The emergency passport request of Robert and Margaret Perkins was granted, and a long, difficult journey began on the heels of what had been a very trying time. Besides the recent separation, their last year in Darmstadt had been spent in poverty-like conditions. Germany’s inflation rate had skyrocketed, driving up the price of everyday items. Robert and Margaret were forced to live on meager supplies and with little heat during the cold winter. They witnessed a food riot. All about them, men, even partially disabled, were conscripted into the military. Women were forced to fill the manual labor jobs normally held by men. And everywhere, soldiers marched off to war, spouting hatred for England and America, and confident of victory.
They had also seen the plight of French war prisoners held in a camp near Darmstadt. Likewise, while traveling through France, they encountered prison camps where Germans were held. At Paris, they met the first 150 American soldiers to land in France after the war declaration. As shiploads of fighting men arrived, the frightened couple found passage home on the Rochambeau.
Said Robert later: “Believe me, the trip over here was some experience. There was not a submarine sighted, but the two days in the danger zone were horrible. There was never a light on board, and after dark, no one was allowed to light a match or smoke a cigarette. Each passenger was assigned to a lifeboat the hour he came on board, and each was told that for three days, he or she should not disrobe.” They were thus kept on alert at all times in case a U-boat should strike.
Finally, more than two months after escaping Germany, they arrived in New York, gratefully resettling at their home on West 74th Street. Among the few possessions they brought home was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings describing Robert’s success in Europe. It was hoped they would help secure for him important roles in American opera and regain the measure of fame he had attained in Europe.
Shortly after their return, in an interview that received coast-to-coast newspaper coverage, Robert and Margaret described some of what they had seen. From her time in Berlin, Margaret said Germany hated England, but the prime target of their derision had become the United States, especially after the unexpected response to Germany’s U-boat actions. Americans, they believed, had no stomach for a fight.
Added Robert: “Germans declared they [America] would never land half a dozen men in France. The U-boats would not let the troops come to France, they declared. I would like to learn what they think now.”
In December they went north to spend the winter in Glens Falls and help Robert regain his health, which had mysteriously been failing. By the following spring, he had begun performing at churches and other popular venues in the region. Though they were among the best of his repertoire, no German songs were included. He instead sang in English, French, and Italian.
Friends noted that Robert’s once imposing physique was absent, replaced by a body much weakened from the trials he had endured while in Germany. He spoke little of it, but believed he had been inflicted with some sort of slow-acting poison by the Germans. Once a robust man of six feet tall, he appeared frail at times and had lost use of his legs. His voice however, remained strong as he held concerts from Glens Falls to Saratoga, with attendance sometimes upward of 1000.
The Denver Post referenced an important singing sojourn Robert had recently made out West, appearing with the Philippine Band and Orchestra in three concerts that drew a total of 15,000 fans: “It takes a big voice to fill the auditorium, but Mr. Perkins has the voice and sang with stirring effect, and responded to encore after encore, and still the vast audience would have more.”
Though he became emaciated, Robert continued to perform through the summer of 1919. No one knew for certain the source of his ill health, but he continued to slowly deteriorate. Then, in early April 1921, shortly after undergoing surgery in a Detroit hospital, Robert died. He was only 40 years old. About a week later, his remains were sent home for burial.
When his body arrived in Glens Falls, controversy swirled around reports that his death had been no accident, but instead was a slow murder. Several newspapers reported that doctors found death-dealing substances in his body.
Typical of those articles was one appearing in the Saratogian: “That a slow poison administered to him in food when he was in Germany during the war may have caused the death of Robert H. Perkins, dramatic baritone, who died in a Detroit hospital Friday following an operation, became known when the body was brought to Glens Falls for burial yesterday. Specialists who operated upon Perkins declare they found that a slow poison, probably mixed with his food, had been at work in his system for considerable time.”
His death was mourned in New York City, Denver, and especially his hometown of Glens Falls, for so much potential had died with him. Family, friends, and fans were left to wonder what heights he may have reached had not tragedy brought an early end. In a strange coincidence, Robert Perkins’ life story played out much like the dramatic stage operas in which he had performed so well.
Photos: Headlines from 1917, 1918, 1921