A Macabre Romp at Methodist Deaconess Sanatorium
By Emmaly Wiederholt
On October 15th, 2022, I performed my full-length dance-theater piece “TB or Not TB: A Macabre Romp through New Mexico’s Sanatorium Past” at UNM’s ARTS Lab, formerly the site of the Methodist Deaconess Sanatorium.
In the early 1920s, my great grandfather Francis J. Lingo was one of thousands who moved to Albuquerque to “chase the cure.” Tuberculosis was one of the deadliest diseases in the early 20th century, and many physicians advised patients to seek relief in high dry altitudes. Albuquerque, along with other cities around New Mexico and the Wild West, was transformed in a few short decades into a thriving health economy based on treating the influx of “lungers,” as they were called. Tuberculosis patients made up an estimated 10 percent of New Mexico’s population in 1920, according to the book “Chasing the Cure in New Mexico” by Nancy Owen Lewis.
One hundred years ago, the five main sanatoriums in Albuquerque where my great grandfather might have sought treatment were St. Joseph Sanatorium, Southwestern Presbyterian Sanatorium, Murphey Sanatorium, Albuquerque Sanatorium, and Methodist Deaconess Sanatorium. Today, what remains at the sites of these sanatoriums include parking lots, office complexes, even major hospitals.
I choreographed “TB or Not TB” by imagining the experience of someone like my great grandfather coming to New Mexico from a major Eastern city. By researching the treatments at the time, which included abundant meals (the idea being that consumption “consumed” the body and could be counteracted through food), heliotherapy (shining the sun down one’s throat with a mirror), and sitting passively outside rain or shine, I sought to construct a slice of life in a sanatorium.
My friend and colleague Jaden Chavez played my “nurse,” and she brought a beleaguered stoicism to the role that served as a counterpoint to my campy and somewhat histrionic character. I gained access to archival recordings of live music performed in New Mexico a century ago used with the permission of the University of New Mexico John Donald Robb Musical Trust and the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections, University of New Mexico Libraries. I cut these old-timey tracks with etudes by Chopin to create a score for the piece that was both folksy and theatrical. My mom, Cathy Intemann, costumed me in glamorous 1920s pajamas, and clad Jaden in tidy nurse whites.
In the end, my character dies, which is in line with the very real prognosis for TB patients in the early 20th century. According to “Chasing the Cure in New Mexico” by Nancy Owen Lewis, “Although some health seekers lived to a ripe old age, many did not. In fact, numerous health seekers never lived to celebrate their first anniversary in New Mexico. In 1912, there were 2,088 health seekers in a city of 13,057 people. Of the 1,419 TB deaths in Albuquerque between 1904 and 1913, 58 percent succumbed within the first year of their arrival, while nearly 47 percent died within the first six months.”
Special thanks to Stewart and Valery at the UNM ARTS Lab for their support with this performance of “TB or Not TB.”
Photography by Pat Berrett
Video by Ben Arndt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-OPgO2MvWI