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York doctor served under Czar, saw the Amber Room

Henry L. Smyser (courtesy York County History Center)

There has recently been some discussion on Retro York on Facebook about the Historic York Inn (also known as the Smyser-Bair House Bed and Breakfast) on South Beaver Street, just off of West Market. Their website condenses the history of the wonderful house and includes some beautiful interior photos.

Dr. Henry Lanius Smyser is one of my favorite old Yorkers, partly because he left behind some fascinating letters of his adventures. They are in the York County History Center Library/Archives. I included transcriptions of the hard-to-read correspondence in lengthy papers I did while working my graduate degree in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. (Copies of those papers are also at YCHC.)

Using these letters and papers as a basis, over the years I wrote several York Sunday News columns on Smyser’s travels. Two are on his 1849 gold-seeking quest to California with other like-minded men from the area, and one is on his 1855 European venture to serve under the Czar of Russia as a doctor during the Crimean War. I previously shared the Gold Rush columns on this blog (see links below), but I just realized I had never posted the column on the Crimean War here on the blog. It is perhaps the most fascinating of all, so here it is:

From York to Russia and Back

History has always been measured by its wars. There never seems to be a time without conflict somewhere on the globe. In 1855 America at least was at peace. The Mexican War had ended in 1848. Our Civil War was looming, but had not yet ignited. The story was different in Europe: France and Russia were clashing over control of holy sites in Palestine. Great Britain, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire allied with the French. The resulting conflict is known as the Crimean War, but its battles also raged in several other areas, including the Baltic.  

The Czar of Russia recruited American doctors to help staff his military hospitals. One of those young physicians was 29-year-old Henry L. Smyser of York. On July 5, 1855 Henry wrote to his parents, Michael and Eliza Lanius Smyser, that he had arrived in St. Petersburg. He outlined the terms and salary to which he had agreed: He would receive a salary of 120 rubles a month (to be paid in silver) and would be supplied with lodging, rations, and the services of three servants (or the equivalent in money). His rank would be Major and he could not be dismissed without cause before the end of the war. After the war, he could accept a position in the Russian civil service, if he so desired. Henry, on the other hand, could break the contract anytime by giving a month’s notice. One condition, which did not seen to trouble Henry, was that the physicians had to pledge an “oath of allegiance to his Imperial Majesty, to cease with the expiration of the contract.”

He was sent to the military hospital in the beautiful little town of Tavestehus in south-central Finland. (Today it is a thriving city of about 45,000, known by its Finnish name of Hameenlinna.) He shared three rooms with two other American doctors at Tavestehus’s only hotel.

Henry wrote very lengthy letters back home to family and friends, including his future wife, fifteen-year-old Emma Rieman. In the letters, now in the archives of York County Heritage Trust, he described the cold, beautiful post with its long summer days and long winter nights. The Russian soldiers wore long coats of fur with the skin side out, providing warmth. Henry remarked that the people who could not afford furs used wadded cotton to pad their coats and the serfs wore sheepskin.

Henry had 129 patients in his charge soon after arrival, their care becoming easier as he learned the language. All was not work–as an officer, Henry was invited to tea and parties at the homes of civil and military dignitaries. He was fascinated by “the machine to make tea at the table” (samovar), and recommended taking tea with lemon and no milk, evidently a new idea to him. After tea there would be dancing and low-stake card games until midnight. Henry didn’t indulge in either vice, so he tried to turn down the many invitations as graciously as possible. He was also rather taken aback that some of his acquaintances thought Rio de Janeiro, Mexico, and Chile were part of the United States.

In a letter to his sister, Henry described the Russian Orthodox celebration on January 6 to commemorate the baptism of Christ. A procession of Russian soldiers in full dress accompanied the priest out unto the picturesque frozen lake. The priest dipped a silver cross into a hole cut into the ice, and the water was caught on a plate. This water was then used for blessing and healing, including being sprinkled on patients in Henry’s care.

In the early spring of 1856, he described preparations for a visit by the Emperor–feverish painting of walls and scouring of the floors with sand. Hospital staff members were disappointed when a snowstorm held up the arrival of Czar Alexander II, who then only had time to dine with the governor, not to visit the hospital. There was some consolation when the Czar sent his private physician to inspect the hospital and when that doctor declared it the best in Finland.

At the end of March, the Treaty of Paris ended the war. Henry wrote home that he was turning down a chance to join the regular Russian Army at the “usual surgeon’s pay of 333 rubles a year.” He planned to tour more of Europe before coming back to York, after going to St. Petersburg to settle accounts and collect pay due him. Before leaving Russia, the American surgeons were invited to Peterhof Palace, outside St. Petersburg, to be personally thanked by the Czar.

Thus ended the adventure of a lifetime. Henry returned to York and married his Emma in 1860. He did serve as a U.S. Army surgeon during the Civil War, but that tour of duty unfortunately did not generate any of his wonderfully descriptive letters: Henry was assigned to the Civil War Hospital on Penn Common, a post that he could see from his front doorstep.

Note: This column is even more special to me since I took my notes along and wrote it on a trip to Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. It included a stop in Hameenlinna/Tavestehus, Finland (I believe the fortress photo on their website is where Lanius was stationed.) We also toured the Catherine Palace, near St. Petersburg, and saw the reconstructed amber room, a replica of the fantastic lost original that Henry saw.

Here are the links to the Gold Rush columns:

Gold Fever hits York County

Yorkers see the elephant but not the gold

Lanius’s certificate presented by Czar Alexander II in 1856 (Courtesy York County History Center)