By Van Smith
Published in New York Press, Oct. 28, 1998
Until recently, New York City wasn’t on my life’s itinerary. So far as I expected, I would stay in Baltimore, where my mother’s father’s family had settled in the early part of the century and where I had lived (other than a few short forays and travels) since I was a four-year-old in 1970. I was quite comfortable with the idea of riding a lifelong learning curve as an obscure observer and chronicler of a waning, eccentric city. But, alas, 1998 has so far proven a pivotal year for me, and suddenly I’m living in Queens.
The first 10 months of this year took a lot out of me. I started out by purchasing a charming Civil War-era house in a forsaken Baltimore neighborhood, then flew to Amarillo, TX, to testify as the lead defense witness in Oprah Winfrey’s libel trial over disparaging statements made on her show about the poor eating habits of cows. What landed me in Amarillo was a piece I wrote about what goes on inside a rendering plant, where animal tissues are boiled into their constituent parts of fats and proteins and some of the proteins were (until the feds stepped in with new regulations in 1997) used in cattle feed. I was the only reporter Oprah’s attorneys could find who had actually observed the workings of a rendering plant, and my firsthand observations, it turns out, substantially supported alleged false statements made on Oprah’s show.
This was followed in May by my own libel trial, in which a consultant for Baltimore city tried unsuccessfully to convince a jury that I had written false facts about him in my investigative coverage of a contracting scandal at the city landfill. Over the summer, between filing stories (at City Paper, Baltimore’s weekly) about the state elections, I helped my parents move from Baltimore to an island in Maine. Then I succumbed to the lure of a job at NYPress, abandoned my newly purchased home to a fellow Baltimore writer and shacked up with my girlfriend in Sunnyside.
The breakneck pace of these events proved quite stressful – so, after unloading and unpacking our vanload of belongings, my girlfriend and I were ripe for an extended fall-foliage trip through New England in my 1981 piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat.
Properly stocked with food, music and vices, the Diplomat made for a comfortable ride. While hopelessly passe, especially when chugging up 95 in Connecticut and Rhode Island amid the Volvos and the Land Rovers, the vehicle to me remains esthetically pleasing, particularly when outfitted as it was on this trip with two bikes and a large plastic trunk attached to the roof rack. Being in no hurry, and acutely aware that our gypsy boat was a powerful cop magnet, we went the speed limit and conscientiously avoided road Cokes in an effort to prevent legal trouble – or a dose of wood shampoo from New England’s finest.
The first leg of the trip ended in Manomet, MA, between Plymouth and Cape Cod on the south shore of the Massachusetts Bay. The town is a few coves east of the Pilgrim Station nuclear power plant and, due to its existence, the entire region is ominously served by an antiquated emergency-warning system consisting of huge air-raid sirens.
In Manomet, my great-aunt, the late Agnes Watkins, a classics teacher at Windsor School in Boston who never married and whose exceptional frugality allowed her to travel the world, had owned a small cottage – perfect size for one or two people – near some bluffs leading down to the ocean. On her death some years ago, the cottage came into the possession of my father and his sister and it is now enjoyed by family and friends throughout the summer season as a quiet, phoneless getaway. We spent our first night of vacation there and were off for the Maine coast in the morning.
After staying a few days with my parents and observing their somewhat hyperactive efforts to get their waterfront home in a proper state of readiness before the coming winter storms, we headed inland to Andover, ME, for some outdoor recreation and backwoods relaxation at my girlfriend’s family’s ancestral camp in the woods of the White Mountains. This was the shank of the trip, and it effectively assuaged our nerves and restored our shrunken bellies to fullness.
It was back at Manomet, however, on the last few days of our 12-day New England junket, that we were treated unexpectedly to the most noteworthy discovery of the trip: the memoirs of my great-great-uncle, Robert Lincoln Watkins, as typed, single-space, by his niece Agnes in 1972. The document, found in a bookcase containing numerous family archives, was in a green three-ring binder and was titled: A Story of His Life, by a man who has never gotten anywhere. The cover page indicates it was written in 1927 in New York City.
As we learned on reading the memoirs, Robert Watkins, a medical doctor and inventor who died in 1934 at the age of 71, was a curious, stubborn man who was inexorably attracted to charismatic characters and con men and who tragically coveted elusive fame and fortune, for which he strove with opportunistic abandon, but to no avail. In the process, he racked up a riotous collection of anecdotes, a large number of which ended in a description of the deaths of those involved. The glimpses of his life were made all the more interesting by the fact that, though I had heard mention of him in family dinner conversations, I had no idea such an engrossing, romantic figure inhabited my family’s history or that his involvement in turn-of-the-century New York life was so fascinating.
