Dark Secrets Mysteries & Misadventures

Rattlesnake Cures and Other Scandals in a Funny Mansion

That's the water tower by the way, funnily enough it's so striking a lot of people get married in front of it! That’s the water tower by the way, funnily enough it’s so striking a lot of people get married in front of it!

When I first spotted this house I was transfixed. It looks a little like many houses cobbled together. You don’t see much architecture with this kind of whimsy. Not around here anyway where it is mostly old barns, stone houses and clapboard farm houses. I like those very much too but this place, which I nicknamed the “steampunk mansion” before I’d researched it, really captures your attention. It makes you smile to look at it…and maybe squint your eyes and turn your head while you study it 😉

Its origins were a summer home and then a hospital, after nearly one hundred years of use this house was in need of a bit of repair when in the the mid ’70s it was left empty. The local township stepped in to make an offer. They thought the land would make a fine park (they were right) and the house would be worth fixing up to generate income, renting it out for weddings and events. Fast forward a bit: they’re still restoring this home today. You see, it’s taken so long because everything is still original. Even all the wood carving and iron work. Really beautiful (there’s a video tour of the inside, linked at the end of this post).

If Walls Could Talk

Initially the mansion was more modest…if a mansion is ever considered modest…built by a John Hulme and his wife. In 1882, a lawyer named James Smith and his wife purchased the 18-room mansion and the 143 acres of land surrounding it. They are the couple who built on to the mansion and hired an architect to turn it into a display of everything the Queen Anne Revival style embodied. The transformation was so incredible that the estate became the talk of the town. I think looking at it now, it’s not too difficult to imagine the whisperings a place like this could start.

Architect, T. Roney Williamson, brought in the best Italian stonecutters in the region and 150 skilled craftsmen to add stained glass, copper and ornate ironwork. On a high hill the mansion had views all the way to Philadelphia (well, with the help of James’ fancy telescopes in the observation towers of course). To enjoy the views of the rolling hills and farms they added wraparound porches and high observatory towers. The Smiths made it their new summer home, calling it Oakbourne.

Mr Smith spent a lot of time at Oakbourne, especially caring for his prized cows and horses. When he died in 1893, and his wife three years after than, their Will gave the land to the Philadelphia Protestant Episcopal City Mission. The caveat: the land and buildings must be used as a retreat for sick and convalescent white women, 23 years or older. The fashion for the fresh air treatment for anything ailing you had travelled from Europe to become popular in America too.

The convalescent home served around 30 women at a time for many years until 1971 when they closed due to high operational costs. But I am getting ahead of myself. In 1896 the Mission sold a part of the estate, 96 acres to be exact, to the Pennsylvania Epileptic Hospital and Colony Farm. That is where our real story begins.

The Rattlesnake Cure

The hospital took its first patients in 1898 with the three buildings they had acquired: an administration building and two cottages: one for women and one for men. The need for housing of epileptic patients was so great that they soon added two more cottages: one for boys and one for girls, aged 6-16. Soon they were caring for more than 100 patients.

Everyone had a job at the hospital. The men farmed, gardened, built mattresses, even repaired furniture and the roads. The women completed the housework, sewing, laundry and did some of the gardening as well. Remember, fresh air was good for you no matter the ailment.

At the time epilepsy was little understood and it shows in the medical journal articles written at the time and in the treatments administered. In 1914, a new “treatment” was sweeping through the hospitals: injecting epileptic patients with rattlesnake venom. The doctor at Oakbourne wrote that he was besieged with letters from patients’ families asking for the same treatment they had read about in the newspapers. And so he agreed to give it a try too. Reports of its use had been “glowing” apparently.

He selected a group of his patients and they embarked on a three month course of rattlesnake venom. I think you are probably already seeing where this is going!

Case Study 1-6

There’s a good amount of detailed information about this study, the treating doctor, Nathaniel S. Yawger, published his results in 1915 in a medical journal. Of course this information was for other doctors. “The purpose of the injections was kept as much as possible from the knowledge of the patient,” he wrote. Gee.

He described his first case study as a 16-year old “Hebrew” girl who had lived at the colony for two years. She had always had an irritable disposition, he said. Before treatment she had an average of 18 attacks a month. During treatment she had 79 a month.

