John Swinburne was born May 30, 1820 in Denmark, Lewis County, New York. He attended school in the communities of Lowville and Denmark, and in Fairfield, Herkimer County, all in New York. He was an excellent student and upon completion of his studies, he took a job as a teacher.
In 1841, at the age of 21, he began the study of medicine and in 1843 entered Albany Medical College where he was a student under the tutelage of Dr. James H. Armsby, a founder of the college. He eventually went to work for Dr. Armsby and upon his graduation in 1846, started his own practice.
In 1847, as Swinburne’s private practice was growing, he was appointed demonstrator of anatomy at Albany Medical College and that same year, he married Harriet Judson of Albany. They had four children.
By 1851, Swinburne also served as Albany’s Almshouse Physician, a voluntary position. That year he treated 800 indigent people suffering from “Ship Fever.” He not only was unpaid for his services, but wound up catching the sickness himself.
As his reputation as a medical expert and credible community leader grew, he was called on to testify in several important murder trials.
Attorney General Chatfield asked Swinburne to conduct a postmortem examination and testify in the death of the wife of John Hendrickson. Hendrickson said that he and his wife were asleep in bed. When he awoke, he found her lying next to him, not breathing. Swinburne’s examination found that her face and body were “unusually pale, and apparently bloated, swollen or puffed, -the face decidedly so.” This, plus other observations, led him to believe she had been poisoned.
Swinburne had observed similar conditions in animals that had been poisoned with aconite (wolf’s bane). He excised portions of her stomach and intestines and asked Dr. James H. Salisbury, a well-respected chemist, to test them. He found alconitine, a derivative of alconite.
The defense brought at least four medical experts of their own to try to discredit Swinburne’s testimony, to no avail. Hendrickson was convicted and sentenced to be executed.
Swinburn’s most famous testimony came in the case of Reverend Henry Budge. On the morning of December 11, 1859, Budge’s wife Priscilla was found dead in her bed. Her throat had been cut and a straight razor was found under her elbow. Reverend Budge and his parents all testified that they had been asleep and heard nothing. Following an examination by the Lyons Falls village doctor, a coroner’s inquest was held and a verdict of “death by suicide” was rendered.
Four months later, whispers of domestic differences and foul play caused the coroner to exhume the body and order an autopsy to be conducted by Dr. Swinburne. Swinburne’s examination revealed that Mrs. Budge had an extensive cut, five and one half inches long and two inches deep. The wound had gone back to the vertebra, cutting through the periosteum (a dense layer of tissue that covers our bones) and into the osseous (bony) matter of the fifth vertebra shaving off of a portion of the vertebra.
These results, and the facts elicited at the first coroner’s inquest that the bedclothes were undisturbed and there were no spurts or splatters of blood on the body, nightdress or bedclothes, the only blood being directly below the wound, led Swinburne to deduce that she could not possibly have inflicted such a powerful wound on herself, and in addition, she was already dead when the wound was inflicted.
This created a sensation and Reverend Budge was indicted for murder. However, a long series of legal maneuverings ensued and the trial was finally heard in 1861. The problem for the prosecution was that although no one now believed that Priscilla Budge had committed suicide, there was no direct proof that Reverend Budge had been the murderer.
However most people might think that there was no way Priscilla Budge could have been murdered, and then had her throat slit, without Reverend Budge’s knowledge since he supposedly was asleep in the bed next to her. After many days of testimony, Judge Allen of Utica found that “as the case stands, it is only a balance of probabilities, in which it would be unsafe to convict” and “these doubts having arisen, the prisoner is entitled to the benefit of them, and should be released.” Reverend Budge went free.
By 1861, Swinburne had the largest private practice in Albany and he was living very comfortably. On April 14, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War and Swinburne’s life changed dramatically.
At the outbreak of war, Swinburne volunteered his services, without compensation, to New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan. He was appointed chief medical officer to General John Rathbone commander of the Albany Military Depot.
New York’s Surgeon General S. Oakley Vanderpoel directed that they establish a military hospital at Albany. Rathbone took over Albany’s Industrial School and converted it into a hospital, eventually constructing three more buildings to house sick and wounded. From April until December, 1861, they treated 1,427 patients at the hospital with only twelve deaths, receiving a letter of commendation from General Vanderpoel.
