A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. The Doc Recalls a Lifetime of “Musical Fits.”


If I had any recreation, music was it.

When a boy in a country town, my sister was sick, and my parents bought a piano, thinking to have her amused by taking lessons. The night it came and was unpacked, a neighbor, Mr. Jones, came in and struck a few chords, and the impression the notes of that piano made on me was lasting.

I was always crazy for music, but didn’t tell anybody. My sister proved to be too sick to take lessons, so I kept thinking to myself they will give them to me, when lo, instead, my younger brother [Royal Phillips Watkins] was the lucky man. He learned quick anyhow, and now is a celebrated surgeon in his vicinity. He can play today what he learned then, but no more. I never saw that boy mad.

[Agnes Watkins notes: “Undoubtedly one of these pieces was the one that younger brother, R.P.W., used to play for everybody to march into the dining room to on birthdays or other festive occasions when his children were growing up. He never used any music, and it was always the same piece.”]

I went to work and by myself began to pick out with one finger gospel hymns. So that, as the years went by, gradually, I got so that I could play the piano fairly well, although I never took any lessons from a teacher. In later years, when selecting a rooming house or a boarding place, if I did not see a piano somewhere in a convenient spot, I would never think of stopping there.

[Background: here’s the preface, forward, and notes from the editor of R.L.W.’s memoir; here’s his account of his upbringing through medical school;  here’s when he self-inoculated with tuberculosis and went off to Paris with a charlatan; here’s where he  treated typhoid, learned to dance, theorized, and sutured guinea pigs together; here’s where he contracts cholera and hooks his uncle up with testicular juice; here’s his misadventures in self-publishing while treating a slow-motion suicide-by-drinking; here’s where he hangs out with a magician and a vaudevillian; here’s where he recounts his singing career; here’s his ode to a Fulton Market butcher; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]

These things were in my soul, and I have never thought of mentioning them to anyone. One night when I was about 14, the age a boy’s voice changes, we had company. And Mother asked me to start a hymn, with which we always started family prayers after supper. I motioned to my sister to start it, but Mother made me do it. My voice cracked and I made a mess of it. I told her I would never sing again, and it was years before I did – although I used to work at the piano.

I was a spunky, obstinate lad. I used to learn songs to myself, but would not utter a word out loud.

My sister died of tuberculosis when she was 18. I remember well the morning she died. (She was the oldest of us four children.) We were all awakened from sleep by Mother and taken into the room where my sister lay. All my mother said was, “Be good boys.” My younger brother answered, “We will.” We older two were so choked up we could not speak.

The first vocal lessons I took were from a Dr. Dossiert in Carnegie Hall. I was perhaps thirty-five then, and they were the first notes I had tried to utter since a boy. The way it came about what that he was sent to me for professional services, and I learned he was a music instructor. I paid him $100 in advance to give me lessons. One day he was sick and his wife gave the lessons, as was her custom, in his stead. She put me through some stunts and physical exercises and gave me to understand that I had no voice and never could sing. I never went back for the remaining lessons.

Some years later a doctor friend who claimed he had a fatherly interest in me, sent a woman to me to give me a course she had invented, I think in etiquette, or something of the kind. I turned her down, but she came back. The third time she said this doctor had told her I was a rough diamond and needed polishing up.


I found out during our conversations that she used to be the crack contralto singer in the Broadway Tabernacle during the time of Dr. Thompson‘s ministry, and that she could, and was willing to, give me lessons for a dollar a lesson.

She was then 63 years old, had lost her voice by taking lessons of a poor teacher. She came from the Hutchinson family of natural singers, had married a homeopathic doctor when in the Tabernacle in her prime (getting $1,000 a year salary, pretty good for those days), was divorced, and now lived in an Italian quarter on the East Side, looking after the accounts for the Italian owner for her room rent.

She was a very emotional character, but brainy with all her faults. Her faults and virtues came out as we got better acquainted and I hired her for her musical and executive ability, and her genius as well.

I hired a room from some German patients I had over in Hoboken, where we could make all the noise necessary without disturbing anyone, bought a little portable organ, and we went at it every afternoon. For weeks, even months, I think, we kept it up. She would get terribly exhausted, playing and pumping that little organ for hours, and have to quit at times and lie down. We had an upper room, and we surely did make some noise. The old lady, we called her the “soap woman,” for she occasionally went from house to house when hard broke, selling soap. She claimed to be a jack-of-all-trades, made her own dresses by fixing over old ones, etc.

One day, I had to have a carpenter to make a peculiar wooden structure for one of my inventions. I thought a drawing was necessary or I would have to go to him often to show him. She spoke up and said, “I don’t know about that, why not describe it on paper?” She claimed we could do it, for I often, as time went on, employed her in the office to fix up lectures, etc.

Well, we went at it with paper and typewriter. She drew out of me by questions what I wanted and in time, sure thing, we had a written description which was exactly the thing, and by it later the box was constructed without a flaw but the carpenter.

But to get back to the music. She had a little song I found a copy of stowed away the other day, for she died long ago on the streets of Pittsburgh while canvassing books, the only time she ever went out of the vicinity of New York where she was born. She always feared to leave New York for this very reason. The song was a transposition of Marguerite:

“I dread the you’ll forget me, Marguerite, And I still know it will come; The festive dance, the rich, the gay, So different from our town, Marguerite, I would not chide thee, Marguerite, Nor mar one joy of thine so sweet, But oft the thought you’ll not be mine Will break my heart, Marguerite, Marguerite.”

