Walter is Coming

On March 6, 1891, Louanna Harris Cagle gave birth to a prophet.

Her son worked a farm in Mountainboro, Alabama, a forgotten city absorbed by Boaz in 2009. Walt Cagle knew the weather. His predictions were often accurate, if not precise, and his arrival in Boaz for winter shopping a joyous occasion.

Cagle claimed that he watched the chipmunks and squirrels. He stared into the trees for hours and noted where they buried their acorns, he knew the size and frequency of each stash. The patterns of the little forest animals told him all he needed about the coming months.

People drove from far and wide to see the man. They made the trek from all over Alabama, from eastern Tennessee, and from as far afield as Atlanta to hear his predictions. Stores opened early and closed late on the day he planned to arrive. It could snow and gust and the sky might lob hail all it wanted, but Sand Mountain knew that winter started when Walt Cagle picked up his pants.

Walt Cagle Tuscaloosa News December 1936.png
Walt Cagle holding Boaz city keys. The Tuscaloosa News; December 2, 1936.

For you see, Walt Cagle ate twenty biscuits a day.

Often described as a giant, he stood 6’2″ tall and weighed in at over five hundred pounds. He dwarfed almost every other man in Depression-era Alabama. As such, no garment mill in the state could fill his clothing orders. Instead a tailor named S.H. Leeth fashioned pants and ordered 24 yards of flannel every August that his unfortunate yet aptly named wife, Minnie J. Cagle, fashioned into heavy winter underwear.

Although Cagle came to Boaz to pick up his annual set of pants for most of his adult life, he remained a regional phenomenon until 1935, when the city began celebrating “Walt Cagle Day,” to kick off the winter season. Suddenly newspapers from around the nation found his story enthralling and by 1937, he received fan mail from every corner of America. Several circuses tried to entice him to join their retinue as a special exhibit and a museum even requested a used pair of his flannel underwear.

On June 29, 1938, Walt Cagle died. A mortician from Albertville offered to design his coffin, taller and wider than any before it. Sixteen men carried Cagle to his final resting place – the Thrasher Cemetery in Mountainboro.

Winter has surprised north Alabama every year since.


“Big Walt Cagle Sees His Fan Mail Pour In.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), January 19, 1937.

“Boaz Prepares to Greet Cagle.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 1, 1936.

“Cagle Descends From Mountain.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 2, 1936.

“Huge Weather Prophet Honored by Villagers.” The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), December 3, 1936.

“Sixteen Pallbearers To Carry Walt Cagle.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), June 30, 1938.

“Walt Cagle, 550-Pound Weather Prophet, Dies.”  The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), June 29, 1938.

“Walt Cagle’s Around the Mountain, Winter’s Official in North Alabama.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 19, 1935.

“Walt is Ready for Winter Now.” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), December 19, 1935.

“Winter and Walt Breeze into Boaz.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 18, 1935.






Medicine and Marion, Part 5

Part 5: “…with great heroism and bravery.”

Previously on Medicine and Marion!

Part 1: It, however, has its redeeming qualities.

Part 2: …so sickly a season as that.

Part 3: …all sort of beautiful and brilliant operations.

Part 4: If there was anything I hated…

J. Marion Sims left Mrs. Merrill’s home with a very basic understanding of how to dilate the human vagina. One could examine the inner workings of the vaginal canal by having a patient get onto her elbows and knees and letting the pressure of air naturally inflate it.

This changed everything.

Sims operated a small eight-bed hospital “in the corner of my yard.” The purpose of this separate hospital was to attend to the medical needs and surgeries of Montgomery’s free blacks and enslaved peoples. Recently several enslaved women were sent there from around Montgomery county with the same ailment.

Vesico-vaginal fistulas occurred during childbirth. The stresses involved severely damage the tissues of the pelvis and a hole, or fistula, opens between the bladder, AKA the vesico, and vagina proper. This leads to a constant stream of urine leaking directly into the vagina; causing further tissue damage, a highly unpleasant smell, and complications for the emotional health of the suffering woman.

