Dr. Henry Waterhouse and his son left their home in Vermont hoping the warmer climates found in the West Indies would help to fortify the doctor’s health. They would arrive in Key West during the hot summer months of 1828. A doctor by training and practice, Waterhouse opened an island practice, but also served the community in other capacities. For one, he served as the newly incorporated city of Key West’s treasurer.
From a handful of first-hand observations about his time at Key West, Waterhouse demonstrated himself to be, while perhaps a bit socially awkward, the kind of man who cared about the welfare of the people around him. When rumors of an outbreak of smallpox were reported at Havana, Waterhouse, understanding the close working relationship between the ports at Havana and Key West, had the foresight to stock up on the vaccine.
Subsequently, it would be posted in the Thursday, March 19, 1829, edition of the local paper that Dr. H.S. Waterhouse “has procured from the government hospital at Havana, a supply of pure, fresh vaccine or Cow Pox Matter to inoculate those for smallpox who may desire it.” Shots became available the following Saturday, on March 21, as advertised, to all those who stopped by his office.
Waterhouse is said to have possessed a vast book collection, considered the largest on the island. Waterhouse is also seemingly compared to the fictional character of Ichabod Crane, from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published nearly a decade prior, in 1820. Like the willowy Crane, Waterhouse was described as having “a sallow complexion and cadaverous expression, with the contours of his mouth altered by an ill-fitting set of false teeth which he assured his friends were manufactured from the tusk of a hippopotamus. His erudition and flawless diction earned him the nickname of ‘Dr. Syntax.’”
Waterhouse would go on to serve additional community posts, including that of Key West’s first postmaster. The island’s post office was established at the corner of Caroline and Front streets. He began his post on Feb. 18, 1829. He would resign his duties several years later when he moved to Indian Key sometime in late 1833 or early 1834. The arrival of a doctor at Indian Key must have made him a welcomed addition to the island’s growing population.
Waterhouse replaced Indian Key’s first postmaster, Silas Fletcher. Tragically, Waterhouse’s time at Indian Key would be short-lived. A story in the Key West Register, dated Jan. 24, 1835, reported, “On Saturday last about 9 o’clock p.m. a rumbling noise was heard in a W.N.W. direction from this place and in a short time a violent rush of wind followed which continued near 10 minutes with great force than has ever been felt here for many years. The schooner Fair America was blown upon the beach, near Browne’s wharf and several boats were injured. To windward the blow was sensibly felt and some damage done, and several lives lost among which we lament to mention the drowning of Dr. H.S. Waterhouse and his little son near Indian Key.”
The follow-up to the story would provide additional information. “Dr. Henry S. Waterhouse and his son, residents of Indian Key left the island on Saturday Evening the 17th instant in a boat on an excursion of fishing. The following morning it was discovered that they had not returned — boats were immediately dispatched in search of them, the boat in which they went was very soon discovered bottom upwards, and on further examination during the day, the body of the doctor was found and brought to this island this day interred. No discovery has yet been made of his son. It is the general opinion that the boat capsized in a very severe squall which occurred during the evening they left the Key.”
Brad Bertelli is curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center.