfriends. There were just “cousins”. Lots of “Dear John” letters had to be handled. They were very sad. When a husband or beau was here for two or three years, coming up for a visit was time consuming and expensive. Well, things just happen.
At one time we had a list of “corpse companions.” You see, when someone died the body had to be shipped to their home on the New York train. It has to be accompanied by someone. The railroad people didn’t want to stuck with an unclaimed body at Grand Central so some women made it a business of accompanying the box to its destination. It was said that the railroad made a single fare on you when you came up here and a double fare when you went back home.
There was a positive attitude about the town. They tried to take the bodies out after dark so other patients wouldn’t be upset. Very few funerals were held here. Most corpses were shipped home.
After a patient died, the windows were closed and the Board of Health came to fumigate the room. Everyone observed the health code. Actually, because of the careful hygiene up here, we all felt very safe. In the doctors’ offices the chairs were Lysol-ed every afternoon for protection. Metropolitan Life did a survey in Saranac Lake and found a very low percentage of children affected by tuberculosis compared to the rest of the United States at the time. Local children were x-rayed every year, and colds and sore throats were watched carefully.
I couldn’t say enough about the wonderful doctors. Many had come here to cure and stayed on to start their own practice. Perhaps they were afraid of a relapse if they went home. They became trustees of the village and the school boards and became an integral part of the village.
The doctors taught the patients to live day to day and enjoy their lives. They were marvelous. There was something optimistic about T.B. people. They were always hopeful. They learned to face their trouble and to live with it.
After World War I the Saranac Lake Guild was formed to rehabilitate patients so they could live within their capabilities. Many different courses were offered to teach new skills. This chair [she pointed to the one she was sitting] was upholstered by a guild class. At one time they offered sixty courses. Instructors would go even to bedsides to teach skills and crafts.
Through the years our organizations were supported by grateful patients who had cured in Saranac Lake. They always remembered.
Student to Priest
Thomas Clark of New York City conversed in the guest room of the Carmelite Monastery in Saranac Lake. This was his first return visit to Saranac in almost half a century, and he was giving a spiritual retreat to the nuns. Bespectacled, long and lanky, he exudes a curious aura of warmth and intellectualism. He is the author of several books on peace and justice issues and books that relate spirituality and psychological development. The latest title, From Image to Likeness, concerns the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test. He also conducts workshops on that subject. Father Clark’s raspy voice gives authenticity to his bout with the tuberculosis that affected his larynx.
WHEN DID YOU CURE IN SARANAC LAKE?
In the spring of ’38, when I was in my junior year at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey. I was first sent for three months to Bellevue Hospital in New York to begin artificial pneumothorax or “pneumo” treatments. This was a process and effective at the time. A surgical injection of air was pushed into the pleural cavity to collapse the diseased lung and immobilize it temporarily while healing took place. This was done three times a week at first and then tapered off by the end of a year to twice a month. It was usually done in the patient’s room and wasn’t too uncomfortable. After Bellevue, my brother and I took the night train from New York, and I arrived in Saranac Lake to live in a cure cottage for the next ten months to continue with pneumo treatments and have bed rest and fresh air.
DID YOU THINK YOU MIGHT DIE?
No, but my Dad did. He was an Irish immigrant and at that time as soon as you said the word, “tuberculosis”, (the Irish called it “consumption” or “lung fever”}, you thought of the poor survival rate. When the doctor told my father, he wept and really expected the worst.
I was kind of serene about the whole situation. I believe as an introvert, who loved to read, I was well suited to the tranquil life of a patient. There was no pain, just a perpetual feeling of tiredness and a cough. I had been very active in sports, had worked for a newspaper and was going to college, so I was pretty run down. I have always been a tomorrow person and find it hard to live in the present. So in some ways I was feeling detached from the disease.
HOW DID YOU SPEND YOUR DAYS?
Mainly reading and listening to the radio. Putting together that I felt no pain or anxiety and was introverted, I had a lot of life inside of me that I began to explore. What helped too, to make the time interesting and bearable, was that it was kind of a time of conversion for me. My room was across the hall from a recent Friar of the Atonement. So, having nothing better to do with his time, he sort of evangelized me. At first I was resistant, but pretty soon it took. It was a time of a change of outlook. You might say for the first time I put together my own philosophy of life. Prior to that period, I had never read the New Testament or any books of the Bible, for that matter even though I had years of Catholic schooling. I had not decided to become a priest or a Jesuit then, but the seeds of that decision were planted back in Saranac Lake. When I left the village to return home to New York, I just took it easy for a year and a half before returning to school. During that time and in Saranac there was a lot of time for contemplation. As I look back on my time in Saranac Lake, not only was I healed physically but my vocation to the priesthood took shape there.
DID THE FRESH AIR HELP?
Well I’m no scientist but in retrospect there was a certain amount of faith healing involved. You thought it was good so it created a positive expectation. I stayed in a glass enclosed porch where the water in the pitcher froze every night. I arrived in December so was always bundled up with a wool hat, six blankets and even gloves.
WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF THE VILLAGE OF SARANAC LAKE?
I never really saw the town as I was in bed most of the time. Toward the end of my stay, we used to go for short walks after meals. The cure cottage was on a hill on the outskirts of the village. We would always joke when going up the hill that the reason we often stopped was to look at the view, but of course, the view was secondary. We needed to catch our breath.
WERE YOU ILL AS A CHILD?
I contracted the flu at five weeks old during the flu epidemic of 1918. I always suspected that it had something to do with my illness later on.
DID YOU HAVE ANY VISITORS?
No. Because of the distance and expense, it was difficult for my family to travel. I did, however, have a daily visit from the world. A dean from my college had given me a subscription to the New York Times. We weren’t in the war yet but you could follow the action in Europe. I remember enjoying the maps.
DO YOU FEEL ANY PHYSICAL EFFECT OF THE ILLNESS?
Well, I had T.B. in one lung and the larynx was also affected. Part of the cure was that I had to whisper to rest the vocal cords. They were scarred and remain that way so I still carry the memory of that period of my life every time I speak. Depending upon whether I’m tired or nervous, it is sometimes more difficult, especially in public speaking, to get the voice out. Sometimes, when speaking, I hear, “What’s he saying?” Now it has become a humorous matter for me that so much of my life as a teacher, preacher and public speaker has been spent using this damaged voice. God writes straight with crooked lines.
WERE THERE ANY LASTING EMOTIONAL SCARS?
