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The Good Docs
of San Antonio

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Early Texas doctors, as the old saying goes, buried their mistakes. But 19th century physicians were not without their skills.

James H. Cook, for one, found himself badly in need of a doctor. A buffalo hunter and later cowboy, Cook and several of his colleagues encountered a party of hostile Indians somewhere in Southwest Texas.

Cook did not know he and his friends had ridden into trouble until he heard someone fire a shot. "As I whirled my horse around at the first sound of shooting," Cook wrote, an Indian "drove a dogwood arrow into the calf of my leg."

Recalling the injury with a bit of humor, he noted that rather than await more arrows, he took the one he had back to camp as soon as possible. "As I had several miles to ride through cactus and brush and did not know at what moment I might run into more Indians, I got in rather an unhappy time during the ride." (Read: Having an arrow imbedded in his leg must have hurt like the devil.)

The shaft had penetrated his leather chaps and his boot top. Cutting those away proved no problem "but the rest of it was far different," he continued.

"I think I must have been sorry that I ran off with that Indian's arrow," he went on, "for I remember that I cried when my...friends took the shaft from my leg, and I had a chill or two I can also still remember."

His pals administer the first aid they knew: They inserted "pepper berries" into the wound and then covered it with prickly pear pads from which they had burned the needles.

Worried that the arrow might have been poisoned, Cook rode 130 miles to San Antonio for more professional medical care. Despite two changes of his cactus poultice along the way, he said he felt sick and dizzy.

Reaching the Alamo City, he placed himself in the care of Dr. Ferdinand Herff, one of the state's best-known and most respected physicians. He had come to Texas from Germany with state-of-the-art medical training.

"He gave me kind treatment and care and soon had me braced up," Cook wrote. "In a couple of weeks he told me I would be safe in going back to camp, provided I followed his directions in regard to dressing the wound."

Of course, not all practitioners had any interest whatsoever in the Hippocratic Oath. In the fall of 1857, a lady "doctor" who also claimed the gift of prophecy showed up in San Antonio.

Soon, she paid for an ad in the Alamo City's Daily Herald. "Madame F.," as she referred to herself, had taken room number 9 at the Plaza House "where she will be pleased to wait upon those that may favor her with a call." She may not have possessed impeccable medical credentials, but she had a commendable work ethic, announcing her office hours as 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Having practiced "in the Northern States" for a decade, she had come to Texas to prescribe and prepare her own medicines, "which are purely vegetable." Her remedies, according to the ad, would do for "all persons suffering from acute or chronic difficulties..."

She accepted both male and female patients, including those with epilepsy, rheumatism, bronchitis, "and all diseases of the Lungs or Liver." Other ailments she said she could treat included "difficulties of every character pertaining to the generative or uterine organs (including syphilis) and "female weaknesses of every description," from "barrenness" to "all obstructions that tends to a general debilitation."

But wait, there was more.

"Madame F. is also a practicing Chiromancer or Palmist telling your fortune from the hand, which is done upon scientific principles, as there are five prominent lines in the hand that portray our destiny."

For a mere $3 to $5, which back then was far from mere, she could divine a lady or gentleman's "past, present or future."

Clearly a one-stop-shopping helper of mankind, she could cure the afflicted, predict their full recovery and a life to be lived happily ever after.

And yet she had even more to offer the good people of San Antonio. For the benefit of the survivors of those for whom medical treatment had not resulted in a successful outcome, Madame F. could channel the dearly departed as "a Spiritual impressive Medium."

How many people she helped...to wellness, the grave or to an understanding of their future is unknowable, but whatever the "doctor's" impact on the citizenry of San Antonio, she did not linger in Bexar County. As her ad clearly noted, she would only be in town for two weeks.

Possessing the ability to see into the future, she doubtless knew if she stayed longer than 14 days, folks would realize she was just another charlatan, albeit a lady charlatan.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September 29, 2017 column

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