In the early months, Swinburne felt that, “the leaders of the Rebellion would recover from their delusion and renouncing treason, return to loyalty and peace.” However by April of 1862, he could see that this was not going to happen and he volunteered to serve at the front.
He was commissioned an officer in the Union Army on April 7, 1862 and was told to report to Dr. Charles Stuart Tripler, medical director of the Army of the Potomac. On May 18, he was sent to Paumkey, Virginia, where he, together with Drs. Sylvester D. Willard, Lansing and Mason F. Cogswell of Albany, and Drs. Hall and Page of Boston, were directed to establish a hospital at the large Union Base at White House landing. The hospital consisted of large white tents housing 1,200 – 1,500 patients.
At the time they arrived, a few tents had been erected but about 300 sick and wounded soldiers were spread out under trees awaiting erection of more tents. New patients were arriving at the rate of 100 to 150 a day and there were no battles underway. The patients were mostly suffering from intestinal problem common to crowded facilities and poor sanitation. After the tents were erected, straw was spread on the ground and patients were laid in lines on the straw.
This proved totally unsatisfactory when it was discovered that the straw was already wet from improper storage before it was spread. Swinburne ordered the wet straw removed. India rubber was spread on the ground and covered with planks and new straw was placed on top. This new arrangement met with Swinburne’s approval. Swinburne personally paid for the rubber, the planks and new straw from his own money.
Swinburne reported that about half of the patients he treated were simply suffering from exhaustion. He felt that this resulted from wide changes in temperature, hot during the day, cold at night, long forced marches, being constantly wet, poor food and water. These conditions, plus the crowded conditions and poor sanitary conditions were causing outbreaks of typhoid. Swinburne praised the conditions at the hospital, where the mortality rate was 1% – 2%, compared to that on the hospital ships where he saw that most patients were dying from unsanitary conditions.
His report also mentioned that the hospital had no fresh meat and even when they had meat, they had no pots to cook with and water had to be brought by bucket from a stream a half mile away.
The Battle of Fair Oaks (also known as the Battle of Seven Pines) began and casualties escalated enormously. The large number of wounded soldiers totally overwhelmed the hospital staff. Swinburne reported rising at 4 am and working until midnight each day during the duration of the battle.
On June 12, with pressures lessened, Swinburne returned to Albany, where he met with Governor Morgan and complained about the conditions and methods of caring for the wounded. Governor Morgan was sympathetic and, in an effort to give Swinburne more authority to make changes, appointed him Medical Superintendent of New York State Wounded Soldiers and sent him to Washington to report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Swinburne was, at first, assigned to Newport News, Virginia, but resisted the assignment preferring one nearer the front. He was reassigned to Savage Station, which was in the middle of the major Union offensive. On June 26, 1862, with the hospital only half prepared, the battle began. Large numbers of wounded were brought there.
On the 28th, he was advised that due to a Union retreat, the hospital would need to be evacuated. Approximately 3,000 sick and wounded patients were moved by every means possible, wagons, ships and by foot for those who could walk. Still, new patients continued to arrive.
With all the boats gone and no remaining wagons, Swinburne sent a Chaplain (Burke) to General George B. McClellan to tell him that they would not be able to evacuate. McClellan sent word that the staff would have to make their own decisions on staying; he advised that they may be forfeiting their lives if they did not leave. He did, however, author a letter to the commanding Confederate general asking for his consideration which he gave to Burke to give to Swinburne.
Swinburne, Burke and about twenty others elected to stay with 150 of the most seriously wounded. The advancing Confederate troops opened fire on the hospital and continued the shelling until Swinburne emerged with a white flag of truce. As the day advanced, about 500 more wounded troops were brought to the hospital. Over the next several days, the hospital staff treated wounded from both sides.
After one month in captivity, on July 28, out of food and medicine and with their surgical instruments seized, they were released. On Aug. 2, 1862, Swinburne returned to Albany, suffering from severe dysentery.
Upon his return to Albany, Swinburne and Dr. Willard were appointed to a committee to confer with the State Legislature which resulted in the unanimous passage of a bill appropriating $200,000 for the care of the sick and wounded soldiers from New York. The bill was controversial however, because it contained certain mandates urged by Swinburne to change methods of treatment and the bill was actually opposed by New York’s Surgeon General and the Surgeon General of the United States.
