The “Song of the Cardinal” was Gene Stratton-Porter’s first book published in June of
1903. The book came close to not being written as Gene almost died in Geneva at the age
of 39 in 1902.
Newspapers from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne wrote of her illness. In 1934, Lorene Miller
Wallace, her secretary from 1908-1915, wrote about Gene’s almost “paying the supreme
sacrifice for her loving and painstaking work on this book” in the summer of 1902. Gene
herself wrote about her ordeal in “Homing with the the Birds.”
During the night of August 23, a special train was arranged and brought Charles Porter’s
brother, noted specialist Dr. Miles Porter of Fort Wayne, to Gene’s bedside to care for
her. She was suffering from typhoid fever. According to Lorene, she was unconscious for
several days and remained weak and bed ridden for six weeks at the Limberlost Cabin in
“Song of the Cardinal” was first an article in “Century Magazine.” The editor, Richard
Watson Gilder, was so enthusiastic about Gene’s article and bird photography that he
encouraged her to enlarge it into a book.
According to Lorene, in the summer of 1902, Gene dressed in green clothing to blend
into the scenery and hid her camera in bushes in order to photograph the cardinals. In her
daily treks, she learned where there were several cardinal nests along the Wabash River
in Geneva. She tied bits of beefsteak to tree branches to encourage the birds to eat so she
could photograph them. The birds soon became comfortable with her. One of her prized
photographs was of a bird bathing in the river.
One day, following a night of rain, she worked under the hot sun in the steaming heat.
Wading into the Wabash River, she worked on taking pictures of trailing vines of wild
morning glories and rose mallow and she became chilled. Realizing the seriousness of her
condition, she immediately returned to the cabin where she was to remain for six weeks.
Two weeks after recovering from her illness, Gene was back in the field photographing
nature in her beloved Limberlost. Doctors credit her normally good health with aiding in
“The Song of the Cardinal” came out to good book reviews across the country in the
summer of 1903 and Gene’s career as an author was launched. In 1933, the cardinal
became the state bird of Indiana. The book “The Song of the Cardinal” would be
translated into nine languages and Braille in the first twenty-five years of publication.