Cure Cottages in the Age of Consumption

During the tuberculosis outbreak of the late 1800s, families flocked to cure cottages in the rural country. Cure cottages were part of a new treatment method which involved exposing the afflicted to fresh air while being kept on complete bedrest. While visiting family this past weekend in the Adirondacks, I took some time out of my visit to venture out to Saranac Lake, NY; ground zero for the cure cottage movement.

The Affliction

Victorian depiction of consumption

Victorian depiction of consumption

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection which, in most cases, affects the lungs and respiratory system. Once infected, the patient, will seemingly be “consumed” by the disease experiencing extreme weight loss, hence it’s moniker “consumption”. The disease can be a silent one, often not exhibiting signs of infection in latent cases. Once the disease becomes active, more than half of patients will die if left untreated. However, in these cases consumption is not contagious to others.

My own mother, a nurse in the Adirondacks, was required by the hospital to regularly be tested for latent TB. At one point she did, in fact, test positive and was put on a regular regiment of antibiotics and treatment. Somehow she had come in contact with the disease throughout her many years caring for others in the area. After continuous testing she was cleared of any  remnants of the disease in her system. However, it’s a reminder of how easily the disease can spread without the realization that someone is even encountering it.

In active cases, consumption can spread by the coughing, sneezing, spit of patients. It’s a quiet killer, almost always never exhibiting symptoms until it’s too late for the patient. Currently The World Health Organization attributes it as the leading infectious cause of death in the world with one third of the world’s population perishing at it’s hands.

German Roots

Hermann Brehmer

Hermann Brehmer

During the fight with consumption, many potential cures were experimented with. The most infamous and promising of these was implemented by a German physician named Hermann Brehmer. During his studies Brehmer was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Relocating to the Himalayas, Brehmer managed to cure himself of the disease and attributed this to the fresh air and cleaner climate. He went on to write a dissertation titled, “Tuberculosis is a Cureable Disease.” The first German sanitorium for the systematic open-air treatment of tuberculosis was founded by him and carried on by Peter Deittweiler. Both of these men would have profound effect on Edward Trudeau, who would bring the practice to Saranac Lake in the 1880s by way of the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium.

Chasing a Cure

Trudeau Sanitorium

Trudeau Sanitorium in Saranac Lake

Edward Trudeau would find himself in a similar position to Brehmer. His brother perishing from consumption within a 3 month period, Trudeau was compelled to become a physician to hunt down a cure for the disease that claimed his brother. During his studies, he, too, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Similarly instructed to travel to an area with clearer air, Trudeau found himself in the Adirondack mountains of New York at the Paul Smith’s Hotel. Subsequently, Trudeau was also able to cure himself after exposing himself to the fresh air of the mountains. After discovering the work of Brehmer, Trudeau would embark on a similar mission eventually founding the first institution for treatment in the area. Trudeau believed it important that patients not be put into clinical settings, but instead, cottage like homes equipped with large screened in porches. These porches would allow for patients to bathe in the fresh mountain air that would ideally cure them.

The Business of Tuberculosis

After many prominent figures would venture to the Adirondacks to cure themselves or family members, word spread of the tiny town in the mountains. Some of the most infamous being Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Will Rogers. The town found it’s population rapidly expanding as the news that tuberculosis was a contagious disease broke. Many other towns would turn people with consumption away, afraid the the affliction would spread among their population. Saranac Lake, however, welcomed these people with open arms. The population would boom by more than 5,000 people over the course of 40 brief years.

Along with the expanding populations, homes in the area were literally expanding. Many found themselves in lucrative business opportunities and decided to build additions onto their homes. Porches and sunrooms were awkwardly tacked onto already established homes to welcome the sick. New buildings lined wall to wall with porches were erected and opened as homes for the sick.

Types of Cottages

Patients ranged from the poor to the ultra wealthy. Not surprisingly, treatment and accommodations were quite different between classes. Everyone was seeking the same results but the path to a cure was easier for some and daunting for others. Many different cottages and subsequent services were created address these differences.

When it came to the ultra wealthy, families such as the Aldrich’s whose patriarch was the head of The Atlantic Monthly, you could simply hire an architect to build a custom home for you. William Coulter, an architect in the area at the time, would design many homes for wealthy clients in the area. The house he designed for the Aldrich’s would be dubbed “The Porcupine” due to all the high points in the design. Some of the “Great Camps of the Adirondacks” were also built during this time.