Although several women were sent to receive treatment all previous medical knowledge indicated that no method might treat them. So Sims turned away each one in kind. However, a woman named Betsey still resided at the hospital, having only arrived a few days prior with her heavily pronounced fistula.

Armed with his new knowledge of the dilated vagina Sims rushed home. He stopped at a store called Hall, Mores & Roberts, where he “bought a pewter spoon,” to use in the examination. He summoned two medical students interning under him and finally arrived at the tiny hospital in the corner of his yard. The students ran behind him. One said, “[y]ou have got through your work early this morning.”

“I have done none of it!” shouted Sims.

Finally he appeared before Betsey and asked to examine her one more time before she left.

Imagine for a moment that you are her. You live under a brutal slave system, gave birth not even a few months ago, are separated from your child and meager support system, and after all this – you’ve traveled, under your own power, with a horribly uncomfortable condition to see a man who just yesterday said he could not help you. Suddenly, three white men burst through the door and the doctor is waving a spoon.

It’s a small miracle that she consented to the inspection.

Betsey turned over and rested her head on her hands. Sims positioned the medical students so that one might grab a buttock each. They pulled them apart and Sims inserted the spoon handle. He stared in awe as, “I saw everything, as no man had ever seen before.” This is either hyperbole or an indication of the undue influence of Victorian sexual mores upon medical knowledge. (226-234)

Either way, Sims immediately overestimated his skills as a surgeon. He exclaimed “there is nothing to do but pare the edges of the fistula and bring it together nicely.”

Let us once again imagine life as Betsey. You are beyond naked,  two men that you do not know at all are holding your cheeks apart, and a madman is using a spoon to stare at your innards and mutter to himself. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. After this gross violation of her person Betsey returned to the home of her enslaver, a man named Dr. Harris.

Sims felt that he was close to a surgical cure for the condition. He “ransacked the country for cases,” and eventually found about a half dozen enslaved women with vesico-vaginal fistulas who previously languished in obscure agony across the Black Belt.

After adding an entire extra story to his corner-hospital the doctor now had twelve beds for patients and four beds for servants to tend to their needs. At this point Sims named three of the women – Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha – who served as patients, assistants, and surgical guinea pigs. As the women were enslaved, J. Marion Sims found himself forced to make contracts with each of their enslavers. In exchange for Sims boarding, feeding, and operating on the women; their owners agreed to clothe them and pay their associated taxes.*

In December 1845, Lucy suffered through the first operation. A dozen local doctors attended.

Sims “never dreamed of failure,” but quickly learned of his own foolishness. He found the base of Lucy’s bladder destroyed “and a piece had fallen out,” a gash, about two inches long, joined the bladder and the vagina and as a result she urinated constantly. The “tedious and difficult,” operation took place before anesthesia became common during surgery and Lucy soldiered through the pain “with great heroism and bravery.”

The fistula closed after about an hour of surgery. Sims used a combination of sponge and silk string to form a tube through which the urine might flow from the bladder into the urethra. The assembled doctors congratulated him and left.

The sponge, a bacteria ridden foreign object nestled between the urethra and the bladder, naturally filled with blood, urine, and pus. Over the course of five days it solidified and morphed into stone. Lucy fell ill and suffered intense fevers and blood poisoning. If Sims’s contraption remained inside of her much longer she would die.

Her dire condition forced an emergency operation. Sims pulled the sponge from her “by main force.” Lucy’s torment was “extreme” and her survival seemed uncertain. Fortunately she recovered and after an examination it appeared that much of her fistula healed from the application of sutures. Betsey received similar treatments with similar results. Although the actual size of the fistula closed it did not entirely heal, so that progress appeared while the solution remained elusive.

