The Kind Doctor Who Unknowingly Saved a Dying Jesse James
The citizens of Kansas City picked up the local newspaper one fall day in 1888 and read some very sad news. Dr. Joseph Madison Wood, one of the city’s most beloved figures, was in critical condition. After settling in Missouri in 1830, he practiced medicine so long and so well that he earned a sterling reputation, and had became an active and respected figure in the community. Here is the beginning of the article the Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri) published on Sept. 1, 1888:
Dr. Wood Dangerously Ill.
Kansas City’s Oldest Physician in a Critical Condition.
The Octogenarian Suffering from Embolus of the Main Artery of the Left Leg—Amputation Necessary unless Relief Can Be Obtained through the Smaller Arteries.
Dr. Joseph Madison Wood, the oldest and best known practicing physician in Jackson county, is dangerously ill at his residence, 1321 East Ninth street. Dr. Wood’s success as a healer and his skill as an operating surgeon have made him famous throughout the country, and he has always had a large practice, his patients coming to him to be treated from all over the west. He was born March 27, 1810, in Harrodsburg, Ky., and is now in his 79th year; but, notwithstanding his great age, his intellect is perfectly clear, his eyesight unimpaired and his hand steady.
Although he initially resisted having his leg amputated, Dr. Wood accepted the dire necessity—but it could not save him. The Kansas City Times published his obituary on Sept. 20, 1888:
In Death’s Embrace.
Dr. Joseph M. Wood Succumbs to the Fell Destroyer.
Death the Result of Tuesday’s Surgical Operation—Life and Work of the Deceased—His Service to His Profession and to Humanity—The Funeral Preparations.
Dr. Joseph M. Wood died at 8:35 o’clock yesterday morning, the immediate cause of his death being heart failure. After the amputation of his leg Tuesday afternoon he rallied and talked with Dr. Halley and the other physicians, remarking that he was glad that the limb had been taken off. He was kept under the influence of ether all night and when death came he quitted this life without pain and almost without a struggle. The members of his family were all with him when he died.
The obituary was lengthy, extolling the doctor’s career and revealing many details from his long life. There was one interesting detail the obituary writer did not know about, however, that surfaced in a letter someone wrote to the paper’s editor four days later. The Kansas City Times published the astonishing letter on Sept. 25, 1888:
Dr. Joseph M. Wood and Jesse James.
To the Kansas City Times:
Kansas City, Mo., Sept. 24.—In June, 1864, and after a severe encounter with a detachment of Wisconsin troops, Jesse James was severely shot through the right lung. Afraid to go to a house, for the whole western border was then being raided and robbed by disbanded soldiers, James’ comrades took him to some heavy timber in Clay county near to the Missouri river and watched and tended him there.
One night about 9 o’clock three men came to Dr. Wood’s house in Kansas City. Two of these were on horseback heavily armed, and one was in a double buggy. The spokesman of his party soon made known his mission. A man desperately wounded was waiting for some surgical help. Such were the surroundings of the case that he could not come into town. Would Dr. Wood go with them to see him? He should be protected at the peril of their own lives and paid with the utmost liberality.
“I will be with you in three minutes” was Dr. Wood’s reply, and in less time probably he was being rapidly driven to the place where he was wanted. Arrived there he found a regularly picketed camp, with some thirty-five or forty bronzed looking soldiers standing about, while lying on a blanket under a kind of arbor was the wounded man in question. A rapid examination swiftly told to Dr. Wood’s practiced eye that his patient was grievously hurt. A Minie bullet had gone through the right lung from breast to back, making a ragged hole that had torn while it penetrated.
All that night and the greater part of the next day Dr. Wood remained in this camp in the bottom, the soldiers hanging upon his least word and obeying his slightest gesture. For three weeks, or until the wounded man was out of danger, Dr. Wood was borne backward and forward, always with the same escort and always with the same driver. When the patient was able to travel Dr. Wood advised him to go to a warmer and dryer climate, which he did, going to San Luis Obispo county, California.
Asked for his bill, Dr. Wood refused to take a single dollar. “I have never yet charged a soldier a cent for professional services,” was the kindly reply, “and I never will. You owe me nothing. The war has made misery enough at best, and if you have any money to spare give it to some poor widow with a lot of helpless children.”
The wounded man whom Dr. Wood then cured was Jesse W. James, afterward so well known all over the country. To his dying day he never called Dr. Wood’s name without real emotion, always declaring that he owed him his life. It was not for years afterward that even Dr. Wood himself knew the manner of the man that he had been called into the very heart of a cottonwood jungle to minister unto. Over and over again, and sometimes by finesse and sometimes by stratagem, Jesse James sought to make some return for the kindness shown him, but always without success, Dr. Wood rigidly adhering to his first determination.
I merely give this one episode out of a hundred that might be given to show the noble heart and the unbounded generosity of this great surgeon and physician.
The kind deed of Dr. Wood in tending to this wounded stranger set a chain of events in motion. For one thing, of course, he saved the life of the man who went on to become one of the most infamous outlaws in American history. For another, some historians believe that the men who would later be called the James-Younger Gang staged their first bank robbery together—in Russellville, Kentucky, in the spring of 1868—to acquire the funds to send Jesse to San Luis Obispo, California. There the hot, dry climate and the sulphur springs finally cured his chest wound, and upon his return to Missouri in the fall of 1868 the gang began its life of crime in earnest.
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