Richard Melody, a 60 year-old farmer, owned 160 acres of land near Stewart, Nebraska. He developed pain in his right foot that he had partly amputated because of frostbite. The injury occurred when he got lost in a blizzard during the winter of 1866-1867 in Minnesota. He experienced pain in his foot for a year resulting from necrosis of two bones in his foot’s arch. After consulting J.F. Tucker, an employee from the Omaha Medical and Surgical Institute (Institute), he entered into a contract with the Institute on May 5, 1891. Surgeons agreed to perform an operation on his foot and give Melody two weeks’ board at the hospital for $419. He paid the fee in cash and made an appointment. Dr. Isaac Sinclair performed the operation on May 8, 1891.
Gangrene immediately set in Melody’s foot after the operation. Sinclair did a second unsuccessful operation on his foot, and he died from blood poisoning at 7:00pm on May 21, 1891. Dr. Albert T. McLaughlin, the Institute’s president, called an undertaker to take the Melody’s body three hours after his death. McLaughlin informed him that Melody was indigent and without friends to pay for a proper burial. At 10:00am the next morning, an undertaker placed Melody’s body in a county paupers’ pine box, burying the body at Potter’s Field in Omaha at the city’s expense. Informed about a wealthy farmer’s death and improvised burial, the Omaha World Herald launched an investigation that exposed malpractice and fraud that forced the Institute to close.
Dr. J. W. McMenamy founded the Institute in the late 1880s at the former Cozzens Hotel at 13th and Dodge Street. Rebuilt in 1891 at ninth and Harney for $150,000, it “was known as the finest and most completely equipped institution west of Chicago.” Farming communities from Iowa and Nebraska patronized the medical center. Institute representatives visited small towns telling residents that, “they could cure anything, from a wart to a ten pound bunion,” along with any other deformity. McLaughlin replaced McMenamy after he died. McLaughlin believed that electricity was a great curative agent. He spent thousands of dollars on electrical appliance and engaged in electro-magnetism.
The Omaha World-Herald uncovered that the Institute sent Melody’s body to Potter’s Field even though he owned a 160-acre farm with a well-stocked stable of horses. He also had assets valued at $200 on his person. Investigators found these assets in McLaughlin’s possession after Melody’s burial. After the first surgery, Melody requested that a will be drawn up giving his personal and real property to his brother. Sinclair, a nurse, and a priest witnessed the document. After Melody died, they buried him naked even though he had a nice suit of clothes with him. The Institute never contacted any one after his death.
The newspaper convinced the county coroner to exhume Melody’s body. He questioned why the Institute charged Melody $419 when similar surgeries were well under $100. A post-mortem examination showed that the Institute failed to do a proper preliminary exam on him. Melody’s lungs were congested, and he speculated that Melody had bronchitis. His heart showed fatty degeneration; his kidneys showed signs of Bright’s disease. He also had an abscess five inches in length in his abdominal wall. The coroner also found that someone performed a crude experimental operation on his eyes by removing the lens on one eye and operated on the other eye’s iris. The coroner said that the Institute should not have performed any operation on Melody.
Omaha World-Herald reporters accompanied by experts concluded that the hospital was unfit for patients and medical procedures. The Institute only recently cleaned the building. A wagon full of garbage sat outback. Most rooms had holes in the floor and mildew-covered ceilings. The surgical rooms were unsterile with aged paper glued to the walls and a window facing the Institute’s stables guaranteeing a manure smell along with abundant germs.
The staff was insufficient for what the Institute promised patients. The pharmacy staff consisted of a man and child who mixed panaceas for patrons. The Institute’s advertising said that the organization had abundant machinery to create any type of needed device for deformities. Their staff consisted of an elderly man and woman who created devices on a small scale and few pieces of equipment.
The team examined a patient that was close to death named Gustofsen. He came to the Institute from Webster County, Iowa two weeks ago for treatment of a wound near the knee joint on his left leg. He paid $50 down and $7 per week. After the first operation, he said that the surgeon initially dressed the surgical wound three days later. The doctor failed to look at the wound for two days after that. When shown the wound Sinclair immediately cleaned and dressed the wound, stating that it needed immediate attention.
