Dr. Hugh Kinghorn, Part I

From the Watertown Daily Times, March 5, 1948:

“… At the dinner a collection is taken up among the members (of the Stevenson Society of America) to help finance the upkeep of the shrine throughout the year. Other income is derived from the charge of 25 cents to a long stream of tourists who visit the cottage each year. Unfortunately neither of these sources of revenue is enough to pay for the upkeep of the Cottage and for many years the main source of financial assistance has been from the personal income of Dr. Hugh Kinghorn.”

Dr. Hugh M. Kinghorn was a Canadian-born medical practitioner who had emigrated to Saranac Lake in the very early 1900s to participate in the medical bonanza started there by the visionary Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. Before he came he had acquired his credentials at McGill University in Montreal. There he was, mentored by the iconic Canadian master of medicine, Dr. Sir William Osler, who discovered “Osler’s disease” — another name for HHT (hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia), which modern medical hindsight points to as the most likely suspect behind the bleeding lungs of Robert Louis Stevenson, the condition he called “Bloody Jack.”

Dr. Kinghorn had once been a kid, too, one of millions who grew up while reading the adventure novels and short stories of this invalid author from Scotland. Even as he was maturing as a serious medical student, Kinghorn gave in to an urge to come to Saranac Lake to rent for a spell, one of the rooms RLS had lived in during the winter of 1887-88, when he and his family were tenants in the farmhouse of Andrew Baker. The chosen room was under the south gable of the house, which Stevenson called “my study.” Today it is the room by which visitors enter the little museum there.

In his later years, Dr. Kinghorn recalled those times in a paper he wrote, “Robert Louis Stevenson at Saranac Lake”“I lived with the Bakers from May till October of 1898, and can well understand why Stevenson improved more in Saranac Lake than anywhere else.”

Dr. Hugh Kinghorn and family found their place in the local social fabric and he ran his practice from his home on Church Street into the 1950s. He still looks young sitting at far left in the photograph of the Stevenson Memorial Committee, taken on Oct. 30, 1915. That same day, the committee members resolved themselves into the more permanent Stevenson Society, later Stevenson Society of America, Inc. That made Dr. Kinghorn a charter member and by New Year’s Eve, this RLS fan found himself at ground zero in the search for a savior for their “sacred shrine,” following the death of Dr. Lawrason Brown, the day after Christmas 1937.

At the time of his death, Dr. Brown had begun consulting with George Gerlach, one of the society’s directors-at-large. George was president of the “Manhattan Storage and Warehouse Co.” at 52nd Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. He agreed with Brown that convincing the state of New York to take over the Stevenson Cottage “is the only solution to our present problem,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we could find another godfather as generous as my old associate Col. Walter Scott.”

George Gerlach wrote to a Mr. W.D. Heydecker, director of the division of state planning in Albany, to make him a pitch by describing the situation: “During the depression the Society lost many members and its income was so reduced that the late Col. Walter Scott found it necessary to advance the Society $1,000. for which amount he took a mortgage on the cottage in order to prevent the Society from going into further debt … This property was acquired by purchase at $17,500. and is probably the only house in which Stevenson lived in America and is maintained in the exact condition it was when he occupied it … I believe it is not only historical but an educational program to retain, so far as practical, homes and monuments of this nature are concerned, in order to stimulate public interest and culture in things that are worthwhile … the property and all the relics and books are worth many times the original purchase price.”

Heydecker’s response was bureaucratic: ” I can assure you that we shall be only too glad to recommend a study of the Stevenson Cottage to ascertain its suitability as a permanent state unit of historical and educational importance … However, I regret to say that the meagre resources of our Division do not permit us to undertake such an analysis.”

In his president’s address, Sept. 3, 1938, Dr. Kinghorn said: “The last open meeting of this Society was held four years ago at this Cottage, on Aug. 25, 1934. Colonel Walter Scott presided at the meeting, and there were present a large number of members and friends of the Society. I regret to say that four of our leading Directors have died (Col. Walter Scott, Livingston Chapman, Dr. Lawrason Brown, William Morris) and that we have had no annual meeting.”

President Kinghorn told the assembled faithful that he was not discouraged by Heydecker’s reply and said, “Due to the efforts of Mr. John R. Freer, Treasurer, and Mr. George Daly, Secretary, a meeting was held Feb. 9, 1938, in Saranac Lake with a view to having New York State acquire the Stevenson Shrine in Saranac Lake. A committee was chosen … to secure State acquisition of this cottage … This work still continues, but up to the present time the State has not taken over the Cottage …”

“You will notice in looking at the Cottage that it is sadly in need of repair. Painting needs to be done, and a general repair of the Cottage is absolutely necessary; it is, in fact, deteriorating very fast. We have no money, and I must strongly urge our friends to help us out as best they can, in order to keep this shrine as it should be kept.”

Finally, the guest speaker was introduced, “our good friend, Reverend Hiram W. Lyon, of Great Neck, Long Island.” During his considerable talk, the Rev. made this observation:

“Doesn’t it seem as if Stevenson had penetrated more definitely into a number of widely separated places than any other Englishman–Edinburgh, Barbizon, Hyeres, Saranac, Monterey, Waikiki, Sydney, Samoa. But I think it’s especially fitting that Saranac should be in a very real sense the central link in this series and that the Stevenson society should be there established and housed.”


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