Grover Cleveland’s ties to Parkside and the birth of modern anesthesia: Sisters Hospital & The Marine Hospital

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

While they owned much of the property along the neighborhood’s southern border, and taught at St. Vincent de Paul, Mt St Joe’s, Medaille, St. Mark, and St Mary’s School for the Deaf, the Sisters of St. Joseph haven’t been the only Catholic nuns along the Parkside section of Main Street.

The Sisters of Charity established Buffalo’s first hospital downtown in 1848, and moved to the corner of Main Street and Delevan Avenue (the current home of the Canisius College Koessler Athletic Center) in 1876.

And while Sisters Hospital didn’t move there until the World War II era (1943), a hospital of sorts has stood on the spot where Sisters now stands since the Civil War era. The Providence Retreat, also known as through the years as the Providence Insane Asylum, and the Providence Lunatic Asylum, it was established in 1860 by Dr. Austin Flint and Dr. James Platt White, with the help of the Sisters of Charity.

As the Civil War dawned, after it was “decided that the city needed a hospital for the treatment of mental and nervous diseases.”  The institution opened its first building on the Main Street grounds July 15, 1861. That building was then outside the city limits, on grounds described as “spacious and beautiful.” The grounds contained both a hennery for eggs and a dairy, and “stronger patients” were able to take advantage of the neighboring Delaware Park and Zoological gardens.

The Providence Asylum, 1870s. Sisters Hospital stands on this spot today.

The asylum, and its most infamous guest, nearly cost Buffalo a Presidency. One of Buffalo’s most scandalous residents was a “guest” at the Providence Retreat. Maria Halpin was one of many unwed mothers residing there, and she became a star in the 1884 Presidential campaign. It just so happened that the prominent Buffalo attorney with whom she reportedly had a tryst quickly moved up the ranks as Mayor of Buffalo, then Governor of New York, and ultimately President of the United States.

Had Grover Cleveland run for President in this modern age, the intense vetting process likely would have knocked him out of the running early. The Halpin story was well-known but not talked about in Buffalo for at least a decade. However, when Grover Cleveland decided to run for the White House, The Buffalo Evening Telegraph, a paper similar in journalistic integrity to the National Enquirer, ran a story entitled “A Terrible Tale-Dark Chapter in a Public Man’s History.”

The rag put into print a damning piece of salacious bombast slanted against Cleveland by his old Western New York political enemies. The paper spelled out that Cleveland was the lover of The Loose Widow Halpin, and when she became pregnant, the powerful Cleveland had her institutionalized, the child placed in an orphanage, all at Cleveland’s expense. The story spread like wildfire around the country, to the delight of Cleveland’s political opponents.

A familiar song on the Presidential campaign in 1884 went, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” Grover Cleveland paid for the institutionalization of his one-time lover– the mother of what possibly was his love child– at Providence Asylum, which stood where Sisters Hospital stands today.

Though painted in the worst possible light, Cleveland couldn’t and wouldn’t deny the story. Halpin actually kept the company of several prominent lawyers, many of them married, including Cleveland’s partner and best friend Oscar Folsom. Folsom was nearly positive the child was his, but to save Folsom and the other men potential martial problems, the bachelor Cleveland took responsibility for the care of the woman and her child, whom she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

Cleveland asked a judge to commit Halpin to the bucolic Parkside mental ward only after he was unsuccessful in trying to break her of alcoholism. At Cleveland’s expense, his young ward was place in the finest orphanage to move along his placement with and adoption by a well-to-do family.

These details, however, were only made public decades later. Despite the controversy, Cleveland was elected President, where he was the first man to be married in the White House. Not to Halpin, who continued to hound Cleveland for money, but to Frances Folsom. The daughter of his partner Oscar, Cleveland became her legal guardian when she was 11 years old.  She was somewhat scandalously 27 years younger than the President, and, though it wasn’t common knowledge at the time, was likely the half sister of Cleveland’s “son.” For his part, Oscar Folsom Cleveland eventually became a very successful doctor; his education paid for by the man who took a political hit for doing what he thought was the right thing.

The Providence Retreat was not alone in catering to the psychological needs of Parksiders. Dr. S. A. Dunham was the superintendent of Parkside Sanitarium, 1392 Amherst Street. It was established in 1902, and had a capacity of 25.

A More Modern Hospital

As modern medicine progressed, particularly in the newly developing field of psychiatry, a new state of the art “Asylum” was built in 1905. Bishop Charles Colton was assisted by Msgr. Nelson Baker in laying the cornerstone for what was  then known as The Providence Retreat.  The building was to be fireproof, and “up to the high standards required by the state… in the treatment of the insane and feeble minded.”

