‘My Good Health,’ Part VII

(Photo provided)

“When Robert Louis Stevenson came here, Saranac Lake village was but a backwoods hamlet. The first locomotive had not yet startled the buck and the bear. The community which is now the metropolis of the Adirondacks had in 1887 less than a handful of the thousands who have since followed the trail first blazed in the region by Dr. Edward L. Trudeau, himself a victim of tuberculosis. Everybody knows why Stevenson came to Saranac Lake and everybody knows that Dr. Trudeau was his physician …

“‘He did not die of tuberculosis,’ says Dr. Trudeau, ‘as I made a point of finding out. I have no documentary evidence that he died of anything else, but all the dispatches from Samoa agreed that it was cerebral apoplexy. Yet it is a mistake to say that he never had tuberculosis. Although, while I took care of him, he had none of the active symptoms, such as hemorrhage, or fever, or tubercule bacilli, present, yet he undoubtedly had had tuberculosis. It may have become active again after he left Saranac, so there is no telling just how much that disease may have contributed to his mortal illness at Samoa!'”

“The Penny Piper of Saranac: An Episode in the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” Stephen Chalmers, 1907

“While I took care of him, he had none of the active symptoms, such as hemorrhage, or fever, or tubercule bacilli, present.” So said Dr. Trudeau to Stephen Chalmers, who had spent several hours interviewing the man so he could write factually about one of Saranac Lake’s famous former residents, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of “Treasure Island” among other literary classics. The myth endures that RLS really had tuberculosis and had planned all along to come to Saranac Lake to “take the cure,” the slogan that came to stay. Back then it might have been a reasonable assumption that Stevenson was in fact a victim of TB, which in his case, thought Trudeau, had gone into remission, but like cancer, could return. However, with the advantage of medical hindsight gained from a century of research and discoveries, it seems more likely than ever that Stevenson never had TB at all.

“Many have pondered the nature of Stevenson’s chronic illness. Review of Stevenson’s medical and family histories suggest the possibility that he had hereditary hemorrhage telangiectasis or HHT (Osler-Rendu-Weber syndrome) and that this lifelong illness caused not only Stevenson’s recurrent pulmonary hemorrhages and their sequelae but also his early death from cerebral hemorrhage.” (American Journal of Medical Genetics, 91:62-65, 2000.)

If this theory is correct, then HHT was the enabler of “Bloody Jack,” the lung-hemorrhaging condition from which RLS nearly died on various occasions. HHT is also called Osler’s disease after Sir William Osler, physician and professor of medicine, who practiced and taught in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain. In a purely coincidental kind of way, when Osler was professor of medicine at McGill University, he was the mentor of a young Canadian born student. Dr. Hugh Kinghorn would eventually settle in Saranac Lake, where he would become a charter member of the Stevenson Society of America in 1915 and one of its saviors.

Robert Louis Stevenson was not too sociable a resident when he was here and that was not typically his style, which his numerous friends would tell you. They would also tell you that he would like to be more sociable but that his chronic illness prevented that. In Saranac Lake, RLS was told by his newest physician, Dr. E.L. Trudeau, that he did not have TB, which was probably a surprise. Yet, Louis was still an invalid and glad to be in a promising climate. Like his mother said, by letter, to her sister in Scotland: “(Louis) says that he already feels the air of Saranac doing him good, so I trust we have hit on a place that will really suit him … the weather we find very variable; one day it is fine and almost warm and the next is very cold with a little snow. I feel very well and strong, and can take long walks without being tired; and Louis is wonderfully well for him, though the keen wind prevents him from getting out every day. But everyone is enthusiastic about the climate here.”

Another factor to explain the reclusiveness of RLS in Saranac Lake was his sudden and unexpected fame in America. It had followed him into these mountains, but not with the intensity he had experienced in the Big Apple just before coming here. RLS simply didn’t like being in the limelight, not just because his frail constitution couldn’t take a lot of it, but like any sound Brit, he thought the American cult of celebrity in which he had been swept up was ludicrous. “What a silly thing is popularity,” he wrote to Henry James from Newport and after settling into Baker’s he wrote to Bart Simpson, telling him that “I am much happier up here, where I see no one and live my own life.”

So, it was a combination of invalidism and stardom that made Stevenson a seldom seen resident of the village he said was his “little Switzerland in the Adirondacks.” But he did get out a few times. The first time happened when Dr. Trudeau invited his new patient/friend to come and see the wonders of his laboratory on the corner of Church and Main. Inside, the scientist showed the writer a test tube full of disgusting TB scum and said, “The scum you see in this tube is consumption. It is the cause of more human suffering,” and so on. Stevenson became sick on the spot, left immediately and never went back.

Next Louis, without his knowledge, was announced by his mother to be the guest of honor at a church benefit supper at the old Berkeley Inn. Stevenson’s mother, Margaret, was a habitual churchgoer, preferably Presbyterian but in 1887 St. Luke’s Episcopal was the only church in these parts. Margaret, or “Maggie,” was welcomed into the congregation and she made many friends as usual, a trait passed on to her son in spades. When the time came for Margaret to keep her promise, her son refused to go. “Good Heavens!” he said. “They might ask me to make a speech!” But his mother made him do it. From “The Penny Piper of Saranac”:

“In the end the ladies had to kidnap him bodily. At first he was silent, even morose, when he took his seat at the supper table in the old inn; but suddenly the humor of the situation struck him and his chameleon-like mood changed color. He threw himself into the affair with a spirit that was more Stevensonian than churchlike. He not only proceeded to enjoy himself, but helped to make that church supper a memorable success; and before he escorted his mother home, he insisted upon making a speech.”

Next to the Saranac lake Free Library stands 115 Main St., a survivor from the 19th century. When Stevenson was in town, it was occupied by George Cooper and his two sisters. They had enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle in New York City until George came down with TB and then came north to live across the street from his new primary physician, Dr. Trudeau. George and his sisters tried to transplant a little piece of Manhattan into their little house on Main Street with ostentatious furnishings including a butler, an Adirondack first. Cooper liked to throw lavish dinner parties and Trudeau was a regular at these events. To one of these parties, shortly before Christmas, Trudeau brought Stevenson as his guest. In his autobiography, the doctor said that all the glitter and silverware, but especially the butler, made RLS uncomfortable, which he blamed on his friend’s bohemian tastes. When finally seated, the resident star author in town found himself staring across the table at Mrs. “Libby” Custer, a celebrity in her own right as the widow of General George Armstrong Custer, who became legend when he found a good hill to die on in South Dakota. After the soup, Mrs. Custer started the conversation. “Now why is it, Mr. Stevenson, that you never put a real woman in your stories?” To find out what happened next, you will have to get a copy of “The Penny Piper of Saranac” and go to page 43.

Stevenson is believed to have made his way to the Blood’s hotel at least three times to see a new friend, the innkeeper, George Berkeley, not to be confused with Berkeley Square Berkeley. Why George became a friend to the exclusion of almost everyone else remains a mystery. Maybe it’s because George brought him “Sport” for a companion. Sport is the dog seen in the well-published group photo of RLS and members of his family taken on Baker’s veranda in March, 1888. Perhaps Berkeley had read Stevenson’s speculative essay “On the Character of Dogs.” A couple weeks after that photo-op, one April morning, Louis got terrible news. His friend, George Berkeley, had been murdered in cold blood, shot dead from ambush and his killer was at large.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today