I’m sure there must be, but it was an earlier experience that had a more lasting effect. I was one of six boys. My mother had an appendectomy and as a result developed peritonitis and died. I was nine. My oldest brother was fourteen. My mother’s death was devastating to my father… and to all of us. After that my father raised us with the help of housekeepers (poor things!). That loss shaped my earlier life. I’ve sometimes wondered whether my susceptibility to T.B. was somehow tied in with my emotional reaction, both to getting pneumonia at that early age of five weeks and also to losing her. I’ve often speculated about the psychosomatic nature of illness. For example, the voice often betrays hidden anger and fears. Tuberculosis of the larynx was most unusual. I was shy as a boy and tended to keep emotions and the feelings of loss related to my mother’s death bottled up inside. The way we handle emotions will affect how we handle our voice. In thinking about it now, I’d have to say that to some extent my getting R.B. was psychologically significant. When you are curing for T.B. you get into certain patterns. There is no pressure on you and you are encouraged not to exert yourself too much. I have a hunch that some of my psychic patterns today were influenced by that earlier experience. I’d say it hasn’t eliminated a great deal of restlessness I have always had in me. It also relates to stamina. I have a great deal of psychological, physical and social stamina.
DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER FEELINGS ON HOW THIS FORCED CONFINEMENT CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
I did not experience trauma. There are ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, it helped me to find a meaningful life. On the other, it came at a time when I should have been getting rid of shyness and introversion. It put me in a fairly prolonged period of moratorium.
It is interesting that two of the large sanitariums in the area are now prisons – two types of forced confinement.
A caring and sensitive second grade teacher from Burlington, Vermont, Ursula Frasier, spoke in hushed tones of her childhood experiences as a T.B. patient. Occasional bursts of mirth belied her self-effacing matronly manner.
WHEN DID YOU LEARN THAT YOU HAD T.B.?
When I was a little girl, my parents separated so I went to live with my grandparents in Montpelier, Vermont. My grandfather had T.B. but he and my grandmother never acknowledged the fact. The first time I heard the word “tuberculosis” was when I was eight or nine. My friend, Mary Claire Miller, told me she was no longer allowed to play with me but didn’t know the reason. I asked their maid, “Why?” She said, “I can’t tell you.” So I asked Mr. Miller and he said, “Because your grandfather has T.B.” Grandpa did have all of the signs. He was thin, he couldn’t eat, slept most of the time and coughed. When I told my grandmother what he had said, she informed me that, “Grandpa doesn’t have T.B.; he’s just sick. If he had T.B. we wouldn’t let you stay here.” That always stuck in my mind. I never felt any meanness towards my grandfather, but it was kind of strange because soon I got it.
In Vermont tuberculosis was rampant in the ‘30’s but they didn’t call it by that name. Instead it was referred to as the “stone cutters’ disease.” The main industry at the time was cutting memorials. You just didn’t discuss it. It was just like cancer.
Most people wouldn’t go to a sanitarium because they thought it meant sure death.
I guess I caught it because of the way we lived. I was very close to my grandfather. I remember sometimes taking him a glass of water on the porch. I’d help myself after he’d finished. Why bother to carry a full glass back?
When I was a eleven I was sick that school year and our doctor told us I had tuberculosis. The very next day he arranged through a friend of his for me to go to the sanitarium in Saranac Lake. My family wanted me to stay home in bed to cure like Grandpa but the doctor wouldn’t budge an inch.
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION?
I was terrified. I had never before been inside a hospital. To me going to a sanitarium meant you were going to die.
For four months I received pneumo treatments. The worst part was wondering whether or not your name was on the list, that day, to go down for treatment. To me it was painful because I was just a kid. I hated mealtime because that’s when you were completely alone. The first month my family wasn’t allowed to visit because the doctors wanted me to get used to the environment. When nighttime came, you could hear patients coughing and moaning in the other rooms. It bothered me because I was afraid no one was watching out and caring for them. Of course, there was help there, but I was a little girl and I worried. I was afraid I’d get like that, like the ones I could hear at night.
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR DREAMS?
I think the medications caused me to have nightmares.
HOW LONG DID YOU CURE?
I stayed in Saranac for four months and then transferred to a preventorium in Pittsford, VT for another two years. There were cottages on the rounds of a large sanitarium that were used exclusively for children.
Being an only child, I was excited to go because I was told there would be lots of children of all ages. For the first two weeks I was kept in insolation to be sure I was totally cleared, then I could go out to the dorm to join the others. There were 50 children. It was a cottage community for boys and girls. The very, very sick were in the infirmary. The Johnson cottage was just for the crippled children who had the disease in their bones. They could never join us in their activities because they had braces and couldn’t walk, but we could visit with them. Not all the children had T.B. but someone in their family was infected and they might contract it. The children were sent there to get built up so they’d be immune when they went back home.
WHAT WAS YOUR DAY LIKE?
We went to a one-room school for an hour in the morning and for an hour and a half in the afternoon after rest hour. I enjoyed it. When you were supposed to be doing your seat work, you could listen to the older children reciting and pick up also what they were learning. It was like a boarding school. The boys and girls were separated for sleeping but came together for everything else. We took walks in the woods. There was a swimming pool, skating rink, and a recreation hall. Everything was geared to getting you well and keeping you happy. We played parcheesi and Chinese checkers. I still love board games.
We slept on dormitory porches with open windows winter and summer. We wore night hats, socks and blankets. You got used to the cold because it was part of the treatment. It was a freezing atmosphere but you didn’t mind so much because everyone was doing the same thing. If it was above 15 degrees, those who were able had to put on sunsuits and boots and exercise outdoors for five or ten minutes. I didn’t have to do that.
You got crushes on doctors, nurses and other children. There was a lot of teasing about that.
You never saw anyone down. Even the children with braces thought, “I’m going to get better and get out of here some day.” Some never made it from Johnson Cottage. When they got real bad, they’d be taken away and just never came back. We thought they just went home.
Sometimes we’d be taken into Pittsford where we weren’t allowed to talk to anybody on the street and no one spoke to us. We had to avoid other people. Once they took a group of us to church but we had to go at a time when no one else was in the building. It made me feel kind of sad. I thought of the gospel stories where the lepers had to shout, “Unclean, unclean.” I was afraid it might happen when I got home, but it didn’t.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WHEN YOU GOT HOME?
My grandfather was so happy to see me because when I left, he had thought he never would see me again. I was now 14 and had gained 60 pounds. When I returned, I wasn’t allowed to live with my grandparents. That summer my parents came back together again so I could live with them. They had decided to try living together again before I got home and it worked. I was only allowed to see Grandpa once a week, but I managed to stop at his house every day on my way home from school. We were close. He had been my father figure for so any years. Grandpa died of tuberculosis 18 months after I got home.
