Lane Library

Extracurricular Events

A Grim Parable from The Golden Era

We shall now plumb the depths of Wooster's treachery and obsession to degrade Cooper and all his works by any means. We have already seen that the shadowy conspirators seeking Cooper's downfall were prone to use anonymous communications to the press as a weapon. In keeping with this pattern, The Golden Era, San Francisco's leading weekly newspaper devoted to Literature, Agriculture, Mining, etc., was chosen for launching the next poisoned arrow against Cooper. It took the form of an unsigned piece of malicious fiction entitled "Confessions of a Physician" published in The Golden Era for Sunday, 13 May 1860, just as the second session of the school was beginning. There can be no doubt, in view of the details cited, that the story was written about Cooper by Wooster who grossly distorted the confidences shared with him by Cooper during the days before the Hodges trial when they were friends. [34]

Confessions of a Physician

In 18--, one dark stormy night, in the far-off State of Illinois, near the one-horse town of Peoria, where I first made myself known to fame as an operating surgeon (curses on that community of Suckers, who never could, or did, appreciate my genius); well, as I was saying, one dark stormy night, between the hours of ten and eleven, I was called from my cozy 7 x 9 dormitory by a loud rap at the door.

"What do you want?" I answered, springing to my feet.

Here I looked at those feet. Ye gods! what terminations for a gentleman and a scholar! Elevens, at least - broad and flat; evidently belonging to that variety of the genus homo which was originally designed to inhabit low soft lands. There was a sort of aquatic buoyancy to those feet that made it probable their owner could walk on the water. But I must not interrupt his confessions.

"What do you want?" said I.

"Come, quick; a poor woman, ten miles in the country. If you have not a fast horse take mine," said the messenger. But I was not to be hurried in this manner. I struck a light, pulled on my pants and asked him in. I inquired who was sick.

"A poor woman; she can't pay you." I didn't care for that; indeed, it was just what I wanted. We can always illustrate science better on the poor than on the rich, you know. I was ambitious. (I could not but assent to so fair a proposition. )

"Has she a husband?" I asked.

"Yes," said the messenger; "but he lies there in the house drunk. I knowed she was in a bad way, and dropped in to see if she wanted somethin'; and, sure's yer born, I found her screechin' and wantin' a doctor; so I slipped home, and sent my old woman over, and mounted - and here I am. She'll have a rough time, or I'm derned. She's a little woman and has been starvin' for nearly all the year. Somehow you couldn't give em nothin'; they wouldn't a-tuck it."

"By this time," continued the penitent, "I saw my way clear. I knew there was a chance for an operation. I roused up a young student I had, and we got out the buggy and a four-minute horse. I didn't forget a pocket-case and some brandy, some opium, bandages, sponges, lint and ligatures. I knew it was a dead sure thing. It's all d----d foolishness, between you and me, privately, this sentiment about cutting. No surgeon ever got a reputation without wading up to his knees in blood. So I said to myself, then. But, may God forgive me for the number I have killed with the scalpel, thinking all the while I was doing it for the good of society. Well, away we rattled, and were there in less than fifty minutes from the time we started. You know the prairie roads in Illinois are a dead level."

"But I thought you said it was a stormy night. I should have thought your horse would have caved," I replied.

"There you are wrong: this road was Mac-Adamized (sic) and the rain made it all the better and kept the horse cool."

"Ah! I see!"

"Well, to make a long story short, I went into the hovel - a miserable shed - and there, on a rickety bedstead, a straw bed and filthy covers, lay the case that was to make my reputation. Her husband lay in the chimney corner, snoring drunk. There were a few coals in the fireplace; the whole contents of the house, (only one room), were not intrinsically worth four bits. I examined the case and found that I had no time to lose, or Nature would get along with it without my aid. So I put on a bold face, and said, 'Madam, you are in no danger whatever, but a little operation is necessary.' Celsus brought the brandy, and, pouring out half a pint, I put into it three teaspoonsful of laudanum, and told her to pour it down. She did; and it staid, too. In five minutes she did not know whether she was in a hut or a palace. I seized a scalpel, and, with a bold stroke and steady hand, executed the first Caesarian operation ever performed west of the Allegheny Mountains.

