Physician Heal Thyself

Dr. Rudolph Tauszky was a medical vagabond. Born in Hungary, he received his basic medical training at the University of Vienna, spent some time as a surgeon for Garibaldi’s Red Shirts fighting in Italy, and then emigrated to the United States where he spent the Civil War  in the Union Army as a field surgeon. He returned to Vienna in 1865, gained an advance degree specializing in women’s reproduction, then returned across the Atlantic and rejoined the Army, serving in isolated forts along the American frontier.

By 1868, Tauszky was a civilian once more, and living in New York City. After a stint with the Board of Health he joined the staff of Mt. Sinai Hospital as Chief Surgeon. He wrote copiously; authoring How to Produce the Best Possible Condition After Parturition, Ovulation and Other Theories of Menstruation, and The Changes in Epithelia Produced by the Growth of Myeloma, and even an article on the priapism in the recently deceased. By 1873 he’d set himself up in private practice, although he maintained an advisory relationship with Mt. Sinai.

Beginning with his publication of an article entitled Lunacy and its Crimes, Tauszky turned his attention to criminal insanity, an  increasingly popular topic in the wake of the national debate surrounding the sanity of Charles Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin. The doctor’s interest arose at an opportune time, astute trial lawyers had been advising their clients to plead insanity at every opportunity. “So common has the defense become that in almost every case of atrocious  and brutal crime, it is presented,” George B. Corkhill, United States District Attorney for the District of Columbia complained in The Medico-Legal Journal. “And it is remarkable that there is scarcely a criminal but can find facts, in his own life, of physical or mental disturbance, or in the lives of some of his blood relations, from which men of eminence or of scientific attainments readily demonstrate to juries that these facts, taken in connection with the atrocious and brutal nature of the crime, indicate insanity.” The doctor embarked on a lucrative sideline as an expert witness in insanity cases. In one probate matter involving a will’s beneficiary, he testified on an heiress’ behalf; his efforts netted her an inheritance and himself a fee of some $6000.

With an ample income, the 40 year old doctor decided it was high time he found a wife, and fastened on Frances Rosenthal, the daughter of a well respected uptown rabbi. Gossips whispered that Frances was inclined to frivolity and plumpness, but the doctor paid more attention to her raven hair, dark eyes, and vivacious personality. Tauszky had his critics too, and they warned Frances that the doctor had a mercurial temper, and as a lifelong bachelor he’d have difficulty adjusted to married life with a woman 20 years his junior. Nevertheless, after a short courtship the two were married in 1883.

Their first few months were spent in busily setting up their house at 171 E. 70th Street, but then things turned sour. Exceeding jealous of his young bride, Tauszky went so far as to bar her from leaving the house alone lest she be seduced by other men. At the annual Liederkrenz Festival in Jones’ Wood, Frances’ childhood friend George Otterbourg asked her to be his partner in a polka; before she could answer, the doctor exploded, causing a scene and dragging his wife bodily to the train station. A few days later, Frances left on an extended trip to visit her brother’s home in Milwaukee. In Frances’ absence, the doctor rented out their home to Morris Wetzler and his wife. He slept at the St. Cloud Hotel, but reached an agreement with the Wetzlers, a reduction in their rent in exchange for Mrs. Wetzler providing him breakfast and dinner. The doctor soon became enamored with a new project, an ambitious plan for bathhouses throughout New York’s impoverished areas to provide free weekly hot showers to the poor, with an additional facility at Castle Garden for new immigrants.

In the middle of 1884, Frances returned for another try at married life. Instead of returning to their home on 70th Street, the pair took up residence at one of the new apartment houses springing up along the city’s northern outskirts, the swank Ashton Flats at 612 Lexington Avenue. The apartment was large, even by the roomier standards of era. The doctor’s private office faced the street, and then behind it was his consulting room, and the family’s private quarters, complete with parlor, dining room, two bedrooms, kitchen, and a small bedroom for the help; a live-in maid named Esther Harris. Instead of bringing on a cook they arranged for Frances to join her husband for meals at the Wetzlers. All went well for a time, until Tauszky and his wife showed up after a late evening at the theater and the doctor demanded a full meal prepared from scratch. Wetzler refused to have his wife ordered about and suggested, more or less politely, that the late diners content themselves with leftovers. The doctor left in a huff, dragging his wife along with him.

Dr. Tauszky’s relations with his tenants became even more strained a few weeks later, when the doctor attempted to remove the house’s loan bathtub to his new apartment. Wetzler objected and the disagreement escalated; by the time the police arrived they found the doctor brandishing his American Special .32 caliber revolver under Wetzler’s nose. After a night in jail sputtering invective about his ungrateful tenant to whomever would listen, the charges were dropped.

The apartment required other furnishings besides a bathtub, and Frances busied herself with decorating. She purchased a large piano for the parlor, expensive etchings to line the walls, and cream colored curtains which matched the orange highlights in the apartment’s plush carpeting. While Frances decorated, the doctor continued with his bathhouse project, drafting a petition endorsing the plan for the New York State Tenement House Commission. He visited any medical professional with whom he was even remotely acquainted, such was the doctor’s zealousness that several signed merely to get the excitable man out of their offices. In early December, 1884 the Commission agreed to hear the doctor’s plan, but were less than enthused about the project’s $25,000 price tag, and they tabled it. Left without a creative outlet, the doctor’s jealousy returned full force, and he once more began to suspect his wife of infidelity. He confided his fears to his sister, who urged him to focus instead upon his stellar career prospects. “What good is a star,” the doctor sighed, “when it isn’t the one you want?”

