Dr. Wesselhoeft in "Rappaccini's Daughter"
Thomas St. John
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes created the scandal of the Boston social season in 1842 by attacking popular Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft as a quack, and driving him away to Brattleboro, Vermont. But when did Holmes first know that his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne would set this bitter conflict into the heart of his classic tale, "Rappaccini's Daughter"?
Almost forty years later Dr. Holmes attended a dinner party at the Papyrus Club in Boston. Talking across the table to Rose, the late Nathaniel Hawthorne's youngest daughter, Holmes said, "I delighted in suggesting a train of thought to your father. . . Sometimes it was a long while before the answer came, like an echo; but it was sure to come.". Dr. Holmes was pleased with "Rappaccini's Daughter," which is a kind of fictional resolution to that unblessed scandal.
Before the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1842, Dr. Holmes delivered two long lectures entitled "Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions". Wesselhoeft was characterized as one of those "Empirics [quacks], ignorant barbers, and men of that sort. . . who announce themselves ready to relinquish all the accumulated treasure of our art, to trifle with life upon the strength of these fantastic theories.".
Homeopathy, that "pretended science" as Holmes called it, was "a mingled mass of perverse ingenuity, of tinsel erudition, of imbecile credulity, and of artful misrepresentation, too often mingled in practice. . .with heartless and shameless imposition". Dr. Holmes said that this pretended science would not "escape the inevitable doom of utter disgrace and oblivion".
Robert Wesselhoeft never answered these charges publicly, but he did express his resentment in the course of seventeen letters to a personal friend. These letters were later privately printed as "Some Remarks on Dr. O. W. Holmes' Lectures on Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusion; Communicated to a Friend by Robert Wesselhoeft, Homeopathic Physician in Cambridge".
Forced to abandon his successful water cure spa in the village of West Roxbury, near Boston, Wesselhoeft later retreated to distant Vermont, opening the Brattleboro Hydropathic Institution in May, 1845. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal for December 10, 1845, described this water cure as "one of the known modes of mongrel practice: and also as "one of the last of the great medical farces being played for the diseased imaginations of semivaletudianarians".
Nathaniel Hawthorne was living in that same village of West Roxbury in the summer of 1842, working at the Brook Farm community, a utopian attempt at socialistic simple living. In his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance---written in the year of Robert Wesselhoeft's death---Hawthorne presents two characters, named Westervelt and Zenobia. These characters are based on the feminist Margaret Fuller and the condemned Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft.
Long since acquainted with Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller lived next door to Dr. Wesselhoeft at 8 Ellery Street in Cambridge, near Harvard University. Wesselhoeft's seven-year-old daughter Minna slipped under the backyard fence to ask Margaret for a story from Bettina von Arnim. Miss Fuller visited her neighbor Dr. Wesselhoeft---her niece Greta was his patient. Fuller also twice visited Brook Farm to see her brother Lloyd. One visit was apparently in company with Dr. Wesselhoeft, as Hawthorne describes Westervelt and Zenobia walking along a wooded path.
Oliver Wendell Holmes stated in his lectures that empirics "have a strong predilection for the title of 'Professor.' These names, therefore, have come to be of little or no value as evidence of the good character, still less of the high pretensions of those who invoke their authority." In The Blithedale Romance, in like manner, Hawthorne's narrator describes meeting the Wesselhoeft character---"He offered me a card, with 'Professor Westervelt' engraved on it. At the same time, as if to vindicate his claim to the professorial dignity, so often assumed on very questionable grounds. . .".
"I felt as if the whole man were a moral and physical humbug," the narrator says. "I detest this kind of man, and all the more, because a part of my own nature showed itself responsive to him.". Westervelt has "artifice" in his eyes, a "metallic laugh," and possesses a "cat-like circumspection" . The professor is "eloquent, ingenious, plausible, with a delusive show of spirituality, yet really imbued with a cold and dead materialism" which "encourages the skeptical and sneering view. . .in regard to all of life's better purposes".
Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft had a younger brother, Dr. William Wesselhoeft of Boston, who was physician to the Sophia Peabody who became Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife. When William Wesselhoeft experimented upon Sophia, using hypnosis---without telling Hawthorne---he commited the Unpardonable Sin. Hawthorne said he was "haunted with ghastly dreams" about this, and told Sophia "as thou lovest me, do not suffer thyself to be put to sleep".
An experiment in hypnotism was to Hawthorne, an attempt to violate a woman's "reserve and sanctity of soul," an effort to reduce her to a "performing beast on the stage"---which is precisely what Westervelt does in The Blithedale Romance.
In writing the story "Rappaccini's Daughter" in 1844, Hawthorne, like his fictional narrator, "contents himself with a very slight embroidery of outward manners---the faintest possible counterfeit of real life". Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes becomes the character Dr. Pietro Padua. Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft is represented by the villainous Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini. The University of Padua stands in for Harvard University, where both Holmes and Wesselhoeft had friends and associates.
The character representing Hawthorne brings up the subject of Dr. Rappaccini to Pietro Baglioni, expecting to hear a cordial reply. This reply could well be Oliver Wendell Holmes describing Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft: "The truth is, our worshipful Dr. Rappaccini has as much science as any member of the faculty---with perhaps one single exception. . .but there are certain grave objections to his professional character.". Baglioni adds, "let us confess the truth of him, he is a wonderful man---a wonderful man indeed; a vile empiric, however, in his practice, therefore not to be tolerated by those who respect the good old rules of the medical profession".