Of course, the worst fistula occurred in Anarcha. Let us pause for a moment and remember the 1836 malaria outbreak. When Sims leaned heavily against death’s door the only person who watched over him, from the sun’s first rays to the moon’s last glow, was a young enslaved girl named Anarcha. Suffice to say they’d met before. Hell, J. Marion Sims even helped to deliver her baby.

Nine years later they found their roles reversed. Now Sims tended to her maladies. Anarcha possessed a far more pronounced fistula than either Lucy or Betsey, the exterior wall of her vagina became greatly damaged during childbirth and the barrier between vagina and rectum torn asunder. Great streams of urine constantly soaked her legs and clothing, the flesh around her genitals burned and bubbled “almost like confluent small-pox,” and intestinal gases leaked from day and night. She suffered. Lord how she suffered.

After repeated surgeries neither Lucy, Betsey, Anarcha, nor the other women at the hospital experienced full relief. Sims managed to make small improvements here and there, but a small fistula is still a fistula. The years rolled on and the patience of other doctors soon waned. Eventually Sims stood alone “and at last I performed operations only with the assistance of the patients themselves.”

After four years of trial and error Sims stood closer to the goal, but felt farther away than ever. One night he stared at his ceiling until 3am contemplating sutures and ties and forceps and bladders. Forceps, yes, that was the solution. Enlivened by this revelation he woke his wife, Theresa, and told her of his plan.

By using a perforated suture – the contemporary medical practice of using a partially divided lead pellet, secured by strong compression, to tie off sutures inside the human body – with this combination of forceps and perforated shots he hoped to finally close the fistulas that haunted his patients and creeped in his mind.

In June 1849, Lucy suffered through the first perfected operation. Once again Sims used silk thread and once again she developed an infection. Not until he found “a little bit of brass wire” laying on the ground did it occur to him that a metal might suffice where a thread had failed. Sims went and spoke with the local jeweler, Mr. Swan, and requested silver wires be made that matched the little brass piece of trash in length and width.

When Sims chose silver for his new sutures, he knew that it worked, but did not understand the metal’s antibacterial properties.

That doesn’t matter right now. Right now it is 1849. Anarcha is prepped and ready for her thirtieth operation. J. Marion Sims examines his instruments one last time. Four silver wires are run through four perforated sutures and forceps are clamped together to form four perfect little knots.

In this moment there are two eras; childbirth before Anarcha’s surgery and childbirth after.

A week goes by and it is time to remove the sutures. She is lifted onto the operation table and a speculum inserted. “There was no inflammation, no tumefaction, nothing unnatural, and a very perfect union of the little fistula.”

Lucy and Betsey soon underwent the same operation. (236-246)

J. Marion Sims eventually left Alabama. He came to this state and made a name for himself and alighted away from this place to more haughty endeavors like the establishment of a women’s clinic in New York City and tours of Europe. His methodical approach evolved quickly and spread across the industrialized world. It soon attracted other physicians with other theories and became its own branch of medicine – gynecology.

Some semblance of Sims’s methods are still used today to fight the scourge of fistula across the developing world. Women who experienced traumatic childbirth might be healed by a single surgery and their lives greatly improved.

Accordingly, a statue of J. Marion Sims stands to this day in New York City’s Central Park.

Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other women at the little clinic “in the corner of [Sims’s] yard” did not get to leave Alabama. They did not receive plaudits nor commendations and unfortunately exist only in the memories of those who read Sims’s works. Indeed, once they received their cures they returned to life as an enslaved person. Yet they suffered, offered advice, assisted in surgeries, and were as much a part of the search for the cure as Sims himself.

Where’s their statue?

*I really hate using words like owner, master, or slave, because they tend to denote a categorical or occupational meaning in our language, and instead try to substitute words like enslaved and enslaver. This stems from my long-held belief that freedom is the innate condition of the human soul and that the slave system required persistent and pernicious action, on a daily basis, to sustain itself. Thus the use of the nominalized adjectives.