PAPA WAS SICK
Esther Merrick [Mirick], born in 1900, spoke of the illness that would alter forever the lives of her family.
We were a family of six children. There were five girls and my brother, Ted. We had a lovely, large home in New Rochelle, New York. Both Papa and Mama led very active and social lives. My two older sisters, Elizabeth and Emily, and I took dance and piano lessons. We were a happy, comfortable family.
Papa commuted every day to the city where he was Circulation Manager for the New York American, a Hearst paper. Mr. Hearst was a marvelous employer.
When Papa first became ill, our family doctor said it was just a cold. After a time, he went to see the best T.B. specialist in New York, Dr. Alex Miller. He gave Papa a death warrant. Dr. Miller told Papa he had cavities in both lungs and he had only six months to live. Papa hated all doctors after that. He said, “No man had the right to talk like that to another man.” The whole world was wrong when he was taken from a very busy job and social life. After that he felt it was just a matter of time so he wanted us to be together. The doctor had recommended the fresh air in both Arizona and Saranac Lake. Originally our parents didn’t want to move to Saranac Lake because it had a stigma. At the time, in 1915, Saranac Lake was becoming known as the major tuberculosis center in the country. Finally, with the shorter distance from relatives as the major consideration, we decided to rent a house in Saranac Lake.
T.B. was like leprosy. People were fearful. My own mother’s family never came here to visit because they were afraid. With sickness, when you have to pack up and leave your home and friends, you think the bottom has dropped out of the world.
Saranac Lake proved to be the most marvelous experience we could have imagined. We shared the common history of everyone in the village. Saranac Lake was run completely for the sick people. A tragedy causes a whole new way of thinking in your life. We came up with two helpers. In those days most families brought help with them. After a time we had to let one, then the other one, go. Mr. Hearst was wonderful to Papa. He sent his paychecks all through this illness and for two years after he died. Even so, when you move bag and baggage, it is just very expensive so we had to tighten our belts. My sisters and I taught dance so in this way we immediately became involved in the life of the community. We were very musical and were always invited to take part in the theatricals in town.
This was the first time that our father could spend much time with us. We had a wonderful family life. So many patients that were separated from their people suffered from a broken family life. We were fortunate that we could all be together.
WHAT WAS THE ROUTINE OF A “NORMAL” TUBERCULAR FAMILY?
Papa had his own room, with a sleeping porch overlooking Mt. Baker. He loved sitting out on that porch, listening to the birds. The view was marvelous. He loved Baker and always called it his mountain. Sometimes when I look up at Mt. Baker, I still think of Papa. It gave him such pleasure. I can’t remember my father, not coughing. Dr. Brown was wonderful to all of us. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t much he could offer except encouragement. Surgery wasn’t done yet and Papa’s case was too far advanced for pneumo treatments. T.B. specialists really did very little but give cough medication.
Papa’s silver, china and laundry were done separately as a preventive measure. None of us ever had any problems and we spent a lot of time in Papa’s room. The older girls used to read to him. We could always find Mama sitting in his room or porch talking to him.
We always considered quiet time very carefully in our house. Everyone in town did. At other times, though, our father wanted us to play the piano.
Dr. Miller was wrong. We had Papa with us for three years before he died and they were good years. He never spoke about his illness and just carried on the best he could. After he died, we all went to work. There was no money for college so none of us went to school. In those days you couldn’t borrow like they do today. Mama took us to New York often so we were given culture as a substitute for college. We loved the theater. We’ve all taken courses through the Guild. I later took up secretarial work. I worked at first in Dr. Brown’s office and then for many years was the secretary to the Superintendent of Schools. He was a lovely man.
I’m proud to say that Mother never worked outside the home a day in her life. We children all earned a good living. Later we did take in some patients. Everybody took in patients. My brother made deliveries for one of the pharmacists.
Mama never got used to Saranac Lake. She might have been lonesome. When you transplant as a family, all social and employment ties are cut. Right after Papa died, Rd. Brown told Mama that since we had all been exposed to T.B., we should stay up here in the fresh air for at least another year. We never left.
Father’s family were worried for a time that they’d be saddled with us. Eventually when they knew that we could make it on our own, they came to visit.
Anything that Mama did, she did with the family. She always went to all the dances as a chaperone. The boys danced with her. So she did get some joy out of sharing our youth. There is a psychological adjustment to being left alone and if you buck it, you’re unhappy. When people asked her why she never married again, she’d say that she was not too desirable a catch because she was left with six “coupons”
We had many friends. Mama felt we shouldn’t be too intimate with sick people. All my sisters married local men but none had sickness. When Emily married Mr. St. Clair, he was a traveling man, but he eventually settled here in the village. Only Ted, my brother, left to work in the newspaper business in New York.
We had a normal life. None of us have gone to jail or gone nuts yet!
THE TRUDEAU PATIENT
Ill and semi-retired Bill McLaughlin kept his hand in the newspaper business by writing an illustrated column. The drooping shoulder was a souvenir of the thoracic surgery that was part of his combat with T.B.
He was a great storyteller with a lively imagination and wry sense of humor. In earlier years while swimming, he used to tell the young neighborhood children that the cruel scar on his back was the result of a shark bite.
I was born in Saranac Lake in 1917. After my parents broke up, I lived mostly with my grandfather. His name was John English. He owned the St. Regis, a local hotel. Now there was a lively place. A lot of interesting people came through the doors; Clyde Beatty stayed when the circus was in town, Paul Whitman, Tom Mix, a guy who used to come in with an anteater, Legs Diamond and some showgirls. It was a great education. Legs Diamond’s brother, Jack, cured there before he died. They were pretty close. I guess both boys prostituted their health by the way they were living.
I used to bellhop and tend bar. A lot of my friends worked in the cure cottages but that would have scared me.
After I graduated from Saranac Lake High School in ’34, I went off to Syracuse University to study game management and journalism. The next summer I worked on a forest preserve in Iowa. That’s where I got it. When I got back in Syracuse, I started coughing up blood while pole vaulting. The coach said not to worry that it was probably just pleurisy. I was running myself to the ground. By the time I came home for vacation, I was running a fever, still coughing up blood, and couldn’t eat. I spent two weeks in my room at the St. Regis, afraid to move less the blood would start again.
Then I went to Trudeau and had a great three or four years. I couldn’t say enough about Trudeau. I was sick enough that I never got out of Ludington Infirmary so I never knew what it was like to be in the cottages or that type of patient care. We probably had as much fun at Ludington, even without as much liberty. It was a fun place to be sick. The palace was loaded with young people. We had twenty-five or thirty new student nurses every six weeks from Rochester, Albany, and New York, so there was a great social atmosphere. Romances were going all the time. Some of these girls had never before been away from home.