Malpractice and greed left a trail of other victims. Although many deaths occurred at the Institute, they issued few death certificates. Many ended up like Melody in a pauper’s grave with assets seized. Fannie Jensen from Wisner, Nebraska went to the Institute to have an operation on one of her legs. Sinclair performed the operation, and she died shortly after the operation. Another woman paid $100 in advance and remained untreated for a month, so she left the hospital. Anderson Reed, from Tecumseh, Nebraska, died while put under with anesthetic before an operation.
A woman went to the Institute for an eye operation they said they could cure. She paid them $75, and they gouged the eye out leaving her without sight. Citizens of Bevington, Iowa raised money so a poor member of the community could get a needed brace. They sent McLaughlin $80 for the apparatus and received three medical panacea bottles instead of the brace.
From its founding, the medical community claimed unregistered, unskilled doctors practiced at the Institute. McLaughlin never went to medical school. His past career featured engine wiping and creating a corn cure. Although he had an interest in experimental surgery, he never studied at an institution. He also led many to believe that he owned a big cattle ranch in western, Nebraska, where he sold pieces to raise immediate cash.
Dr. J. A. Hugheson administered ether to Melody during the operation. He said that he was a graduate of the “London, Canada Medical College.” The Omaha World-Herald uncovered that he lived in Fairfield, Nebraska that prior year. He registered as a graduate of a Toronto, Canada medical college. The school said he never attended. He left Fairfield because of many unpaid debts and an unsuccessful blackmail attempt on a resident. After pleading guilty, he left Fairfield with $35 in cash assets.
A.L. Blagg, a former employee of the institute, told the Omaha World-Herald that, “he saw one of the doctors engaged in digging a hole,” at 2:00am in the Institute’s courtyard from the stables where he slept. The Omaha World-Herald requested that a representative from the County Attorney and Coroner’s offices joined them when they dug up the courtyard. Within 15 minutes of digging, they found the remains of an infant wrapped in cloth. They discovered several other infant graves that night, and police took J.P. Williams, Sinclair, and McLaughlin into custody.
Melody’s family gave him a proper burial at 2:00pm, May 30, 1891, at Holy Sepulture Cemetery in Omaha. Because of the Omaha World-Herald’s investigation, the Institute closed on ninth and Harney Street, and the building transitioned into the Jennings Hotel. The doctors all escaped the penitentiary on technicalities, and they left the area soon after.
Richard Melody walked into the Institute of Medicine and Surgery expecting to find relief from foot pain. He paid $419 in cash for the procedure and room and board. A few weeks later, he died and the Institute quickly buried him in a pauper’s grave. An informant told the Omaha World-Herald and they investigated the story. Through their investigation, they uncovered unsanitary conditions, corruption, and malpractice. The newspaper helped close a medical institution that failed to live up to basic expectations.
“A Good Man” (3 June 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 4.
“Richard Melody’s Death” (23 May 1891), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 2.
“Hospital ‘Rat-Proof and Frost-Proof;’ 12 Major Hospitals, Two Medical Colleges in Omaha Now” (6 June 1954), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 143.
The Medical Institute” (26 August 1900), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 14.
“How Elmwood People Were Duped” (6 June 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 4.
“Hospital ‘Rat-Proof and Frost-Proof,’”pg. 143.
“Richard Melody’s Death” (23 May 1891), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 3.
“Condemned by the Coroner” (26 May 1891), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 4.
“The Verdict against Them” (26 May 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 5.
“Condemned by the Coroner” (26 May 1891), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 4.
“’Corps of Able Surgeons:’ the Health Officers Inspect the Omaha Medical and Surgical Institute” (28 May 1819), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 1.
“More Butchery” (13 June 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 4.
“Alleged ‘Irregulars’” (21 April 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 203.
“’Doctor Mack:’ Something About the Kind of Ninth Street—How He Got His Start” (29 May 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 2.
“Dr. Mack and His Schemes” (5 June 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 3.
“’Doctor’ Hucheson: The Record of One of the ‘Able Corps’ at Fairfield” (28 May 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 1.
“More Bodies! The “World-Herald” Unearths a Small Graveyard at the Institute” (30 May 1891), Omaha World- Herald, pg. 1.
“Melody Decently Buried” (31 May 1891), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 2.
“Hospital ‘Rat-Proof and Frost-Proof,’” pg. 143.