Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jessica Ferguson: Mirror Girl of Saranac Lake (Conclusion)

Russel Hibbs02AHis work with children’s hospitals convinced Colonel Walter Scott that there might be help for Jessica despite her negative prognosis and seemingly hopeless situation. New and exciting progress had been made, especially by Dr. Russell Hibbs of New York City, whose surgical innovations helped change the face of medicine. Hibbs was the first to perform a spinal fusion, and made great advances in treating tuberculosis of the spine and hip.

At the request of Ferguson’s physicians, Hibbs conducted an evaluation and surprised everyone with his conclusion. Jessica, he said, would benefit from a spinal operation, and might well walk normally following therapy. After all she had been through, the hopeful news was stunning.

Colonel Scott and others encouraged her with best wishes, and in early September 1926, Hibbs performed the operation in New York City. Doctors had worried that Jessica’s weakened physical state might place her in critical condition after surgery. Instead, improvement was seen immediately, and with her usual upbeat outlook, Ferguson went right to work on recovery.

Within a couple of weeks, Mirror Girl was no longer, having been replaced by Miracle Girl. After five years in a cast, locked into a reclining position that was detrimental to maintaining muscle strength, Jessica was sitting up, even standing, and taking steps.

The turnaround was incredible. By October she was back in Saranac Lake, taking more than 20 steps a day and sitting for several hours daily. Visitors from all walks of life came in to pay their respects as she continued to improve, step by step.

In June 1927, less than a year later, Jessica and her mother traveled to New York City, courtesy of Colonel Scott, who accompanied them to the hospital for her checkup. The result: Miss Ferguson was “doing splendidly—making a marvelous recovery.” It was a joyful reunion, but Scott was also there to fulfill a promise made long ago.

On the following day, Jessica and Anna were his guests at the historic Lafayette Hotel Restaurant—and they weren’t alone. Joining them were the Royal Chief of the Order of the Scottish Clans, Duncan MacInnes (who was also chief accountant of the City of New York), plus four of Jessica’s friends who had supported her continuously through the long struggle. All but a few of those present were also life members of the Stevenson Society.

Colonel Scott ensured it was a day Jessica would never forget. Said one reporter: “The room was a bower of beautiful roses, and no happier group ever gathered around a flower-strewn table. It was a veritable Thanksgiving.” A fine feast was enjoyed by all. Among the speakers was MacInnes, who heaped mounds of praise on Scott for all his charitable works, especially his role that earned for the Colonel a treasured new nickname, “the fairy godfather of Jessica.”

Colonel Walter Scott02ACongratulatory telegrams for Ferguson arrived from the Vice-President General of the DAR, Mrs. Russell Magna (who was also Colonel Scott’s daughter), and from Raymond Orteig, the very wealthy owner of several major hotels, including the Lafayette. Raymond’s attention enhanced Jessie’s celebrity status: days earlier, he had presented the Orteig Prize—including $25,000—to Charles Lindberg for completing the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Other tributes to Jessica included gifts and flower arrangements.

A few weeks later, at a meeting of the Stevenson Society of America, Colonel Scott reported on a notable donation: “A friend has sent us a check for $100 in payment of life membership for the ‘Mirror and Miracle’ girl of Saranac Lake—Miss Jessica Ferguson—who, as you know, had faith for six long years that someday she would walk. That her faith was rewarded, and her dream realized, is evidenced by the fact that she is here in our midst today.”

Calvin Coolidge had become an honorary life member of the society a year earlier, and Herbert Hoover did the same a few years later. At various times, both wrote several letters addressed to “My Dear Colonel Scott.” Many others in the Stevenson Society were distinguished citizens as well. All in all, pretty heady company for anyone, let alone a young girl stricken by the world’s worst disease at the time.

For the rest of her life, Mirror Girl would have plenty to reflect upon.

Photos: Dr. Russell Hibbs; Colonel Walter Scott

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

One Response

  1. Tim HUbbard says:

    Another great story! This one really was news to me. I also wasn’t aware of the Robert Lewis Stevenson Society in our neck of the woods. I love Stevenson’s poems and have been using them in my arts integration work for years. What a treat to learn of this territorial connection with him. Maybe an article about the Society would be in your future? Just thinking out loud.

    Thanks for the articles! I anxiously await your next one.
    Tim Hubbard