We had many strong characters. There were no duds. Our gang included a football player from Columbia, a lot of doctors who got sick, and a few artists. One of my friends worked for the advertising firm, Cunningham and Walsh, in New York City. He was always doing cartoons and painting pictures of the girls. There were beautiful women patients on the next floor up. Some from foreign countries. It was like a hotel, really, and we were allowed to visit on different floors. Downstairs there were a group of Dutch sailors who got lung trouble on the North Sea and were brought up here to be rehabilitated. They were allowed to have their own booze. Well we all were. Of course, we over did that. Finally they had to take it away. If you wanted to spend the afternoon downtown, you’d get a pass and call a taxi.
As soon as you got half way, well, they’d put you on exercise. They monitored you pretty closely ‘cause they didn’t want us to blow our chances. A lot of guys did.
My God, the first thing they did was build you up. Eggnogs with six eggs if you wanted. We all looked better than the people who came to visit us. Unless you had a big cavity that caused you to cough a lot, raising stuff, you wouldn’t know you had the disease. I never had any of that.
It was kind of a good disease to have especially if you were at Trudeau. I think we had the best deal.
People were afraid of tuberculosis. Some people’s families just about deserted them up here; didn’t want any part of them. That sort of lowered their morale and they went the other way. The rich were in apartments at the Santanoni in town. They had their own doctors and got the best but those people often weren’t too successful at getting well. Maybe they just weren’t used to following rules and so just said, “The hell with it.” Maybe there were just more isolated and didn’t have the gang to support them like those of us in a sanitarium.
WHAT WAS THE DOWNSIDE?
Some things about T.B. were very frightening. If you got it all over you couldn’t come back from that. There were many types of treatment that would scare you, too. One had a motor going under the bed pumping the fluid out of your lungs all of the time. Of course, if they decided to do surgery on you, it was no laughing matter. After you got built up again though, you had the energy and wanted to do more. That’s why they had to put you under lock and key sometimes. The only time I felt sick was when I was being operated on. That was a pretty traumatic thing. They cut out nine ribs. During the operation, they turn you over on one side and it spilled over, so my other lung got involved by accident, but that cleared right up.
WHEN DID YOU HAVE SURGERY?
I entered Trudeau in ’38 and got out once. Unfortunately, I started to misbehave again and went back. That’s when I had to have surgery because they said, “We’re wasting out time getting you on your feet. We’re going to cut the stuff right out of ya.” After that, of course, it was a whole new ball game but it didn’t slow me down.
HOW DID YOUR LIFE CHANGE AFTERWARDS?
I finally got out in ’44 and then went to work in the hotel. My people didn’t want me to do too much. They were afraid I’d break down again. That was the problem, because I had so much time on my hands. I’d drink almost around the clock. I didn’t have to worry about anything; wasn’t married and didn’t have to work. Got into a loose way of living. It’s a miracle I survived that.
During that period, I wrote a fund appeal letter to the editor of the local paper for the Quigley girl who was dying of cancer. The publisher liked it, came to see me, and hired me on the spot to work for the paper. Thought of getting into game management were dead then anyway. Not long afterward I married a nurse from Trudeau. Marriage is a very stabilizing influence. After that I settled down, or at least thought I did.
About ten years ago a military plane crashed on Wright Mountain. I was covering it for the paper. Young soldiers were climbing up to the wreck and I was going right by those guys. I thought, “What the hell goes on here? Here I’ve got one lung from a bout with T.B., spent three years in bed, and I’m passing the United States Army.” I went right to the top and stood in the wind. Working for the paper, you forget about personal comfort.
I kept one memento. At Ludington, I shared a room with a guy from South America. He had a snazzy red and black tie with little gold threads. I often admired it, so he said, “I’m never going to get out of here alive. When I’m dead, you can have the tie.” Well, he died during the night and they took his body out while I was sleeping. The next morning when I discovered he was gone, I looked in his closet for that tie. Sure enough, his suit and the tie were gone. I put one of my own ties under my arm, called a taxi, and went to the undertaker. I guess he had people from New York who were coming up to claim the body. There he was in the box, all dressed with the snazzy tie, waiting for his relatives. I just exchanged ties. I still wear it for special functions. God, my wife hates that tie.
FROM NURSE TO PATIENT
Eleanor Mullen was a nurse at Raybrook Sanitarium for thirty years. A small, feisty woman, she is now a doting grandmother still living in Saranac Lake. As she reminisced in her home, the sounds that could be heard from the police scanner located in the living room were explained by, “I don’t like to miss the action.”
DID YOU EVER WORRY ABOUT CONTRACTING T.B.?
No, because I grew up in Saranac Lake and it was all over the town. Next door the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen had a cure cottage that held 20-25 men. Many organizations had their own cottages. Everybody had sick people in their home. This house was a cure cottage. It was what maintained the town.
The only thing you were forbidden to do was take a book out of the library for fear that a patient had coughed on it. The funny thing was, you would go into a store and try on clothes that someone, loaded with T.B. had tried on before you. You’d go to church and the patient next to you might cough his head off. There was a law in town that you couldn’t shake the dustmop out the window for fear of spearing germs. Of course, there was the famous fifty dollar fine for spitting on the street. Mostly, though, we didn’t give it a thought.
TELL ME ABOUT RAYBROOK
It was a wonderful place to work. It was so pretty with a brook going through the grounds, walking paths and Saddleback Mountain in the background. There was a darling little golf course. It’s a prison now. Everything is barbed wire. It’s depressing. In the old days it was beautiful and everyone enjoyed it. It was a community. There was no pettiness or tension. As soon as the patients were able, they kept up their own rooms. Later they’d be given a part-time job at the hospital. They worked in the labs, in the office, or in any place that could use an extra hand. If they worked for house, they’d get paid. It wasn’t much money but it was a good system. It was rehabilitation to get them ready for the outside world, and it helped to build up their muscles after surgery. Most patients came from the city. There was a long waiting list. The discipline and rules were strict. If you were late coming back from an afternoon pass, you’d better have a good explanation or you were going home or to a hospital in New York. Any monkeyshines and they’d better pack up. T.B. was rampant in the cities. People just didn’t take care of themselves.
The pay was good. When I started in ’41, I got $90 a month and room and board. You had your own room and shared a bath. You really didn’t have to spend any money. It was a pleasant place to live. A lot of young people. A nice social life.
