S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

The autobiography of a quack and the case of George Dedlow online

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curled darkness for hair, and teeth like new
tombstones. It was pretty cold, and he was
relieving his feet by standing first on one
and then on the other. He did not wait for
me to speak.

"Hi, sah, Missey Barker she say to come
quick away, sah, to Numbah 709 Bedford


The locality did not look like pay, but
it is hard to say in this quarter, because
sometimes you found a well-to-do " brandy-
snifter " (local for gin-shop) or a hard-working
"leather- jeweler" (ditto for shoemaker), with
next door, in a house better or worse, dozens
of human rats for whom every police trap in
the city was constantly set.

With a doubt in my mind as to whether I
should find a good patient or some dirty nig-
ger, I sought the place to which I had been
directed. I did not like its looks; but I
blundered up an alley and into a back room,
where I fell over somebody, and was cursed
and told to lie down and keep easy, or some-
body, meaning the man stumbled over, would
make me. At last I lit on a staircase which
led into the alley, and, after much useless in-
quiry, got as high as the garret. People here-
about did not know one another, or did not
want to know, so that it was of little avail
to ask questions. At length I saw a light
through the cracks in the attic door, and
walked in. To my amazement, the first per-
son I saw was a woman of about thirty-five,
in pearl-gray Quaker dress one of your
quiet, good-looking people. She was seated
on a stool beside a straw mattress upon


which lay a black woman. There were three
others crowded close around a small stove,
which was red-hot an unusual spectacle in
this street. Altogether a most nasty den.

As I came in, the little Quaker woman got
up and said : " I took the liberty of sending
for thee to look at this poor woman. I am
afraid she has the smallpox. Will thee be so
kind as to look at her ? " And with this she
held down the candle toward the bed.

'Good gracious!" I said hastily, seeing
how the creature was speckled, "I did n't
understand this, or I would not have come.
I have important cases which I cannot sub-
ject to the risk of contagion. Best let her
alone, miss," I added, " or send her to the
smallpox hospital."

Upon my word, I was astonished at the
little woman's indignation. She said just
those things which make you feel as if some-
body had been calling you names or kicking
you Was I really a doctor ? and so on. It
did not gain by being put in the ungram-
matical tongue of Quakers. However, I
never did fancy smallpox, and what could a
fellow get by doctoring wretches like these ?
So I held my tongue and went away. About
a week afterwards I met Evans, the dispen-


sary man, a very common fellow, who was
said to be frank.

" Helloa ! " says he. " Doctor, you made a
nice mistake about that darky at No. 709
Bedford street the other night. She had
nothing but measles, after all."

" Of course I knew/ 7 said I, laughing , " but
you don't think I was going in for dispensary
trash, do you ? "

" I should think not," said Evans.

I learned afterwards that this Miss Barker
had taken an absurd fancy to the man be-
cause he had doctored the darky and would
not let the Quakeress pay him. The end
was, when I wanted to get a vacancy in the
Southwark Dispensary, where they do pay
the doctors, Miss Barker was malignant
enough to take advantage of my oversight
by telling the whole story to the board j so
that Evans got in, and I was beaten.

You may be pretty sure that I found rather
slow the kind of practice I have described,
and began to look about for chances of bet-
tering myself. In this sort of locality rather
risky cases turned up now and then ; and as
soon as I got to be known as a reliable man,
I began to get the peculiar sort of practice I
wanted. Notwithstanding all my efforts, I




found myself, at the close of three years, with
all my means spent, and just able to live
meagerly from hand to mouth, which by no
means suited a man of my refined tastes.

Once or twice I paid a visit to my aunt,
and was able to secure moderate aid by over-
hauling her concealed hoardings. But as to
these changes of property I was careful, and
did not venture to secure the large amount I
needed. As to the Bible, it was at this time
hidden, and I judged it, therefore, to be her
chief place of deposit. Banks she utterly

Six months went by, and I was worse oif
than ever two months in arrears of rent,
and numerous other debts to cigar-shops and
liquor-dealers. Now and then some good job,
such as a burglar with a cut head, helped me
for a while; but, on the whole, I was like
Slider Downeyhylle in NeaPs "Charcoal
Sketches," and kept going " downer and
downer " the more I tried not to. Something
had to be done.