Then, shortly after his presentation to the Tenement House Commission, Dr. Tauszky’s father died. Recalling the elder Tauszky’s funeral a few months later, witnesses remembered two things; Frances’ absence and Tauszky’s histrionics. He created such a scene that his brother-in-law had to physically wrestle him into a waiting taxicab. As had women’s health, insanity, bathhouses, the Wetzlers, and his wife’s purported infidelity, his father’s death became the doctor’s obsession, and he spent countless hours dwelling on the hereafter. He couldn’t sleep, and Dr. Leszysky, a colleague with offices a few doors up Lexington Avenue, prescribed chloride. A strong dosage, combined with bottles of wine produced a fitful night’s rest, but did little to reduce the doctor’s melancholia.

So things stood early in the morning of January 5. Frances had dragged her brass bedstead into the parlor, where a fireplace kept the room tolerably warm, and at 2 a.m. the doctor collapsed alongside her. “Talk to me Francesca,” he implored his wife in German.

“He asked me a number of questions,” she told a policeman the next morning, “about things that he was perfectly familiar with, and then he said, ‘It’s too bad, my memory fails me.’” The doctor climbed out of bed and went into his office. When Frances went to check on him an hour or so later, she found him shivering in his office chair, staring at his father’s picture on his desk. She asked if he wanted anything, and he looked up long enough to request that she bring him a bottle of wine and three cigars. She loathed when he smoked indoors and worried he was drinking too much, but she got them for him anyway. He took a pull directly from the bottle, finishing a third of it in one gulp, and she left him to the wine and cigars and went back to bed.

When she came back again around 4:30 the gas lighting had been turned off and her husband was a dim silhouette before his desk, still sitting in his easy chair. “Why have you no light here?” she asked.

“We don’t want one. Love can see well enough in the dark. Francesca, put your arms around my neck.” She did as he asked, sitting on the his lap. The doctor’s left hand slid up her back, pausing to let his fingertips graze the smooth skin of her neck before he pulled out the pins which held her hair in place, releasing it to tumble down in a black cascade. She kissed him, in the way that only a woman sitting on the lap of a man can kiss, and rested her head on his shoulder with a contended sigh. Then she felt the touch of cold steel just below her hairline. She tried to pull away, but the doctor squeezed her tighter and said tenderly, “We go together.”

The revolver flashed, she fell to the floor with a shriek, struggled to her feet and then ran out the door and into the hall. Convulsive sobs mingled with her cries that she’d been shot, and woke the next door neighbor, Mrs. Strong.  Aghast at the sight of blood pouring from Frances’ scalp, Mrs. Strong nearly fainted and had to hold onto the wall to stop from keeling over. Upstairs, Henry C. Dart, a flour merchant with offices at 90 Broad Street, heard the screams and came down to investigate. He sent the Esther Harris to summon Dr. Leszysky. Someone notified the police, who took so long to arrive that Dart wrote a complaint to the Police Board. Dr. Leszysky treated Frances, whose wounds did not appear to be life threatening. Until the police showed up, neither Dart nor any of the small crowd of residents who’d been awakened had any inclination to confront Dr. Tauszky, an armed man who’d just shot his wife. Eventually, Policeman Abraham Philips arrived, and he and Dart broke down the doctor’s office door.

 

Inside, the doctor lay next to his wardrobe. Blood pooled from a bullet wound in his forehead, but Leszysky’s quick examination confirmed the doctor was still breathing; the bullet had fractured the Tauszky’s skull, carving a grove along the bone before exiting near his left temple. With several reporters in its wake an ambulance arrived to cart Tauszky to nearby Presbyterian Hospital. Frances remained behind. “She is suffering now more from nervous prostration than anything else,” Leszysky informed the press.

Dr. Tauszky’s physical prognosis was good too, but his mind was a different matter. Policeman Phillips prevented an attempt at defenestration, and doctors confined Tauszky to a straightjacket. He asked after his wife, but then refused to believe she was still alive. Tauszky’s sister cajoled Frances into writing him a letter.

My Darling Husband:

 

I am all right. Am only prostrated by nervousness. You will, I am told, get better soon. Do not worry, dear, and as soon as I can get out rest assured I will come to see you.

 

Lovingly, Frances.

 

The doctor pronounced the correspondence a forgery, and even when Frances did visit he refused to believe she was anything but a ghost. His ravings went further and further, one day he accused his nurses of being part of a vast conspiracy of 80,000 people who wanted him dead, on the next he was claiming to be the only man who could save the Republican Party.

At the end of January, a sheriff’s jury found the doctor insane, and at the family’s request the court sent him to a private asylum outside of Hartford, Connecticut, where he died in November, 1889. Frances eventually returned to her mother and father. It was one of the bystanders who watched workmen empty out the Tauszky’s apartment that had the definitive word on the affair. “What a travesty…” a reporter heard him say, “the idea of an insane doctor giving evidence as an expert in cases of insanity.”

 

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