I worked in the thoracoplasty wing. That was the most radical treatment of T.B. involving the removal of a number of ribs. This caused the permanent collapse of part of the chest upon the lung and prevented any further respiratory movement of that lung. The patients had to be built up to determine whether they would be good candidates for surgery. A lot of young people who arrived were too far gone, and nothing could be done. People didn’t spend money on doctoring in those days. There weren’t routine x-rays in most industries so by the time they found out, they might have large cavities in both lungs. If there was a fighting chance, we saved them. Some didn’t need thoracic surgery. Lots of times pneumo treatments, where air was pushed into one lung to push it down temporarily, were enough to cause healing. Many people had pneumo thorax treatments for years.
In later years when we had drugs, we didn’t do surgery. If it was necessary, we sent them to a state facility at Mt. Morris. Some people couldn’t tolerate the drugs. They got violently ill and developed skin rashes.
After the drugs were available, as soon as the patient had a negative sputum and a better-looking x-ray, they were sent home because they were no longer contagious. They could live with their families if they stayed on the drugs.
WHEN DID YOU DISCOVER YOU HAD T.B.?
In 1944, I fell head over heels for Richard. It was war time and we decided to get married.
It was usual for the staff to get x-rays every three months. Usually before you left your job you’d also be x-rayed to protect the hospital from any future claims. I left in June to join Richard in California before he shipped out. We got married out there. They let me leave without getting a final x-ray. I didn’t feel sick. It never dawned on me to have one. I was too excited and fritter. I was going!
When Richard went to the Pacific on Valentine’s Day of ’45, I returned and got my old job back. In early April I was called for an x-ray. I had started to feel awfully tired at that time and I knew I wasn’t pregnant. Two days later they said I had to go off duty. I had a cavity that had already started to calcify, to heal. I threw a positive sputum and they found bugs in it. So, on the 18th of April, I moved from the nurses’ cottage to the main hospital. I know all the dates because I got compensation for picking it up. I had to go to compensation court to prove to Liberty Mutual where I got T.B. You know insurance companies. They tried to prove that I got it in California. Why I had never lived so good as I had out there. The fact that it had already started to calcify proved that it had been there a long time. It took a year and a half before I received back pay.
So there I was, one day a staff nurse, the next, a patient.
WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS?
Terrible. Richard was in the South Pacific and I couldn’t tell him. I didn’t see any point in writing to him and saying, “I’ve got a cavity in my lung and I’m going to bed. I hope you have a nice war.” There wasn’t a blessed thing he could do from there but drive himself nuts. He didn’t know until he came back the following year in February. I had sworn everybody to secrecy. I told his mother he should concentrate on keeping his head down.
I was young and had been full of beans. So I went from having an exciting life to being flat on my back. My whole life changed. I lost my freedom. Of course, I couldn’t do much anyway. My cure was just rest, fresh air, and good food. I was terribly depressed. I thought, “Am I going to be saddled with this the rest of my life?” I wouldn’t have gotten married had I had my x-ray. It turned out alright, though.
What made it so rough was I had been one of the nurses. Now, while they were awfully nice to me, I was no longer one of them. One day I was running the show and the next I was in bed. Only one person was skunky. That was the head nurse on my floor. She watched like a hawk, “Set an example, you know you only have three hours leave.” She was an old hairpin, anyway. So now I was on the of the patients. The only thing that bothered me besides loss of my freedom was loss of a paycheck. That was a kick in the rear.
WHAT DID PATIENTS DO ALL DAY?
You did the best you could. You read, wrote a lot of letters, and you cried. Finally, you tried to forget your loneliness and found something to do. There were a lot of crafty people. There was a knitter who was a patient. She said, “You cannot sit and stare out the window.” She made me buy needles and yarn. At first it drove me right up the side of the house. There were movies, and parties. We played pinochle and we’d sit in the sun and talk to people. I enjoyed the patients, they were good people. We were all in the same boat. What the hell were you going to do? A lot of them had left good jobs in the city. It took them a long time to adjust. They were bitter, but I wasn’t because I had lived in Saranac Lake a long time and had seen some remarkable cures. Some people who were carried off the train to die here, became cured and stayed on to build good lives for themselves. There was Charlie Green, the grocer for fifty years, and Mr. Altman, who ran the clothing store.
No, I was lucky. If I had been working some place else, I might have been dragging my tail but explained it away. I was lucky to discover the T.B. so early. No complaints. After a year they said I could go back to work for two hours a day. I thought, “You’re not running the legs off me for no pay.” I went to my mother’s until Richard came home. By then I was cured.
A woman of dignified simplicity, Dorothy Peer spoke warmly of her thirty-seven years at Ray Brook Sanitarium. A petite and independent octogenarian, possessing amazing vitality, she walks daily two miles into town to do errands and visit friends.
I started work at Raybrook in the laundry as a twenty-year old bride in 1925. At that time my husband, John, worked outside with the horses. There were no cars then. He drove the team that took all of the freight up to the different buildings. Jon later got work in town but I stayed until the place closed in 1971, with only a few years off to have my family.
WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE AT RAYBROOK?
Oh, it was a lovely place to work. At first Papa didn’t want me to go there. Mama wasn’t alarmed but Papa was dreadful about T.B. He needn’t have worried. We were well protected. We were checked by the x-ray machine every three months. I never knew anybody who got it but one; some were careless. We wore masks and gowns and were careful about washing out hands.
They looked out for us. All of the employees’ families got free doctoring from the staff of wonderful physicians.
At first, it was a free facility just for New York State residences but later they took patients from other states.
The sanatarium put on a lot of parties at night. They even brought in orchestras from Montreal and downstate. Twice a week there were movies for the patients and once a week for employees. The Halloween party was wonderful. All of the patients dressed in clever get-ups.
The employees who ever mixed with the patients had their own party with their families. In the early years there was a dance once a month for employees until it had to be spoiled. Some brought their bottles in so they had to stop it. They always cleared out by 12:00. If you wanted to go off on a picnic on your day off, you could get food from the kitchen. They were good to us.
DID YOU ENJOY YOUR WORK?
Very much. I loved to iron and there was plenty of it. We’d do the personal laundry for the patients. They were all anxious to talk. They were away from home and lonely.
I sort of looked forward to Monday and my husband was the same about his job. We always had lots of fun. There was always a story going. I got along beautifully with everybody. If there was a miserable one, they’d get shunned very quickly. They had to learn to be decent or they didn’t get along very well. Old Mr. Getz, he was a marvelous baker, once brought in some disgraceful calendar pictures. I got my dander up and tore that calendar right off the wall. Imagine, women were working there and we even had clergy walking through all the time!