We found ourselves completely absorbed in Watkins’ memoirs, belly-laughing at his fantastic misadventures and touched by his loneliness late in life. Born in 1863 in Proctorsville, VT, of an inventor/capitalist who was financially ruined by a Black River flood that washed out his factory and a school teacher from the Berkshires, he was raised, he wrote, in “a puritanical environment” in which regular prayer and strict observance of the sabbath were practiced. A terrible book-learner, he turned instead to experimentation, building a boyhood chemistry lab in the basement where he blew up a jug of hydrogen, constructed a photophone (“to talk over distances without a wire by means of a ray of light”) and tried to make diamonds by heating in a sealed tube iron filings, carbon and nickel.
Rather than become a chemist (“my father said, and induced me to believe, that there was only $900 a year in it”), Watkins graduated from New York University’s medical college. He interned in Newark Hospital, where he and his inexperienced colleagues treated a passed-out saloon keeper “by pouring hot and cold water alternately on him, and by flagellation.” The drunkard died in the process and when the newspapers ran with the story, they all found themselves “arrested for killing, or for assisting a man into the next world,” but after several months were absolved of the alleged crime.
Apparently unsated by this small taste of fame, Watkins found another angle to get his name in the papers: self-inoculation. Fancying himself a player in the day’s scientific debate over the causes of disease, Watkins opposed the view that germs themselves are infectious agents, believing instead that they are the “result of degenerated tissue” in the course of disease progression. So he set out to prove his point by injecting himself with “the pure cultured tubercle bacillus,” believed to be the disease agent in tuberculosis. He was proven wrong, but didn’t die, though his reputation suffered. The experiment got “into the papers [and] caused a furor and much worry and innumerable letters.”
But Watkins’ determination to serve as an experimental subject didn’t stop there. While in Paris with his uncle during a cholera outbreak, he read in the papers that a “Dr. Hafkin at the Pasteur Institute had discovered a serum for the cure of cholera, had tried it out successfully on rats and guinea pigs, and wanted to try it on humans beings, I decided to lend myself for the purpose immediately.” After being injected with live cholera germs, Watkins fell unconscious in a doctor’s office and was already being called a martyr for science when he came to.
He quickly recovered from the self-inflicted cholera and proceeded to urge his uncle, who was suffering jittery nerves, to take a substance called “Testicular Juice, good for nervous diseases and especially Locomotor Ataxia; the name implies the source of the remedy,” which was bull testicles. I can only presume the “juice” was sperm. For $20 an injection, Watkins’ uncle took the juice and “used it till he got the chills and could not see that it was doing any good. He remarked that he was sick of having that stuff stuck in his backside.”
A few years after his hijinks in Paris with his uncle, Watkins returned there with a Southerner named Brodnax, an NYU classmate whose medical career was floundering but whose social charms Watkins believed would help scare up Parisian interest in Watkins’ inventions and theories for studying blood. It turned out Brodnax was a complete fraud, and the six-week Paris trip a $600 loss. Later Brodnax, who had contracted syphilis, looked Watkins up in New York. “The last time I saw him was on the corner of Broadway and 34th St. He was crossing with a fine looking woman who he introduced to me as his wife … I never saw him again, but understand he gave the disease to his wife and both died in the insane asylum.”
When typhoid fever raged through New York, Watkins went to live on North Brother Island, next to Rikers Island, to study and treat victims of the disease. “I did not learn much of practical value, but the fact that I saw the dead being carried away in cart-loads, and learned to identify the peculiar sweetness of the smell of all who had the disease.”
Considering himself a social klutz, Watkins sought to improve matters with dance lessons. He found an instructor named McGregor on 55th St. near 5th Ave., who “gave me a cane which he told me to put across my back, hooking my arms over it at the elbow to hold it, standing perfectly erect and by myself. With a circus whip in his hand he went to the other end of the hall, giving me orders how to step with the snap of his whip. I got it in about three lessons.”
He also tried makeshift experiments in his office, using animals, like when he tried “to make Siamese twins with guinea pigs by cutting out the flesh on the sides of two and sewing them together to see if they would grow. They never stayed bandaged together for more than ten days at the most, and then on taking off the bandage I found that the wound had sloughed … I experimented with that considerably and concluded it was not for me.”
As an inventor, he found a measure of success, but nothing at all in the way of financial returns. He obtained patents for a storage battery, a bullet probe (to help locate metal missiles lodged inside the body), a type of rheostat (for regulating electrical currents), a “micromotoscope” (which he called his “little moving picture camera, the first small one ever constructed up to that time, I think, 4X5X6 inches”) and a device he called a migraf – his greatest invention, into which he sank much of his savings to produce, but of which he only managed to sell four. The migraf was “a machine to photograph microscopic objects” that he eventually sold to “the Brewer’s Academy at 23rd and 9th Ave.,” to “the Norwegian Hospital” and to “the Mayo Brothers in Rochester, Minn.” He also donated a goldplated migraf to “the Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie.”