However, this raises a point about discussing my own history. Is it better to confront the uncomfortable language or to try and substitute a less bitter word that offers a better meaning? If you have any thoughts on this subject, make sure to comment on them below. Also, I know I’m being fairly irreverent about medical experimentation, but that’s more of a coping mechanism. I don’t think anyone would read this without a level of humor in it.


Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884.

Medicine and Marion, Part 4

Part 4: “If there was anything I hated…”

In mid-June of 1845, a hog lay along the roadside in Montgomery, “in the corner of the fence.” Mrs. Merrill rode her horse down the same path. She lived at the top of what locals simply called “the hill” and took in washing to make a living.*

The hog charged the horse.

The horse startled and threw Mrs. Merrill. She broke no bones nor suffered much abrasion. Instead all her injuries were internal. The trauma of the fall resulted in a “retroversion of the uterus,” that caused her great pain. Locals summoned the doctor that they sought for strange conditions, J. Marion Sims, and he came in haste. He beheld Mrs. Merrill and felt an instant pang of regret. “If there was anything I hated,” he later wrote, “it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.”

Sims hated examining vaginas. Yet he billed himself as a doctor and doctors did unpleasant things, so “by a digital examination,” he soon concluded that he would need to manipulate her uterus back into its proper alignment.

Contemporary medical knowledge claimed that the only way to solve this crisis involved placing the patient “in a genu-pectoral position,” or on their hands and elbows, followed by an insertion of fingers into both the rectum and vagina, accompanied with some serious wiggling. Sims already found his fingers inside Mrs. Merrill’s vagina and proved hesitant about the insertion of a thumb into her rectum, “because only a few days before I had had occasion to examine the rectum of a nervous gentleman.”

As Mrs. Merrill positioned herself onto her elbows and knees, Sims paused to take stock of the situation – he’d already put his finger into one rectum this week, he dared not make it two. With the rectal finger foregone, he simply tried to turn Mrs. Merrill’s uterus towards its correct position.

Sims contorted his hands into all manners of shape. With three fingers fully engulfed he attempted to relieve his patient of her pain by twisting upwards and then downwards, by pulling the uterus towards him or pushing it away with all of his strength. Sims struggled with the organ and Mrs. Merrill struggled through the pain.

Eventually, after much exertion and groans of agony, “[it] was as if I had put my two fingers into a hat, and worked them around, without touching the substance of it.” Mrs. Merrill sighed, her had pain subsided and the uterus returned to its original position. She turned to Sims and said, “[why] doctor, I am relieved.”

Both Sims and Mrs. Merrill found themselves exhausted and perspiring. The ersatz procedure required momentous effort and fortitude from both participants. Mrs. Merrill collapsed onto her side.

Then something marvelous happened.

As Sims probably looked around for a rag, “there was an explosion,” of air from Mrs. Merrill. Although she looked on in horror, the doctor thought of other things. “That is not from the bowel,” he thought, “but from the vagina,” suddenly a lot of things made sense. By dilating Mrs. Merrill’s labia, in a genu-pectoral position, it allowed the organ to expand to its natural capacity, which Sims estimated to be “fifty-five pounds to the square inch.”

This episode taught him an important lesson; that if one might use air to dilate the vagina, then one might manipulate and perform procedures upon it more easily. On that hot June day, Mrs. Merrill gave forth the most important case of vaginal flatulence in medical history.

Sims intended to use this knowledge on what he considered previously hopeless patients. (230-234)

*one can only hope that it was Goat Hill, the eventual site of the Alabama state capitol.


Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884

Medicine and Marion, Part 3

Part 3: “…all sort of beautiful and brilliant operations.”

