Munn Hall

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John Pixley Munn, M.D. (1847-1931)

John P. Munn was far more interesting than his obituary would lead one to believe, and having delved into his life, I will never look at Munn Hall in the same way again.

The early outlines are simple: born in Gates, New York, attended the University of Rochester, graduated in 1870, attended Bellevue Medical College in New York City, got his M.D. in 1876. He entered private practice, and one year later was named assistant medical director of the American Life Insurance Company.

But Munn’s life took a turn when he was “discovered” by James Buell, president of New York’s Importers and Traders Bank, who owned a large amount of stock in the American Life Insurance Co. Munn, Buell had heard, was rejecting policy-seekers for reasons he would not disclose; Buell wanted to know why. Munn told him that he had found a way of diagnosing Bright’s Disease, of the kidneys, before it became symptomatic. Munn then tested Buell himself and revealed that he, too, had Bright’s Disease.

In short order, Munn became Buell’s personal physician. In 1881, Buell died of Bright’s Disease and his fortune was divided between his wife and niece, his only survivors. Dr. Munn married the niece, Martha Buell Plum, a short time after the funeral, but left the management of her Uncle James’ estate to her while he continued his medical research and practice.

Munn’s second millionaire patient was financier Russell Sage, vice president of James Buell’s bank. A shareholder in railroads and banks, Sage was known as the Prince of Puts & Calls, a stock trader who lived on the edge. After one particularly trying stock plunge, Munn led the overwrought financier into “exile” at Sage’s Long Island estate, where he attended him personally for months until Sage’s health returned. Munn was firm with his patients, told them the truth, and healed them, becoming, in many cases, the only man whose advice they would heed.

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Russell Sage (1816-1906)

Overwork and disease were not the only hazards faced by Munn’s wealthy patients. In December of 1891, a man entered Russell Sage’s offices and tried to extort an immediate payment of $1,200,000; when he was denied, he threw a bomb to the floor, killing himself and injuring Sage, who summoned Munn first, the police second.

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Jay Gould (1836-1892)

A close friend of Sage, financier Jay Gould, was perhaps the most reviled of the 19th century’s “robber barons.” In 1888, he too retained Munn as his physician. By the measure of any era, Gould was not a choirboy. He amassed a personal fortune at the expense of those he tricked, cheated and crushed. Manipulating the price of stock, cornering markets, insider trading, hiring thugs to break strikes, bribing officials – Gould used every tool at hand. By 1882, he had a controlling interest in 15% of the nation’s railroad tracks, as well as New York City’s elevated railway and the Western Union telegraph company.

Dr. Munn’s task with Gould was twofold. Outwardly, he was to keep him in good health, because when Gould sneezed, Wall Street caught a cold. In truth, Gould had tuberculosis; and was going to die from it. Munn’s real job was keep Gould looking healthy as long as possible and prevent anyone from finding out the financier’s secret, lest his enemies be emboldened and his fortune swept away.

history_of_jay_gouldCard from Duke Tobacco’s “Histories of Poor Boys Who Became Rich”

Munn accompanied Gould everywhere, attending him in his office, his homes on Fifth Avenue and on the Hudson River, on his yacht, in his private railcar on his tours of inspection, on trips to Saratoga. The two men got along. Gould genuinely liked Munn, and placed him on several boards of directors, by way of amplifying his fortunes.

So how, one might ask, did the millionaires’ physician come to have a building named after him at Silver Bay? It comes back to railroads.

One day in 1872, a train dispatcher at Cleveland’s Union Terminal saw a crowd gather around a man killed in an accident, then disperse upon learning the victim was “only a railroad man.” The dispatcher felt that railroad men deserved better. He met with others and the first Railroad YMCA was organized; a reading room was dedicated at the Union Depot on June 1, 1872.

Richard C. Morse, for whom Silver Bay’s Morse Hall is named, was then the general secretary of the Executive Committee of the YMCA; he devoted a layover in Cleveland to a visit of the YMCA reading room. Encouraged by what he saw, he returned to New York and asked Cornelius Vanderbilt to devote a room in the new Grand Central Station to YMCA work. Vanderbilt did so, and eventually paid for an entire YMCA building.

Soon, railroad YMCAs were organized in Chicago, Erie, Baltimore, Boston and Detroit. They provided practical things — clean beds, good meals, and hot showers — but also offered Bible studies, educational courses, sports and other activities.

At its peak, the Railroad YMCA had an annual budget of more than $1 million, of which 40% came from the railroad companies themselves. The companies’ support was not entirely free of self-interest. If train crews were not sleeping at a YMCA, they might be sleeping in saloons or brothels; it was much easier to locate a crew at the YMCA, and they were generally in better shape than those who had slept elsewhere.

Training for those who would lead the individual railroad YMCAs was conducted each summer at Silver Bay. A classroom, the Railroad Institute building, was erected specifically for that purpose in 1913-1914. And the chairman of the railroad department of the International Committee of the YMCA was Dr. John P. Munn.

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The Railroad Institute building, later known as Munn Hall

Many benefited from Munn’s generosity with his time and money. He served as a trustee of the University of Rochester from 1886 until his death in 1931. He served New York University in a similar capacity, and donated $100,000 to the school. He also donated $3,000 to the Silver Bay library.

During Munn’s time with Russell Sage, his wife, Martha Munn, became good friends with Sage’s wife, Olivia. After Sage’s death, Olivia, his sole heir, set about giving away his fortune, estimated at $70,000,000, and counted on Martha Munn as one of her closest advisors. It is said that Russell Sage did not believe in education for women; his widow, who did, founded Russell Sage College for women in 1916.

Munn Hall

Munn Hall, July 2009

* * *

“Jay Gould in Saratoga: And Dr. John P. Munn Looks After His Health” The New York Times, July 28, 1888

“Jay Gould at the Ball” The New York Times, July 28, 1888

“Russell Sage’s Illness” The New York Times, October 8, 1902

“The YMCA” Journal of the Switchmen’s Union. Switchmen’s Union of North America, 1906

“Dr. John P. Munn Dies at Age of 83” The New York Times, August 16, 1931

Life of Jay Gould: How He Made His Millions (1892) by Murat Halstead and Frank Beale, Jr.

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