Mrs. Abel was very good. She was head housekeeper and ran a right tight ship. Every month Johnny Dust, we called him, would come up on surprise inspection tours from Albany. He wore a white suit and white gloves but he couldn’t catch Mrs. Abel’ staff. The place was always meticulous.
T.B. was good to everybody. There was work for all ages.
DID PATIENTS’ FAMILIES MOVE UP HERE?
Yes. Quite a few, and a great many stayed on to make their homes here. George Reibel [sic] was a chef in Rochester when his wife, Ella, became sick so he became a cook at Raybrook. He wanted to be close to her. She was a hemorrhage case. She was a very sick girl. On Sunday evenings he put her in a wheelchair and wheel her down to the kitchen for a big dinner. Many times he’d invite John and I to have dinner with them in the kitchen after it closed. It was lovely. We’ put a nice white linen on the table with everything on it and lit candles. It was right handy and George could have Ella with him. It made it nice, kind of romantic. They ended up running a motel for years and are still around.
Patients with children could have them visit in the solarium. They didn’t want to expose them to the halls.
WHAT PATIENT STANDS OUT?
Well, there were 500 of them at any one time, but that’s easy. My son, Mike, was hired. He got along so well that he passed a test and became the highest in the laundry. He became my supervisor. I got along beautiful with him.
There was a young girl, Pat, from the Bronx, who had many operations. She was going out with a fella, at night, after hours. Some went to my brother-in-law, who was a cook in the other building and said, “Will you tell Dorothy that her son, Mike, Is taking out Pat?” He said, “You tell her yourself, I’m not telling her. So, I never knew. Before her first operation, she got married, on a Tuesday. So… nine months later they had a baby boy. The baby’s system had collected all the drugs that Pat had taken so for the first three months after he was born, he raised a lot of phlegm. When he was cleared out. Though, he had no trouble. He lived with John and me for the first two years while Pat was still in the hospital. That was 35 years ago. Pat eventually regained her health and she and Mike had 8 more children. The youngest is 18.
A WAY OF LIFE
Frank Witkowski was ten years old when his fireman father was run over by a truck in Buffalo, New York. He quit school in the ninth grade to help support his mother by working in a bakery. A quiet and unassuming man of 67, he still works part time as a nurse in a hospital for the elderly. He is the father of two children.
WHEN DID YOU DISCOVER YOU HAD T.B.?
I had night sweats, was coughing and losing weight. I was informed that I had T.B. on my 17th birthday, April 10th, 1937. The depression was just getting over and I was trying to help my mother, so I went to work in a bakery. It was night work with long h ours and heavy work, so I guess I picked it up there. I had worked for less than a year. The doctor who told me my sputum was positive asked me if I’d like to go to Perrysburg Sanitarium, south of Buffalo, or to Raybrook in the Adirondacks. Both places were run by the state and were free.
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION?
Most of all I was worried about my mother. When I told her about it, she was so downhearted. She said that she didn’t want me to go to Perrysburg because too many people died there. I said, “O.K. I’ll go to Raybrook.” I made out an application at the Erie County Health Board. They said that Raybrook had a long waiting list and only took incipient or mild cases and since I was quite sick, there wouldn’t be much hope for acceptance. I went home and coughed for a month. Soon I heard I was accepted for Raybrook. On May 7th, 1937 I came up alone on the train. It’s funny but I wasn’t scared. I had a strange feeling when I got on that train that I would be happy. I didn’t want to see Buffalo again.
WERE YOU AN ONLY CHILD?
No, I had a younger sister but she died of T.B. Now, let me tell you about Raybrook. It was a great place. I came up here underweight and pretty sick. I was put on bedrest and trays. Gradually I was what they called solarium tables. You didn’t have to get dressed except for pajamas and a bathrobe. In the main dining room you had to dress for dinner. The food at Raybrook was marvelous.
After eleven months, the doctor suggested surgery. My only fear was that there was an old man on my wing who had a thoracoplasty in the past and he was all bent over after the surgery. I said to my mother when she visited, “That’s what I’m going to look like afterward.” But I didn’t. I decided to go ahead with it because I had seen other people who had surgery and they got better. At first you just felt like you had a heavy load on your shoulder but that feeling left after a few weeks. At night they’d put heavy sand bags on your chest so the lung wouldn’t expand. Afterward you did exercises with pulleys to build up the muscle tone. They gave me a three stage thoracoplasty. They took out parts of ribs. Do you want to feel my chest?
See, that’s where the ribs are missing. You can feel the ends of the ribs.
After a year they gave me a cure task. Everyone who is able had cure tasks. You deliver trays, set tables, or clean other patients’ rooms. The patients in town thought that Raybrook was a terrible place because they made you work. Dr. Bray who ran the hospital, had a different idea about curing than they did in town where they put you to bed. At Raybrook they put you to work to help you get better, to build you up, not to get something outa ya. In town they cured your T.B. but the muscles were flabby. You can still see people on the street who are all hunched over. I guess it was a prestige thing, they were proud they could afford to pay and didn’t have to work. Of course, in town they had less rules.
If you had a cure task, you were allowed to go into town for three hours once a week. The fellas were allowed Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The females had Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The cab fare was 20 cents, round trip. We used to drink at the bars or go to the movies. Often the local people would offer you a ride home; they were good to us.
DID YOU SOCIALIZE WITH THE LADIES?
Sure. There were paths through the woods where you could hold hands and you could also hold hands at the movies. There were a lot of romances. Many patients married other patients. We were allowed to visit the ladies’ building every Saturday night. Usually we talked and played bridge. We met all sorts of people. It was like home. I made a lot of good friends. Everyone had the same problem so it was one big happy family. We had policemen, sanitation workers and two senators. Some of the fellas I cured with were college graduates and they said they didn’t have as much fun in college. There were a lot of people my age but most were in the 30’s and 40’s.
HOW DID YOU SPEND YOUR TIME?
It was like a country club. There were pool games and we played bridge two or three times a day. Monday and Tuesday were movie nights. We had spelling bees, amateur nights and golf tournaments. In winter we skated. We had a winter carnival with elections for our own king and queen. We sat out on the porches with long sheepskin coats that went to our ankles. We talked a lot.
DID PEOPLE TALK ABOUT THEIR FEARS?
Some were worried and talked about it but mostly we lived for tomorrow. Now getting back to what we did. Figure skaters used to come from Lake Placid and put on shows. We took long walks; we played golf. I think those were the best days of my life. Raybrook brought me my health and I was happy and contented.
HOW LONG DID YOU CURE?
I was always trying to get the doctors to let me get a real job. Whenever I was ready to leave something would come up and they’d keep me a little longer. Finally in 1943, after six years, they said, “If you want to leave, Miss Cleveland wants to hire you as a waiter.” I worked there as a waiter for two years and then another two years in housekeeping. After that for twenty-seven years I worked as an orderly in the operating room until Raybrook was phased out.
