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The Quack's Daughter

A True Story about the Private Life of a Victorian College Girl, Revised Edition

Greta Nettleton

Publication Year: 2013

Raised in the gritty Mississippi River town of Davenport, Iowa, Cora Keck could have walked straight out of a Susan Glaspell story. When Cora was sent to Vassar College in the fall of 1884, she was a typical unmotivated, newly rich party girl. Her improbable educational opportunity at “the first great educational institution for womankind” turned into an enthralling journey of self-discovery as she struggled to meet the high standards in Vassar’s School of Music while trying to shed her reputation as the daughter of a notorious quack and self-made millionaire: Mrs. Dr. Rebecca J. Keck, second only to Lydia Pinkham as America’s most successful self-made female patent medicine entrepreneur of the time.
This lively, stereotype-shattering story might have been lost, had Cora’s great-granddaughter, Greta Nettleton, not decided to go through some old family trunks instead of discarding most of the contents unexamined. Inside she discovered a rich cache of Cora’s college memorabilia—essential complements to her 1885 diary, which Nettleton had already begun to read. The Quack’s Daughter details Cora’s youthful travails and adventures during a time of great social and economic transformation. From her working-class childhood to her gilded youth and her later married life, Cora experienced triumphs and disappointments as a gifted concert pianist that the reader will recognize as tied to the limited opportunities open to women at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as to the dangerous consequences for those who challenged social norms.

Set in an era of surging wealth torn by political controversy over inequality and  women’s rights and widespread panic about domestic terrorists, The Quack’s Daughter is illustrated with over a hundred original images and photographs that illuminate the life of a spirited and charming heroine who ultimately faced a stark life-and-death crisis that would force her to re-examine her doubts about her mother’s medical integrity.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication, Family Tree

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Prologue

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pp. xi-xxvi

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 La Salle Street Station, gripping a small valise in one hand. Taller than most, she scanned the crowd of arriving passengers...

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1. The Wickedest City in America

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pp. 1-19

When I was a small child growing up in Cheshire, Connecticut, my father used to mention Davenport, Iowa, in connection with his mother’s relatives in a detached and bemused tone that hinted at some important, undisclosed information. My father, who was Cora...

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2. These Leap Year Girls Are Getting Awfully Bold

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pp. 20-34

With so many dramas churning up the daily lives of her mother and older sisters, Cora doubtless found it hard to attract attention of any kind, positive or negative, from her family. Neglect has its advantages for boisterous teenagers—she had a lot of freedom to pursue...

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3. Vassar’s Crisis and Cora’s Humiliation

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pp. 35-49

By a strange coincidence, in 1884 Vassar College was drifting too.1 “Drifting” actually understates the problem; in that year, Vassar was in the grip of a serious crisis. Poor management and declining enrollments were dragging the nation’s premier educational institution...

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4. Memorable Date of Entrance

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pp. 50-59

Although Cora did not yet have her diary and didn’t record the details of her arrival at college, she glued the engraving of Vassar’s Main Building into her scrapbook, and the few words she wrote underneath convey everything about how she felt: “Wednesday, September...

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5. The Green Girls

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pp. 60-69

Vassar’s Main Building was designed by the famous American highsociety architect James Renwick in 1861 and has been the subject of intense analysis ever since, as much for its quirks and problems as for its grandeur.1 In 1884, all Vassar’s students still lived in this one building. So...

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6. Mugwumps and Oysters

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pp. 70-84

I really got serious about turning my research into a book in the fall of 2009. By chance, the calendar for that year exactly matches the calendar days of the week for 1885, and this coincidence became a source of inspiration for me; it put me on Cora’s schedule. Each morning before...

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7. College Pie with Tomatoes—Entirely New

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pp. 85-96

As the cold wet weather of November closed in, Cora and her roommates changed rooms and moved down two floors to the basement level to parlor 6 on the north corridor. The basement level was set aside to house the younger prep level students, and everyone understood...

