Mirror Girl. What an intriguing term. In the past it has been applied to the prettiest coeds in sororities, cute girls in general, and particularly vain women. But in this case, it addresses one of my favorite historical stories linked to the Northern New York’s years as a tuberculosis treatment center. The patient was a young woman, Jessica “Jessie” Ferguson, born in 1895 in Mount Pleasant, New York, north of Tarrytown on the Hudson River. Her parents, James and Anna, were both natives of Scotland, a fact that becomes key to the story.
The young girl’s difficulties began in her early twenties when her father died, and Jessica was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone, affecting her spine. In 1918, she lost the ability to walk. Doctors placed her in a cast that forced Jessica into a permanent reclining position.
In the early 1920s, Anna Ferguson moved her daughter to Saranac Lake, where they settled into a cottage on Riverside Drive on the shores of Lake Flower. Jessica’s situation was different from most patients, for the majority suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, which affected the lungs. The vision most of us conjure is of patients on porches to benefit from the fresh air, something Jessica was unable to do.
Her situation became known throughout the village, and could easily have been viewed as pathetic, sad, or even disastrous. But Jessie’s attitude made all the difference. Despite extreme challenges and the isolation caused by her disability, she maintained an upbeat disposition. And that drew people to her.
At some point, Jessie’s desire to see beyond four very familiar walls was satisfied by an arrangement of mirrors, angled so that images from the street were reflected back and forth, finally meeting her line of sight. And just like that, one of Saranac Lake’s better-known residents earned the moniker “Mirror Girl.”
It is well established that many famous and wealthy people came to Saranac Lake for treatment of tuberculosis, and a number contributed financially to help others. Some of the top names in show business frequented the village. Among them was William Morris, founder of the eponymous talent agency that signed many of entertainment’s top stars.
After learning of Jessica’s plight, Morris did something special that was good for Mirror Girl and good publicity for all involved. Reaching out to the famous Shubert Brothers, he explained her situation. The Shuberts were power players in the midst of building a business empire, having by then gained control of more than 50 percent of America’s theaters.
At the time, a traveling troupe performing Tangerine was due to play in Watertown and Malone. It was arranged by Lee Shubert that, in early May 1923, a private performance was added to the schedule—a full production presented right in Mirror Girl’s room! The media ate it up, and Jessica’s fame grew.
In summer 1924, a similar circumstance occurred when a group of Chautauqua performers, to the accompaniment of violin and piano, gave a private concert for Mirror Girl. Among the artists was an excellent baritone, Knight MacGregor, who sang several Scottish tunes. For Jessica and her mother, it was a special connection to the homeland, for both Anna and Knight hailed from the same area of the Scottish Highlands.
Jessica’s countenance in the face of extreme disability was widely admired. For a time, she was Saranac Lake’s second-most-famous resident of Scottish descent, a title reserved for Robert Louis Stevenson, whose own ties to the village have been widely documented. And it was through Stevenson’s legacy that Mirror Girl would find salvation.
In 1915, members of the Robert Louis Stevenson Society of America, based in Saranac Lake, made the organization permanent. In the 1920s, as Jessica’s story played out in the media, a pair of highly influential members of the Stevenson Society—Colonel Walter Scott and the aforementioned William Morris—took note of her story.
From business interests, Scott was a wealthy man and a very active philanthropist. He gave freely to help others, taking action in the present rather than simply enjoying his own good fortune and later providing endowments in his will. Scott’s philosophy: “It has always been a practice of mine to present flowers during life, when one can enjoy their beauty and fragrance.” He presented many such “flowers” to colleges and hospitals, including several facilities that focused on caring for children.
Scott was not only a member of the Stevenson Society, but was president for a number of years as well. Several other members supported Jessica, maintaining frequent contact, but it was the kindly, attentive Colonel whom she referred to as her “fairy godfather.”
Photos: Colonel Walter Scott; William Morris