Dear Vance: Many years ago, a member of my family spent time in John Gaston Hospital, and I know there is also a Gaston Park in South Memphis. Who was this enterprising gentleman?
— A.T., Memphis
Dear A.T.: In his fine history book Metropolis of the American Nile, John Harkins writes: "From the start of his success, he shared his time, talents, and good fortune with others. Long known for his quiet kindnesses, his love of children, and his secret philanthropies, this French immigrant of humble origins became one of this city's leading citizens."
I know what you are thinking: This is indeed an uncannily accurate depiction of Vance Lauderdale.
But he is actually referring to John Gaston, whose life does bear certain parallels to my own. I have to admit, though, that Gaston was probably a better cook.
Another Memphis historian, Paul Coppock, once observed, "Documented facts about Gaston are scarce," and says that most biographical information derives from a booklet, "John Gaston, Citizen," compiled in the late 1930s by Louise Gambill when she was on the staff of Mayor Walter Chandler. Just why she undertook this endeavor is unknown, but I mention Coppock, Harkins, and now Gambill just to give credit where it is due: the Lauderdales never met the Gastons, so I have no firsthand knowledge of the man.
This much we do know. Gaston was born in France in 1828 and began working in his grandfather's café in Paris when he was only 6. As a young man, he gained employment as a steward on a French Line steamer running between Le Havre and New York, and sometime in the 1850s decided to stay in America. After drifting around New York City for a while, he managed to land a job with the world-famous restaurant Delmonico's, working his way up from waiter to chef, and it is there, so it is said, where he perfected his culinary skills.
When the Civil War started, Gaston relocated to Memphis. It wasn't a good move. "War wiped him out," writes Coppock. "He took the side of the South, but exactly what he did is unclear." Stories persist that he joined the Confederate forces and was wounded in action, but some tales have him injured in the shoulder, while others say he was shot in the foot.
It doesn't matter. What concerns us here is that in 1866, Gaston opened the Commercial Restaurant downtown at Adams and Main. Within weeks, the newspapers of the day called him "that prince of caterers." In 1871 his growing reputation (and bank account) allowed him to open a larger restaurant called Gaston's — complete with first-class hotel — overlooking Court Square. According to Coppock, "details got his attention, such as buying 20,000 quill toothpicks from France, each with the word 'Gaston' in gold lettering."
Gaston became very, very rich. Big-name politicians dined at his restaurant, and celebrities such as Oscar Wilde made a point to visit when they toured Memphis. Gaston built a wonderful mansion on South Third Street, and also had the business sense to purchase property all over town.
Gaston died in 1912 at the age of 84. His restaurant closed, though the building at 33-35 South Court has survived to this day. Before his death, he told friends that he wanted his mansion converted into a public hospital. That didn't happen until the death of his wife, Theresa, in 1929. Then the mansion — deemed too small for a decent hospital — was demolished, and the property on Third was converted into Gaston Park, complete with a $150,000 community center. The bulk of his fortune, supplemented by funds from the Public Works Administration, was then used to build a brand-new city hospital in the medical district. John Gaston Hospital opened on Madison in 1936. It remained one of our city's busiest hospitals until it was demolished in 1990 to make way for the growth of The Med.
Dear Vance: : I found an old bottle at an estate sale with a label for James Robinson Apothecary. What's the story behind this interesting establishment? — G.A., Memphis
Dear G.A.: On those days — Monday through Friday, and generally three or four weekends a month — when I wake up suffering from neuralgia, neurosis, eczema, gout, rheumatism, and general malaise, the ointments and potions from James S. Robinson often soothe my pains. Well, that and a dozen bottles of Kentucky Nip.
For reasons I can't explain, the Lauderdale Library contains hundreds of unused labels from the Robinson Apothecary. No ailment, it seems, was beyond a simple cure — swallowing a pill, or gulping down a tonic. The firm offered such oddly named medications as Glycerol Cantherides, Syrup of Squill, Tonga Elixir, and — get ready — Syrup of Ipecacuanha. A product called "Cobalt, or Fly Stone," was labeled POISON but carried these peculiar instructions: "Add a little water and sweeten with sugar." Was that designed to make the poison taste better?
I don't know Robinson's entire story, but it's similar to John Gaston's. Born in Philadelphia in the early 1800s, the pharmacist ventured to Memphis in search of a better job. He opened his first store in 1869 at the corner of Second and Madison and apparently did quite well. During the late 1870s, he gained the thanks of grateful citizens by keeping his drugstore open during the yellow fever epidemics, when so many other businessmen fled the city.
Robinson died in 1929, and the business was continued by his daughter, Mary Robinson. According to an old newspaper article, the firm filled its two millionth prescription in June 1929.
In 1965, the old apothecary was sold to two pharmacists, Sam Burson and Jack Kirsch, who continued to operate it at various locations throughout the city, though they eventually dropped the Robinson name.
The Robinson building is still standing on North Second Street, though it has been converted into high-class business offices, called — appropriately enough — The Apothecary.