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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dr. Robert A. Fleming - The Man Behind The Josephine Hotel

I'm still doing research on Dr. Robert A. Fleming, who built the Josephine Hotel and named it in honor of his beloved wife, Josephine.  Of what I know so far, He came to Eufaula, Alabama in 1857, straight out medical school somewhere in Philadelphia. I have recently found through a census report in 1880 that he was born in Georgia.  He came to work under the tutelage of Dr. William L. Cowan, who was Josephine's father. 

In 1858, Dr. Robert Alexander Fleming married Laura Josephine Cowan.  Robert then moves into the Cowan family home. 

It didn't take long for young Dr. Fleming to ascend to rank of one of the state's leading young physicians.  He continued to work under his mentor until Dr. Cowan passed away in 1859 at the age of 52. By today's standards this is way to young to die.  I think in those days it was not out of the ordinary, even for a physician. 

After Dr. Cowan's passing, Robert is now the only man living in the home.  Josephine's mother, Anna, her sister Rosa just 11 years old and her youngest sister, Willie is 2 only two years old.  James, who is Josephine's only brother, is away in school at West Point Military Academy.

A couple of years roll by and I kind of lose track of all of them until a catastrophic event happens at sometime in the summer of 1862.  While the Civil War to raging on, Eufaula is somehow spared a lot of the fighting, mostly due to the city being fortified with a large occupation of Confederate soldiers. Eufaula was home to a Confederate hospital from what I have learned in my research. Many wounded men from Georgia and Alabama, North and South of Eufaula were brought here to be care for.  The Chattahoochee River runs parallel along the bluff where Eufaula is situated.  This was how the injured were often brought here as well as supplies. Dr. Robert Fleming may have been of some assistance as a doctor to help treat the wounded, but I don't have any evidence of that and it may be because of what happened on a dark, humid, summer night. 

It was while sleep walking one night that Dr. Robert Fleming somehow wandered from his room, mindlessly walking on to the second floor balcony of the Cowan family home.  He took one step to many and fell over the balcony and crashed to the porch below. Robert landed in such a way that damaged his spinal cord beyond repair, leaving him to be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

The house in this photo was the Cowan family home.  The second floor balcony is the one he fell from.

Below is another view of the porch and balcony.

By now, Josephine's brother had graduated West Point and has put attending law school on hold.  He is now serving as an officer in the war and there's no telling when he would be back.  

The situation looked bleak for the young Dr. Fleming.  From what I have been able to find it seems that when Robert was able to leave the hospital he went for a time to stay with is Uncle, Dr. James Turner Persons.  The choice to go to his Uncles home may have been the best at the time.  While I am still researching Dr. Persons, more information is continually coming to my attention in my research and I'll divulge what I know about him in a later blog post.
My guess is that he went to his Uncles home for care and most likely rehabilitation.  It's not that Josephine couldn't have cared for him, but in her condition, pregnant, she wouldn't have been capable to care for him, nor was their anyone living in the home at that time who could have either.  

It's possible that Dr. Fleming's Uncle assisted in helping him not only with the obvious medical needs and also personal needs. He would have to learn how to bath and dress himself.  But it was also for the emotional needs as well. Robert's toughest battle would actually be fought from within.  The writing was on the wall and for Dr. Fleming it was an agonizing decision, but he decided to give up his medical career as I have learned.  Now, that's not to say he never practiced medicine again, but as a primary profession it was no longer on the table.  

Pictured below are two examples of wheelchairs used in the 1860's. These are as close to what the type of wheelchair Dr. Fleming could be seen wheeling around Union Springs. 

Later in the same year as the accident, Dr. Robert Fleming's spirit would be lifted as he was now a Father.  December 6, 1862, Josephine gave birth to their daughter.  Lola Josephine Fleming was the name and I can only imagine the joy this baby must have brought to her parents who had a difficult year.  