It occurred to me, about this time, that if
I moved into a more genteel locality I might
get a better class of patients, and yet keep
the best of those I now had. To do this it
was necessary to pay my rent, and the more


so because I was in a fair way to have no
house at all over my head. But here fortune
interposed. I was caught in a heavy rain-
storm on Seventh street, and ran to catch an
omnibus. As I pulled open the door I saw
behind me the Quaker woman, Miss Barker.
I laughed and jumped in. She had to run a
little before the 'bus again stopped. She got
pretty wet. An old man in the corner, who
seemed in the way of taking charge of other
people's manners, said to me : " Young man
you ought to be ashamed to get in before the
lady, and in this pour, too ! "

I said calmly, " But you got in before her."
He made no reply to this obvious fact, as
he might have been in the 'bus a half -hour.
A large, well-dressed man near by said, with a
laugh, " Rather neat, that," and, turning, tried
to pull up a window-sash. In the effort
something happened, and he broke the glass,
cutting his hand in half a dozen places.
While he was using several quite profane
phrases, I caught his hand and said, " I am a
surgeon," and tied my handkerchief around
the bleeding palm.

The guardian of manners said, " I hope you
are not much hurt, but there was no reason
why you should swear."


On this my patient said, "Go to /'

which silenced the monitor.

I explained to the wounded man that the
cuts should be looked after at once. The
matter was arranged by our leaving the 'bus,
and, as the rain had let up, walking to his
house. This was a large and quite luxurious
dwelling on Fourth street. There I cared for
his wounds, which, as I had informed him,
required immediate attenion. It was at this
time summer, and his wife and niece, the
only other members of his family, were ab-
sent. On my second visit I made believe
to remove some splinters of glass which I
brought with me. He said they showed how
shamefully thin was that omnibus window-
pane. To my surprise, my patient, at the
end of the month, for one wound was long
in healing, presented me with one hundred
dollars. This paid my small rental, and as
Mr. Poynter allowed me to refer to him, I
was able to get a better office and bedroom on
Spruce street. I saw no more of my patient
until winter, although I learned that he was
a stock-broker, not in the very best repute,
but of a well-known family.

Meanwhile my move had been of small use.
I was wise enough, however, to keep up my


connection with my former clients, and con-
trived to live. It was no more than that.
One day in December I was overjoyed to see
Mr. Poynter enter. He was a fat man, very
pale, and never, to my remembrance, without a
permanent smile. He had very civil ways, and
now at once I saw that he wanted something.

I hated the way that man saw through me.
He went on without hesitation, taking me
for granted. He began by saying he had
confidence in my judgment, and when a man
says that you had better look out. He said
he had a niece who lived with him, a brother's
child j that she was out of health and ought
not to marry, which was what she meant to
do. She was scared about her health, be-
cause she had a cough, and had lost a brother
of consumption. I soon came to understand
that, for reasons unknown to me, my friend
did not wish his niece to marry. His wife,
he also informed me, was troubled as to the
niece's health. Now, he said, he wished to
consult me as to what he should do. I sus-
pected at once that he had not told me all.

I have often wondered at the skill with
which I managed this rather delicate mat-
ter. I knew I was not well enough known
to be of direct use, and was also too young


to have much weight. I advised him to get
Professor C.

Then my friend shook his head. He said
in reply, " But suppose, doctor, he says there
is nothing wrong with the girl ? "

Then I began to understand him.

" Oh," I said, " you get a confidential writ-
ten opinion from him. You can make it what
you please when you tell her."

He said no. It would be best for me to
ask the professor to see Miss Poynter ; might
mention my youth, and so on, as a reason. I
was to get his opinion in writing.

"Well? "said I.

" After that I want you to write me a joint
opinion to meet the case all the needs of
the case, you see."

I saw, but hesitated as to how much would
make it worth while to pull his hot chestnuts
out of the fire one never knows how hot
the chestnuts are.

Then he said, "Ever take a chance in
stocks ? "

I said, " No."

He said that he would lend me a little
money and see what he could do with it. And
here was his receipt from me for one thou-
sand dollars, and here, too, was my order to


buy shares of P. T. Y. Would I please to
sign it ? I did.