Sims eventually outgrew Mount Meigs and turned his eyes towards other parts of Alabama. Theresa Sims’s brother lived in Lowndes county and the lack of health services and other infrastructure enticed him to move his practice there because “people would be obliged to employ me, whether they wished to or not.” (202)

However, upon visiting Montgomery to secure some rations for his travel to Lowndes county, Sims ran into Dr. Goff; a man described by Sims as a jovial alcoholic who spent too much time playing cards to be taken seriously as a physician. Goff related horror stories of the endemic malaria and other maladies that continuously struck Lowndes county. His tales ended with a plea for Sims to remain in Montgomery, but relocate from Mount Meigs to the city itself. Sims, moved by either the sincerity of the pleas or the horrors of Lowndes, did just that.

The Sims family moved into a house in Montgomery “on my favorite 13th day of the month of December (1840).”*

He needed to bring in money quickly and to that end he built a base of clientele by “[beginning] at the very bottom.” Sims became the go-to physician for two of Montgomery’s least serviced demographic groups; free blacks and the local Jewish community.**

Although free blacks served as his first customers Sims spent far more time discussing central Alabama’s Jews. It’s worth noting that Abraham Mordecai, a Jewish man from Philadelphia and Revolutionary War veteran, established the trading post that eventually blossomed into Montgomery, so the city has always contained a small Jewish population.***

Sims described them as “very clannish,” and all it apparently took to secure the “large and agreeable” Jewish practice in Montgomery was a few satisfactory visits from some well-respected members of the community. (200-207)

Once Sims became established with both the free blacks and the local Jews, he began performing all sorts of experimental surgeries. He treated patients in accordance with his disgust of former practices and fascination with new emerging medical ideas. No longer distraught by the limitations of medicine he “gave away [his] dog and sold [his] gun,” so as to avoid diversions. Within five or so years he earned a reputation as a skillful surgeon and people traveled from neighboring counties, occasionally arriving on the tops of bales of cotton, with ailments for the doctor to examine.

One such case cemented his interest in surgery. Margaret C., a young woman from North Carolina that moved with her family to Lowndes county, came to him with a very specific request.

She suffered from a harelip and wore a veil to hide her features.

margaret c harelip
from “The American Journal of Dental Science, Vol. V No. 1, p. 52”

Inexperience with the human mouth caused Sims to seek out a local dentist, Dr. Bellangee, and together the two men devised a way to fix Margaret C’s harelip. Through the removal of several teeth, layers of flesh, and other bones they inserted a new set of incisors manufactured by Bellangee. Over the course of a month, and several individual surgeries, they crafted a reasonable approximation of a human smile.

Now fully confident in his role as a groundbreaking surgeon, Sims soon faced the most challenging operations of his career.

*Sims appeared to be the original special snowflake and commented multiple times in his autobiography that he considered Friday the 13th to be a day of great luck and good fortune.

**he definitely did not call them free blacks, instead opting for a word that 1) reminds us of his time, place, and social standing and 2) shall not be reprinted here.

***Mordecai also thought that the Creek Nation were probably a lost Jewish tribe, so the first time he met its members he tried speaking to them in Hebrew. Although he eventually married a Creek woman, he managed to upset a local mico (Creek leader) in 1802 and had one of his ears lopped off as punishment. Dude was awesome and I’ll probably do an update on him sometime in the future.


Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884.

Sims, J. Marion. “Double Congenital Hare-lip – absence of the Superior Incisors, and their portion of Alveolar Process.” The American Journal of Dental Science Vol. V, no. 1 (1844): 51-56.

Medicine and Marion, Part 2

Part 2: “…so sickly a season as that.”

Sims established himself as well as he could in Mount Meigs. As a fledgling doctor and occasional pioneer he now felt more confident in who he was and why he existed. With this new found esteem came stubbornness. He briefly returned to South Carolina to visit family. Again he proposed to Theresa Jones, this time she accepted. They married on December 21, 1836.

However, before all that happened, Sims needed to return briefly to Alabama to attend some business. He rode on a stage coach through Georgia and the vestiges of the Creek Nation. They traveled the well-worn paths of the Old Federal Road. Originally built to connect Washington D.C. to New Orleans, the road provided one of the only viable and steady links from south Alabama to the rest of American civilization. Sims scarcely arrived safely in Montgomery county before being called upon to leave it again.