J.C., was the second test case. A four year resident and also 16. Suffering from epilepsy from birth he would often go into a “stupor” for up to a month after some seizures. Dr. Yawger describes him as “feeble minded” and after receiving the venom his attacks escalated followed by another stupor. “The status was somewhat confusing but so far as we could determine, this patient was uninfluenced by treatment,” Dr. Yawger concluded. His definition of “uninfluenced” is what is perhaps is really confusing! But he continued his study on adults as well.

Two thirty-something female patients were the unlucky recipients of this medical experiment as well. I feel it’s prudent to mention that Dr. Yawger wasn’t exactly some mad scientist, even if he does come off that way. Everything seems so outdated but really he did get permission from the patients’ (desperate) families. I guess that is all that was needed in 1914.

One of his adult female patients showed a slight increase in seizures and he concluded that she too was uninfluenced by treatment. The other female test patient had entered the colony at the age of 19, right before her mother had died. Understandably, she had experienced some depression too and they wanted to see if the venom could help with that too. This didn’t go well.

“Unfortunately she, like so many others, relapsed,” Dr. Yawger wrote. At first he thought she was receiving the treatments positively, her depression lightening. She seemed to be more sensitive to the venom though. He noted that unlike the others, after the first injection her arm was much more swollen and she had other symptoms too. A quick look at the effects of rattlesnake venom and you can see exactly what she was experiencing. I guess the doctors and nurses didn’t look this up for they continued to inject her weekly. It won’t shock you that her seizures worsened until she had her worst one in her nine-years at the colony. They abstained from injecting her for a week as she recovered from the poison but tried again the next week. Dr. Yawger was nothing if not persistent. She had a near fatal reaction and Dr. Yawger decided to put an end to her rattlesnake treatments for good.

His older male patient was, C.A. a 35-year old clerk who did a lot of handiwork and gardening when he wasn’t ill. He’d moved to the colony seven years earlier; he’d started having seizures a few months after his marriage. Dr. Yawger at first suspected syphilis but C.A. showed no other symptoms of that and so he was chosen for the experiment. Although he’d had several “insane episodes” before the doctors thought of him as brighter than many of their other patients. And he actually knew about the treatment! In fact, he threatened the colony that he would leave and let a city doctor conduct and publish the experiment using him. It’s clear that he was desperate to end his suffering and return to his life. Sadly it’s no surprise to us now that the venom did nothing to improve his health. He continued to have attacks and became “exceedingly irritable and quarrelsome and his memory was somewhat impaired.” Once he realized that the venom was making him sicker he asked to stop the “treatments” and Dr. Yawger agreed that would be for the best. The rattlesnake cure was not going well but it was about to get worse.

The last test case was J.C., a 23-year old man who’d only been at the colony for a year. His family had read about the treatment and bombarded the doctor with inquiries until he was chosen to receive the venom. While his seizure rate stayed the same the doctor noted that he had a three week “insane period” during treatment, though without any seizures he hopefully added. After the full course of the venom treatment had been concluded J.C. had three more “insane periods” with major epileptic attacks. During the last one which lasted two days and sixty convulsions he died.

And so Dr. Yawger concluded that the venom uninfluenced two patients, worsened two, couldn’t be completed on one due to complications after injection…and the last patient, well, he had died two and half months after the experiment. And so the rattlesnake venom cure, which hadn’t helped a single patient, was put to rest. At least at Oakbourne.

The Pennsylvania Epileptic Hospital and Colony Farm eventually operated for “mentally disturbed children” from 1947 to 1965 before closing.

The Doctor Is In

I know that Dr. Yawger was only doing his job when just about everything was conducted differently then. Today such an experiment seems especially cruel. But patients’ families had begged him to try it. Still, when you do such things, well then I have to look just a little into your background. Who knows what else you were doing!

Dr. Yawger was pretty prolific in the medical journal game and he was a psychiatrist at Eastern State Penitentiary (I’ve been there too, to see Al Capone’s cell, here’s the link). When he wasn’t dispensing snake venom that is. He also experimented with another treatment: cocaine, but this post is getting long enough and I have more to tell you so to sum that one up: After splitting his time between the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane and the drunk/detention wards of Philadelphia General Hospital he noted that few cocaine users were ever transferred from the detention ward to the Hospital for the Insane. Though they didn’t become insane he did note that they usually died of a psychical wasting condition or are “carried off” by some intervening illness. So cocaine didn’t go so well either.