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8. Abandoned at Christmas

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pp. 97-103

Winter came early that year, and it snowed before Thanksgiving. Cora’s teeth started to give her trouble, and she made a dentist’s appointment with Dr. Miller in Poughkeepsie on Saturday, November 22. Dr. M was a favorite Vassar dentist, known to be polite...

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9. First Time Out from College

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pp. 104-120

These are the first sentences in Cora’s diary, written in her vigorous and distinctive spidery handwriting. It was actually March when she recorded these events, but even two and a half months later, her recollections were clear: “In the morning, we went out of doors to see...

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10. Vassar Girl on a String

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pp. 121-136

Arrived at Vassar at 8:30 P.M. Ate supper and went to my parlor. In a short time, Laura Harris entered and we decided to be roommates. This was gladly seconded and we resolved to move out of our separate rooms, P.6L and P.22½ and share the room P...

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11. Oh! U Wretch!

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pp. 137-146

During the winter of 1885, a Vassar insider who preferred to conceal her identity gave a “confidential” gossipy interview to a young journalist in New York City. Let’s call her “Miss V.” The reporter wrote up an “exposé” three columns long of college life at Vassar with...

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12. Only 17,000 Minutes till Our Next Vacation

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pp. 147-157

Marian Austin first appears in Cora’s diary on a brisk March day in 1885: “A ‘Windy’ day so I wore my ‘sky blue’ veil. It was much becoming to me. Marian wore hers also. After drifting with the wind for 20 or so minutes we finally settled on a subject—spreads. I...

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13. The Girl of the Period

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pp. 158-169

Although described by one of her students as “frailty personified” and barely five feet tall, Miss Chapin loomed high in Cora’s anxieties.1 During the winter of 1885, Cora was turning out to be a disappointment to her. With students who had no talent, she was sweet-tempered...

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14. The No. 2000 Horse

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pp. 170-181

At the beginning of April, Cora found herself spending a major vacation marooned at college for the third time that year. She put a brave face on her situation, including herself in her friends’ happiness without complaining about her own dismal vacation plans as...

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15. Alas—So Vilely Played and So Carelessly Practiced

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pp. 182-189

As soon as the lawn in the athletic circle was dry, Cora and her friends started their spring tennis season on the third Saturday in April. The foursome took over one of the grass courts in the oval north of the Main Building before 7:30 in the morning. “Had a lovely...

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16. A Great Shock

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pp. 190-201

Elizabeth Griggs knew everything about the Kecks and their scandals back in Davenport. What secrets might she have been whispering to her friends about Cora’s family during the late-night spreads she was hosting in her parlor? Cora became consumed with worry, not...

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17. The Animated Stump

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pp. 202-213

On Friday, May 8, although Cora “practiced my usual amt. of periods,” she was “hardly recovered from my great shock of the preceding night. I am so angry.” Her anger alternated with dread that she might flunk out of college completely. Later that day, she tried to forget...

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18. Dear Davenport Dear Home

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pp. 214-221

On the day Cora boarded her train for Iowa, a swelling crowd of excited friends and siblings, proud parents, angry alumnae, and doddering old trustees began to gather for Vassar’s twenty-first commencement, filling the hotels and boardinghouses of Poughkeepsie to...

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19. The Black List

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pp. 222-233

The tracks rose gently above the flatlands of Rock Island and crossed the Mississippi on the Government Bridge; a blur of steel girders flashed past the train windows. The familiar deep, loud sounds alerted Cora and her sisters to wind down their conversation and get ready to...

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20. My Year’s Absence from D

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pp. 234-240

The Davenport Daily Gazette finally printed a correction about Cora’s arrival home from Vassar a week later in its “Davenport Briefs” section: “It was Mr. Keck’s daughter who returned from Vassar college Saturday evening, not Mr. Peck’s.” The glaring misprint that...