The day I moved from the hospital to the employees’ building was a happy one. I loved my job and I was free. No more rules. No more nurses checking up on my coming and going. It was wonderful. When I went to work in the operating room, I loved it. When the doctors needed something, I got it for them. It was interesting work.
After Raybrook closed, I worked at Will Rogers Hospital for six months until they closed. That was run for business people who had T.B. In the end, they were mostly emphysema patients. They had led fast lives in that business.
In 1971 I commuted to Adirondack Community College for two years to study nursing. It was unusual then for a man to study nursing, but I loved it. When it came time to take the boards, I could do everything easily except the psychiatry parts. I always had a hang-up on psychiatry. I just about gave up. I’ve been working at Uihlein Mercy Center for the Elderly ever since.
HOW DID IT ALTER YOUR EARLY PLANS?
I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten T.B. I had no plans but the sickness really gave me something. It gave me direction. I can’t say enough about Raybrook. It put me on my feet. I wish people could have seen Raybrook – it was beautiful. In the early days, it had started out with only platform tents with stoves in the early 1900’s. That was before my time.
DID YOUR SISTER CURE UP HERE?
Not at first. When she first got sick, she went to Perrysburg. She then went to work in a defense plant but had a relapse. That’s when she came up here. I think she caught tuberculosis from me before I knew I was sick. I was always sad about that. We were all living together in a small apartment. She died up here. My mother also died up here. I think they both caught it from me. They were very close, my sister and my mother. It was between 1945 and 1947. My mother cured for a very short time and then she died. Mary died a year later.
My cousins lived in the apartment downstairs in Buffalo but they never caught it from me. I guess they had better resistance.
I was sad. I blamed myself. I said, “How come they died and I’m still alive.” I also had two very good friends. We used to go fishing. I used to think, “Why did they die and I’m still living?” And I was sick! There must be a reason.
DID YOU COME UP WITH AN ANSWER?
No. I stopped asking. Maybe that’s why I got into nursing. I’ve always liked working around sick people. I could retire, but I love my work. It’s hard but I love it.
TRAY BOY TO MAYOR
With white hair and beard, Howard Riley bears a striking resemblance to singer Kenny Rogers. The father of six grown sons has managed the Lake Placid Resort Hotel, the local newspaper, and public relations for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. In earlier days he was the youngest mayor of Saranac Lake. Currently he is part of the Adirondack real estate boom working as a salesman for a Lake Placid realtor. A raconteur of local renown, his roots sink dep into Saranac Lake.
HOW EARLY WERE YOUR TIES TO THE TUBERCULOSIS INDUSTRY?
I was born in 1930 on the Gabriels Sanitarium farm that was managed by my Dad. It supplied all of the produce and milk for the sanitarium. Gabriels is now a prison but it was originally founded by the Sisters of Mercy for T.B. patients in 1904. Later in the ‘30’s my father managed the Raybrook Sanatarium farm for a few years. It was a big dairy farm with 80 or 90 head of milking cows. In 1941 we moved into town and Dad went to work at Trudeau Sanitarium in the outside maintenance department. We lived on Pine Street which was full of cure cottages. I started working as a tray boy in ninth grade for $3.50 a week. All we did was carry up the trays to the patients and return them, for three meals a day, seven days a week.
DID THIS INTERFERE WITH SCHOOL?
No, the town was fully geared toward the T.B. industry. School didn’t start until 9:05 A.M., then we were released at 11:30 and didn’t have to be back until 1:30. We went to school until 4:00 P.M. The schools accommodated the patient’s schedules.
WERE THERE TRAY GIRLS?
I don’t recall any. The girls who worked in the cottages tended to be older and they were chambermaids and helped prepare the meals.
WERE YOU AWARE OF THE DISEASE BEING CONTAGIOUS?
We were aware of it as kids but never worried about it. After delivering trays, I just went home to meals and don’t recall washing my hands. I remember a teacher, Mrs. Wilson, saying that she had out-of-town relatives who would never come for a visit. If they had to drive through Saranac Lake, they put the car windows up and put a handkerchief over their mouths until they got out of harm’s way. In general, the local people didn’t worry. The “up” patients were all over town. A favorite spot was the movie theater. It was said that there was less coughing in our theater than other towns because the patients tried so hard not to cough. Of course, all of them carried sputum cups. These were disposable containers or some had disposable liners, for expectorations of T.B. patients. They looked like miniature file folders. The disposable portions were burned each night, since improperly disposed sputum was considered an agent in the spread of the disease. Saranac Lake still has a law on the books that calls for a fine of $50 for spitting on the street. The town had the best sewage treatment plant in the country for the same reason.
I had daily contact with patients. Before I became a tray boy, I used to go door to door to cure cottages to run errands for the patients who couldn’t get up. I’d pick up newspapers and other articles for them and then they would always like to chat with a kid. It was a pretty lonely life for them. It wasn’t unusual to invite a patient to our home for dinner. One used to come over to play the saxophone with my Dad when he got his wind back.
The laundry of all these people was usually done by folks in town. Large commercial laundries took care of the bedding. My neighbor, Mrs. LaPointe, did all the personal laundry for the cottages on Pine Street, Franklin, and Shephard Avenues. At the age of eleven, I did the pick-up and deliveries for her and we never worried about catching anything from the clothes. I used to joke with my brother that one day we’d be famous for picking up songwriter Ernie Burnett’s dirty socks. He wrote “Melancholy Baby.” We’d say, “Some day somebody’s going to want to know all about this.” There were just a load of jobs available. I also delivered telegrams of good cheer to patients for Western Union. When I got my license, I drove a cab. There were taxi stands all over town because the patients couldn’t walk too far. I was too thrilled, being a kid, driving a big new shiny car to worry about catching T.B. from my passengers.
WHAT WAS THE ATTITUDE OF THE PEOPLE OF THE TOWN ABOUT T.B. PATIENTS?
Well, they were just such a big part of our lives. Don’t forget that by that time the town was run by people who cured there and got married to a local or fellow patient and stayed in the village. Half the town was there because of T.B. Most of the other half worked in the industry. Before I became Mayor in the early ‘60’s, I replaced Tony Anderson, a former patient, who ran the movie theater. Tony had been mayor for 25 years.
The summer I was 17 I went to work at Trudeau Sanitarium. Most young people who grew up in Saranac lake worked there at one time or another. There were young girls my age who were patients. Trudeau didn’t have any poor people. There were a lot of young doctors and nurses who broke down due to the long hours and fast living while in training. It was populated by secretaries from large companies who were there because of their company’s insurance programs.