Bishop Colton and Father Baker assist in laying the cornerstone for the Providence Retreat, Main at Kensington & Humboldt. This building still stands; greatly modified and added to, as Sisters Hospital.

A 1905 Buffalo Express article notes, “The institution is managed by the sisters, under the rules approved by the state commission of lunacy.” The article goes on to talk abut the $300,000 building. “Away in the back, and distinct from the others, are the rooms for violent patients who may be noisy.”

In 1943, the 83 year old Providence Retreat, long the home “for treatment of mental patients,” was closed and converted to a maternity hospital. Upon the opening of Louise de Marillac Hospital, an official told the Buffalo Evening News, “We feel there is more need here for an additional maternity hospital and an enlarged institution for babies than for the care of the mentally afflicted that the Providence Retreat has been carrying on.”

Three years later, ground was broken on another million dollar expansion of the structure that was destined to become the new Sisters Hospital at Main Street and Humboldt Parkway. The new streamlined, modern structure was prepared to combine the efforts of the Louise de Marillac Maternity Hospital and Sisters Hospital. The hospital was on the cutting edge of modernity, with a telephone and radio in every room.

Easily ignored, standing between Sisters Hospital and St Mary’s School for the Deaf is a rather nondescript brick building with a lesser known rich history.  Built in 1907-10 as the US Marine Hospital, it’s likely to have gone unnoticed by most passersby for over a century. The building served as a home “owned and operated by the United States Government, and is for general medical service to sailors, marine soldiers, ex-soldiers, marines and merchant seamen” for almost 50 years.  Far and away the most common, interwoven maladies amongst the old seadogs were old age and alcoholism.

US Marine Hospital; Main Street, between St. Mary’s School for the Deaf and what is now Sisters Hospital. 1930’s postcard.

In three separate incarnations, this building has played, and continues to play, a role in the forefront of medicine. First, as the Marine Hospital, many early strides in anesthesia were made inside the walls of the Parkside institution. Very early in his career, it was here that one of the world’s pioneering anesthesiologists first learned his trade, at a time when the specialty at best was an after thought.

In an article in Anesthesia and Analgesia in 2000, Drs. Ronald Batt and Douglas Bacon write about Dr. Clarence Durshordwe, a World War I veteran who grew up on Buffalo’s East Side and attended UB Medical School.

After medical school, Durshordwe interned at the 68-bed Marine Hospital in Buffalo. On completing his training, he was hired as an assistant surgeon for the Public Health Service. Early in his five years of service, he discovered that the lowest ranking physician was assigned to give anesthetics. Concerned that he might harm a patient, Durshordwe went to Buffalo City Hospital to observe nurse anesthetists administer anesthetics. Toward the end of his tenure at the Marine Hospital, now assigned to perform surgery, Durshordwe found he spent more time worrying about the anesthetic than the surgical procedure.

The mostly self-taught doctor would be one of the men who helped bring together the theories and practice of anesthesia from locations all around the world; where even late into the mid-20th century some physicians around the world still questioned it’s medical value.

Great strides were also made in the fledgling practice of physical therapy when the federally owned hospital was transferred to the state in 1950, and it became the home of UB’s Chronic Disease Institute. It was the area’s first hospital devoted to “physical medicine, the combination of medicine and therapy.” Within 3 years of the doors opening, the institute “achieved remarkable results in restoring to partial or complete usefulness disabled limbs, muscles, and organs, and overcoming speech difficulties.”  It was here that many of the tenets of 21st century medicine were first explored locally.

As of 1953, two years before the polio vaccine was announced to the world, and at a time when the diagnosis meant fear, every polio patient brought to the facility in an iron lung was able to gain release from the “cumbersome contrivance.”  One arthritis patient, so seriously disabled he was brought into the center on a stretcher, walked out, self-supporting, eight months later; all by virtue on the modern medical theories we now take for granted, first explored locally by our Parkside neighbors.

The Marine Hospital Campus was purchased by Sisters Hospital in 1995 for off-street parking for visitors and employees. While the original plans called for the building to make way for even more parking space, The Parkside Community Association advocated saving the historic structure. This was accomplished when Benedict House was opened at the Main Street location in 1997. It’s mission, as taken from its website in 2008:

The mission of Benedict House is to provide non-discriminatory residential housing opportunities and supportive services for persons living with AIDS in an environment promoting the principles of dignity, respect, understanding, compassion and self-determination.

©2009 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

This page is an excerpt from
The Complete History of Parkside
by Steve Cichon

The 174-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

Published by

Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.