The Creek Nation, threatened from all sides, rose up in late March of 1836, young bands of men raided stage coaches traveling the Old Federal Road. Their aggression effectively sealed off everything south of Huntsville and ensured a violent response from the area’s white residents.

Sims joined a group of 120 or so “unruly and impatient,” men from Mount Meigs and spent five long summer weeks scouting from a forward base in Tuskegee. Eventually the regular army, under General Gaines, arrived and sent the volunteers home. Although they did not fight, Sims claimed that this experience showed him “the honors of war.” Soon men that volunteered alongside Sims called upon him for medical help. His time in the Creek Nation solidified his position as a popular local doctor. (167-170)

By mid-June malaria rampaged across Montgomery county. The population withered before it and “There were not enough well people to wait on the sick ones.”

On September 4, 1836, Sims came to the plantation of Captain John Ashurst, his commander during the brief sojourn into Tuskegee, to treat thirty enslaved people waylaid by malaria. Sometime previous to his visit, probably 10 to 30 days, a mosquito alighted upon him and transferred the parasite into his blood. However, he did not manifest symptoms until his visit to the Ashurst’s plantation.

Indeed, his mention of this visit prior to describing his own nearly fatal bout with malaria highlighted the strange times in which he lived. Malaria literally derives from the Italian ‘mala aria’ or bad air. Humanity knew nothing of the mosquito’s role in this plague until the 1884 publication of “Treatise on Marsh Fevers,” by French military physician Alphonse Laveran.

Prior to this beautiful discovery those who could afford to avoid swamps did so. In fact the necessity of avoiding swampy lowlands drove both the British establishment of ‘hill stations’ across India and French mountain settlements in North Africa. While in the United States less swampy northern cities often received affluent white southerners wishing ‘to take the air’ during malarial outbreaks back home.

So, J. Marion Sims commenting on his visit to slave quarters immediately prior to a serious outbreak of malarial fever is meant to inform a contemporary audience, which understood the immediate link between atmospheric conditions and the onset of malaria, of the cramped and uncomfortable conditions in those quarters as much as it is to provide a narrative of his life.

He soon found himself near to death and confined to a bed. Another, more conventional, doctor from the county came to visit him and inspected his body before signalling a young slave woman named Anarcha. He said, “Bring me a string, and a little cotton, and a bowl; I am going to draw a little blood from the doctor.”

Sims refused this treatment. He lived in the declining days of Heroic medicine, a medical tradition increasingly limited to older physicians, and commented that “mortality followed the practice of the doctors.” Confronted with parasitic fevers, conventional wisdom called for blood to be drained and stomachs purged. Those treated more robustly than others “died the quickest.”

After the withdrawal of the elderly Dr. Lucas, and his Heroic traditions, Sims contented himself to waste away into “an emaciated skeleton.” Only Anarcha sat with him for much of this period. She brought water when he could drink and food when he could eat.

Fortunately a young Englishman named Thomas B. Coster came to see Sims. He arrived with a miracle derived from the ‘bark of barks’ – Coster brought quinine.

Long known of in Spain, England, and France – immediately treating malaria patients with large doses of quinine failed to catch on in much of the United States until the works of two doctors from Madison county highlighted its efficacy.*

Sims contended that prior to “Fearne and Erskine,” doctors implemented traditional Heroic methods, like bleeding and purging, followed by small doses of quinine treatment, but they “preached the doctrine of giving it without any regard to preliminary treatment… in sufficient doses to affect the system at once.” So persistent were they in their plaudits for the drug that Sims called their medical ideology “quininism.”

Thanks to his refusal of Dr. Lucas and the intervention of Coster he soon recovered.