Many of the people living in cure cottages downtown were veterans from World War II and were covered by government insurance.
At Trudeau, patients tended to be young and better educated so you got to meet a lot of interesting people. Sometimes we used to date the patients. They’d have to sneak out. We’d park with the lights out behind the barns and wait for them. There were also a lot of student nurses from hospitals downstate, so it was a popular place with all the guys in town.
WERE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT CONTAGION WHILE DATING PATIENTS?
It’s a funny thing but you’d always ask, “Are you positive or negative?” You could be during for the disease but be non-contagious. My father never spoke to me about sex but when he’d see me on the grounds, talking with a girl, he’d say, “You’d better be careful.” He means of course about the disease.
Here at Trudeau you had all of these beautiful young men and women just lying in bed resting. They weren’t all terribly sick so there were a lot of horny people At Trudeau there was the classic story about the fellow who came up to visit his wife and asked Dr. Kinghorn if he could have relations with her. Dr. Kinghorn supposedly said, “I guess it would be all right as long as you don’t get too excited.”
The retired nurse [possibly Eleanor Mullen] talked about “Miss Rivers”, the patient that had made the greatest impression upon her.
“Shirley Ann Rivers, she was the personality kid. At four years old, she knew how to get along with everybody. Everyone adored her. She was so cute and smart. The patients, doctors and nurses all called her ‘Miss Rivers’.
She had clustered abscesses in her lungs. Today, drugs could easily cure her. She came from a poor family in Mineville. They were a big family with no money and really no interest. They hardly came to see her. Maybe they couldn’t. Anyway, we all were nuts about her. We all bought her clothes. The patients made her beautiful hand-smocked dresses. We’d put them under the ultraviolet lights to kill the germs before she wore them. She’d stand in the window and call out of everyone and didn’t miss a trick.
If you had nothing to do, you’d take her for walk hour to see the ducks. You just liked Miss Rivers. We’d take her to town to get her hair cut and to buy her shoes. Miss Rivers was dressed well. On her birthday, it was something else.
We passed nourishments on a cart between meals and we’d bring Miss Rivers with us. She wasn’t allowed in the patients’ rooms but could stand by the door. Everyone would carry on with her and ask, “What have you got tonight, Miss Rivers?”
She’d say, “I’ve got plain milk, chocolate milk, ginger ale and orange juice.”
She’d have to repeat it at each door. Everybody loved that child. When patients went home, they went gifts back to Miss Rivers. She was loved.
The morning she went up to surgery, there was a regular parade. Patients called out. “See you later Miss Rivers.” Dear Dr. Gordon didn’t really want to cut into her. He loved that child like family. We were all sick. We knew she had extensive abscesses, but we never dreamed her little heart would fail on the table. It was brutal.
The day she died I was going back on duty at 4 o’clock. Joe, the head of the lab, was walking by. He was crying. I said, “Joe, what’s the matter?”
He said, “The baby died.” That was one awful place. Poor Dr. Gordon was crying in the elevator. The doctors, the patients, nurses, everybody…
I was assigned to her floor that night and had to pack up her things. A lot of clothes had never been on her. Helen, who later became my sister-in-law, had sent her a beautiful handmade sweater the day before. The box had never been opened. I put them in a box and labelled them and sent them home to the family. I don’t know how I ever did it. I used to have pictures of her. God, I don’t know what happened to them. She was one popular little lady.
In 1956 Trudeau Sanatorium closed its doors. The last patient, former Yankee great, Larry Doyle was photographed walking through the iron gates. The discovery of drugs as a method of cure sounded the death toll for the only industry in Saranac Lake. Larry Doyle took a room in town where he lived out his last few years but most patients were long gone. The last of the sanitoriums, Raybrook, and Will Rogers, were lone holdouts with their ever dwindling populations. Finally, in 1971, they too were finished.
The cure cottages had long since reverted to family homes. Many businesses and stores shut down. The company my father worked for closed its doors and he was transferred downstate. We left in 1958.
Throughout my high school and college years I often returned to the area to visit. The town was lacking its former sense of excitement. The economy had suffered. Gone was the influx of interesting people. Perhaps it was economic hard times and a lack of new blood in the village but even then, I noticed an absence of the openness and friendly manner that had previously characterized the locals. People noticed strangers in town whereas before they were an expected part of the fiber of the community.
Today, I sometimes take solitary walks through the grounds of the old Trudeau Sanitorium which now houses the offices of the American Management Association. It’s always quiet there; the employees are shut up inside the offices. The stillness is broken up by the haunting beautiful sounds of an occasional mourning dove. In my imagination the sights and sounds of my youth return: patients walk together, the crack of a croquet mallet, a sick young man yells a greeting from his porch. II remember the maintenance men who looked the other way as a young girl stole daffodils for the May procession. A way of life is over but the memories remain.
Some of the cure cottages in the village are filled with students from the community college. The town is now enjoying a small Renaissance. Two former sanitoriums are now federal and state prisons. They have created badly needed jobs in the area. Now, the mindset of the major industry is concerned with keeping people in – not out of doors – as in old.
Tourism long neglected in the Adirondack village curing the curing days, is becoming a robust industry. Today’s visitors don’t stay as long. They are, however, rejuvenated by the same tranquility and crisp mountain air that proved so beneficial to their ill predecessors.
- Philip L. Gallos, Cure cottages of Saranac Lake, p. 2.
- William Chapman White, Adirondack Country, p. 168.
- Elizabeth Mooney, In the Shadow of the White Plague, p. 48.
- Interview with Frank Ratigan, former pharmacist at Raybrook T.B. Sanitarium
- Adirondack Daily Enterprise
- Adirondack Life, “I Cured There” Gwynneth Patterson, Fall 1971, p. 8-12.
- Burton-Fanning, F.W., The Open-Air Treatment of Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Chicago: W.T. Keener + Co. 1905.
- Alfred L. Donaldson, A History of the Adirondacks, The Century Co. 1921.
- Martha Reben, The Healing Woods, Thomas Crowell, 1952.
- Isabel Smith, I Wish I Might, Harper and Bros., 1955.
- Edward Livingston Trudeau, M.D., An Autobiography, Doubleday, 1951.
All interviews were conducted in the first four months of 1987 by Ree Rickard. The exceptions were the Esther Mirick interview, conducted by Phil Gallos in 1981 as part of the Saranac Lake Library’s History project, and segments of the Bill McLaughlin interview which was a part of the same project. Some observations resulted from my personal conversations with Mr. McLaughlin.