"I dressed the frightful wound, sent Celsus home for the comforts of life, and staid to watch the reaction. I watched, and met the terrific inflammation that followed with all the resources in my knowledge. Every day I saw her - either I or my student never left her bedside. The child, by my care, lived and did well. It yet lives, thank Heaven! The poor mother died the fifteenth day, and this has left a weight on my conscience that eternity itself could not efface. She was poor; true, none found fault with me, for none really knew what I had done; I don't believe it is known there to this day; for the funeral, and all that, were under my care and at my expense. But I knew it, and it took away my sleep (I was young, then). And, finally, I began to have these d----d nervous twitchings of the face -"

Here a frightful spasm took him, horribly distorting a visage sensual and vulgar. One eye closed in tense contraction, the other protruded and was wide open; one wing of his nose was drawn into a bad-egg sort of smell, and the other dilated like the nostril of a charging war-horse; his right hand jerked and trembled and became cataleptic, and then paralyzed, and hung lifeless by his side. As he sat there, with his bald head, yet in the vigor of only thirty-seven years, his misshapen and crooked legs, his enormous feet and hands, and rickety, scathed, blasted and contorted look, he seemed a table of contents of the anger of Heaven - showing what Providence will ever do to those working iniquity upon his defenseless poor. I started, and rose up to leave. He clutched at me, and said:

"In the name of God, do not leave me alone with myself. I am better, now; but here come the frightful visions - all that horrible night is re-enacted in my vengeance-stricken brain with the vividness of a stark reality. Again I see that beautiful young woman, with no fault but poverty (did I not tell you she was beautiful? She was, and was scarcely twenty years old); again I see her in her bloody garments, stained with the blood shed by my accursed scientific knife; again I hear the low moan of suffering but unconscious nature, as my smooth scalpel separates the delicate fibres of that delicate body; again I see her wide-staring eyes, as a convulsion of reflex agony passes over her frame. I see the corpse, still cold, a recumbent monument of eternal reproof. I saw her buried many years ago, but many times a year she lies an almost palpable form before my eyes.

"This is all illusion, of course. I know it; but it is a terrible illusion; it will cut off more than one-third of my life; it is an eternal live coal upon my heart, and is slowly consuming the root and spring of my days. My brain is wasting under this slow process of torture. I foresee that, in a few years, I am dead. I shall die suddenly with some nervous stroke that will finish me at a blow. If you knew the sincerity of my repentance, you would forgive me. And yet, would I have repented had it produced no physical effect on me?"

I mentally responded, "No!" but said nothing. He continued:

"I beg of you to keep all this secret till I am dead, then you may publish it, without my name, as a warning to ambitious young surgeons. My ambition is crushed by this hopeless physical affection. I have not time to succeed. I now have no desire but for money, with which to punish my enemies, and strive to make them feel a little of the tortures I have endured. The future state has no terrors for me. Death, at least, will rescue me from this life of self-abhorrence and unavailing regret."

The sweat stood in great drops on his face and bald head, and there was an expression of brute anguish in his coarse, repulsive features, which inspired a feeling of pity mingled with horror in my heart. I left him, and, since that day, I have taken the left when he has taken the right - and when he goes east I go west, so that never again his loathsome face may meet my gaze. He is one of those unfortunate men, whom it is impossible to know, and respect, or love. His sins are of that secret, radical, incalculable degradation of iniquity, that it is impossible for the human intellect - even his own - to forgive. Nature has set upon him the mark of infamy, so that, by fixing the eye upon him a moment, it always appears. He still revels in carnage and delights in blood, well knowing that no act can add to his present hopeless condition. None but the first great crime affects him. It swallows all the rest. As nothing can surpass its enormity, so nothing can add to his remorse.

I publish this, now, because I am freed from my tacit obligation of secrecy by his own act. He is dead to me, and this is his posthumous biography. Let him rest in peace. His sin was the result of his low moral organization and limited intellectual forecast. Let him be forgiven; but let others be warned by this frightful example of the vengeance of outraged Nature.

