Pamphlets and a diary reveal sanitarium life
by Rob Neufeld
“Asheville is famous for the coolness of its summers, the temperature of 90° being recorded only once in the whole period of eight years,” Dr. Joseph William Gleitsmann told the American Public Health Association in Baltimore in 1875, probably in a pretty strong German accent, since he had emigrated to Baltimore in 1871.
The talk was published in “The Philadelphia Medical and Surgical Reporter” and then in a Sherwood & Co. reprint.
Germans were leaders in the field of pulmonary diseases. Robert Koch, Gleitsmann’s contemporary, would discover the bacterial agent of tuberculosis in 1881. The first sanatorium for sufferers had been established in Görbersdorf, Germany in 1854, 2,133 feet above sea level. That’s nearly the same as Asheville’s elevation, 2,150.
Gleitsmann continued singing Asheville’s praises in his address. The daily temperature here, he said, varied over 40° only once over a two-year period—only once in the two years he tracked it, 1874-1875—whereas in Colorado Springs, that happened 33 times.
The best cure, he and other scientists believed, was having patients rest outdoors in the fresh air where the air pressure was low enough to help the heart irrigate the lungs.
He wasn’t the first to ballyhoo this region’s climate. E.J. Aston, realtor and Asheville’s future mayor, teamed up with Dr. Horatio Page Gatchell, founder, in 1871, of Asheville’s first tuberculosis sanatorium (located in present-day Kenilworth) to publish, “Western North Carolina—Its Agricultural Resources, Mineral Wealth, Climate, Salubrity, and Scenery.”
The pamphlet claimed that the air pressure in Asheville matched that inside people’s veins; and that the pine-scented air was restorative.
In 1875, at age 34, Gleitsmann established Mountain Sanatarium on North Main Street (site of the vacant lot to the right of Tressa’s on Broadway).
Gleitsmann’s place, writes Katherine Ott, author of “Fevered Lives,” was patterned after “the sort most fully developed at Davos, Switzerland, which Thomas Mann made famous in ‘The Magic Mountain.’”
“Every consideration,” Gleitsmann advertised, “is given to all those agencies that are conducive to the restoration of health, and form a part of the treatment. The patients are supplied with rich, nutritious diet, suitable to their condition. Provisions are made for pleasant indoor entertainments, whilst the highly picturesque scenery gives ample inducement for outdoor exercise.”
Board, including light, fire and nurse, was $10 to $12 a week.
For five years, Gleitsmann treated 25 patients a day, the “New Charlotte Medical Journal” reported. Most came from parts distant—in the winter from the north; and in the summer, from the south.
Then, in 1880, the doctor had trouble finding a place to house his facility. The Carolina House, a hotel run by W.P. Blair, took over Gleitsmann’s space; and Gleitsmann spent a year in the Eagle Hotel, trying to lease the Woodfin House, before giving up and moving to New York.
Young wife’s diary
One of the patients staying at Mountain Sanitarium was Julia A. Ryder Bayles, the 28-year-old, married daughter of a Dennis, Massachusetts sea captain.
“I am happy to say that I am feeling very much better than when I came here,” she wrote in a Jan. 26, 1877 letter found in her diary (sold on eBay in 2014).
“To tell the truth there are times when I feel as if there was nothing the matter,” she continued. “My general health is good. Appetite good and I retain the flesh I have gained. Today has been a perfect day. Just like our weather in May. I have been out nearly all day.”
After breakfast, she and other boarders walked to Beaucatcher Mountain, and did not return until 1 p.m. After dinner, the group went out for another walk.
“Fifteen years ago a consumption was regarded as incurable in this country,” she tells her grandparents, “but there was a sanitarium in Russia for consumption under the charge of a German physician and out of 900 patients who had been there, only 78 died with consumption.”
Julia expected to be home in May, but thought she might have to spend another winter.
In the meantime, she socialized with the gentility in the area, the Woodfins, Chunns, Chapmans, and the Martins (General James Green Martin’s family).
She played croquet; went on more outings—to Elk Mountain and Alexander’s Inn, for instance; rode on horses and in carriages; and attended entertainments, such as at the Eagle Hotel.
In mid-May, Julia got leave to visit her family. She met her husband, Frank, in D.C., where she got to see President and Mrs. Hayes; and then went to New York (where she and Frank had a place on Long Island), before returning to Asheville in August, at first staying with the Chunns.
“Took a walk with Charlie Chunn, up to the sanitarium,” she wrote on Aug. 19. “In the evening had singing in the parlor and sat up quite late. Clara gave me a bath.”
It had been on July 10, 1876 that Julia had experienced a “hemorrhage from her lungs.” There must have been a recurrence, for she ended up back in the sanitarium, and she died on July 21, 1878.