I was to call in two days at his house, and
meantime I could think it over. It seemed
to me a pretty weak plan. Suppose the
young woman well, supposing is awfully
destructive of enterprise; and as for me, I
had only to misunderstand the professor's
opinion. I went to the house, and talked to
Mr. Poynter about his gout. Then Mrs. Poyn-
ter came in, and began to lament her niece's
declining health. After that I saw Miss
Poynter. There is a kind of innocent-look-
ing woman who knows no more of the world
than a young chicken, and is choke-full of
emotions. I saw it would be easy to frighten
her. There are some instruments anybody
can get any tune they like out of. I was
very grave, and advised her to see the pro-
fessor. And would I write to ask him, said
Mr. Poynter. I said I would.

As I went out Mr. Poynter remarked:
"You will clear some four hundred easy.
Write to the professor. Bring my receipt
to the office next week, and we will settle."

We settled. I tore up his receipt and gave
him one for fifteen hundred dollars, and re-
ceived in notes five hundred dollars.


In a day or so I had a note from the pro-
fessor stating that Miss Poynter was in no
peril ; that she was, as he thought, worried,
and had only a mild bronchial trouble. He
advised me to do so-and-so, and had ventured
to reassure my young patient. Now, this
was a little more than I wanted. However,
I wrote Mr. Poynter that the professor thought
she had bronchitis, that in her case tubercle
would be very apt to follow, and that at pres-
ent, and until she was safe, we considered
marriage undesirable.

Mr. Poynter said it might have been put
stronger, but he would make it do. He made
it. The first effect was an attack of hyster-
ics. The final result was that she eloped with
her lover, because if she was to die, as she
wrote her aunt, she wished to die in her hus-
band's arms. Human nature plus hysteria
will defy all knowledge of character. This
was what our old professor of practice used
to say.

Mr. Poynter had now to account for a
large trust estate which had somehow dwin-
dled. Unhappily, princes are not the only
people in whom you must not put your trust.
As to myself, Professor L. somehow got to
know the facts, and cut me dead. It was


unpleasant, but I had my five hundred dol-
lars, and I needed them. I do not see how
I could have been more careful.

After this things got worse. Mr. Poynter
broke, and did not even pay my last bill. I
had to accept several rather doubtful cases,
and once a policeman I knew advised me
that I had better be on my guard.

But, really, so long as I adhered to the
common code of my profession I was in dan-
ger of going without my dinner.

Just as I was at my worst and in despair
something always turned up, but it was sure
to be risky j and now my aunt refused to see
me, and Peninnah wrote me goody-goody
letters, and said Aunt Rachel had been un-
able to find certain bank-notes she had hid-
den, and vowed I had taken them. This Pe-
ninnah did not think possible. I agreed
with her. The notes were found somewhat
later by Peninnah in the toes of a pair of my
aunt's old slippers. Of course I wrote an
indignant letter. My aunt declared that
Peninnah had stolen the notes, and restored
them when they were missed. Poor Penin-
nah ! This did not seem to me very likely,
but Peninnah did love fine clothes.

One night, as I was debating with myself


as to how I was to improve my position, I
heard a knock on my shutter, and, going to
the door, let in a broad-shouldered man with
a whisky face and a great hooked nose. He
wore a heavy black beard and mustache, and
looked like the wolf in the pictures of Red
Riding-hood which I had seen as a child.

" Your name 's Sandcraf t ? " said the man.

"Yes; that 's my name Dr. Sandcraf t."

As he sat down he shook the snow over
everything, and said coolly : " Set down, doc ;
I want to talk with you."

" What can I do for you ? " said I.

The man looked around the room rather
scornfully, at the same time throwing back
his coat and displaying a red neckerchief
and a huge garnet pin. " Guess you 're not
overly rich," he said.

"Not especially," said I. "What's that
your business I "

He did not answer, but merely said,
" Know Simon Stagers 1 "

" Can't say I do," said I, cautiously. Simon
was a burglar who had blown off two fingers
when mining a safe. I had attended him
while he was hiding.

" Can't say you do. Well, you can lie, and
no mistake. Come, now, doc. Simon says


you 7 re safe, and I want to have a leetle
plain talk with you."

