The Good Doctor

The small town or country doctor has become an archetype for the very good reason that he (and they were overwhelmingly male) was a vital part of the community.  Everyone knew him, and he knew everyone, and sometimes the things they hid from the rest of the world.  They were trusted.   In West Terre Haute, that doctor was Vernon Shanklin.  Old Doc Shanklin practiced in the town for decades.  I vaguely remember going to him as a six-year old.  Perhaps it was because I had a sore throat or merely went with Grandma when she had a checkup, but I recall a large wrap-around porch at his office that fascinated me.

But if he knew them, they also knew him and many aspects of his life.  It could be a double-edged sword and in the summer of 1916 it led to the most bizarre incident of his life.

It began one Sunday afternoon with a phone receiver being knocked of its hook in his office.  An operator at the phone company office on Paris Avenue said she heard what she thought was a commotion at Doc’s office. She called the West Terre Haute marshal.  A deputy was dispatched and reported that a woman was lying prostrate on the floor and the office was in disarray.  The result was that doctor and patient were both arrested.  Shanklin was charged with performing an illegal operation, an abortion, and the women with agreeing to the procedure.

And then the intrigue and rumors began.

Within a few days formal charges were preferred  and the attorneys began the battle, using a blend of fact and rumor to argue their cases.  Defense attorneys posited a conspiracy theory that the whole affair was begun by Shanklin’s fellow West Terre Haute physicians, Dr. Mapes, and was meant to harm Shanklin’s practice.  Mapes denied the charge, but added, perhaps vindictively, that he had heard that  Shanklin and the woman were “acquainted.”  The gossips took it from there.

Both Doc and the woman, Viola Boatman, a piano player in the local movie theater, had been recently divorced (tho in the 1920 census Shanklin listed himself as still married, but lived alone in a rented apartment in Terre Haute).  It was said that Shanklin’s “attentions” to Viola were the reason his wife left him.  The supposed cognoscenti nodded their heads with a raised eyes and an “aha.”

Shanklin refused to comment except to say that the charges were unfounded and that he had merely been treating Boatman for stomach pains at his office when an attack had caused her to cry out, and that was what the operator heard.  It was all an innocent misunderstanding of the circumstances.

So what happened?   Was it all innocent?  Was the doctor performing an abortion?  I did not have time to follow the case through on my last research trip, but I will continue to follow it up.  Certainly the case was dropped or Shanklin was found innocent.  That is the only way he could have retained his medical license and continued his long career in West Terre Haute.  Whatever, Shanklin put it behind him for as a neighbor reported later, he was a man of contagious spirit and good humor who lived his life by a simply philosophy that “I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.”

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