I made sure to give Dr. Yawger the benefit of the doubt while researching his life: times have changed, it’s difficult to know every circumstance, etc., etc., but he sure makes it hard when he co-authored a book that same year (where did this guy get the time?!?). It was a kind of guideline for nurses in insane asylums or epileptic colonies. “A good nurse will always be loyal to the doctor; and indeed, to be loyal to him is always the best service to the patient,” is one line. What are you doing doctor that you need complete loyalty?

The whole book goes on with more of the same, paragraphs and paragraphs that would make modern women cringe. Nurses shouldn’t be vain or too humble. They shouldn’t come from too “good” of a family as that may mock the patient but they should still have respectable ancestors. She shouldn’t be silent but she should never give her opinion about the patient to the doctor (that is really his biggest pet peeve, he goes on for awhile about that). He does write that it is acceptable for the nurse to quarrel with the servants as they [the lowly servants] are more likely to be the aggressors.

As far as his personal life: he was born in 1872 in New Jersey. He married a Swedish woman, Elizabeth (though I think her real name was Ulricka), and he was widowed by the 1930s, living as a boarder in another person’s house. Still working as a doctor, I don’t know if he just wasn’t stable financially or he was never home and had no wife so chose to board. He did so until his death (a boarder is the informant on his death certificate).

Interestingly his office, in Philadelphia, was located right near the present day Mutter Museum, which is the creepiest anatomy and medical oddity museum there ever was. I’m sure he’s got something in there but I’ve never been able to stomach a visit through that one.

Scandal at Burn-Brae

Before coming to Oakbourne, Dr. Yawger was the Superintendent at Burn-Brae. A private hospital for wealthy patients with “mental and nervous disorders,” and with a few beds for opium addicts too. They stressed a homelike environment with lots of “open air amusements” like croquet and lawn tennis, soothing influences of music and comfortable rooms. The hospital operated until 1968, when with fewer patients and a changing medical atmosphere they were forced to close their doors. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way they demolished this magnificent building (here’s a picture). It is now the site of a Pizza Hut…makes you want to cry a little.

Before his departure to Oakbourne, the asylum was hit by a scandal big enough to make the New York Times. In 1909, two men drove up to Burn-Brae, knocked down the nurse on duty with a cane and took Mrs Zaida Lucas MacDonald from the grounds. Her husband (President of the Camden Shipbuilding Co.) had committed her following the death of their teen son. They had been arguing about where to bury him. I guess it got a little too heated…. She had been at the asylum for six weeks while her friends insisted that she was not insane and had been sent there illegally. As a stanch Catholic her husband didn’t want a divorce, but obviously wanted to be rid of her. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. MacDonald was a Protestant and once freed immediately initiated divorce proceedings…and told all the papers about it.

This wasn’t the first sort of scandal at Burn-Brae. Despite an advertisement with Dr. Yawger’s name at top insisting that two doctors had to sign off before a patient could be committed, it still seemed a popular way to get rid of someone in your family. In 1906, Theodore Wright made headlines after winning his release from the asylum after 10 years. Hailing from a wealthy family, Theodore was President of a railroad company and a prominent man. At the age of 50 his family quietly had him committed and he told the papers later that it was so unexpected he hadn’t realized what was exactly happening until he was at the asylum. Gee, the lengths people went to avoid a divorce back in the day!

A man judged insane was not permitted to appeal his own case and Theodore Wright eventually sent hundreds of letters to lawyers, friends and relatives begging them to take up his case. Having disappeared rather quickly without telling them, his relatives and friends believed his wife and son and ignored his letters. Eventually his son, Minturn (perhaps he was miffed about that name) agreed to petition a judge for a conditional release for Theodore. Upon his freedom, Theodore refused to see his wife, who had made off to California, and funnily enough didn’t even want to see his son. Though he had relented and allowed his release, his son had still put him in there…and kept him there. Instead he headed to Colorado where his sister lived.

Dr. Yawger died of a stoke in 1957 at the age of 84, working until the end.

ps. There is a youtube video with an inside tour here.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11