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Blast From the Past: Docs on the Way

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Major Hoff

Major Hoff was a veteran of the Indian Wars before going to Governors Island (photo credit: Columbus Medical Journal, 1897)

I could read stories about old Governors Island all day long. That’s one of the great things about the newspaper archives in the Library of Congress. Here’s a great tale from July 1893 that made the inside pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

At the time, Fort Columbus (today Fort Jay) had a busy post hospital that supported all local soldiers. This included those of Fort Wood, which was the small army garrison on Liberty Island. Remember, the Statue of Liberty had only been erected on it seven years earlier; the Army still manned the guns on the island.

In this era before telephone connections, the soldiers used cannons to signal each other. The small-caliber kind were used to signal sunrise, sunset and emergencies. At 7 p.m. on July 5, the day after the island’s Independence Day ceremonies, two booms were heard echoing across the harbor from Fort Wood by the soldiers on Governors Island. Firing two guns had one purpose: medical emergency on Fort Wood.

At Fort Columbus, Surgeon-Major John Van Rensselaer Hoff heard the call for help. However, his assistant surgeon, Captain W. W. R. Fisher, was already on Fort Wood, and had been there since the afternoon. The Governors Island ferry, Atlantic, was headed to Manhattan with a boatload of officers and enlisted men. Hearing the twin reports, ferry Captain Feeney swung the big boat away from Manhattan. “The skipper put the helm hard over, and, deaf to the protests of the officers, steered back to Governors Island,” according the World.

Major Hoff was waiting at the pier (now called Soissons Dock) pacing back and forth with his medical kit in hand. He hopped on the ferry and the captain steamed as quickly as he could toward “the statue on this cruise of mercy, and when her nose touched the pier at the foot of the goddess, the Major leaped for the shore. He was met by a messenger, who hurried him off to the cottage occupied by Private Robert Roberts, of Company A.”

Major Hoff and the other officers rushed across Fort Wood. They “inquired anxiously if there had been a murder, a suicide or an attack from New Jersey, but nobody seemed able to tell why Major Hoff had been summoned when Governors Island’s other surgeon was already on the scene.”

The barracks door opened a few minutes later. A voice shouted:

“It’s a boy!”

The soldiers were thrilled: ten minutes earlier, Dr. Fisher and Fireman Charles Miller had delivered the infant boy’s twin, “a dainty little girl.”

The World’s reporter told his audience: “These were two very good reasons for the ominous two guns that called all the medical and surgical resources for Fort Columbus to its adjunct, Fort Wood.”

Author: Corporal Fitzpatrick

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick is a licensed New York City Sightseeing Guide who has conducted city walking tours for 12 years. He is the author of “A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York” and co-editor of “The Lost Algonquin Round Table.” Fitzpatrick served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1983-1989. He is a member of the National Genealogical Society and researches national cemeteries and World War I records. He has been president of the Dorothy Parker Society since 1999. Born in Baltimore, he resides on the Upper West Side and Shelter Island, NY. His favorite place on Governors Island is Brick Row Park during the Jazz Age Weekends.

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