To Famous Cases of Syphilis

Re’Lynn Hansen

PMS 9 | 2009

Memoir excerpt from To Famous Cases of Syphilis


“This is my memento mori: to Aunt Hazel; to her horses; to her bas­tard, bliss; to famous cases of syphilis.”

Mary Todd Lin­coln prob­a­bly con­tracted syphilis from her hus­band. Nor­bert Hirschhorn and Robert Feld­man pub­lished an arti­cle in 1999 review­ing the work of the four doc­tors who had diag­nosed her pro­gres­sive spinal trou­ble. Find­ing a clear case of tabes dor­salis, Hirschhorn and Feld­man argue con­vinc­ingly that the doc­tors would have known very well by then that tabes was caused by syphilis in the major­ity of cases and would have opted to save her rep­u­ta­tion (and to assure a ben­e­fit that might have been with­held by a cen­so­ri­ous Con­gress) by stat­ing that her tabes dor­salis was caused by an injury to her spine when she fell from the French chair. “Given the wide­spread med­ical knowl­edge about tabes dor­salis at the close of 1881 and what then was con­sid­ered its most likely cause [syphilis], it was inevitable that the four physi­cians chose the least pejo­ra­tive diagnosis.

My aunt is famous, but only in our fam­ily, for man­ag­ing to con­tract syphilis. She was young. She was twenty-one. She had wanted to be a nurse.

By the time I was ten she was dead. She had died in a jump out of a win­dow of an asy­lum where we had sent her. She became famous for this too, in our family-for I think we pre­ferred fame to sad­ness. She had a high fore­head, a widow’s peak, clear eyes that pooled in between hazel and blue. Before she was famous for syphilis, and for sui­cide, she was famous for the chang­ing color of her eyes.

When we were chil­dren she was known to us for being able to stare with­out blink­ing. And we, in our quest for stature in the world, ran the no blink­ing con­test every Sun­day when we saw Hazel.

“She only saw him once,” my grand­mother whis­pered in the back seat of a taxi, which is where she chose to tell me this secret when I was nine. It seemed there was no fame in it, and no glory. To see a per­son once, and then to die because of it. “I could kill him,” my grand­mother said. “I could mur­der him.” This grand­mother, Grandma Lot­tie, was famous for being a sharp shooter with blue rib­bons from the Cal­i­for­nia fairs. She was famous for her chicken ranch in Cal­i­for­nia, and for her Cal­i­for­nia dream of mak­ing it big, and she was famous for liv­ing at the ranch with a man who owned a chain of under­wear stores. He was known as the king of under­wear. But before she could become famous for this, she left him, to come to Chicago and take care of her sis­ter. In Chicago she was only famous for her gold col­ored car, which no one else on the block had, for pur­chas­ing a cookie fac­tory with her under­wear money, and for keep­ing a rifle behind the door. As a child I stood in the mid­dle of the block, closed my eyes and spun until the trees and breeze around me, became part of me. I knew only this: I was the grand­daugh­ter of a woman whom every­one seemed to know. She owned the cookie fac­tory. Her sis­ter was crazy.

There was a stor­age room in my grandmother’s basement-where every­thing of her sister’s was kept. The door was damp and bloated, and scraped against the cement floor when we pulled it open. We went down there, my brother and I, just to stare. The one win­dow there faced south. There were short, lace cur­tains on this block of light. And all was dark beside it, as if a res­ur­rec­tion had been held there. Stand­ing there we knew-that some­one once lived among all these things. Against one wall, a huge armoire. Next to it, a rocker. Then the small bed, twin size, with a brass head­board and a che­nille bed­spread still upon it. A pil­low at the head, wait­ing for some­one. There were lamps with yel­low shades and lace fringe. There were two steamer trunks filled with tow­els and china pieces. There was a dowel rod in the oak wardrobe. Her lacy dresses hung there. She had been some­one once. She had been lighter, she had worn lace; she had picked it all out care­fully, and then had lived some­where among these things. I did not know for cer­tain, but felt, that there were worlds of won­der where peo­ple had walked, like dinosaurs in a for­got­ten time, now sup­planted by what they were famous for.

Abra­ham Lincoln’s great love was Ann Rout­ledge, who had died young, of typhoid. Before he met Mary Todd, he pro­posed to three or four more Illi­nois women. He was said to be depressed and at odds with women. He remarked one day when it was rain­ing that “he could not bear the idea of it rain­ing on Ann’s grave.”

