Book Review: Mercy and Madness

My copy of the book.

Pioneers are often forged by fire, and so that would be the case with Dr. Mary Archard Latham, in more ways than perhaps she anticipated.

In Beverly Hodgins’ 2022 book, Mercy and Madness: Dr. Mary Archard Latham’s Tragic Fall From Female Physician to Felon — a book also forged during difficult times, as Hodgins did immense research (the Bibliography at the end is 23 pages long) at libraries, historical societies, government archives, and museums during the COVID-19 pandemic — she sketches the contours of a complicated figure, both as pioneer and a person falling from grace.

The research, and quest to tell Mary’s story, was surely part-personal, too, as Hodgins happens to be a distant relative to Mary, as Mary’s grandfather, John Archerd (different spelling intentional) was Hodgins’ fourth great-grandfather; and Latham’s father and Hodgins’ third great-grandfather were half-brothers.

When Mary was born the fourth child to farmers, James and Jane Archard, of New Richmond, Ohio, in 1844, the expected occupation of a woman at the time was “keeping house.” But the five daughters of the Archards (the one son would die in infancy), including Mary, were destined to be far more than the social convention of the time expected. 

Perhaps that was due to their upbringing in abolitionist New Richmond, and in particular, the education they received at the Clermont/Parker Academy in the 1850s. 

“The education received at the Clermont Academy contributed greatly to the development of the intelligent, fearless, and compassionate women the Archard sisters became,” Hodgins said.

Eliza Jane would go on to be a renowned journalist, even working under Joseph Pulitzer at one point; Laura Flanegan, of Monroe Township, virtually raised seven daughters and two sons, and kept up the farm, by herself; then there is Mary, who took Edward Latham’s name in 1865; Letitia, where it was noted in the 1870 U.S. Census documenting her presence in Ohio Township, that the village of Amelia’s “style of architecture and attractive appearance is not excelled in the county”; and Jane, who made an appearance in The Clermont Sun’s 1889 issue upon marrying Raymond Gee in 1875 and moving to Spokane Falls, Washington Territory in 1889, “A letter received from Raymond Gee … dated at Spokane Falls, April 8th, saying that they had arrived there on the 1st and were well and delighted …”

Clermont County’s own Greg Roberts, village administrator of New Richmond, is quoted in the book. He discussed James Parker, co-founder with his wife, Priscilla, of the Academy, and his support for abolition, and how they would turn away slave catchers from their doors. Instead of being a direct station on the Underground Railroad, Roberts said Parker directed freedom-seekers to to the nearby Donaldson farm for safety reasons.

“Those still living faced possible backlash for agitating the peace and ‘causing’ the dreadful war,” Roberts said.

By 1880, Mary was 36-years-of-age and embarked upon her “dream of having a profession — medicine.” At 42, she received her medical diploma from Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery, and was later among the first class of women physicians allowed into the wards of Cincinnati General Hospital. 

Also uncommon for the time, Hodgins noted, was that Mary and her husband practiced medicine together. 

Mary, though, beset by asthma she blamed on the Ohio climate, moved to Spokane Falls, Washington Territory (Washington wouldn’t become an official state until 1889), where her physician said the mountain air would be something of a “panacea” for her, to which Mary would readily agree. Because, In addition to being a doctor, Mary was a prolific essayist, contributor to local newspapers, and short-story teller (there is a delightful Christmas story she wrote as a parable for helping the downtrodden). 

The fruits of Hodgins’ research is that the book is replete with Mary’s own words, such as her gushing over the “blue skies and bright sunshine” of the West in a letter to the Independent News of New Richmond. She even mentioned that apparently other Clermont Countians had set forth for, and settled in, the West. 

And Spokane would prove fruitful itself for those interested in medicine, becoming something of a hotbed for hospitals, including a “Pest House” for patients with contagious diseases, mental institutions, and numerous humanitarian societies. 

Mary’s letters to the editor include musings on being against prohibition, albeit her frustration with drunks leading to wayward girls and children; writing against ungodly priests, often using words from the Bible; castigating the “quacks and pretenders” who didn’t have a medical license and brought “ridicule and discredit on those who did and made women’s progress slow and full of difficulties”; and abortion, without actually using the words “abortion,” which would have been beyond blasphemous for the time. 