Only Wooster's envenomed pen could have produced this coarse parody of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) whose Gothic tales of terror and abnormal psychology were much in vogue at the time. Not content with merciless caricature of Cooper's physical deformities and crude misrepresentation of his past, Wooster sought wide distribution of his composition by anonymously sending a copy of the Era to the Cincinnati Lancet and Observer which carried the following editorial in the August 1860 issue: [35]

Dr. E. S. Cooper, of San Francisco, and his Left-handed Friends. Some anonymous correspondent forwards us from California two newspapers: one of date 1854 contains a somewhat fulsome editorial notice of Dr. Cooper, then just about seeking his new home in San Francisco (if the Doctor was accessory to this notice, he did a very foolish and unprofessional thing - if it was the kindness of some editorial acquaintance, he was the very unfortunate recipient of a mistaken kindness); the other is a fresh copy of the Golden Era, and contains a rather common-place sketch, purporting to be the confessions of a surgeon who has gained fame at the expense of the death of his patient, when the operation (Caesarean section) was obviously improper; and who still performs his bloody occupation with this night-mare load of remorse on his conscience.

Penciled on the margin of the latter newspaper is a denunciation of Dr. Cooper, which, though brief, seems to embrace most of the epithets that are to be culled from the "new pictorial edition" of Webster; as well as a fair proportion selected from that old but well known authority - Billingsgate; finally making the agreeable and consoling suggestion that "the knife of the assassin should and probably will be his doom!"

Now, we have enough to do to keep our own little troubles nicely trimmed up, without making a journey (journalistic journey) to San Francisco; at any rate, we can't afford to go beyond the personal affairs of more than this eastern half of the continent; but it does appear to us (not being familiar with California ways, and California medical politics,) - it does seem to us that the course pursued by our anonymous correspondent savors quite as much of the "infamous," and exhibits much the same "mental and moral," if not "physical deformity," as pertains to that cowardly assassin whose knife is to strike down Dr. Cooper, some dark night, on the streets of San Francisco.

In the October 1860 issue of the San Francisco Medical Press, Dr. Cooper took scornful notice of the Era sketch: [36]

"Dr. E. S. Cooper, of San Francisco, and his Left-handed Friend."

In the Cincinnati Lancet and Observer we have an article under the above caption, acknowledging the receipt of two anonymous communications, partly in printed form, which appear to be anything but complimentary to us. It would appear that the respectability of the papers in which the printed portions of the communications occurred, alone induced the editors of the Lancet and Observer to give them notice. . .

We remember the article which appeared, some months since, in the Golden Era, purporting to be the Confessions of a Surgeon, who was represented as borne down by remorse, growing out of a fatal result of the unnecessary performance of the Caesarean section. Being the only surgeon on this coast, who had performed the Caesarean section, together with other circumstances embodied in the fancy sketch, induced us to suppose, at first, it was designed for us, notwithstanding both our cases of Caesarean operation were successful.

We paid little attention to the matter at the time, not considering it of the least importance; but it would appear, the writer, or some one else, is not disposed to pass it over so lightly. In regard to our physical deformity, as stated so pompously in the Golden Era, we have only to say, that we are not responsible for my want of symmetry of form, but would state, that, if we are destitute of that external comeliness of which some of our enemies are inclined to boast, we still profess to be buoyed up by a heart conscious of it own rectitude; and that we have never made use of any of those pliant instruments at the head of a certain class of newspapers, to publish false and defamatory accusation against any other medical man. In reference to our threatened assassination, we must add, that whoever attempts it may find it a dangerous experiment.

We have had professional treason and perjury brought to bear against our professional character, and, to a medical man of honorable soul, an assault upon his professional reputation is equal to an assault upon his life; and yet we have passed through unscathed and unharmed. We have confidence enough in the justice of our cause, to think that the assassin who may attempt to take our life will be no better, in the end, than the miserable medical "tool," who attempted to stab our reputation by perjury and who still walks the streets of San Francisco, followed by the hiss of contempt and the slow-moving finger of scorn, which points him out as the Judas of the medical profession. We do know, that, since the time of Galen, in Pergamus, Asia Minor, there has been no example of any medical man being the subject of professional treason, conspiracy, and perjury to a greater extent than ourselves, and this accounts for the harsh tone of some of the articles which have appeared in the Press. We sincerely believed that, in vindication of ourselves, we were subserving the cause of the profession; because, of all persons, medical men should be "true to their craft." There is no class of persons so much abused, unjustly, and yet none others are such perfect slaves to community.

