The Doctors of the Old Mendo Coast

by Malcolm Macdonald, April 12, 2017

Those dissatisfied with their local hospital or physician might want to consider the case of Dr. Thomas Goodsir, who in 1878 served the community of Cuffey's Cove, just north of Greenwood (Elk). William Heeser described a then ongoing doctor/patient situation in his coastal newspaper this way:

“There is a rumor afloat of the attempted poisoning of a man by the name of Nelson at Cuffey's Cove, by his physician, Dr. Goodsir, but we hope, for humanity's sake, that the Doctor will be able to fully explain matters, and establish his innocence. We are informed that about six weeks ago a man named Nelson had his leg badly broken while at work in the woods near that place, and that Goodsir was called to set the broken limb, and after a futile attempt to set the bones, called Dr. McCornack [of Mendocino], who performed the operation. Goodsir then is said to have circulated the report that Nelson must die, and could not hold out much longer, and that he would die of lockjaw. Soon thereafter McCornack was again called, as Nelson and his friends had become alarmed by Goodsir's expressions. McCornack saw no symptoms of lockjaw, and pronounced the man as well as circumstances would permit, and that he was getting along nicely. Goodsir, however, would not agree with him, saying that physicians differ and patients die, and that Nelson would be a dead man by morning. Soon thereafter he came into the room with a plum and offered it to the patient, which the latter took and ate one half, but rejected  the other half as being bitter. He soon complained to his nurse that he had a bitter taste in his mouth and did not feel well. Shortly thereafter, Goodsir came again and stopping in the hall, took another plum, split it in halves, and put some powder into it, as the nurse reports, and on his offering it to the patient, the nurse motioned to him to refuse it. This he [Nelson] did, and the Doctor took it and threw it out of the window. Next he came into the room with a slice of melon and offered it to his patient, but the latter told him he had been eating fruit and did not wish for more. Where upon Goodsir said the melon was not fit to eat, and threw it out of the window also. He then told the nurse that the patient needed some tea, and that he would go after a package. Coming back, the tea was given to the nurse, who opened it, and found a white powder over the top of the tea. This he shook off onto the table, not thinking anything about the powder, and began steeping the tea. The nurse was about to give the patient a drink when he remembered the strange actions of Goodsir and did not let him [the patient] drink it. The nurse then took the powder, and found it to be strychnine. It was taken to Dr. McCornack and others who all pronounced it strychnine. It appears that Nelson had some money and a gold watch and chain which he had left with John J. Harris, and after the giving of the tea to the nurse, both Harris and Goodsir put in an appearance, and Harris claimed that he had given the valuables to his wife who had hidden them and could not find them. Both Goodsir and Harris were arrested Thursday on a criminal charge and will be examined before O.W. Scott, one of the Justices of this Township.”

In the West of the 1870s names were made up then cast away as a person moved on to greener pastures, but Goodsir appears to be the good sir's real appelation. Readers may or may not be flabbergasted to find that the local legal sytem of 1878 worked much more swiftly. Mr. Heeser, of the Mendocino Beacon, described the outcome of the Nelson/Goodsir case in the following week's edition of the paper, “The Cuffey's Cove poisoning case was tried before Justice Scott last Friday and dismissed. Dr. Goodsir acknowledged having given strychnine, but for medical purposes.”

While modern science shows that strychnine, from the strycnine tree native to the Malabar region of southern India, has no positive medicinal effects, in the late 1800s it was thought that tiny doses of it were useful stimulants, promoting enhanced athletic prowess due to its convulsant effects. Though mistaken by modern standards, in 1878 Dr. Goodsir may have considered small amounts of strychnine to be no more adverse than a strong cup of coffee.

Dr. Goodsir must have been a fairly young man in 1878, his name appears periodically throughout the final decades of the 1800s. He seems to have practiced primarily in Willits. Tragedy struck his family in 1907. As reported in the Healdsburg Times, a week after the Fourth of July, “Wilbur Goodsir, a fifteen-year-old boy, was drowned Sunday in Mark West Creek near Burke’s [Sanitarium]. The boy had partaken of a hearty meal, mounted his wheel and rode out from Santa Rosa to the creek, where he immediately went into the water. He had given only a couple of strokes when his companion, Anthony Kline, saw his body disappear. He at once hurried to the lad’s assistance and dragged the body to the shore only to find that life was extinct. Help was summoned fiom Burke’s. Doctors worked with the body for two hours but without avail. The boy’s parents are Dr. and Mrs. T. H. Goodsir of Willits.”

Presumably a “wheel” meant a bicycle. Less than a year after the drowning of young Wilbur, the Press Democrat records the divorce action brought by Mrs. Linda Goodsir against Dr. Goodsir. The divorce decree was granted in May, 1908. Perhaps they were a couple who had remained married in name only for the sake of their child.

The locale of Wilbur Goodsir's drowning leads to the explosive trial of Dr. Willard Burke, of said same sanitarium, just a few years later. That will have to remain a story for another time.

(Tales of doctors, dentists, and other criminals can be found at: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

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