Vaudeville News Ad for the Sanatorium for Vaudeville Artists

Other institutions would also be built for various ethnicities, social groups, and professions. One of the most famous being the National Vaudeville Artists Hospital which was built specifically to help performance artists battling tuberculosis at the time. It currently is known as the Saranac Village at Will Rogers, operating as a senior housing facility. My own grandmother lived there for a time and I can attest to it’s grandeur as well as eeriness. My grandmother once whispered to us a rumor shared by the current residents. They told each other the furniture in the rooms was actually furnished from the basement, where the belongings of those who died there before were kept. Needless to say, the sprawling campus is a place that has a close relationship with death and the sick.

New nurses pose in 1917

For others who couldn’t afford their own cure cottage or camp, there were a few differing types of accommodations and services.  Nursing cottages were established for those who were unable to get around and take care of themselves in their advanced state. Boarding cottages would offer a place for the sick to stay for extended periods of times and also provided services for external cottages which didn’t provide boarding. This would involve bringing meals to patients at those cottages.

Cure Cottages Today

Slowly as vaccines and treatment expanded to snuff out tuberculosis, many of the cure cottages and institutions either crumbled or were repurposed for other means. Sometimes these reincarnations were masterfully done and others tragically underwhelming. Here are some of the surviving structures.

Exterior view of "The Porcupine Inn" formerly the Aldrich Cottage

Exterior view of “The Porcupine Inn” formerly the Aldrich Cottage. You can see the multiple cure porches which lined the back of the property. This now functions as a bed and breakfast.

Heading Home

During my visit to Saranac Lake, it started as a sunny summer day and slowly as we drove into town the clouds increased and it got quite gloomy! It definitely set the mood. The trip was actually first prompted by my sister Erica and I driving up to Lake Placid together so we could both do some writing. It only occurred to me afterwards that we had the perfect opportunity to check out some really interesting history just a town over.

The area is no stranger to us. We grew up in the Adirondacks. Both of our grandparents had homes on opposite sides of Whiteface mountain; one in Jay and the other in Onchiota. Both of our parents also spent their early adult years in the mountains. To say that this area feels like home is an understatement. As I mentioned above, our Grandma also lived in Will Rogers for a time. For these reasons, this post in particular feels very personal.

Our first stop was at Noyes Cottage on Helen St. My sister was nervous about parking on the steep hill while I stepped out to snap some photos. I knew that the roads are rarely trafficked though…and apparently the same could be said about the former Noyes Cottage. It was very clear that the home had been abandoned after being converted to apartments. Windows were broken out, however, the doors were wide open with rugs hanging over the banisters. Seemingly someone may have purchased the home and be renovating it? Either way, Erica wasn’t fond when I suggested we pop inside to take a look. I mean, there wasn’t a car outside. What could go wrong? We skipped the trespassing and headed over to the next stop on Park Ave.

Park Avenue in Saranac Lake is one of the more densely populated areas when it comes to historic homes; most of these being historical cure cottages. Our destination was 247 Park Ave where the former Larom Cottage stood. Once again, this home was barren and desolate. It appeared that someone must have lived in the home within the past decade because a freestanding basketball hoop still sat by the garage in the back. That was in stark contrast to the broken windows and the crumbling cedar siding. There was a for sale sign in the front of the yard so of course I looked up the listing.

The house is over 3,000 sq feet and boasts 9 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, and multiple functioning fireplaces. The home was purchased in 2017 for over $500k and for some reason was dropped more than 75% in price…any speculation as to why?

Front view of the Larom house with the two story cure porch additions to the right.

Front view of the Larom house with the two story cure porch additions to the right.

Well I have one theory and it’s pretty much my theory about everything. It’s obviously haunted. My suspicions in this case are not completely unfounded. In 2013, the Syfy channel show “Paranormal Witness” did a full episode featuring a converted cure cottage in Saranac Lake. It follows Mike, the new homeowner of a large historic home which was formerly a cure cottage. The history unbeknownst to him, his aim was to renovate the large property and convert it to apartments. He had a hard time keeping tenants once they began experiencing regular supernatural activity.

Grim Reminders

After visiting the Larom Cottage and dreaming of owning a former cure cottage, reality hit when we headed over to Pine Ridge Cemetery. Pine Ridge is the original village cemetery and is the resting place of Jacob Moody, the first settler of Saranac Lake. Covered by tall pine trees and built up in walled layers on the steep hill, we wound our way along the narrow path cleared for cars to drive through.

We managed to get out and explore for a bit. Some areas were clearly older than others and we managed to find some pretty beautiful stones. The only uncomfortable part of this was being constantly cawed at by crows in the trees and swarmed by black flies. Neither my sister or I escaped without some gnarly bug bites.

