Thursday, August 20, 2020

The difficult side of sickness

The fresh air cure wasn’t all a bed of roses.

First-hand accounts left behind in letters, photographs, diaries, and memoirs paint a picture of life in Saranac Lake during the TB years. It’s an incomplete record that can lead us to believe curing was an overwhelmingly positive experience.

It takes energy, time, and a degree of mental and physical well being to leave behind a personal record. People who were very ill, illiterate, or struggling with poverty did not have the same opportunity to create, or later preserve, accounts of their experiences.

Thousands of people whose names we do not know suffered and died in Saranac Lake without leaving much of a trace. Coffins were put on the train under cover of night. History, as they say, belongs to the victors.

Kayt Gochenaur collecting stories for Historic Saranac Lake’s “Saranac Lake in the Time of Covid” project.

Today, more historians are thinking about which stories get preserved and told, and why. We are more aware of our bias to pay attention to stories told by people who look like we do. With this in mind, in recent months we have been working to document this historic time by welcoming community members from all walks of life to tell their stories. Over the course of several months, our Oral History Coordinator Kayt Gochenaur has set up a table in town to interview passers-by, asking for their help documenting the time of COVID. Saranac Lakers report discovering new talents and strengths during this time, just as many TB patients did during their cure. Some people report newfound creativity, resilience, and spiritual growth. But we have collected many sad stories too — stories of financial troubles, health worries, struggles with addiction, and loneliness. Both sides of the story often surface in the same person. Both sides belong in the historical record.

Sometimes we come across a sorrowful story from the past, and it stands as a reminder of many that have gone unrecorded. John Patrick (Jack) Kenney was a young husband and father from Brooklyn who became sick with tuberculosis when he was 26 years old. Jack was one of eight siblings born to Irish immigrant parents. TB wiped out half of his family, killing his father, two sisters, and his brother.

John Patrick Kenney curing in Saranac Lake. Courtesy of Sue Kenney.

Jack came to Saranac Lake in July 1930. He stayed at McCabe Cottage on Franklin Avenue and fought desperately to get well, but he died within the year. During his cure, Jack wrote letters home. His granddaughter saved eight of his letters and provided copies for our wiki website. Jack’s letters are full of financial worries and anxiety about the welfare of his wife and small children back in Brooklyn.Jack wrote to his wife with detailed instructions about how to visit without spending too much money. “If the riverside is closed tell the cab driver you want to go to the Hotel Alpine. Both of these places receive early visitors from that train. When you get there, do not hire a room, but ask for the dining room. Then go in and order breakfast. Then ask the waitress where the ladies room is and wash.… The reason why I don’t want you to hire a room in the hotel is because they are rather expensive… Wear your best clothes as they are rather stylish up here. Also take with you a change of clothes & dress warm.”

Jack shared about his fight with TB, writing, ”This damn disease is very discouraging. One day you feel good and the next terrible. It is very hard to realize that they are making any progress at all. Your progress, if any, is extremely slow.” In the last letter he wrote, “My throat is awful sore, sometimes I think I am never going to get better. I am making a novena and Ella and the girls are too. That seems the only salvation. These doctors cannot create miracles. They can only help you. The throat doctor is a bit heartless. When he cauterizes my throat it sure does hurt. Sometimes I think it will never get better. Well, I will leave it in God’s hands.”Jack died two months after writing that last letter. In a strange way, his letters provide some comfort now. Here, ninety years later, we walk the same streets that Jack’s wife travelled when she visited her sick husband. Like her, we wonder about our health, our future, and how to stretch a dollar. We are not alone.

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Amy Catania is the Executive Director of Historic Saranac Lake.

6 Responses

  1. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Sometimes its’ better to leave “history” alone…seems like we work overtime “second-guessing” our predecessors with our supposedly superior modern outlook….

    This can be filed under “depressing” in my library of articles I wished I hadn’t read.

    • Jim S. says:

      Ignorance is bliss.

    • JohnL says:

      “Coffins were put on the train under cover of night. History, as they say, belongs to the victors”.
      Sup with this statement? Do you think they were hiding something? It was a sanitarium. Sick people came there to recover, but many of them died. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that wasn’t a secret. Not much history to hide, and/or twist, there. If they loaded the coffins on the train at night it’s probably because that’s when the trains were stopped there. I’m with Tim on this one. Too much second guessing and making more of a story than is there to make, So I guess I’m blissful too.

      • Jim S. says:

        Tis folly to be wise

      • Boreas says:

        Under cover of darkness makes sense to me. Do they stack coffins outside of hospitals? It doesn’t help the clientele or village to see how ineffective their treatment is. The idea is people with hope heal better than people who are distressed. Age-old medical advice philosophy.

  2. Mary Lou Leavitt says:

    Where can I find Kate Gochenaur in SL? I don’t live there any more, but come up to paddle frequently. I have some Covid tales from around the area and the world too.
    Mary Lou Leavitt

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