She had worked this out in her Italian quarters set to a physical exercise, and claimed that if anyone could learn to sing this song and act it, their success in life would be assured. I never could or did get it, but the family where I had the room all got it, expecially the man of the family, Mr. Clausing.

I worked long with her, must have paid out about $500 all told for music. She so often would say, “If I only had got you ten years ago,” which has since been said to me many times.

As I said above, I often employed here in the office to compile lectures and so on, for she was a good executive – until we got into a row over the income from my business. When she began to talk of claiming part of my income, we split.

She was a great believer in astrology, said that her husband had taught her. (His name was Winterburn, and long afterward I accidentally ran across him in a Masonic lodge. He was a past master and way up in the ritualistic work; he died suddenly in a cheap room house on 12th St., at the age of 87.) She claimed that when Saturn was up, i.e., overhead, it was bad luck for her.

One day, when she did not show up when she was due, I went to her quarters; she said I was the only one who knew where she lived. I found her suffering with the asthma in her squalid room – clean, but mussed up. She could hardly sit up. She asked me to go to see her doctor, a certain Dr. Miller, and ask him for a powder. She said it would cure her immediately.

“And ask him,” she said, “where Saturn is. He will claim to nothing about such things, but ask him for me.”

I went somewhere in the vicinity of 57th St., if I remember correctly. The doctor gave me the powder and I said, “She want to know where Saturn is.” He replied, “What the Hell do I know about Saturn?”

I took the powder to her that night, and as she swallowed it, she said, “I feel it going now.” It did not go, just the same. She was sick some time, but would not take any advice from me. I never saw her again, but learned of her death from Dr. Varcoe’s wife. According to astrology, her ship was always just bout to come, but it never came.

The writer was long past 40 when, as of old, he would occasionally get what he called “Musical Fits.” Sometimes in the middle of night, or any time, by spells, like a drunkard’s spree, he would get music-crazy, want to learn a song with the piano as his guide. He had no place to satisfy this desire, no piano in his rooms.

So it had been through the courtesy of J. Warren Andrews, the well-known organist, that I was allowed at any time during the day to use the piano in the church where he plyed the organ and was chorister. They had three or hour Steinway pianos in quiet rooms in this church, and I had been able for some years to amuse myself musically here.

But if a “musical spree” seized me when the church was closed, I was up against it. Through Mr. Andrews I became a communicant of this church, and both he and the sexton said if the minister had no objection I could have a key. The minister was a patient of mine. I had succeeded, in so far as I observed him afterwards, in curing him of eczema, which he said London doctors were unable to do. It’s very commonly associated with rheumatism. So I put it up to the minister, and he said he would take care of it, but he never did. I waited at least a year, with occasional gentle reminders. But I got nasty, then resigned from his church, giving no reason.

He, too, was very fond of music, but could neither sing nor play. I used to go to his house to dine and he would request me to play something. So I would sit and play, sometimes sing hymns for him. He would never utter a word, just sit and listen. His wife said he liked to do that to the sound of music. His favorite tune was Pentecost, “The Spacious Firmament on High.”

I had asked for a letter to Dr. Cadman’s church, and the minister brought it to me himself. But in the meantime, I had gone to a nearby church, and while the piano there was in one room and not nearly so satisfactory as the other, it would do.

This minister gave me to understand that if I would sing in his choir, which had about 30 voices, and I had sung there years before he came to the chinch, he would see about a key. Well, he never did, although I stayed with him several months.

Therefore I was without a piano to practice on at all, for I would not go back to the first church under the circumstances. After that minister left some two years or so later, I did go back, however. Being a bachelor, my office, in which I also lived, would not accommodate a piano. Any space in New York costs money. So I got along musically the best I could without a piano – though after a while I did get a small organ that would go in the office.

Mr. Andrews, the organist mentioned above, was taken with sciatica, and his blood showed, beside the rheumatic cells and thick fibrin, many foreign products such as crystals and bile.

He was under treatment for many months, and after making a good recovery, he invited me to go to a dinner of the Organists’ Guild at the McAlpin Hotel. I desired to go for the novelty of it more than any other reason, perhaps just to see how a dinner of organists looked and behaved in comparison to a physicians’ feast, to which most of my outings had been confined.

At the dinner, I was placed between women. On my right was a rather homely, tall and lank young woman dressed in a calico dress. On my left was an elderly woman in a dark dress. Few, if any, men or women had on evening dress, quite a contrast to the doctors’ dinner gatherings. But to me, for the first time at such a gathering, they were all a curiosity, to use an impolite expression.

Anyway, there were all certain sure that Mr. Andrews, the president and presiding genius, was a wonder. The woman on my right was a pupil of the president, and a teacher in a small town in Pennsylvania. I’m sure she was of Dutch descent. She said she played the organ in the church, and ran the Sunday School, and I judged she was a woman “runner” of the whole town.

The lady on my left [Mary Turner Salter] was a celebrity whose name I will not mention, but I never heard of her before. She was perhaps 70 years old, and said that her husband [Sumner Salter] was the organist at Williams College. When they moved there, the children were all grown up, and she was over sixty at the time. So for want of something to do, she began to write music. She sent it to Shirmer, he took the first and published it, and it went. Since then she had written much music, and Shumann-Heink had sung her Rachel at the opera house. So it’s never too late to do things.

I am writing this book in hopes it will pan out as her songs did, but Mr. Hawn says it will be of little interest to anyone, and probably will not attract the attention of a publisher.


16 thoughts on “A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. The Doc Recalls a Lifetime of “Musical Fits.”

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