One of her more interesting musings came in 1902, when she argued against “blue laws,” which were laws at the time that businesses must be closed on Sundays; Mary said playhouses ought to be open on Sunday to give “respectable workingmen and women a chance which they would otherwise be deprived of, that of seeing good clean dramas in a place they are not ashamed to visit.”

Mary also offered support, in some measure, for the suffragist movement, noting that “liberty of the ballot should be based not on the accident of sex, money, ‘previous condition,’ or in fact anything except the broad plane of intelligent.” However, she fell just short of giving a full-throated endorsement. Nonetheless, she would be elected Chairman of the Medical Department of the Washington Branch of the Queen Isabella Association; the QIA was made up of women doctors and lawyers who supported the suffrage movement and equality.

Women would gain the right to vote, thanks to the 19th Amendment, ratified three years after Mary’s death.

Throughout her time in Spokane, where Mary established her practice, she specialized in gynecological and obstetric care. Mary was the first recognized female physician to practice in Spokane.

She tended to gear her practice to women specifically, such as  with a booklet entitled, “For Ladies Only,” which included instructions for the four H’s: keeping a house, establishing a home, practicing proper hygiene, and maintaining good health. The proceeds from the booklet went toward a home-for-women, which Hodgins noted would be Mary’s “driving force in life,” even after her felony period.

Between 1894 and 1905, Mary filed 166 birth certificates for infants she delivered, including four sets of twins; “only” four infants were stillborn.

Mary had her own “H’s,” as well, that reflected her philanthropic efforts and her passions: Home-Finding Society, Home of the Friendless, Horticultural Society, Hospital for the Insane, and Humane Society. 

She would also be deputized as a sheriff’s deputy at one point, be petitioned to serve on the local school board, and be instrumental in the establishment of a public library, noting in one of her letters to the editor, “… that is, that there cannot be too many good books no matter in whose possession they maybe, [sic] if the public can use them.” A library would eventually be built just after the turn of the century, thanks to the philanthropic efforts of Scottish American businessman, Andrew Carnegie.

And if Mary wasn’t already a substantial public figure for her deeds, words, and travel (she even visited Alaska at one point), she was also a divorcee, after Edward divorced her in 1895. Mary had musings on divorce, too, arguing that it should be harder to marry than to divorce.

Throughout the book, Hodgins foreshadowed Mary’s fall from grace, and once we got there, Mary, whatever her faults, struck a pathetic character and disposition. She was reeling from the sudden, tragic and gruesome death of her middle son, James, at the hands of a train mishap. 

After the mishap, Mary suffered a stroke, and Hodgins wondered if she was experiencing early onset dementia at that point, which would explain her felonious actions to come.

When James died, his estate, valued at the equivalent of $460,000 in today’s money, was to be bequeathed to his lover, Jennie Johnson. The building that was to be Jennie’s, Mary’s Mead Mercantile Company, a general merchandise and drug store, was subsequently burned down in 1905. 

Mary was fingered as the culprit, but based on circumstantial evidence, largely eyewitness testimony, and was sentenced by an all-male jury, and perhaps a vindictive Judge Miles Poindexter (he, who got into fistfights with attorneys in court, was frustrated with Mary being a witness for a woman being prosecuted for having an abortion). In a display of how ridiculous the proceedings were, Mary was sentenced while on a stretcher in the courtroom to four years of hard labor at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary.

Mind you, Mary was in her 60s by that point, and of obvious frail constitution, both physically and perhaps mentally, if the stretcher wasn’t emblematic of that. And yet, hard labor it was.

The sentiments proffered by an obituary in the Spokane Chronicle after Mary’s 1917 death perhaps offer the most succinct way in which to think about Mary, “The final years of Mary’s life were undeserving for such a kind and caring woman.”

Misguided, or intentionally obtuse, or indeed her mind was unspooling from dementia; whatever the case, Hodgins through hefty research, but a light hand in regards to trying to sway the reader either way, showed that Mary was more than the sum of her last years, and that her legacy ought to extend beyond the corners of her mugshot as inmate number 4009.

It would indeed be too undeserving to describe Mary as the four P’s: pioneer, physician, philanthropist, and pyromaniac because that belies the complexity of her life, and certainly, the milieu she grew up in, where women weren’t expected to women in that way.

But to quote Frank Sinatra in a song recorded 51 years after Mary’s death, she always did it “her way,” for better, or for worse. 

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