The sad side
The fresh air cure wasn’t all a bed of roses.
Firsthand accounts left behind in letters, photographs, diaries and memoirs paint a picture of life in Saranac Lake during the tuberculosis 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.
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.
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, 90 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.
Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.
1. Tell us about life during COVID here.
3. See John Patrick Kenney’s letters and other firsthand accounts on our wiki site here.