Swinburne used this opportunity to criticize the large numbers of amputations being conducted. Medical procedure, at the time, called for broken bones to be aligned and splinted. If the bones could not be aligned, which happened frequently with compound fractures, they were usually amputated.
Swinburne prepared a paper advocating traction rather than splints or amputation for treating compound fractures. He even designed a stretcher to properly move patients with fractures. He also criticized the quick decisions to use surgery by many doctors at the front, calling them “butchers.” He advocated a conservative approach and pushed strongly for healing and repair rather than amputation.
At the end of the war in 1864, Swinburne was appointed health officer of the Port of New York by Governor Horatio Seymour. His mission was to establish adequate medical safeguards for arriving immigrants. He recommended that any new arrival who was obviously sick, be quarantined to prevent any new and possibly very contagious diseases from entering the U.S. However, no adequate location could be found to quarantine people without letting them into the country.
A plan was developed to build two new islands in 12’ to 15’ of water in New York Harbor. Swinburne oversaw the construction of the islands and the barracks-type hospitals and administration buildings on both. The New York Legislature named the first of these islands “Swinburne Island.” Swinburne lived at the island until 1870, when he decided to take a vacation in Europe. He was in London on September 4, when he received an urgent message from American foreign minister Washburn and the American Sanitary Commission that the Franco-Prussian War had broken out. They asked him to come to Paris to take charge of the American Ambulance Trauma Hospital.
Swinburne reported to Paris and served in this capacity until March 1871. In recognition of his services, the French government named him a Knight of the Legion of Honor and he also was awarded the Red Cross of Geneva for his distinguished service.
In the fall of 1871, he returned to Albany and resumed private practice. In 1872, he was elected president of the Medical Society of Albany County and by 1876 he was appointed professor of fractures and dislocations and clinical surgery at Albany Medical College. He was also appointed a consulting surgeon to St. Peter’s Hospital and surgeon-in-chief of the Homeopathic and Child’s Hospitals. He was also president of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
In 1879, he established the Swinburne Dispensary for the treatment of all illness and accidents. The dispensary was the first established in Albany to provide free medical service for all needy patients. He donated $5,000 per year of his own funds to help operate the dispensary.
In 1882, he joined a reform movement aimed at changing the affairs of the city of Albany. He ran for mayor as a candidate of the Peoples’ Party against Michael Nolan, the incumbent Democratic mayor and owner of the Quinn and Nolan Brewery.
The campaign was very bitter and after a recount Nolan was announced winner by a small margin. However, Swinburne’s supporters brought charges of outrageous ballot tampering against Nolan. Albany judges decided that Nolan should be allowed to serve until the court decided otherwise and Nolan’s attorneys delayed proceedings as much as possible. Due to their maneuverings, a court decision was not handed down for fourteen months (a mayor’s term at that time was 24 months) but the decision was awarded to Swinburne and he took office for just ten months.
Swinburne immediately ran for re-election but lost to Democrat John Boyd Thacher. Advised by his supporters to contest the election due to many of the same violations, he refused, reluctant to go through all the legal proceedings again. Instead, he decided to run for Congress, since he thought it would be harder to rig a federal election and he would have different judges to deal with in federal court. He beat the incumbent Democrat Thomas J. Van Alstyne by 2,504 votes.
John Swinburne died on March 30, 1889; he was 68 years old. His wife, Harriet, survived him by two years. Their home residence was 57 Eagle Street. They are interred in Section 30, Lot 11 at Albany Rural Cemetery. Albany’s Swinburne Park off Clinton Avenue is named in his honor.
Illustrations from above: Portrait of John Swinburne; Wolf’s Bane (Shutterstock image); Rev. Henry Budge crime scene illustration; the Union Army encampment on the Pamunkey River in Virginia (May–August 1862); Burying the dead and burning dead horses after the battle of Seven Pines (Battle of Fair Oaks); Civil War amputation procedures from the Civil War Hand-book of Surgical Operations (1862) by Stephen Smith; and a description of the Swinburne Dispensary from 1884.
John Collier says
Thank you Mr. Hess for a very informative article about a very interesting man. I wonder if there is a more extensive bio of Dr. Swinburne?