It was sometime in the late summer of 1912 that Dr. Jean Barber first heard the rumors: Her husband, whom she had not seen since 1904, had reappeared in England, and was apparently in some trouble there.
And this has to have been a surprise to Dr. Barber, because when she’d last seen her husband, eight years earlier, he had been dead.
Dr. Richard Barber, in 1904, had been the male half of a husband-wife team of physicians operating the local hospital and clinic in the Winchester Bay area at the mouth of the Umpqua River.
The two of them were originally from England. In 1890, when both were in their mid-20s, they emigrated to the rough-cut new city of Portland with their young son, Eric. Richard was a recent med-school graduate and was on the English medical register as a licensed physician. Jean had attended medical school too, but had not yet been admitted to practice, so they were, when they first arrived, a “Dr. and Mrs.” couple.
This Jean soon set about rectifying, and in 1894 she was able to take her place as Dr. Jean Barber, Richard’s colleague as well as his wife.
Meanwhile their practice was thriving in their new home town. But then came the Spanish-American War, and the newly naturalized Dr. Richard left his practice to take a commission as a lieutenant in the Oregon Volunteers, and was deployed to Manila.
When Dr. Richard returned, “his health was shattered,” as Oregonian reporter Addison Bennett put it. This likely meant he’d contracted malaria, which made Portland — with its marshy riverside wetlands and nasty Gilded-Age-city smogs and miasmas — a bad place for him to live. So the couple moved south in the valley, to the clean, fresh-aired timber town of Sheridan, and then, a few years later, to Yoncalla, in northern Douglas County, and finally to the coastal town of Gardiner, near the mouth of the Umpqua, to establish the hospital and clinic there.
They were big fish in a small pond, and they seem to have been happy there. But Dr. Richard didn’t have much time in which to enjoy his new life and his returning health. Less than a year later, on the night of Dec. 2, 1904, a messenger arrived from Florence, 28 miles up the beach. A young man had been operating a jackscrew when it had cut loose, dealing him a terrific blow on the head. He needed a surgeon, stat. Dr. Richard was his man.
Dr. Richard saddled up and rode off into the night.
What happened next is mostly educated guesswork. When Dr. Richard arrived at the mouth of the Siuslaw River, he apparently thought it was the flood-swollen waters of the Siltcoos (a.k.a. Tenmile Creek) — which his horse had crossed without his noticing — and instead of turning along the bank to catch the ferry at Glenada, he urged the beast into the water to swim the river. In the darkness, he didn’t realize that it was a good half a mile to the other side.
By the time they reached the other side of the river, Dr. Richard was suffering from full-blown hypothermia. He staggered ashore on the jetty, found a shack, tried and failed to force open the door, somehow managed to retrieve a flask of liquor from his saddlebag, tried and failed to get the cap off, and, finally, fell through a gap in the jetty landing, 10 or 15 feet down onto the rocks and shallow water below.
The fall probably killed him, but if it didn’t, the cold did. They found his body there the next day.
The heroic nature of Dr. Richard Barber’s death, and his immense popularity in every community in which he had practiced, guaranteed widespread publicity. A glowing editorial praising him, and country doctors in general, graced the Morning Oregonian’s opinion page a few days later. And poor Dr. Jean, his widowed partner and wife, had to carry on with their work at the hospital alone.
She was, of course, a very busy woman and it didn’t occur to her that she might need to write to the medical authorities in England to let them know of Dr. Richard’s death.
Which is why, a year and a half later, no eyebrows were raised when “Dr. Richard Barber” notified the authorities that he had returned from abroad and re-established himself in Dear Old England — in Liverpool.
The fake Dr. Barber was an English mountebank named Harry Virtue — or if that was not his real name, it works as well as any of the many others he adopted during his colorful career. He was the same age as Dr. Jean — born in Manchester in 1865 — and, like the Barbers, emigrated to the U.S., where he practiced (without a license) as a veterinary surgeon in various places. He moved around a lot. His success was hampered by his lack of actual medical training, and by his sticky fingers — once he even stole a horse and buggy from an employer.
One of the places Virtue briefly worked was Oregon, and while there, he met Richard. And when word of Richard’s death reached him — doubtless he read one of the glowing accounts of the country doctor’s heroic end — he saw his opportunity. Booking passage back to England, he sent that letter off to the medical authorities, dusted off his shingle, and went into practice as “Dr. Richard Barber.”
The problem was, the personality traits that had gotten him into trouble as an unlicensed veterinarian had not disappeared. And now he was in a civilized country rather than a rough-sawn frontier community. When he burned a bridge as “Dr. Richard Barber,” he couldn’t just cross a state line and get a fresh start under a new name somewhere else.
Eset up his own practice in Treeton in South Yorkshire, hiring an MD assistant of his own: Dr. Henry Bond.
After a time, Dr. Bond realized that his boss was avoiding medical topics in conversations with him, and was relying on him, Dr. Bond, for all the complicated surgeries that came their way. He started wondering if “Dr. Barber” was actually competent. And he reported his suspicions to the medical authorities — who responded with a letter to “Dr. Barber” asking for some information about his Oregon practice.
And so it was that, on one late summer day, “Dr. Barber” opened this letter and knew the jig was up. He slipped away that very night. Dr. Bond never saw him again.
But he couldn’t just change his name and open a new practice somewhere else. This wasn’t Oregon, and he wasn’t a vet any more. This was England, and the only name that he’d be allowed to practice under was Richard Barber’s. So he had another crack at it, hanging out his shingle in Liverpool — but the cops were ready for him, and he soon found himself in their custody.
And that’s when they telegraphed for Dr. Jean Barber to come and “identify” him.
Harry Virtue didn’t go down easy. He made a last-minute attempt to sign onto a freighter bound for Brazil as “Dr. Charles Thompson,” apparently hoping to continue his itinerant quack-doctor lifestyle in another far-flung frontier community — but the police were just a little too quick for him, and he was once again nicked.
After World War I broke out, Virtue took advantage of the tumult to hop back into the fake-doctoring racket, renaming himself Dr. Harry Siddons, forging a captain’s commission, and wangling his way onto the Birkenhead Military Medical Board, where he got busy taking bribes in exchange for military medical deferments and other favors until 1917, when he was once again caught with his hand in the till. And on the eve of his trial for these new charges, Virtue committed suicide by cutting his own throat with a doctor’s scalpel — dying, one might say, as he had lived.
As for Dr. Jean Barber, she returned home to Gardiner and resumed her life of healing the sick and saving the lives of the injured. She died in 1927.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, 6-12 Dec 1904, 29 Dec 1912; Roseburg Evening News, 26 Nov and 30 Dec 1912; Quackwriter, “The Alleged Dr. Barber: A Case of Identity Theft in 1912,” thequackdoctor.com, 10 Oct 2018; special thanks to Jeffrey Smith of Roseburg for this story tip)
— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com.