Although it may seem odd to us, the majestic edifices that makeup Barnes-Jewish Hospital is a reminder that hospitals in St. Louis weren’t always huge complexes employing thousands. Many of our hospitals were once housed in mansions. They helped the poor and indigent in once exclusive areas. It was fascinating to discover, for instance, that the small hospital in the northern part of the Lemp Mansion on DeMenil Place had been demolished. Stefene Russell (ex-SLM culture editor) told me about Anna Rethwilm. She was a wealthy widow with presumably good intentions who was accused of practicing medicine in her Central West End home without a license. I knew I had got to investigate.
Rethwilm’s long road to infamy, and the christening of her home as “The House of Mystery”, began innocently with a trip to Germany. She was influenced by the Kneipp Treatment. This is the 19th-century Bavarian Roman Catholic priest, Sebastian Kneipp. Father Kneipp believed that health should be approached from five perspectives. Even doctors today would not suspect three of the five prongs, which are healthy eating, regular exercise, and mindfulness, as they do not require suspicion. He also advocated phytotherapy, the use of herbs as medicine (which, while it has gained some mainstream acceptance, can be a bit dicey), and hydrotherapy which involved ice-cold water baths to treat a variety of diseases. He believed tuberculosis could also be treated with ice water baths. This was pseudoscience. When I looked at his regimens, it was clear that they were more similar to 16th- and 17th-century Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation asceticism rather than modern western medicine. His theories also relied on the long-disproved theory of the Four Humors, which was popularized by the ancient Greeks. Kneippbrod is a Norwegian whole-wheat bread, which remains Norway’s most popular bread.
Rethwilm, a Kneipp-obsessed traveler to Germany, found a calling in “helping people” by using her huge home at 4957 Forest Park Avenue for a Kneipp Treatment Hospital. In 1906, her elderly husband, who had a fortune from clothing retail, died. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show that the stone-fronted, Romanesque Revival mansion was isolated with many empty lots between it. It was separated from the Frisco Railroad Employees’ Hospital by an alley to the north.
Rethwilms mansion was quite isolated. Until June 1909 when the St. The strange happenings were first reported by the Louis Post-Dispatch. According to the article, neighbors had for years called the area the “House of Mystery.” One neighbor even told the Post Dispatch that he had moved with his family to escape the disturbing sounds that came at all hours of the night. Rethwilm bought a parrot to try subterfuge and confuse her neighbors’ screams for the sounds of a tropical bird. The St. Louis Department of Health began an investigation into her gambit.
The shocking results of the investigation were shocking. Seven people died over the years in the mansion. Their bodies were all taken out in the middle of the night. Although a palisade fence prevented the view from the backyard, neighbors could still see well-dressed people walking in the high grass in their bare feet. These patients could also be seen working in manual labor, such as sawing wood or other forms of manual labor. Dr. G. Alexander Jordan, of the St. Louis Department of Health, received an anonymous communication stating two deaths on the property were suicides and at least two were caused by violence. The letter included names and dates. Death certificates for those who died in the mansion-turned-hospital were not regularly filed with the city.
Rethwilm was unsure about the deaths at her home when she was questioned by a reporter. Rethwilm laughed when asked about the death of the teenage girl who had jumped into the backyard well. When asked why the undertaker came at night to collect bodies, she laughed and said that it was because they all died at night. She also stated that she didn’t want to disturb neighbors.
Rethwilm failed to convince the Department of Health doctors that everything was fine. Rethwilm was charged with practicing medicine without a license. Although there was suspicion that seven deaths occurred due to unsuccessful attempts at psychiatric treatment, the city doctors could not prove any additional charges. Rethwilm argued that the bars on the windows were there to keep out burglars, and not keep patients inside. She claimed to be a mere philanthropist and opened her home to those with different ailments. She also claimed that she was the victim of an ex-employee’s extortion. The house was no longer used as an amateur hospital.
Rethwilm was arrested three weeks later. She appeared before the Court of Criminal Correction where she was convicted of “holding herself out as a doctor.” She was fined $50 and was let go. The House of Mystery, which was valued at $45,000 at that time, gives you an idea of the amount of her fine. She insisted on a Post reporter following the proceedings, claiming that forcing her tenants to walk in the grass barefoot was not an attempt to practice medicine. Rethwilm also noted that “Kneipp Bread”, which was provided free of charge, had been served.
It seems that the matter has been resolved.
Rethwilm was back in polite society by 1912. A Post article stated that she had protested the licensing of a Saloon just around the corner at Euclid, Laclede. According to the article, she still lived at 4957 Forest Park. It was too late, the liquor license had been approved. Rethwilm would soon be gone from her House of Mystery within a few years. In 1917, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church will open on the former site.
In 1933, she died in San Francisco and was buried at Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery with her husband. It is hard to imagine what he would think of the events that followed his death. The story shows that the St. Louis Department of Health was already ensuring, in 1909 at the earliest, that science-based psychiatry won out over pseudoscience.