In addition to being the resting place of many early settlers of Saranac Lake, there are also over thousands of TB patients who lost their lives buried in unmarked graves throughout the sprawling hills. As many as 5,000 bodies are lying in repose here.

Adelaide Crapsy during her time at the cure cottage overlooking Pine Ridge cemetery

Adelaide Crapsy during her time at the cure cottage overlooking Pine Ridge cemetery.

During her battle with tuberculosis, the famous poet Adelaide Crapsey resided at the cure cottage which overlooks the cemetery. Crapsey ended up dying from consumption and had this poem posthumously published. It reflects on her time spent in the cure cottage looking out the windows onto Pine Ridge, which she called, “Trudeau’s Garden.” I think it’s a fitting encapsultation of this trip and the reality of a very unique moment in time.

To The Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My Window by Adelaide Crapsy

How can you lie so still? All day I watch
And never a blade of all the green sod moves
To show where restlessly you toss and turn,
And fling a desperate arm or draw up knees
Stiffened and aching from their long disuse;
I watch all night and not one ghost comes forth
To take its freedom of the midnight hour.

Oh, have you no rebellion in your bones?
The very worms must scorn you where you lie,
A pallid mouldering acquiescent folk,
Meek habitants of unresented graves.

Why are you there in your straight row on row
Where I must ever see you from my bed
That in your mere dumb presence iterate
The text so weary in my ears: “Lie still
And rest; be patient and lie still and rest.”
I’ll not be patient! I will not lie still!

There is a brown road runs between the pines,
And further on the purple woodlands lie,
And still beyond blue mountains lift and loom;
And I would walk the road and I would be
Deep in the wooded shade and I would reach
The windy mountain tops that touch the clouds.
My eyes may follow but my feet are held.

Recumbent as you others must I too
Submit? Be mimic of your movelessness
With pillow and counterpane for stone and sod?
And if the many sayings of the wise
Teach of submission I will not submit
But with a spirit all unreconciled
Flash an unquenched defiance to the stars.

Better it is to walk, to run, to dance,
Better it is to laugh and leap and sing,
To know the open skies of dawn and night,
To move untrammeled down the flaming noon,
And I will clamour it through weary days
Keeping the edge of deprivation sharp,
Nor with the pliant speaking on my lips
Of resignation, sister to defeat.
I’ll not be patient. I will not lie still.

And in ironic quietude who is
The despot of our days and lord of dust
Needs but, scarce heeding, wait to drop
Grim casual comment on rebellion’s end;
“Yes, yes . . Wilful and petulant but now
As dead and quiet as the others are.”
And this each body and ghost of you hath heard
That in your graves do therefore lie so still.

Dollhouses for the Dead

Dollhouses are definitely a horror trope. If you’ve got one in your house after you’re age 7 you’re probably in for some sort of demonic haunting. ( I mean, have y’all seen the trailer for Hereditary yet?) One woman chose to embrace “dollhouses” and miniatures in her work late in life. Frances Glessner Lee’s work isn’t famous for any hauntings surrounding it, but instead for it’s subject matter. Murder scenes.

Lee’s works technically weren’t considered dollhouses but instead referred to as “nutshells”. Dioramas in a sense. 20 original pieces were created by hand to assist in actual homicide investigations. These were referred to as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths. Lee went to painstaking measures to ensure the details of each scene were precise and accurate. When viewing the works you can even see some of the newspapers in scenes even have visible dates and headlines on them. Mind you, these are sometimes the size of a postage stamp. It was critical to Lee to get all of these details right since they’re primary purpose was to teach investigators how to fully examine all evidence at a crime scene. The scale of these is 1 inch per foot.

Frances’s backstory was a shared one with other ambitious women at the time. She grew up with her brother in Chicago. He ended up attended Harvard but an equally intelligent and ambitious Frances was not allowed to attend college. Instead she was to marry and tend to the home. She eventually met Blewett Lee, a wealthy lawyer, and they soon were wed. The duration of her marriage Lee was restless. After becoming friends with one of her brother’s classmates at Harvard, George Burgess Magrath, Frances began journeying into the subject of forensics and homicide investigation. Although, after expressing this interest to her husband and brother, she was discouraged from taking any steps forward when it came to education or research on the subject.

A young Frances “Fanny” Glessner. Photo from the Glessner House Museum.