This outbreak of malaria changed Sims. It altered his perceptions of what medicine might do, he emerged from the epidemic a man ready to cast aside traditional treatment methods and instead wholeheartedly adopt that which might seem radical or untested, but at least emerged from long observation.

Without the 1836 Malaria Outbreak, J. Marion Sims might have remained a small-time piney woods doctor. Instead he began the transformation that made him into one of the greatest, and most controversial, experimental surgeons of the modern era. (170-175)

*It is worth noting that Fearn’s early love of quinine, as a peculiarly Spanish treatment for diseases, only highlights my theory that he was a raging hispanophile. Honestly he may have just gotten lucky in this regard. The phrase, “well the Spaniards do it,” seemed to guide most of his life choices.


Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884.

Medicine and Marion, Part 1

Part 1: “It, however, has its redeeming qualities.”

In the early days of April 1833, a young man walked up to his father in Lancaster, South Carolina. He grieved at the deaths of his first two patients and felt defeated by the refusal of a marriage proposal to his sweetheart Theresa.

Rumors circulated that, since the genocidal expulsion of the Cherokee nation, the malarial southeastern frontiers offered a ready bounty to anyone hardy enough to try and stake a claim.

“Father,” began the young man. The father looked up and listened as his eldest son talk about opportunity and work and possibly giving him a small loan so that he might travel to a place called Alabama. The father nodded along and when the young man finished ranting he said, “My son, are you crazy?” (179-181)

Sims received his education at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and returned to South Carolina in the high hopes of practicing there. However, few people knew him as ‘Dr. Sims’ as most of Lancaster continued to refer to him as Marion. Taken in combination with his failure to save his first few patients, Sims felt that a sudden departure might prove useful.

It took two more years before he’d depart for Alabama, but by the early part of November 1835, Sims found himself in Mount Meigs, Montgomery county, Alabama.* He almost immediately regretted his decision.

On November 3, he wrote to Theresa, the young lady that scorned his advances. He declared Mount Meigs “a fine stand for a physician,” and planned to travel throughout the Black Belt seeking patients. Although the deep south provided plenty of diseases to treat and explore, he found the people therein “dissipated” and brutal.

“At this very moment,” he wrote Theresa, “there are about a dozen or twenty men, of the most profane cast, drunk and fighting, in the street below my window, with a negro playing a banjo (I believe it is so called) in their midst.”

Although he greeted the peculiar forms of frontier entertainment with disgust, the brawling and “frolicking” soon endeared themselves to Sims. For barely two weeks later he wrote her again, he confirmed his original suspicions about the place and its people – a land of chronically sick and drunken hooligans with a taste for the banjo – but determined that Alabama, “has its redeeming qualities.” (371)

So began the career of J. Marion Sims.

*fun fact, all that remains in Mount Meigs today is a juvenile correction center.

Part 2


Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884.

Oh Henry! The Long Divorce of Emiline Coleman, Part Five

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5: “…we should seize Riley”

Judge Smith owned land all around Huntsville’s downtown. He rented his shed on Randolph Street to the stonemason William Edwards and both John Lewis and Preston Yeatman used the judge’s “large brick stable [on Green Street]… as a salthouse.” Both locations provided perfect vantage points for surveillance of the Coleman property.

coleman edits
Emiline and Henry are terrible at subterfuge.

Normally such surveillance might include mundanities like: John Coleman on a horse, Emiline Coleman drinking tea, or someone reading a book.

However, on Sunday, September 10, 1836, William Edwards noticed something different. His shed, “being on much higher ground than any part of said Coleman’s premises,” overlooked all of Randolph Street and allowed Edwards a view down into the Theatre on clear days. Around three or four in the afternoon, “during the continuance service of the Methodist Church,” he saw Emiline Coleman slip from the main house and down into the privy. Scarcely a moment later Henry Riley, “crossed the fence into the complainants garden and went into the same privy or necessary house.”