To help manage Watkins’ affairs as an inventor, he formed a partnership with a man named Heinson, who Watkins believed to be “a natural-born executive.” Heinson did nothing once the contracts were signed, but demanded a share of the money nevertheless. Heinson, Watkins points out, later “died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia.”
In publishing, Watkins also tried hard, but without much success. His motives were good (“My mind was always on the idea of driving my views [on medicine] down the throats of the profession whether they wanted them or not”), but his methods faulty. After Harper & Brothers (among others) rejected his manuscript, he self-published 1000 copies and claimed to have gotten rid of the whole batch, some of them sent as far as China and Malta.
Watkins’ delusions of grandeur in medical research once led him to the door of the Carnegie household on 54th St. near 5th Ave. A reporter friend named St. Clair, of the New York Herald, was off to interview the rich man, and Watkins asked St. Clair to ask Carnegie if he would meet with him; “perhaps I can get him to build me an institution.” When St. Clair failed at the request, Watkins knocked on the door himself, and persisted when his petition was declined until it appeared he would have to be forcibly removed.
His private practice consistently failed to bring him much business, especially later in life, but some of his patients were fascinating folks. He treated an old sot, a prominent (or once so) lawyer from DC who claimed to have been a confidential messenger for top military brass during the Civil War and, afterward, an assistant U.S. treasurer under President Grant. A binge drinker and sometimes chloroform addict, the fellow, named A.A. Brooke, was an impeccable dresser, drunk or sober, and slowly deteriorated over the years until dying in Bellevue at the age of 75, which he said he dreaded because they treated him with morphine. “Never give a drunken man morphine, it makes him crazy,” Watkins remembers Brooke telling him.
One of Watkins’ friends was Joe Norcross, an aging vaudeville actor and singer who performed with his wife and who had started out in minstrel shows. Norcross had Watkins (whose obsession with music was insatiable) onstage to sing with him at the Bushwick Theater in Brooklyn. The performer’s wife “came from a nervous, erratic family, and while he watched her closely … she managed to cut her throat one day and died before his eyes in their home in Springfield, Mass. That broke the old man all up. He acted one year alone, and then passed away with the asthma which he had been fighting all his life.”
Watkins’ interest in studying blood brought him in contact with other such researchers including one Ephraim Cutter. “The Cutter family were erratic geniuses and good musicians: the doctor played the bass viol, his wife the piano. They had a son who was a musician to the court of the Emperor of Japan; another son, a boy of 21 with bright red hair, was an expert electrician. One day he stood before his mother, exclaimed ‘I’m no good and father’s a crank,’ took a drop of Prussic acid on his tongue, and dropped dead at his mother’s feet.”
Watkins’ tales are populated by a magician, an idiot-savant cripple and Charles Ottman, the Fulton Market butcher. While in his 50s, he tried to “get in the game” of World War I and went to Washington, where he met Charles Scrivener, the chief of that city’s detectives who, in 1926, was mysteriously murdered along with his fiancee on the eve of their nuptials. He went to work for the DuPont Powder Works, where he “was dumped into a camp of 4000 workmen of all nationalities making black powder and nitro-glycerine.” He then, under government orders, went to another powdermaking plant in Penniman, VA, where, on his second day on the job, there was an explosion. “We found only pieces of clothing and flesh parts. 25 men had been blown to nothing … It was kept out of print.”
While reading Watkins’ unpolished prose, so rich with facts and innuendo, I happened upon a short anecdote that jerked me quickly back to the present day. “I had been treating for three or four years,” Watkins wrote, “a man named Clinton, for syphilis … He acquired the disease in the usual manner when on a political spree, had given it to the girl he loved …” Somehow, it sounded hauntingly like an item on the Drudge Report.
My girlfriend and I read aloud to each other much of the memoirs, then made a copy of it at the Manomet library and brought it home to Sunnyside, where we continued reading it late into the night. Watkins’ profound loneliness, excruciatingly communicated in a short essay entitled “The Man with the Bulldog Jaw” by one “Wayne Sniktaw” (Watkins spelled backwards), perplexes me. Given his remarkable experiences and acquaintances, I find it acutely ironic that he felt oppressive solitude amid the New York bustle. Watkins solution to his affliction? “Stick to your job,” he wrote.
And that’s exactly what I plan to do.
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