From peaches to Poe
For various reasons in my job, I spend a lot of time digging through the Sisters of Providence history. Often I find what I’m looking for and then move on, but occasionally unexpected gems surface!
Recently I was digging through the Journals and Letters of Mother Theodore Guerin in search of stories about collaboration (for an upcoming article for HOPE Magazine).
Mother Theodore’s journal tells us about how, when Mother Theodore and her companions arrive in New York in 1840, they are a bit bummed out. It’s been a long sea journey from France aboard the Cincinnati. Unlike the American passengers on board with them, who are “expected,” the sisters realize that no one there “in this foreign land” will be excited to see them.
Enter Dr. A. Sidney Doane, an American doctor. He’s a complete stranger—a Protestant, even! He welcomes the sisters with wide-open arms, making them feel welcome and supplying them with a bunch of fruit, including “some beautiful peaches which he himself had gathered.” Mother Theodore writes, “His words, and his manner of acting—a stranger, a non-Catholic, and an American—surprised us so much we were almost mute.”
This story made me curious about the friendly doctor, so I Googled him. He was a prominent doctor in New York, apparently, writing some medical books and translating many others. When he died in 1852, after “catching the ship-fever” caring for newly-arrived immigrants, he was only 46 years old and earned a nice write up in The New York Times. By all accounts he was charming, loving, and loved by all.
BUT WHAT I WAS NOT EXPECTING AT ALL was that “the good doctor” who so inspired Mother Theodore also inspired another influential 19th century writer: Edgar Allan Poe himself.
Hypnosis and horror
Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is “about a mesmerist who puts a man in a suspended hypnotic state at the moment of death. An example of a tale of suspense and horror, it is also, to a certain degree, a hoax as it was published without claiming to be fictional, and many at the time of publication (1845) took it to be a factual account.” (Wikipedia)
Poe scholars generally agree that he got his idea from a letter by Dr. Doane that was published in The Broadway Journal when Poe was editor there. Dr. Doane’s letter, which you can read here, tells of his observation of a surgery where a tumor was removed from a woman’s neck “while she was in a magnetic sleep,” or under hynosis. The patient awakes post-surgery unaware she was even cut into.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is quite a bit more gruesome, involving the hypnosis of a dying man and pulling in words like “detestable putrescence.” It seems to be known particularly for just how gross it is, as one of the first sensationally gory stories. It’s probably safe to say that Mother Theodore (who may or may not have been aware of Poe) would not have been a fan. But I think it’s super neat that this whole ordeal puts her only two degrees away from the author.
You really never do know what you’ll learn on any given day.