Now that baby was here, it was time for Robert to take his wife and new daughter to begin their new life in a new place.  That place was Union Springs, Alabama.  Dr. Fleming's new position in county government as the Register in Chancery.  This position could be compared to that of today's, 'County Clerk'.  Robert held that position until his death. This is not all he did though. Dr. Fleming was also a business man and owned several properties, both buying and selling. He may have invested in many different enterprises but the one he's best known for would be that of building The Josephine Hotel.

Research has led me to the date of August 25th, 1879, Dr. Robert A. Fleming has finally determined to erect a large three story hotel. It will be of brick and occupy the sites of the two frame buildings now in possession of Hanson & Son and N. B. Powell.  (I believe they were the builders and Architect.) They were to begin in October that same year.  But on October 27th, 1879 he decides to postpone the building until the following spring.  In January, 1880 Dr. Fleming now has decided to give the contract to Messer, Daniel, and Britt of Eufaula, who had built a similar hotel there.  By August, the hotel is erected and Dr. Fleming decides to pay tribute to the many virtues of his accomplished wife and names the hotel "Josephine" in her honor. 

Below is a photo of the Bluff Inn, the hotel designed and built by Messer, Daniel, & Britt of Eufaula.  This design and style was the inspiration for the Josephine Hotel in Union Springs.

Below is The Josephine Hotel in the 1880's.  Look at the beautiful New Orleans style railing on that porch.  It was just beautiful. 

And here below is a more recent photo.  Hopefully, one day the porch and that wonderful facade will be put back.  

My research on Dr. Robert A. Fleming has had me digging into various resources.  I like what I found when it came to the personal accounts of this man.  His character, style, and demeanor were of great interest to me. Many have described him as a cheerful man. Some commented on how he was a sight as he wheeled about town in his wheelchair, always smiling, bright, positive, and was considered a blessing to all who knew him.  He's also been described as a man who was "high-toned", which means that he had impeccable taste and style. Lastly, he was described as a honest and good man, and very well respected. 

Dr. Fleming's beloved wife, Josephine paid tribute to her husband in the most unique way.  She wanted to honor him in the best way she could. Here's how she did it.

In 1891 Dr. Fleming passed away.  We don't how or what he died from, but that is still part of my ongoing research. He is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Union Springs, Alabama. Josephine had an inscription put on Roberts headstone:

It reads:
     The elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, "THIS WAS A MAN!"

     And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying neither shall there be any more pain for the former things are passed away.
                                                                     Revelations 21:4

The scripture is easy to understand why she put this on there.  The first part was a little bit of a head scratcher for me.  I knew this had to be a personal thing between Robert and Josephine.  After all, we know people put all kinds of things on headstones.  Poems, pictures, scripture, lyrics, sayings, and so on.  This one seemed to have an important meaning.  Well, I found it.  After some time of research I was delighted to have located the source of this quote. 

It was and excerpt from a play from Shakespeare called Julius Cesar.  The line is from Act 5,  Scene 5, nearing the very end of the play, Anthony and Octavius look for a proper burial place.  The play comes to a close with these words:

     So call the field to rest, and let's away.
     To part glories of this happy day.
     His life was so gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that 
     nature might stand up and say to the world,                                        "THIS WAS A MAN!"

The play ends on that note.

I found a website that helps to explain the meanings of each line from all of Shakespeare's plays. 

Basically it means that it was a befitting tribute to an honest and good man.

I had to conclude that he must have been a fan of Shakespeare.  For that matter Josephine may have been a fan.  Or both of them. Either way this was the best way for her to have her husband honored in a way that would always be there for others to see.     

 Dr. Fleming was an accomplished man in his own right. He was a well respected Doctor, Register in Chancery, business man, church member, job creator, husband, father and friend to the community. His impact on Union Springs was far greater than history may have recorded. 

Through continued research, I hope to track down more of his business ventures, benevolent acts, and more about him personally. 

That's all for this post, but there is much more to come. So stay tuned. 



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the history of Dr. Fleming and the Josephine Hotel when it was first posted, and it was nice to re-read it again today: June 21, 2017.
Marie Allen