Circumstances of the Death of J.W.P. Jenks

Rhode Island Hall, site of the Jenks Museum on the campus of Brown University.

Rhode Island Hall, site of the Jenks Museum on the campus of Brown University. Note the steps. (Image source: Brown University Library)

What were the precise circumstances of the death of John Whipple Potter Jenks?

Let us return to that fateful afternoon in September 1894.

Accounts agree that Jenks perished on the stairs to leading to his museum in Rhode Island Hall.  The most detailed description is found in a posthumous addition to his autobiography:

Wednesday, September 26th.  Prof. Jenks was in the Museum, but more feeble than usual.  He had suffered from heart failure, and his Physician had cautioned him about walking up the hill.  He went to his dinner, and on his return his grandson Percy, who has a front room in Slater’s Hall, saw him from his window walking slowly and feebly by to Rhode Island Hall.  Reaching the stairs he sat down, and all was over.

One of Jenks’ former students recounted the incident for a book published in 1929:

His end was beautiful. He was in his seventy-sixth year, apparently hale and hearty, his youthful enthusiasm not abated. He had lunched, possibly too heavily, with some dear friends with one of whom he walked up College Hill, stopped for a minute in conversation on the steps of Rhode Island Hall, started to go upstairs to the Museum, sank down and expired without a moment’s sickness or suffering. One could not ask a finer end.

While these narratives differ on a few points, the basic story seems straightforward.  Jenks, returning to the museum from lunch, died just as he reached the building, apparently in view of other people.  The stairs in question would appear to be the exterior steps of Rhode Island Hall.

But when one considers that the Jenks Museum was on the second floor of Rhode Island Hall, the picture grows blurry.  One now notes ambiguous references to a stairway (more substantial than those exterior steps?) and a floor.

From a news clipping archived in Brown University’s Special Collections:

[As curator and professor] he continued for more than 20 years, until struck down by the hand of death on September 26, 1894, at the foot of the stairway leading up to the repository of the objects of his labor, the Museum of Natural History in Rhode Island Hall.

And back to the autobiography:

Shortly after 3 o’clock some visitors to the museum reported that they had seen the body of a man lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs. It was! Alas! the Professor. Physicians were at once summoned, but life was extinct.

Finally we encounter this line in a news clipping:

On the 26th of September, 1894, he had returned to Rhode Island Hall from his midday dinner, had entered the building, when he was seized with heart failure and fell prostrate at the foot of the stairs, and died there alone, just as he was about to go up to his much-loved museum.”

Aha!  This suggests Jenks died on the interior stairs, not the exterior stairs, as we had long imagined.

Jenks left the museum for lunch at noon, returned at an unknown time, and was discovered by visitors to the museum at 3p.m.  It’s possible that he died unseen and lay on the stairs for quite a while before the museum visitors happened upon his lifeless form.

There is also the question of Jenks’ health.  In some accounts Jenks is “hale and hearty” right up to the moment of collapse, while in others he is “feeble.”

Doctors noted the apparent cause of death: heart failure.  But long-term exposure to arsenic — a hazard of the taxidermist’s trade — had weakened Jenks.  His student Dallas Lore Sharp observed the symptoms:

And here, at last was a real naturalist… who had been so nearly paralyzed by arsenic, absorbed in his mounting of skins, that he walked with a sort of quick scuff and shuffle!
If anything of the heroic was lacking in his appearance, it was more than made up by that shuffle caused by arsenical poisoning.  Arsenic in his very bones!  A martyr to science!

Jenks seemed to be feeling his mortality.  Shortly before he died, he wrote to his son Elisha saying that he felt so stiff he could not turn his own head.  Also, Jenks had hired a man named Anthony McCabe to type up his autobiography.  McCabe visited Jenks only a few hours before Jenks’ death.  Jenks told him then, “If I should be called suddenly to my heavenly home, my son will carry out my plan.”  (A cynical reader might note that McCabe wrote about this in a letter to Elisha, perhaps prompting the junior Jenks to pay what was still owed for the work.)

So did Jenks perish in good health?  Or was this a gentle way of narrating a story of long suffering and a lonely death?

Whatever the exact circumstances may have been, all agreed that Jenks died at his post, attending to the museum that he loved.

In memory of the departed naturalist, Brown closed the day after Jenks’ death and flew its flag at half-mast until after his funeral.

A memorial address delivered at Brown assured mourners that Jenks had met a fitting end: “He had always desired a sudden death, and his wish was granted.”

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