After divorce from her husband and her brother’s death, Frances was free to pursue her passion. After inheriting a good amount of wealth from her family, she began finding ways to join the medical and forensic community. She was a generous philanthropist, donating $250,000 to the Harvard University to create a chair in Legal Medicine. She also founded the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. She was highly influential in the field, pushing police departments to move from dependence on coroners to actual medical investigators at crime scenes. She became known as the “Mother of Forensic Science.” At the time of her philanthropic work Frances was an older woman at the age of 52.

Lee working diligently on her miniatures in 1940, all painstakingly handcrafted. Photo from The Glessner House Museum.

Frances was only just starting her journey as a woman late into her life. At age 60 she began working on the now infamous nutshell scenes. A pioneer in the forensics field, she saw value in the study of these scenes. They were portable and accompanied her to many lectures across the country. The lecture series was the “Seminars in Homicide Investigation for State Police.” Each was set in a diorama which pictured a crime and asked the question, what truly happened to the victim?

Each depiction had working lights, doors, all the way down to food in fridges, mousetraps and kitchen utensils. No detail was too small to include since it could offer valuable information to investigators. Corpses were also placed in scenes in their exact positioning and stage of composition at the time they were found. Victims (or killers) ranged from women (the majority of the subjects), men, children, workers to farmers.

I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death at the Renwick Gallery this past January. Visitors filed around these tiny dioramas, peering into each haunting and puzzling scene (sometimes with flashlights which were provided) to try and piece together the crime. It turns out I would make an abysmal investigator. The photos below are some shots I took during my time at the gallery.

 

What do you think about the nutshells? How badass is Frances? Would you be able to create something with so much detail? Are you a super sleuth who could solve all these crimes?

Dissected Graces: Wax Women During the Enlightenment

The Wellcome Collection

Made of wax, the anatomical venus is a striking resemblance to a living, breathing woman. Her skin has a translucency. Her real human hair long and flowing. And all of her internal organs sit perfectly in her torso ready to be taken out and placed back in. Known alternatively as “Slashes Beauties” or “Dissected Graces”, the masses at the time became enamored with her.

Science and Artistry

Natural History Museum of Florence | Photo © Joanna Ebenstein

The period, referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, focused on a shift away from the concepts of absolute monarchies, concentrated power, and the hoarding of information to free thinking, science, and philosophy. The first Anatomical Venus was commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II in 1780. Leopold, who aimed to blend both the decadent artistry of the past with the instructive, scientific focus of the Enlightenment,  hoped this model would intrigue others to learn more about the human body’s inner workings. By allowing for medical practitioners, artists, and the general public to have this incredibly accessible representation of the human body, perhaps the need for human dissection would be eliminated altogether.

“It is interesting to consider that the body – its nuts and bolts, the raw mechanics of it – had by this point long been considered a proper subject for artists. Leonardo da Vinci had dissected more than 100 bodies himself earlier that century, and a younger artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti, accepted a commission from a church for which he was paid in corpses.” Zoe Williams, Cadavers in pearls: meet the Anatomical Venus

The artist commissioned would be Clemente Susini, a sculptor from Florence who studied at the Royal Gallery. The initial Anatomical Venus impressed Leopold so much that he requested an entire set of similarly dissectible models. The first model can be seen in La Specola in Italy – the Natural History Museum. In all, Susini created close to 2,000 anatomic models before his death in 1814.

La Specola, Florence. Photo © Joanna Ebenstein

How to make death palatable

Part of the struggle when it came to teaching anatomy was the simple fact that you couldn’t learn much if you weren’t dealing with a real corpse. How could an artist make the dissection of a human post-mortem acceptable and even intriguing to the public? Simple – make the corpse that of a beautiful woman.

Reclined on a bed, each model was a young women, neck exposed with a look of ecstasy on their face. While one can take a deep skeptical look at the undertones here surrounding violence against women, the public in the day were drawn to Venus like a moth to the flame. It does seem incredibly strange and startling to be removing the 7 anatomically perfect and interlocking organs from such a stark contrast to the cadavers of the past.

Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni, Vienna | Photo © Joanna Ebenstein

The Anatomical Venus forces us to confront a lot of feelings surrounding the human condition – how life and death should be depicted. Should beauty be completely separate from death? Are we uncomfortable with her because of this juxtaposition? Reflecting on the time in which she was created, was the fascination with her macabre and almost fetishized or genuine curiosity and fascination in the medical insight she had to offer? There are many interpretations, but the fact that she remains a fascinating part of human history and enlightenment speaks to her true magnetism.

What are your thoughts on the Anatomical Venus?