From the time the student of medicine begins his toilsome pupilage over the midnight lamp and the loathsome cadaver, which he probably has had to violate law in obtaining, and at the risk of his health or even life, - we say, from this time onward, to the period in which he totters, often prematurely, into the grave, (too frequently one of poverty), the medical man is a slave; first in preparing himself, by a most toilsome pupilage, often breathing in tainted air, and, afterwards, in sacrificing his hours of repose, to attend to the calls of rich or poor, day or night, in rain or sunshine. Then, "execration," say we, upon the foul wretch, who stains our profession's escutcheon by professional treason or perjury.


Grave Robbers on Lone Mountain

We shall now conclude our dreary recital of the underhanded attempts by Wooster and his clique to defame Cooper and disrupt the school. They thought as a last resort to play the grave-robbery card to inflame the public either to riot against the faculty and students, or at least to demand the outlawing of dissection.

Sensational articles such as the following, ghostwritten by Wooster, began to appear in the San Francisco papers in the fall of 1860. [37]

We have been informed, on reliable authority, that the graves in the common lot, at Lone Mountain Cemetery, have been violated, and the dead bodies of those buried at the public expense, disinterred, for purposes of dissection! . . .We are not aware of any existing law to stop this robbery of the tombs and mangling of the dead, to satisfy the greedy maw of Science, but there should be one. And where is the difference between the dead poor and the wealthy dead? Are the bodies of the one more the property of the surgeons than those of the other class? No one can feel sure, while such things are going on, that the bones of the most honored dead, or those of dearly loved kindred, are allowed to rest in peace. Chinamen are said to be the agents employed - and, like vultures, these body-snatchers watch daily for their human prey. This is a matter that should be looked into by the Police, so that the desecrators of the graves may be held up to public execration. Malediction, say we, upon the disturbers of the buried dead!

Cooper, who had prior personal experience with the volatility of the grave-robbery issue and the possibility of mob violence, was swift and furious in his rebuke of the newspapers: [38]

The editor of a newspaper, who is supposed to be a man of intelligence, should be the last to throw impediments in the way of progress in medicine, by endeavoring to prevent the cultivation of anatomy....(Those among them) who would deliberately pen articles calculated, as far as they could, to put an end to progress in this, the most useful of all sciences, do not deserve any other medical advisers than just such ignoramuses as they would make the whole medical profession, provided their advice were the law of the land. What could such editors do, in case of knife-wound, implicating an important artery, like the subclavian, if all the medical profession were such as they would make them by preventing dissections. "Maledictions upon such editors, say we." But have we any such editors as would deliberately do these things? It is to be hoped not. On inquiry, we find that these articles were, generally, written by other parties, and published without much consideration on the part of the editors or reporters; but we now call on them to scrutinize with more care articles on this subject.

Since writing the above, we find these articles were mostly furnished by - by whom? A medical man? No. - A graduate in medicine, truly, but not a medical man. The medical profession of the whole world has had but one genuine professional Judas, and he chanced to turn up in San Francisco; so let us pass him round, and make the most of him. We will never have another. Such as his like has never been seen before.

But while we have a medical Judas among us, let students beware how they impart secrets. The man who will be a professional traitor and perjurer, against one member of the profession, and, not satisfied with that, will prove traitor to the whole profession, is capable of any crime, however heinous.

Need we name the miscreant? Everybody knows who the medical Judas is. We intend never to let his name disgrace our pages again.

Two months later, in the January 1861 issue of the Medical Press, Cooper could write that, when certain newspapers in San Francisco lent their influence to a contemptible effort to prevent dissections, he had declared that they would fail. "Now, we take pleasure in informing the friends of the University, that this effort to create a furor about dissections, and thereby diminish the class, by making students believe that they would be deprived of the privilege of dissections, did not succeed." [39]

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