A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. In Which the Doc’s Experiences with a Hard-Drinking Know-Nothing Mason Leave Him Bewildered.


I do not really remember having taken a real vacation. My work in some form, or of some kind, was in my mind when I started, or it would crop up afterward and occupy most of my thoughts. The nearest to a real outing, perhaps, was son after I joined the Masons.

I used to visit many different lodges, and it was during these visits, in Brooklyn, Jersey, Harlem, Mt. Vernon, etc., that I ran across Richard Corbett. He was a well built, dark-haired, wiry man who, everybody said, was very temperate, never drank at all. I learned he used to be the coachman for the Vanderbilt family, managed their traveling when they were going abroad, etc., although he never mentioned it unless pressed.

He was well acquainted in all the lodges, and would if necessary vouch for us wherever we went. He hailed from Copestone Lodge, had been a member for years, was young for his years.

The Masonic lodges in New York are so abundant that one can go to a different one every night in the week. There are what might be called a plumbers’ lodge, a carpenters’ lodge, a rich man’s lodge, a common sailors’ lodge, a professional men’s, an actors’, and a printers’ that meet afternoons; a Spanish, a French, Norwegian, German, Greek, Italian; a Jew and Gentile. And so a Mason can meet all kinds of people, and make friends – or not – for good, for Masons are supposed to treat everyone alike in the lodge; outside you can use your discretion.

This man Corbett took a notion to me, and time and again invited me to his country house in Newfoundland, N.J. One rainy Saturday afternoon, on receiving a letter, I accepted.

[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; here’s where he explains his profound love of music; here’s an account of a hard-partying man named Emrich; here are his escapades with a reporter take him to Carnegie’s house; here’s where he gets rooked by a crook of a partner; here’s where he loses his shirt working on an invention for 15 years; here’s where he travels south during the World War and becomes a DuPont physician who’s present for a mass industrial accident; here’s his description of complications involving his patients and practice; here’s his take on syphilis, polio, avoiding impositions, and the nature of success; here’s his description of making a coats-of-arms lantern-slide lecture; here’s his encounter with the Gaekwar of Baroda; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]

On arriving at the country station, I found Corbett all dressed up in what I should say was a hostler’s uniform, with a whip in his hand, greeting me as I got down from the train. With his whiskers trimmed and waxed, he reminded me of Dr. Parkhurst, and I so greeted him. That pleased him wonderfully.

He had a horse and buggy waiting, and we drove away till we came to a road house. He said he was going to take me to the Sanitarium up on the hill and introduce me to the doctor there. But he stopped at the road house first, and ordered a couple of drinks. He did not pay for them, but made a note on an old piece of brown paper he had in his trousers pocket.

Arriving at the Sanitarium, he introduced me to the doctor, and asked me to excuse him while he got a prescription from the doctor. In the meantime, I explored the institution.

Then we drove on – and on – and on. I asked where his house was, and he replied that that house in the distance, which we soon passed, was his son’s residence. We kept on till we came to a place where a lot of horses and wagons were arrayed about what I would call a bunch of shanties, an expression from my boyhood days.

Here we were at the outskirts of the other end of town. As we entered one of these huts, he introduced me to the washwoman, cook, or housekeeper, and we went on up a small flight of stairs into a small room. Starting to wash up before supper, he told me this was his room, and left me to set on the bed or a box, the only furniture there was.

We had supper consisting of some bacon and ham and eggs, toast and bread and rolls, and coffee. After this he slicked himself up in his room, and we started off in the dark for to entertain me, I suppose.

We came to a grocery store, a regular country store, where a few men were gathered about  tall coal stove. Corbett began telling them some stories, and showed them some stunts in jig dancing. We stayed here a half an hour or more, and then, with the lantern with which he had provided himself at the store, we started for what I later learned  was a road house.

We entered at the bar room. But as he found I did not drink, he sent me in to the next room where the women and children were about the fire getting ready for bed. The mother had an infant in her arms, preparing for the same. It seemed to be an everyday occurrence for me to go in there and sit down and merely look on.

Soon Corbett came in, however, and asked me if I could play the organ, or any instrument. I told him I could play gospel hymns – that was my limit at the time. He said, “We had a fiddler engaged, but he hasn’t arrived, and we must get busy.” To my surprise, he said it didn’t make any difference what I played, and hymns would do.

Going out into the next room, a country parlor it was, I started “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” Corbett sang the words part way through. But seeing I could do my part, he went to the bar, and soon young and middle-aged men came in single file, marching, and sat down in the chairs already arranged.

Corbett then gets up in the middle of the room and tells them that this is the Know Nothing Club – those were the days before the 18th Amendment – and explained why it was so named, etc., etc., made quite a nonsensical, but connected, speech. Then they all filed out to the bar again to my playing “Old Hundredth,” which was asked for.

