After the American Civil War, Davenport, Iowa was a rapidly growing city full of a population still recovering from the trials and tribulations of that terrible conflict.
Many veterans had returned home, either going back to the families that they had left or eager to start one. Some farmed, others started businesses, and still others went to work in the factories that were starting to populate the city skyline. As the city grew, so did the need for quality health care.
Mother Mary Borromeo Johnson was a different kind of veteran who was determined to give the city exactly that.
Mother Borromeo belonged to an order of Catholic nuns called the Sisters of Mercy. They were dedicated to providing for the medical needs of the people. Founded in Ireland, the Sisters had ministered to first the populace, and then later soldiers of the Crimean War. Eventually, members of the order made their way to American shores, founding convents in both New York and Chicago.
In Chicago, Mother Borromeo, along with other members of her order, were trained by staff doctors at the prestigious Rush Medical College. During the Civil War, she followed in the traditions of the Sisters of Mercy by ministering to the sick, wounded, and dying soldiers who were recovering from combat on the front.
After a short time running a school in DeWitt, Iowa, Mother Borromeo saw a greater need for the services of her order in nearby Davenport. She felt that the quality of health care there was lacking and was determined to change that.
Entering into a deal with the city, the Sisters of Mercy transformed an abandoned building north of the city into Davenport’s first hospital. They immediately focused on caring for the needs of the citizenry, including the mentally ill.
Over the next decades, the aptly named Mercy Hospital would grow into a four-story, Gothic-style building that housed facilities for almost every type of medical treatment, as well as two other large buildings on the hospital campus devoted specifically to the mental health and treatment of men and women.
Fifty years after Mother Borromeo and the Sisters of Mercy founded the hospital, Amelia Rohwedder was having chest pains.
It was the spring of 1919, and the 48-year-old wife and mother must have known that something wasn’t right, and so she consulted a physician. They immediately recognized that Amelia was having heart problems and admitted her into Mercy Hospital.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was only so much that doctors could do to treat heart issues. While they could administer some medicines, more invasive surgical procedures that would later save countless lives were still undiscovered. Mostly what doctors of that era did was treat the pain symptoms and have their patients rest in a quiet, secluded place. Hopefully, they would recover.
Amelia Rohwedder’s room was on the fourth floor of the hospital. It was no doubt clean and comfortable and would have afforded her a spectacular view of the surrounding area. For three days, Amelia rested there while she waited for her symptoms to subside.
On March 19, 1919, one of the staff nurses was giving her a bath. After the nurse was finished, she discovered that there weren’t any fresh linens in the room. Smiling, she told Amelia that she’d be right back, and then left the room to get some.
When the nurse returned a few minutes later, Amelia was gone.
Confused, she called out Amelia’s name as she began to look for her. No answer came as the nurse looked around the empty bed. She checked the clothes closet, only to find that empty as well. As she closed the closet doors, the nurse noticed that the window was open.
Crossing the room, the nurse examined the window. There, on the ground far below, lay Amelia’s unmoving form. Quickly, she ran out of the room, down the stairs, and then out of the building.
When the nurse got there, a local doctor, William A. Stoecks, was already there checking Amelia. He had been in the room directly below Amelia’s on the third floor when he noticed something fall past the window. It had happened so quickly that it took Stoecks a minute to register the event.
Curious, he had gone to the window to investigate. Just like the nurse, he saw Amelia’s prostrate form below, and immediately ran out to help.
Outwardly, Amelia only had a scratch on her nose. However, she had suffered severe internal injuries, including a broken neck. Stoecks and his colleagues treated her as best as they could, but to no avail. Amelia Rohwedder passed away soon after her fall.
Everyone was shocked. Outside of her heart problems, Amelia had shown no signs of depression, and hadn’t demonstrated any suicidal tendencies. Both the doctors and Amelia’s family were baffled.
After a brief examination of the case, the county coroner declared that the death had been accidental. The doctors said that Amelia must have had a fit of delirium when the nurse left the room. Maybe, in her mental state at that moment, she had decided to jump out the window. Or perhaps she had leaned too far out trying to see something and fell.
Regardless of what exactly had happened, the result was the same: Amelia Rohwedder had died from injuries sustained from a fall from her hospital room window. The body was claimed by her family, and Amelia was buried next to two of her sons in Davenport’s City Cemetery.
In the ebb and flow of the hospital’s daily routine, Amelia Rohwedder’s unfortunate death was eventually forgotten.
However, the ensuing years would soon show that far more horrific events lay in store for Mercy Hospital, and far stranger ones would be associated with Dr. William A. Stoecks.
The History of Genesis Health System and its Predecessor Organizations. www.genesishealth.com/about/timeline.
Harlan, Edgar Rubey. A Narrative History of the People of Iowa, Vol. III Chicago: American Historical Society, 1931.
Sister Condon, Mary Brigid. From Simplicity to Elegance: The Story of Mercy Hospital, Davenport 1869-1994. Davenport: Genesis Health System, 1997.
Jumps to Death From Top Floor Mercy Hospital. Davenport Democrat and Leader, 3/19/1919.
Leaps from a Window in a Delirium; Dies. The Daily Times, 3/19/1919
Amelia Rohwedder. http://www.findagrave.com