Letters from the Sanatorium
Introduction by Curator, Bria Stokesbury
In the nineteenth century, tuberculosis - also known as "The White Plague" - was one of the leading causes of death in North America. The Nova Scotia Sanatorium was built in 1904 to treat patients suffering from the infectious lung disease. According to historian Mabel Nichols, between 1905 and 1938, approximately 5,000 patients were treated at the Sanatorium. In 1909, it was estimated that 50% of tuberculosis patients would die within five years even if they had undergone treatment. These are some of the statistics representing tuberculosis in Nova Scotia. But behind every statistic is a patient, and behind every patient, a story.
In 2003, a small scrapbook was donated to the Kings County Museum in Kentville. The scrapbook was filled with handwritten letters and holiday cards that once belonged to Rhoda Messanger. Rhoda was fourteen years old when she was first admitted to the Sanatorium in 1941. Her letters to her family in Mavilette, Digby County, tell the story of a young woman facing the hardships of being away from home, missing family and friends, of lost love and budding romance, sisterly concern for her sibling’s education, and trying not to worry her family with her medical condition. Locked in what became her biggest challenge - her fight for life - Rhoda’s letters are a glimpse into the life of one tuberculosis patient. This is her story.
June 21, 1941
Dear Blanche - [Rhoda’s sister]
Received the letter a few days and am glad you are coming up to see me, and when you are going to come and where are you going to stay.
Is your dress very cute and where did you get it?
Did you grade in grade three this year? And what was your marks on your exams?
How are feeling these days? I am feeling fine. You never tell me anything about Blanchard [----] and when you are going to get married please let me know? Woody and I are getting along real good and we are not going to get married he is going to marry someone else I guess. …
Will have to close,
July 1, 1941
Dear Mother -
How are you and the children getting along? I am feeling good. Did you have the thunder Storms down here we had it up here but wasn’t very [frightened] - it was an awful storm. I wasn’t awake very long I went to sleep
Hope you can make out my writing. I am lying down writing I guess I am getting lazy. Mother did Lena get my letters I sent her let me know?
I want you to send me all the Quaker puffed Rice and Quaker Puffed wheat box tops I saved a lot they are up stairs and please send them up to me as soon as you can.
We have a girl up here the same age of me fourteen and another little girl ten years old I haven’t saw her yet She is in another building. …
We have a big night nurse on now - her name is Miss Woodworth. Tell Catherine I am going to send her a list of nurses names I know up here. Tell her there was a Miss Bishop up here and she got married and now she is Mrs. Nickerson.
When are you going to start making hay I would like to be home so I could keep house and get the meals all I would ask for now is to [be] home again.
We had quite a few visitors Sunday and Saw Woody he had [Soldiers] Suit on did he ever look cute there are Some [Soldiers] here at the Sanatorium.
Some of our boys moved in another building and do I ever miss them I can’t talk to any other boys I don’t know the ones that are down there now.
How is Catherine’s leg getting along and how much does she weigh now? I hope She is all right I pray for her leg to get all better and I know Jesus will answer my prayers.
Don’t [forget] and send the box tops and save all the Soap wrappers so I can get something with them. I send away and got a photograph book to put all my snaps and if you have any snaps of you or the children or anybody I know send them up so I can put them in my book. If I get enough soap coupons I am going to send and get a camera and take some pictures if I can.
Well I will have to close for now and please let me know if you get the two pictures of me
Tell the children to write me a letter.
July 6, 1941
Dear Mother –
It is real hot today and are you having the hot weather down there? …
I will be so glad if you can come up to see me …
I have had strawberries four times so far and one of my boy friends gave me a box. Have you had many yet this year.
I weigh 97 lbs now only three more lbs and I will be a hundred and I will be proud when I get there.
How is everybody getting along down there? I am feeling real good. Will have an x-ray pretty soon and I hope to get a good report on my x-ray.
How is Catherine’s leg getting along [her sister, Catherine, was in a car accident] and is She getting fit or thin?
Did Lena get my letter please let me know.
Hear that Marg had a girl baby what did She name it I hope She names it after me (Ha! ha). How is all Marg’s kiddies getting along?
Here is a letter for Catherine
January 31, 1944
Well here I am again. I hope you got the Health Rays I sent you how do you like it?
So you want me to keep house when I come home, well If I come home I won’t be able to work I would love to take it easy. You said Catherine and I aren’t you planning to send her to school so she can get all the schooling she can get so she can be Somebody when she grows up and for Blanche and Blanchard you had better wait until they are old enough to work and send them to school so they can get a little education. We have to have someone in our family with a little learning, you don’t want to be like your Mother do you send your children out to work, when they should be in school so please Mother send them so long as you can. I don’t imagine I will be here to know just how far thru school they went. Ever since I had the flu I’ve been sick My temp has been quite far up I can only eat a very little and then I throw that up. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’m feeling pretty good this morning. …
Hope you are all feeling fine
love to all,
Dear Mother -
Received your letter last night and had a letter from Aunt Anna and a card from Aunt Jennie. …
There is two girls in the porch with me but I am on the other side of the fence all alone. We had pan cakes for breakfast and the other morning we had fish and was I mad I told them I never had fish home for breakfast.
I have got three boyfriends one comes to see my every other Sunday. He lives in Bear River where our minister lives. … He said he knew Ruby His name is Woody [----] he heard that I had two other boyfriends and did he get mad when he first came in he said I heard you have two other boyfriends I thought you only had me. I miss [illegible] Terrible I want him to come up and see me. What did you do to my room I am sending this letter for you to keep for me and dont burn them up. I am going to write to grammie. Tell her I dont have very much time because I sleep most of the time and when I go to write it is rest hour have you got my house coat made mother
Write right away
with lots of love for all home
I got the three dollars
I wish it was ten dollars
February 8, 1944
Jean is writing this letter for me. In my last letter I told you that I was sick, and I don’t want you to worry about me. You will be surprised when you read this letter because I hemorrhaged Saturday night at 11 o’clock. It wasn’t very bad and I’m not allowed to write for a while. I’m feeling much better now. The nurses are awfully good to me.
It isn’t slipper that I want send you, its pajamas, and I send them to you in a couple of days. Jean will wrap them up for me. They are very nice but their too small for me.
I got my watch fixed. I sent it to Halifax and I got it back about a week ago. It keeps good time now. I missed it so much while they were fixing it.
I got a letter from Sterling the other night. I hear from him quite often. He is fine. Well, guess I will have to close as it is getting late and it’s time to go to sleep so hope you don’t worry over me. I’ll be alright.
to the family
March 8, 1944
[On Official Letterhead from the Nova Scotia Sanatorium, Office Of The Medical Superintendent, Kentville, Nova Scotia]
Mrs. Florence Messenger,
Mavilette, Digby Co.,
[Letter pertains to the settlement of Rhoda’s personal effects and closes with the following paragraph:]
Rhoda was a very dear child and was extremely well liked by nurses and patients. Hers was a happy death for she called in all her nurses and doctors and said good-bye to them and had absolutely no fear of dying.
May I express our sympathy to you and your family.
(Mrs.) Hope M. Mack R.N.
Superintendent of Nurses.