With this he laid ten gold eagles on the
table. I put out my hand instinctively.

"Let 'em alone," cried the man, sharply.
" They 're easy earned, and ten more tike 'em. 77

"For doing what?" I said.

The man paused a moment, and looked
around him ; next he stared at me, and loos-
ened his cravat with a hasty pull. " You 're
the coroner," said he.

" I ! What do you mean ? "

" Yes, you 're the coroner ; don't you un-
derstand ? " and so saying, he shoved the gold
pieces toward me.

" Very good," said I ; "we will suppose I m
the coroner. What next ? "

" And being the coroner," said he, " you get
this note, which requests you to call at No. 9
Blank street to examine the body of a young
man which is supposed only supposed, you
see to have well, to have died under sus-
picious circumstances."

" Go on," said I.

" No," he returned j " not till I know how
you like it. Stagers and another knows it j
and it would n't be very safe for you to split,
besides not making nothing out of it. But


what I say is this, Do you like the business
of coroner? 7 '

I did not like it ; but just then two hun-
dred in gold was life to me, so I said : " Let
me hear the whole of it first. I am safe."

"That 's square enough," said the man.
" My wife 's got " correcting himself with
a shivery shrug "my wife had a brother
that took to cutting up rough because when
I'd. been up too late I handled her a leetle
hard now and again.

"Luckily he fell sick with typhoid just
then you see, he lived with us. When he
got better I guessed he 'd drop all that j but
somehow he was worse than ever clean off
his head, and strong as an ox. My wife said
to put him away in an asylum. I did n't
think that would do. At last he tried to get
out. He was going to see the police about
well the thing was awful serious, and my
wife carrying on like mad, and wanting doc-
tors. I had no mind to run, and something
had got to be done. So Simon Stagers and
I talked it over. The end of it was, he took
worse of a sudden, and got so he did n't know
nothing. Then I rushed for a doctor. He
said it was a perforation, and there ought to
have been a doctor when he was first took sick.


" Well, the man died, and as I kept about
the house, my wife had no chance to talk.
The doctor fussed a bit, but at last he gave a
certificate. I thought we were done with it.
But my wife she writes a note and gives it to
a boy in the alley to put in the post. We
suspicioned her, and Stagers was on the
watch. After the boy got away a bit, Simon
bribed him with a quarter to give him the
note, which was n't no less than a request to
the coroner to come to the house to-morrow
and make an examination, as foul play was
suspected and poison."

When the man quit talking he glared at
me. I sat still. I was cold all over. I was
afraid to go on, and afraid to go back, besides
which, I did not doubt that there was a good
deal of money in the case.

" Of course," said I, " it 's nonsense ; only
I suppose you don't want the officers about,
and a fuss, and that sort of thing."

" Exactly," said my friend. " It 's all bosh
about poison. You 're the coroner. You
take this note and come to my house. Says
you: 'Mrs. File, are you the woman that
wrote this note ? Because in that case I must
examine the body.' "

" I see," said I ; "she need n't know who I


am, or anything else ; but if I tell her it 's all
right, do you think she won't want to know
why there is n't a jury, and so on ? "

" Bless you," said the man, " the girl is n't
over seventeen, and does n't know no more
than a baby. As we live up-town miles
away, she won't know anything about you."

" I '11 do it," said I, suddenly, for, as I saw,
it involved no sort of risk j " but I must have
three hundred dollars."

"And fifty," added the wolf, " if you do it

Then I knew it was serious.

With this the man buttoned about him a
shaggy gray overcoat, and took his leave
without a single word in addition.

A minute later he came back and said:
" Stagers is in this business, and I was to re-
mind you of Lou Wilson, I forgot that,
the woman that died last year. That 's all."
Then he went away, leaving me in a cold
sweat. I knew now I had no choice. I un-
derstood why I had been selected.

For the first time in my life, that night I
could n't sleep. I thought to myself, at last,
that I would get up early, pack a few clothes,
and escape, leaving my books to pay as they
might my arrears of rent. Looking out of


the window, however, in the morning, I saw
Stagers prowling about the opposite pave-
ment ; and as the only exit except the street
door was an alleyway which opened along-
side of the front of the house, I gave myself
up for lost. About ten o'clock I took my case
of instruments and started for File's house, fol-
lowed, as I too well understood, by Stagers.