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21. My Interesting Stranger Friend

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pp. 241-254

Cora wrote to Miss Goodsell to ask for permission to arrive on campus a week early. The Lady Principal wrote back from her seaside vacation in Marblehead Neck, Massachusetts: “Your pleasant letter has just reached me. It was forwarded to this place from Vassar...

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22. The Sentimental Satellites

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pp. 255-269

During the week of November 8 to 13, Cora missed her corridor meeting, neglected her outdoor exercise, was unprepared for German on the 10th, missed her Harmony class on the 11th, was late on another day, and skipped chapel on the 11th, 13th, and 14th. She proudly...

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23. The Vassar Trio

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pp. 270-279

Despite her illicit extracurricular activities off campus, Cora’s music lessons were going extremely well for the first time since she had entered Vassar a year and a half before. On January 15, Miss Chapin assigned her two transcriptions by Liszt of popular passages from two...

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24. U Played Just Like a Wild Girl

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pp. 280-286

A small calendar pasted into Cora’s scrapbook refers to April as “Dear Month,” and April 16 is underlined. That was the date of the Soirée Musicale at 8 p.m. in the chapel, when Cora would make her debut, performing an advanced chamber-music piece in front of...

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25. Poor Boys Who Have Become Rich

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pp. 287-297

The next morning, Cora lay in bed late, sleeping off the combined effects of her late-night wakefulness and the previous evening’s debauch of eating and dancing. A music student named Irene Hinnes woke her with several sharp raps on the door and handed her a tartly...

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26. The Gem of the Evening

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pp. 298-316

As June approached, the romantic intrigues among the Vassar Trio (Cora, Minnie, and Lydia) reached a climax. Minnie Keiter became secretly engaged to Charlie Eastmeade. Minnie’s roommate in parlor 157, 5 corridor (who I assume was Lydia) wrote a note on rainbow...

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27. Life Underground and Its Dangers

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pp. 317-338

Cora’s two years at Vassar were over. Having entered through its famous gatehouse for the first time in September 1884 as a nobody from Squeedunk, joking to everyone that she displayed “less taste than was wanted,” a potential piano-playing parlor ornament and...

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28. Cora’s Heart’s Desire

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pp. 339-350

So it happened that three years after graduating from Vassar, Cora found herself standing on the dark platform of Chicago’s La Salle Street Station with the icy wind off Lake Michigan whipping around her ankles on a raw December evening, waiting for her exit strategy...

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29. Oh! How Little They Know. Anybody!

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pp. 351-357

A few weeks after Mrs. Dr. Keck had suggested a better way for Cora to feed her baby and departed, Cora decided that the new Nestlé’s Food did not agree with her after all and called in the Cooks’ regular family doctor, Dr. Fisher, who suggested a change to a different...

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Epilogue

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pp. 358-368

When I started to write this book, I naturally assumed that Mrs. Dr. Keck was a flat-out rascal and a medical pretender—as my grandfather had believed and as so many of her contemporaries had said she was, and as even her own daughter seemed to believe as a young...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 369-372

During the seven years I have spent working on this book, I have received enormous encouragement and help from a long list of friends, relations, colleagues, and interested experts. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to all of them. I began both the book and my relationship with Vassar College...

Glossary

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pp. 373-376

Notes

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pp. 377-384

Bibliography

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pp. 385-390

Name Index

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pp. 391-393


E-ISBN-13: 9781609382438
E-ISBN-10: 1609382439
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609382421
Print-ISBN-10: 1609382420

Page Count: 419
Illustrations: 135 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Revised Edition.

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Subject Headings

  • Keck, Cora, 1865-1921.
  • Vassar College -- Alumni and alumnae -- Biography.
  • Women -- Education (Higher) -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Women musicians -- United States -- Biography.
  • Women physicians -- United Staes -- Biography.
  • Davenport (Iowa) -- Biography.
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