Apparently this happened often, as Edwards noted that “on divers occasions I had watched the maneuvers of Mrs Coleman and this man Riley,” which included the adulterous conspirators leaving notes for each other in fence posts and the aforementioned outhouse rendezvouses. William Edwards returned to his work but noted that not long after the two began their privy shenanigans; John Coleman rode up on a horse and, unable to find his wife or assuming that she went to church, began reading a book by the window.

Edwards ran into Henry Riley not long after this near “Mr Sydne’s Lot” (number 6 on the map) and spoke with him briefly about his time in the toilet. No reliable account exists of this encounter, but it appears that Edwards’ casual snooping entered the rumor mill and produced well hewn gossip about Emiline Coleman’s impropriety.

Such gossip died down, though never fully evaporated, following the departure of Riley’s acting troupe. However, his reappearance in early December ignited a flurry of activity, both among people who liked talking, and between himself and Emiline Coleman. More conspicuous than his reappearance was the fact that he was “unaccompanied by the residue of the Company and without any ostensible business.”

Henry came to see Emiline.

Preston Yeatman noticed his sudden reemergence and felt compelled to track the actor all over Huntsville. So when Yeatman, and his associate John Lewis, noticed Riley hovering beneath a window – they paid attention.

Around two p.m. on Saturday, December 17th, 1836, the two men quit unloading salt from a wagon as Henry Riley walked up the street and instead ran inside Judge Smith’s stable and watched intently through the grates. The solid brick structure hid them as “the window blinds of a window on the second story… cautiously opened and a small piece of paper drop[ped] down at the feet of said Riley.” The actor cast several furtive glances around the street to make sure nobody watched him as he “picked up the paper and thrust it into the pocket of his pantaloons,” before scurrying off towards to the town square.

Preston Yeatman and John Lewis turned to look at each other and they said ‘oh dang, we should tell somebody.’

That somebody happened to be James W. McClung, a close associate of John Coleman and a man of hasty action. He knew of the rumors circulating about Emiline Coleman, a woman whom he described as “volatile and girlish,” and it appears he was none too fond of Riley either. Upon being informed of the paper dropping, McClung immediately found John Coleman. McClung formed an impromptu posse of himself, Coleman, Lewis, and Yeatman; who at McClung’s suggestion that “we should seize Riley and thus get possession of the paper,” set off for the town square.

Henry resisted their initial demands but the four men assaulted him and afterwards “forcibly examined the said Riley’s person.” They indeed found a letter in Riley’s pantaloons.

I am so much pleased to see you here once more but it is impossible for me to speak to you. I am still the same and ever shall be return home Henry and forget me if you please if it is ever in my power to become the Bride of H with honor I will, and as soon as I can you shall know it keep my secret if you please, never betray me so long as you live, write a letter this evening and tonight after tea slip it through the window blinds of the porch I will be there playing on the piano. Adieu Henry

Yours – Yours

Distraught at this plain evidence of Emiline’s affair, John returned to his work at the Land Office; where he spoke with his close friend Samuel Cruse. John remembered his sister, Narcissa, warning him of Emiline’s infidelity, but had ignored her and instead listened to Emiline’s tales. While he contemplated his next move the three other men ran Riley out of Huntsville, apparently he left so quickly that his luggage remained in town.

Samuel Cruse had an idea. He remembered that Henry Riley stayed at the Bell Tavern inn. So he accompanied John to the place, and after some misgivings from the owner, they barged their way into Riley’s room. There they found a large trunk, which they forced open. Among Riley’s clothes and baubles they found fifteen letters written to him by Emiline Coleman, as well as “a miniature of Mrs Coleman, which I recognized as a likeness of her.”

Samuel Cruse paid for a stage coach to take Emiline to her father’s home in Marengo county. John Coleman paid for a lawyer. On November 1, 1837, the court granted him a full divorce.


John J. Coleman vs. Emiline R. Coleman, Book J, 91-114 (1837).