Vassar Yesterday

The Quack's Daughter

Four antique leather trunks unearthed during a family move were destined for the landfill until author Greta Nettleton’s curiosity about her family’s past intervened. The trunks contained scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries, sheet music, and countless mementos preserved by alumna Cora Keck—Nettleton’s great-grandmother and daughter of the notorious “quack” and self-made patent medicine entrepreneur Mrs. Dr. Rebecca J. Keck. Cora, a piano prodigy, had been sent East to Vassar in 1884 to resurrect her family’s reputation.

For Nettleton, examining the trunks’ dusty contents was “like learning about an exotic foreign country that was also strangely familiar.” She writes, “As my data multiplied … I began to see the possibility of recreating this lost world, brick by brick, through the eyes of my personal guide, Cora Keck ...” As she read Cora’s diaries, matched names to faces in Cora’s albums, and collected information about the Keck family from the Iowa and United States censuses, Cora’s story began to unfold against a backdrop of surging wealth and controversy over women’s rights.

In The Quack’s Daughter: A True Story About the Private Life of a Victorian College Girl, Nettleton shares Cora’s adventures, beginning with her dramatic departure from the Keck family home three years after her graduation from Vassar’s School of Music:

"At seven o’clock sharp on Sunday evening, December 8, 1889, a young lady recently graduated from Vassar College stepped down onto the platform of Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, gripping a small valise in one hand. Taller than most, she scanned the crowd of arriving passengers. Bowler-hatted businessmen and ladies in silk jostled with exhausted immigrant parents clutching infants and children. A scout from the Dakota plains in buckskins, escorting two Indians dressed in robes and feathers and a large yellow dog, gestured to a porter. Jets of steam hissed from the waiting train behind. Fortunately, the cold weather and stiff eastern breeze blunted the smells seeping into the concourse from the nearby Chicago River, fouled by carrion from the Union Stockyards. The strangers pushed past, pouring through the exits out onto the streets of America’s second largest city, famous for its toughness and its brazen appetites. Buffeted by the mob, the young woman stood alone, watching anxiously as the platform emptied.

Cora Keck was the daughter of Mrs. Dr. Rebecca J. Keck, the self-described ‘Greatest Lady Physician of the West and proprietress of Mrs. Dr. Keck’s Palatial Infirmary for All Chronic Diseases (Established permanently since 1865)’ at the corner of Sixth and Brady streets in Davenport, Iowa, and she was eloping with a man she had decided was the love of her life. This head-strong young adventurer was my great-grandmother, and the 63-year-old co-conspirator for whom she was waiting, John Cook, would eventually become my great-grandfather. The driving motive for the adventure was that Cora’s mother was against the match. Cora’s mother called all the shots for the Keck family. In her opinion, although rich and socially prominent, the man was just too old.

For a bride, Cora Keck was no ingénue, either. She was already 24, dangerously close to being an old maid by the social standards of her day. Age made Miss Keck experienced and independent; she staged her decisive escape via the Davenport train depot with practiced precision, using technical skills she had developed at college in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she was accustomed to entertaining herself off-campus without permission and getting back undetected by Vassar’s authorities on a regular basis. This was a feat that she repeated over and over, alone and with friends, sometimes returning to campus and climbing in through her dormitory window after drinking champagne and playing roller-skate polo with townie boys as late as three in the morning. Cora was a romantic, a girl of action and a compulsive flirt whose young life was shaped by her struggle to become a serious, independent person free of the crushing influence of her formidable and highly controlling mother. She was also a passionate and talented musician, stifled in her ambitions by the customs of her era. She flung herself into love with courage and charisma as beautifully as she had in performing virtuoso piano solos on the concert stage at college.”

Greta Nettleton’s The Quack’s Daughter: A True Story About the Private Life of a Victorian College Girl was published in 2012.  The book is sold by the Vassar College Bookstore; Three Arts bookstore, near campus; and  Introduction by Marlena Santos ’14