The Mysterious Robert E. Clarke
Every family has a mystery.
Mine concerned the identity of my great-grandfather, Robert E. Clarke. In his teens, my father’s father was legally adopted by his mother’s second husband, a man he always called “Mr. Tuttle.” My grandfather grew up knowing nothing of his natural father; he was only five when his mother divorced the man from whom he’d received his name. Yet the story passed down to my father and his sister was that their mysterious, missing grandfather had been a doctor appointed “Physician to the Court of St. James” by Queen Victoria.
Biographies of Queen Victoria reveal she had a personal physician known as Sir James Clark. But he died in 1870 in England, leaving just one son, who was certainly not my grandfather.
My grandfather, Robert Elliott Tuttle, was born in Baltimore in 1889 and grew up mainly in Chicago. But during his infancy he traveled with his parents around the capitals of Europe.
In a box of family papers I found a copy of a marriage license from 1886—the copy was made in 1936, apparently at my grandfather’s request. His mother would never talk about her first husband and insisted on referring to Mr. Tuttle as “your father” even after she divorced him, but he found out some facts: Mr. Robert E. Clarke, 30 years old, of New York, New York, married Miss Eugenia Ash, 20 years old, of Washington, District of Columbia, in Chicago, Illinois, on October 2, 1886.
I could easily guess that E stood for Elliott—and, while there were quite a few men called Robert E. Clarke, the search for my missing ancestor through the records of the past now available via Internet search engines was made easier by his decision to distinguish himself by using his less common middle name.
- Elliott Clarke opened his first office as an elocutionist and singing teacher in Philadelphia in 1880. By 1882 he was offering his “voice building” courses by mail, advertising in newspapers and periodicals throughout the country. That same year he announced the establishment of a new prep school for both sexes and all ages: The Pennsylvania Conservatory of Universal Education. But no sooner had he collected deposits from students than he disappeared, leaving unpaid teachers to deal with the bills and complaints that flooded in.
I won’t elaborate on the years I spent searching and sifting through unrelated Clarks and Clarkes to put together an outline of our family history. Robert Elliott Clarke was born in New York in 1854, the son of staunchly Methodist Irish immigrants. He left school at thirteen to work as a clerk in his parents’ dry-goods store in Brooklyn until, in about 1872, the family headed west, where John Clarke was a lay preacher.
At the beginning of 1887, Robert took his wife to San Francisco. (His parents were then living in Oakland.) California was experiencing a real estate boom, and in August, a vocal instructor named R. Elliott Clarke, along with several other men (including one Eugene Clark), incorporated a new venture, the Central California Land Exchange, claiming $100,000 in capital stock and offering shares at $100 each. A few months later, Treasurer Clarke disappeared with an unknown amount of money and a warrant out for his arrest.
They evaded the law, and I haven’t found any further misdeeds or advertisements attached to R. Elliott Clarke before Robert E. Clarke turns up in Washington, D.C., in 1890— first offering paper and printing supplies from his mother-in-law’s address, then advertising more forcefully and widely as the local agent for a Baltimore corporation known as the Southern Land Exchange. In newspapers throughout the states of Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York, Robert E. Clarke & Co. offered amazing investment opportunities to suit all pockets. By early February 1891, there were half-page and even full-page ads appearing in the major newspapers of New York City and Washington, D.C.
On February 19, Clarke disappeared, leaving behind no bank account, but many bounced checks, unpaid creditors, an empty office safe, and his wife, “a remarkably pretty little lady” said to be ill with worry.
On April 6, 1891, Robert Elliott Clarke was at the American Legation in Berlin, applying for a passport to cover himself, his wife, and minor child.
Berlin was a popular destination for budget-conscious Americans—it had an established “American colony” of about two thousand; Mark Twain also moved there in 1891 in an attempt to save money. It was a clean, modern city, also one that was highly regulated and sternly policed. Clarke would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to operate one of his usual scams there. Perhaps for that reason, they soon moved on to London and Paris.
Robert, Eugenia, and young Robbie sailed back to America in April 1895. On the passenger list, Robert E. Clarke gave his profession as “Physician.” Why? Berlin was home to a famous medical school that attracted many American students—could he have been one of them? Or is this evidence of a new scam?
The latter, of course.
Headlines in the New York Herald of December 16, 1895, announced Many Seeking G. Elliott Clark [sic]: An Army of Creditors Call at His Former Residence to Find Him Gone and Fat Persons Disgruntled—He Agreed to Cure Them of Their Obesity But Many Still Mourn Their Corpulency.
Clark is described as “an exceedingly attractive man of about forty years old, with iron grey hair and an address at once pleasant and plausible.” The letters M.D. followed his name on his card, although he did not apparently practice as a physician, but “advertised extensively in newspapers and periodicals, on street-cars and indeed in every way possible.” His wife had already left him, and it was thought he had returned to London. No criminal charges had been filed, and most of his clients seemed to hold no hard feelings against him.
Eugenia got her divorce after a year’s residency in Chicago, married again a few years later, and, when he was fourteen, Robert Elliot Clarke Jr. became Robert Elliott Tuttle.
But I still didn’t know where the story that he’d been Queen Victoria’s physician had come from until I found this, from The Medical Record (April 17, 1920): “Dr Robert Elliott Clarke, at one time medical advisor to Queen Victoria, died March 27, at the Matteawan Hospital where he had been a patient for two years. He was sixty-six years of age.”
My grandfather married a doctor’s daughter in 1917; his father-in-law (my other great-grandfather) would certainly have had a subscription to The Medical Record and recognized the name of his son-in-law’s long-lost natural father; although I can’t prove this is where the family legend got started, it feels right to me.
But how did a small-time American con artist with a seventh-grade education end up having his story validated by the medical establishment? More digging revealed the likely source was a story published in the New York Tribune, March 27, 1920: “Dr. Robert Elliott Clarke, 66, at one time medical adviser to Queen Victoria of England and personal adviser to the Earl of Eidesley, Chancellor of the Exchequer, died today…” Other biographical claims included: “son of Bishop John Clarke, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, New York” and “in addition to being an eminent physician, Dr. Clarke was at one time a grand-opera singer in Europe…. considered one of the foremost exponents of voice culture of his day and wrote several books on the subject.”
If you Google Earl of Eidesley, the only result is that story from the Tribune. A full list of Queen Victoria’s real chancellors can easily be found on-line.
But there was no Internet in 1920, and neither The Medical Record nor the New York Tribune is likely to have employed fact-checkers at that time. Their acknowledgment was good enough for the American Medical Association, who added Robert Elliott Clarke’s name and date of death to their official records, and they later appeared in the Directory of Deceased American Physicians 1804-1929. And so my ancestor’s claim survived, not only in family legend but was given the status of alternative facts.
LISA TUTTLE wrote her first novel in collaboration with George R.R. Martin, starting in the late 1970s, when both were equally unknown young SF writers. Windhaven is now available as a graphic novel, illustrated by Elsa Charretier. More recently she has slipped from writing fantasy and horror into supernaturally tinged detective stories with the first two novels in a crossover series set in 1890s England: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief and The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross. Her short stories have been nominated for awards and appeared in many “best of the year” collections including Best British Fantasy, Best British Mysteries and, most recently, Best British Short Stories 2018. Born and educated in the United States, she has lived in Scotland for more than twenty-five years.