A New York woman’s quest to unlock secrets of her family’s past has uncovered the long-forgotten story of one of Davenport’s first female college graduates and her notorious mother, who made a fortune selling patent medicine.
Combining detective work in Davenport with family diaries, photo albums and scrapbooks, Greta Nettleton, a writer from Palisades, N.Y., has published a book about two ancestors from Davenport. Both made advances for women during the late 19th century.
The book is “The Quack’s Daughter” a time machine-type journey back to the Victorian Age. Readers meet “Mrs. Dr.” Rebecca J. Keck, a patent medicine entrepreneur who operated her “Palatial Infirmary For All Chronic Diseases” at 611 Brady St. She was a savvy businesswoman with several branch offices, but her treatments using herbal medicines raised the wrath of Scott County’s licensed medical doctors and forced her to stay one step ahead of the courts.
The richly detailed, thoroughly researched book focuses on her daughter, Cora, and Cora’s first year at Vassar College, the nation’s first college for women. There, Rebecca hoped her talented, musically inclined child would gain the family social respectability.
The 327-page book not only offers a rare glimpse of life in late 19th-century Davenport through Cora’s eyes, but it also takes readers to Vassar’s Poughkeepsie, N.Y., campus and Cora’s favorite partying place, New York City, where Nettleton also did some extensive research.
Nettleton is the great-granddaughter of Cora Keck and the great-great granddaughter of Rebecca Keck. While growing up in Cheshire, Conn., she knew almost nothing about her family history, save for a curious sugar and creamer set engraved with the words “Mrs. Dr. Keck” that graced the family kitchen.
Nettleton’s father, who was Cora’s grandson, would occasionally make veiled references to Davenport in connection with his mother’s relatives, but he never elaborated. And Nettleton learned not to ask.
The door to her family’s hidden past opened when Nettleton obtained a diary that Cora started in late March 1885 and kept during most of that year while she was studying piano at Vassar’s School of Music. In 2004, at the age of 49, Nettleton decided to read the diary, thinking it might fill in some genealogy gaps.
More family history was yet to come, though. After her widowed mother died and she moved to a small apartment, Nettleton received four antique leather trunks she had seen as a child in the attic of her family home. Rather than send them unopened to the landfill, as some suggested, she took them.
Inside the dusty, beaten-up trunks, she found a wealth of scrapbooks, photo albums, more diaries and other family lore. Among the treasures were several photos of the interior of her great-great grandmother’s mansion on Brady Street. They are among the book’s 150 photos and illustrations.
Even with that historical bonanza and the diary, which she had typed up and deciphered through the help of guides on how to read 19th-century handwriting, Nettleton wanted to know more. In July 2009, she spent a week in Davenport doing research.
In addition to poring over archives at libraries and museums, she soaked up local history by staying at the Beiderbecke Inn, the restored Gold Coast mansion originally owned by the grandparents of jazz cornet master Bix Beiderbecke. There, she got leads from some Gold Coast neighbors.
She also hiked up the Brady Street hill to scope out the neighborhood and the site of her great-great grandmother’s mansion and infirmary, now occupied by the Priester Building.
Another expedition took her to Davenport’s Oakdale Memorial Gardens, where she explored the Keck family plot and found important records on the family and other principals in the book.
In pursuing her book, Nettleton said she was driven by curiosity and the sense that she was traveling back in time. She wishes she had known about her ambitious great-great-grandmother and her talented great-grandmother while growing up.
“I think it would have filled in a sense of missing connections with my own family’s past,” she said. “I might have had more self-confidence, a sense of identity. Cora and Rebecca were so accomplished. I would have had a real feeling of pride to be descended from them.”