Accord­ing to Lincoln’s biog­ra­pher, friend, and law part­ner for eigh­teen years, William Hern­don, Lin­coln told him that he had been infected with syphilis in Beard­stown in 1835 or 1836 (by a pros­ti­tute). Hern­don wrote to his (biog­ra­pher) co-author “Friend Weik” in Jan­u­ary 1891, (and later) wished that he had not put the con­fi­dence in writing.

In famous cases, the syphil­i­tics become vision­ary. In dream­like fash­ion they can “see” the break­down of their body from within. They can pin­point the moment– the hour, the face above or below them in coitus– that liq­uid, lim­i­nal moment the syphilitic bac­te­ria is ush­ered from one being to another.

My aunt was famous for sit­ting and rock­ing her body at the break­fast table. She liked to stare out to the sun porch. She liked to tell sto­ries, recite her poems. Not whole poems, but a mosaic of lines from poems and say­ings that she liked.

She was famous for shout­ing from the kitchen table:

It is ill-manners to have silenced a fool but cru­elty to let him go on.

A man in a pas­sion rides a mad horse.

The wise man draws more advan­tage from his ene­mies than the fool from his friends.

He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.

Either write things worth read­ing or do things worth writing.

She was famous for her but­tery, flaky home­made bis­cuits. The bis­cuits steamed when she put them on our plates, and smelled of baked dough. Being large chil­dren, my brother and I were famous for our strong desire of the biscuits-such became the out­line of myth for our fam­ily. She served them with a quiet­ness. We picked them hot out of the bas­ket with quiet gid­di­ness. I imag­ined the moment the warm dough would be pressed to the roof of my mouth, and in this way I dreamed and fan­ta­sized more than any other-I dreamed of how good some­thing could get.

“Half a league half a league half a league onward…” she would recite as she placed each bis­cuit on our plate. We all asked who made the bis­cuits, an endeavor to cre­ate even more fame for my aunt. It was the char­ity, and per­haps even the con­ceit of this fam­ily to give each her fame. She, who stood at the cor­ner of the table, wait­ing, with her bis­cuit bas­ket wait­ing for us to fin­ish the first round, would purse her lips and pre­tend to zip them shut: “I can never tell,” she’d say, “Theirs is not to rea­son why.’”

“Hazel made them, and she will never reveal her secret,” my great grand­mother said, flat­ten­ing the moment by explain­ing this to us. We laughed, I think, because we wanted to affirm the great­ness of the bat­tle between the sis­ter who had nearly been some­one, and the sis­ter who could now not ever be.

We were a fam­ily foment­ing with ideas of fame. “That’s right, no one makes them bet­ter!” This would be said by my father, who was becom­ing a wealthy real­tor, and often told the story of the fight he had with a ten­ant, and how the ten­ant swung the bot­tle of scotch he had been drink­ing at him “right there in the vestibule,” and broke it on his head. The story ends with my father pulling his eye-patch up to reveal the half white­ness of one eye.

“She’ll never tell how she made them, ” my grand­mother would say again. My grand­mother was wealthy, or at least the wealth­i­est in our fam­ily, and liked to tell sto­ries of the ranch she once owned in Cal­i­for­nia, and the sharp shoot­ing con­tests she had there. She once nearly shot a man who came to the door of her ranch house, except she had aimed at his sam­ple case. “I thought the man was harm­less.” The case was filled with jars of clean­ers and cans of wax. The jars and cans “clinked like crazy” when he flung the case down, and ran from the house. My grand­mother famously called him back, and gave him a cold beer. They sat for the after­noon on the porch. I would close my eyes at the table and think of how fam­ily fame was like a magic light, how the sales­man might be telling his story of being shot at by the woman at the chicken ranch. How that might be the answer in life, to fly in the light and the actions of fame.

“She won’t tell about those bis­cuits,” said my grand­mother. Aunt Hazel would clap her mouth shut with one hand, and pre­tend to zip it again with the other. My grand­mother would clap her own mouth shut, and then both the sis­ters would pre­tend to laugh, bend­ing back for pre­tend belly laughs. They were famous for this end­ing to their open­ing act, and once fin­ished, Hazel would sit down with us, and we would fall into the lull of pass­ing chicken and mashed pota­toes and gravy. She was famous for mak­ing us silent.