From George Eastman's letters, photos and newspaper clippings, we are able to trace what happened to him during his life. Using this documentation, Jesse Peers, Legacy Collection Archivist at the George Eastman Museum, shares with us a particularly memorable trip that did not happen the way it was planned back in September 1916.
After spending six weeks in Europe attending to business matters in the summer of 1916 (see my previous post), George Eastman returned to Rochester and immediately set about finalizing his preparations for a real vacation - his annual camping trip. Every summer, Eastman had a tradition of “roughing it” out West for several weeks. As he aged, he increasingly came to rely on the Western excursions for losing weight. This time his close friend and physician Edward Mulligan, James S. Watson and Frank Macomber were to accompany him to North Dakota where they would spend three days shooting prairie chickens before heading to Wyoming for a month of camping and hunting. This photograph shows George Eastman and a hunting party in North Dakota from a previous trip he took in August, 1900.
Eastman was apparently not feeling well when the party left Rochester on Saturday night, September 2nd. When they arrived in Riga, North Dakota, Eastman stayed behind while Frank Macomber and James Watson went out hunting prairie chickens. When the cause of Eastman’s trouble was determined to be an abcess, Doctor Edward Mulligan performed a small operation in the railroad car to remove it. Reports soon spread in newspapers about the Camera Magnate’s critical condition. One rumor even circulated that Eastman had died. (This was the second time Eastman’s death was reported. In 1912, several papers reported that George Eastman had gone down on the Titanic.). When Doctor Mulligan deemed it best for the weakened Eastman to recoup for a couple weeks, the party abandoned the Wyoming trip and made their slow return to Rochester.
By the time the party arrived at Rochester’s New York Central yards on Monday night, September 11th, Eastman was much improved and was willing to walk to the waiting automobile. But he followed Dr. Mulligan’s orders and allowed a wheelchair to convey him to his car. Mulligan told the Press, “He will be able to walk in a few days. Although it may be two weeks before he is well, there is absolutely no cause for worry over his condition.”
Eastman spent one week in bed and two weeks out of the office, considering it “the first time I was ever sick in bed a day in my life.” Since he found “one gets into the idle way of living very easily,” Eastman made the most of his “short invalidism” and caught up with his correspondence. He showed his gratitude to Dr. Mulligan by sending him a $2,500 check (about $55,000 in today’s money). In his touching reply, Mulligan reluctantly accepted the donation though he would have performed the operation for free. Insisting the removal of the abcess was simple, Mulligan wrote, “If ever the time comes – and I am on earth – that you really need care, I shall be only too happy to render my services – and I want you to get this point.”
On September 15th, Eastman confided his greatest disappointment to his childhood friend Frank Babbott: “What I dislike most about the matter is that I will have to go through the winter without getting into as good a condition as I would have done had I been able to loaf in the mountains for a month.” Eastman would have to wait until his Summer 1917 trip in the High Sierras to shed 22 pounds and 3 ½ inches off his waistline.