Then comes our warning. "The youth might have taken Baglioni's opinion with many grains of allowance had he known that there was a professional warfare of long continance between him and Dr. Rappaccini, in which the latter was generally thought to have gained the advantage. If the reader be inclined to judge for himself, we refer him to certain black-letter tracts on both sides, preserved in the medical department of the University of Padua.".
The question still stands, did Oliver Wendell Holmes actually succeed in "suggesting a train of thought" to Hawthorne that he write about Dr. Wesselhoeft? Or was it entirely Hawthorne's notion to create the evil Westervelt and the malignant Rappaccini from Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft?
Considering Hawthorne's unshakeable integrity and fair mindedness, it must be that Hawthorne was in some way strongly moved to write "Rappaccini's Daughter".
It was an angry Hawthorne who believed that the Wesselhoefts were interfering with his family life. Who could say that he did not feel threatened? Hawthorne's anger was also sharpened by his painful experiences with his father-in-law---Dr. Rappaccini's experimenting on his daughter Beatrice with a poisonous purple plant in his garden is at no distant remove from Dr. Nathaniel Peabody's overdosing his daughter Sophie.
Since her early childhood Sophia had been given heavy doses of paregoric, or opium. But Dr. Peabody, even after accepting homeopathic theory, and against his own better judgment, laced his daughter with large doses of laudanum, mercury, arsenic, and henbane or hyoscyamus niger. Sophia was literally a sleeping beauty.
In "Rappaccini's Daughter" Hawthorne says, "Her father was not restrained by natural affection from offering up his child in this horrible manner as the victim of his insane zeal for science.". Beatrice Rappaccini cries, "My father, wherefore didst though inflict this miserable doom upon thy child?".
Both the evil blossom and the purple colors, suffusing "Rappaccini's Daughter" derive from a wildflower which clambered rankly all over Dr. Nathaniel Peabody's herb garden on Charter Street in Salem. The purple Solanum dulcamara, called the American bittersweet, from root and red berries, helped to ease the tooth pain of Dr. Peabody's patients. Sophia "recorded the progress" of this garden.
By writing "Rappaccini's Daughter", Hawthorne finally exorcised his terror of what it might have been like---had he failed to cure his beloved wife.
"Rappaccini's Daughter" expresses a kind of despair which was never fully comprehended by optimistic Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. But the good doctor praises his friend Hawthorne---
"He has done it, and it will never be harsh country again. . .A light falls upon the place not of land or sea! How much he did for Salem! Oh, the purple light, the soft haze, that now rests upon our glaring New England! He has done it, and it will never be harsh country again."
The Contagiousness Of Puerperal Fever, February 13, 1843
Dr. Pietro Casetta presents an article on Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Orto Botanico di Padova, the wonderful botanical garden in Padua founded in 1545 by the Venetian Republic. Dr. Casetta is well known in Padua as journalist and Padua historian. His article is linked here
Questa ipotesi è ricavata dalla lettura di Thomas St. John, Nathaniel Hawthorne: Studies in The House of the Seven Gables, capitolo "Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft in 'Rappaccini's Daughter'": "The University of Padua stands in for Harvard University, where both Holmes and Wesselhoeft [che come vedremo Hawthorne conosceva] had friends and associates.". Su Thomas St. John e la sua saggistica si veda oltre.
Minna Wesselhoeft and Margaret Fuller Ossoli were the two translators of the "Correspondence of Fraulein Gunderode and Bettina von Arnim". Bettina von Arnim was Elizabeth Brentano, whose writing earned her a dedication by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the first edition of their household or fairy tales.
Correspondence of Fraulein Gunderode and Bettine von Arnim. (Boston: T. O. H. P. Burnham, 1861). Fictitious correspondence written by Arnim, interspersed with poems and dialogues of Karoline von Gunderode.
The English translation was begun by Margaret Fuller, who published the first number anonymously with title Gunderode . (Boston: E. P. Peabody, 1842). The translation was completed by Mrs. M. Wesselhoeft in the present edition.
Gunderode. [A translation from the German of the correspondence between Canoness Gunderode and Bettine Brentano.] Boston, 1842. [Anonymous.] [Reprinted, with additional letters translated by Mrs. Minna Wesselhoeft. Boston, 1861.]
Nathaniel Hawthorne's letter to Sophia, from the "Navy Yard, April 26th, 1850" refers to "Thy poor dear thumb! I am afraid it puts thee to unspeakable pain and trouble, and I feel as if I ought to be with thee, especially as Una is not well. What is the matter? anything except her mouth? . . . Why has not Dr. Wesselhoeft cured thy thumb?"
Thomas Woodson has an article in the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review (2002) called "Doctor Wesselhoeft and Doctor Rappaccini" which lists the ties of the Hawthorne family to Dr. William Wesselhoeft. William studied medicine more consistently than his younger brother Robert---who began as a lawyer.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody wrote the "Memorial of William Wesselhoeft".
(Boston: N. C. Peabody, 1859).
Elizabeth visited Brattleboro during the week of July 14, 1854.
Thomas St. John grew up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and lived in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts before living in Brattleboro, Vermont. Summered in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He has published in the University of Utah's "Western Humanities Review", the Ball State University "Forum", and online "Counterpunch".