I knew the house, which was in a small up-
town street, by its closed windows and the
craped bell, which I shuddered as I touched.
However, it was too late to draw back, and I
therefore inquired for Mrs. File. A haggard-
looking young woman came down, and led
me into a small parlor, for whose darkened
light I was thankful enough.

" Did you write this note ? "

" I did," said the woman, " if you 're the
coroner. Joe File he 7 s my husband he 's
gone out to see about the funeral. I wish it
was his, I do."

" What do you suspect ? " said I.

" I '11 tell you," she returned in a whisper.
" I think he was made away with. I think
there was foul play. I think he was poisoned.
That 's what I think."

"I hope you may be mistaken," said I.
" Suppose you let me see the body."


" You shall see it," she replied ; and follow-
ing her, I went up-stairs to a front chamber,
where I found the corpse.

" Get it over soon," said the woman, with
strange firmness. " If there ain't no murder
been done I shall have to run for it ; if there
was" and her face set hard "I guess I '11
stay." With this she closed the door and
left me with the dead.

If I had known what was before me I
never could have gone into the thing at all.
It looked a little better when I had opened
a window and let in plenty of light ; for al-
though I was, on the whole, far less afraid
of dead than living men, I had an absurd
feeling that I was doing this dead man a
distinct wrong as if it mattered to the
dead,- after all ! When the affair was over,
I thought more of the possible consequences
than of its relation to the dead man himself j
but do as I would at the time, I was in a
ridiculous funk, and especially when going
through the forms of a post-mortem exami-

I am free to confess now that I was care-
ful not to uncover the man's face, and that
when it was over I backed to the door and
hastily escaped from the room. On the stairs


opposite to me Mrs. File was seated, with her
bonnet on and a bundle in her hand.

"Well/' said she, rising as she spoke, and
with a certain eagerness in her tone, " what
killed him ? Was it poison I "

" Poison, my good woman ! " said I. " When
a man has typhoid fever he don't need poison
to kill him. He had a relapse, that 's all."

" And do you mean to say he was n't poi-
soned," said she, with more than a trace of
disappointment in her voice " not poisoned
at all?"

" No more than you are," said I. " If I had
found any signs of foul play I should have
had a regular inquest. As it is, the less said
about it the better. The fact is, it would
have been much wiser to have kept quiet at
the beginning. I can't understand why you
should have troubled me about it at all. The
man had a perforation. It is common enough
in typhoid."

" That 's what the doctor said I did n't
believe him. I guess now the sooner I leave
the better for me."

" As to that," I returned, " it is none of my
business j but you may rest certain about the
cause of your brother's death."

My fears were somewhat quieted that


evening when Stagers and the wolf appeared
with the remainder of the money, and I
learned that Mrs. File had fled from her
home and, as File thought likely, from the
city also. A few months later File himself
disappeared, and Stagers found his way for
the third time into the penitentiary. Then I
felt at ease. I now see, for my own part,
that I was guilty of more than one mistake,
and that I displayed throughout a want of
intelligence. I ought to have asked more,
and also might have got a good fee from
Mrs. File on account of my services as
coroner. It served me, however, as a good
lesson; but it was several months before I
felt quite comfortable.

Meanwhile money became scarce once more,
and I was driven to my wit's end to devise
how I should continue to live as I had done.
I tried, among other plans, that of keeping
certain pills and other medicines, which I
sold to my patients ; but on the whole I found
it better to send all my prescriptions to one
druggist, who charged the patient ten or
twenty cents over the correct price, and
handed this amount to me.

In some cases I am told the percentage is
supposed to be a donation on the part of the


apothecary j but I rather fancy the patient
pays for it in the end. It is one of the ab-
surd vagaries of the profession to discoun-
tenance the practice I have described, but I
wish, for my part, I had never done anything
more foolish or more dangerous. Of course
it inclines a doctor to change his medicines a
good deal, and to order them in large quan-
tities, which is occasionally annoying to the
poor ; yet, as I have always observed, there is
no poverty as painful as your own, so that I
prefer to distribute pecuniary suffering among

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Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellThe autobiography of a quack and the case of George Dedlow → online text (page 2 of 7)