Corbett goes upstairs, dons some women’s clothes that he finds, comes down again as the men and boys file back to their seats. He now gets up again while the men talk a little among themselves, social like, and begins a funny dance and tells me to play. This goes on till some disappear, the crowd getting less and less. Some are lying about drunk, I suppose.

And curious as it may seem, there was a middle-aged man that sat next to me at the organ who did not visit the bar so much as the crowd – 20, perhaps, in all – and he calmly said that he “only drank pepper.” Whether it was pepper and water, or ginger ale and pepper, I forget, but he said he had trouble with his liver, and Dr. Katzenback of New York (my old professor in the Polyclinic) had so advised him.

It got to be 2 o’clock. One or two were lying on the floor. And Corbett was full, but did not stagger, and talked fairly reasonable, when the bar-keep came to me and said, “Can’t you induce your friend to go home? I always have this trouble with him.”

I realized long afterward that the saloon-keeper took the money out of the pockets of those who lay about insensible, and Corbett sometimes interfered with this part of the game. He went with me, however, with his lantern, back through a small woods to the shanty.

And as we prepared for bed, I sat on the box, mediating the thought: “This man is crazy, and I have got to sleep alongside of him.” But there was no way out that I could see. There were no trains out of that town till Sunday night, and this was Saturday.

Corbett was up early in the morning, said I could sleep on, as he had to attend to some horses. After his return and breakfast, he changed his clothes, put on a black suit with a Prince Albert coat, and said, “I will go out and get the rig, and we will go to church.”

I recollect that we had a finer horse and a finer buggy than those of the day before, and that we ran over a big snake on the way. He stopped at another road house to get a bottle of something, had to go on the quiet to a side door, and with this we went to a Methodist church.

All seemed to know him. He was an usher, and tried to get me up to a front seat, but I refused. He pointed to a young man sitting near us with a little boy and said, “That is my son, but we don’t speak.”

After the service he introduced  me to the minister. We then got in the buggy, stopped at another road house, and finally landed at a farm house, where we went in, sat down with the old farmer, and drank some of the contents of one of the bottles, leaving the other with the farmer.

Now he said we would go to the lake – forget the name. On the way, he got out and hailed several autos. Some of the people he seemed to know, and from one he stopped he got a match.

The people he expected to find at the lake hadn’t arrived yet. So we came back. On the way there was a Standard Oil pumping station, and while ehe attended to something about the rig, I tried to get in the Pumphouse to look around, but there was no admittance, the keeper said. Corbett then comes up and accosts the watchmen, and we were easily admitted. We went through, and were told the oil is piped there from Kansas City, if I remember correctly.


It is now nearly train time Sunday night, and I would not stay over. As we were waiting, Corbett begins to write a note on some letter paper he has in his packet, and said, “I wish you would take this note to my daughter, Mrs. Kelly, in the Bronx tomorrow, and also pay up my Lodge dues for me.” He hands me the letter and, as he seals it up, $2.00.

I said, “You wrote your daughter at the farmhouse” – as he did. “Well,” he said, “she might not get it and I want this to go.”

I was really glad to get on that train. He introduced me to a man going to New York, and all the way I tried to pump this man about Corbett’s peculiarities, or sanity, but it was no use. Of course, I did not ask directly. I did manage to make a apology to the lady at the shanty, to the effect that I was from his Lodge, as if I had come out to look after him.

After considering a few days in New York, I decided I would take to the letter to his daughter. When I handed it to her, a young woman, say 30, she remarked, as I told her it was from her father, “Why I just got a letter from him.” As she read it, she seemed to find nothing important in it.

I then took a chance and said, “Well, I don’t know anything about the letter’s contents, but I think your father should be advised that he better stop drinking,” also telling her I was from the Lodge.

“Drinking!” she said, “why my father doesn’t drink.”

I said, “He can drink more whiskey straight, and talk sense, than any man I ever saw.”

“Well, well,” she said, “so that’s it. He is acting peculiar.”

I left.

I paid his dues at the Lodge, and when I told the secretary about my experience, he wouldn’t believe me.

Long afterward it became known, for the next time I saw him he stepped into my office, sat down, and not a bit abashed, said “I am No. 45 at Wards Island. I can get out any time I want to, have charge of the entertainments up there.”

And so, I was told, he would come to the Lodge occasionally and for a long time no one was the user. But in time it got about, and I never learned what became of him. It was said about the Lodge that the reason he could get out was that he was not dangerous, and also that he had a pull through the Masons, but this latter I do not believe.

5 thoughts on “A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. In Which the Doc’s Experiences with a Hard-Drinking Know-Nothing Mason Leave Him Bewildered.

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