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The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rev. Dr. Hyde
By Matthew Archbold
Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author of Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, suffered from tuberculosis (who wasn't back in the 19th century?) and believed that journeying to the South Pacific would be good for his health. Stevenson loved to travel and was glad to depart.
He once wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.” So off he went and eventually ended up meeting one Rev. Dr. Charles McEwan Hyde.
Now, to be clear, Hyde, a Presbyterian, was no monster like the Hyde that Stevenson had written about years earlier in his famous novel. Dr. Hyde was working on getting smallpox vaccinations for the natives there as well as better education. But something came between the two. Actually someone.
That someone was Father Damien, a Catholic who lived among lepers in a leper colony on the island of Molokai. Fr. Damien served the lepers until he eventually contracted the fatal Hansen's disease to which he eventually succumbed.
Now, reportedly Dr. Hyde had heard much about Fr. Damien and even met him once and was...shall we say...unimpressed.
“Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth,” Hyde reportedly wrote in a private letter to a fellow Presbyterian. “But never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”
He specifically called Father Damien a "coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted" who only contracted leprosy through "carelessness."
Unfortunately for Hyde, that private letter soon became public. Very public.
And the famous author read about it in the newspaper and was moved to do something about it. Now, Stevenson had never met Fr. Damien but had traveled to Molokai shortly after Fr. Damien's death and had spoken to many who'd known him. He said those conversations and interviews “build up the image of a man, with all his weaknesses, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth.”
So in 1890, Stevenson published his “Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu.” It was dozens of pages long and pretty unmerciful towards Hyde.
In that letter he wrote to Hyde, “With you, I rejoice to feel the button off the foil and to plunge home.” That means he wanted to stab him to death. Man, and we complain about public discourse nowadays.
He continued in his defense of Fr. Damien and his critique of Hyde:
But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour – the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing remained to you in your defeat – some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away"...
You are one of those who have an eye for faults and failures; that you take a pleasure to find and publish them; and that, having found them, you make haste to forget the overvailing virtues and the real success which had alone introduced them to your knowledge. It is a dangerous frame of mind.
Stevenson concluded that "If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage."
The letter was a worldwide smash with even the New York Times running a story called “A Reverend Gossip Rebuked” which, oddly enough, marked the last time the paper defended a Catholic. (I kid.) ((But not really.))
Stevenson's words were at least somewhat prophetic as Fr. Damien was eventually canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
HT I heard this referred to on Relevant Radio and then looked into it. I'm not sure which show but thanks to them for making me aware of this interesting story.
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