Dr. Mary Archard Latham, Spokane’s first female physician, quickly earned respect in the pioneer town after starting a practice in 1888.
Latham was a sought-after specialist, including the delivery of babies and care for women with difficult pregnancies. She helped found the city’s first library and the Spokane Humane Society. She did philanthropy, wrote letters to the editor, defended others and found homes for babies needing adoption.
Her influence is marked by a bust and tribute – “Physician, Essayist, Library Advocate” – among other sculptures of early Spokane leaders along Monroe Street on The Spokesman-Review’s former press building.
But Latham’s accolades seem to clash against later downfalls – property and legal entanglements, a mental breakdown after the accidental death of a son, a conviction for arson, then escape into rugged Idaho before capture. She spent over a year in the Walla Walla penitentiary.
Now, more on Latham’s life is covered in a new book, “Mercy and Madness: Dr. Mary Archard Latham’s Tragic Fall from Female Physician to Felon.” Author and Spokane resident Beverly Lionberger Hodgins has an interest beyond just history. She has family ties to Latham.
“Mary’s grandfather is my fourth great-grandfather on my family tree,” said Hodgins, 72. Latham’s grandfather was John Archard, sometimes spelled Archerd. His first wife died, but they had a son who was Latham’s father. John Archard and a second wife had Hodgins’ third great-grandfather.
“Mary’s father and my third great-grandfather are half brothers. Mary and I are distant cousins, but I can claim her.”
Six years ago, Hodgins began unfolding historic documents along with Latham’s abundance of penned words. Hodgins leads each chapter with something written by Latham. A clearer picture of the physician emerged, she said, from early years in Ohio to tragedy later in life. Near the book’s submission, Hodgins landed a treasure.
“A couple of months maybe before the final manuscript was due, I finally received the complete file of everything on Mary from the penitentiary.” That included Latham’s mugshot, entrance card and letters at that time.
“One letter I like especially is while she was on parole; she’s very polite, writing to ask permission basically to practice medicine again.”
A different script tops the stationary, apparently from the warden, “Tell her she may do so with pleasure.”
“He underlined ‘with pleasure,’ ” the author said. “I thought that was telling of what he must have thought of Mary, even though she was a convicted felon in prison.”
And Latham’s mugshot became the book’s cover photo.
“When I opened the photo, it filled my whole computer screen and I found myself saying, ‘Hi Mary,’ because of her eyes. Two old portraits are in the book, but this one for some reason was stunning. I felt like I was really seeing her for the first time.”
Hodgins said Latham’s perseverance always showed, despite tragedy, as did her expertise in health care particularly for women and children and especially the poor.
“Mary had several firsts as a woman in that time, and I think she had a lot of courage,” Hodgins said.
“I think Mary possessed an incredible brain. It’s obvious from her letters to the editor and her essays that she’s highly educated, very discerning. She’s not afraid to speak her mind.”
One of Latham’s sisters, Eliza Archard Conner, wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and was a suffragist. Their mother, Jane, mostly ran the farm and raised five daughters, “so they knew what a strong woman was.”
Latham’s story is definite book material, said Jim Kershner, a journalist who wrote about the physician for HistoryLink.org in 2015.
“It’s one of the most compelling and tragic stories in Spokane’s history,” Kershner said. “It’s just a remarkable story because she was so well-respected. At the beginning, she was such a pioneer and so critical to women’s health care at a time when there weren’t many, if any, women doctors.
“She was really considered just a wonderful asset to the community, which just makes her downfall especially tragic. It happened within a very short period of time.”
Latham’s story almost sounds like a Greek tragedy, he said. “If you know the first half of the story, and that’s all you knew, you would think that she would be a saint in Spokane’s history. But that second half of the story, you just could never have predicted that’s how the story would turn out.”
In 1886, at age 42, Latham earned a medical diploma from the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery, a couple years after her husband Edward earned his medical degree. They’d raised three sons and briefly practiced together in Ohio. But her “severe asthma,” sent her west to Spokane with their sons. Edward stayed to close out business.
He arrived to Spokane in 1889, shortly before the “Great Fire” destroyed most of downtown and the Latham home, Hodgins said. Less than two years later, Edward went to the Colville Reservation to become their physician. They divorced about four years later.
Mary Latham kept up her medical practice, tapped for her skills whether the patients lived in shacks near the river or mansions of Browne’s Addition, Hodgins said.
“I learned how much Mary loved babies – delivering babies and finding homes for the babies who needed them,” Hodgins said. “She ran the Spokane Home Finding Society almost the moment she arrived until she retired, and even then, I don’t think she stopped.”
Hodgins also learned that Latham apparently performed abortions, then called “illegal operations.” Latham was quoted as defending doctors in a newspaper piece.
“Mary defends other doctors, obviously herself included I would think, brought into situations where a woman’s life is in danger from a botched abortion, let’s say, so they have to go in and save the women’s life,” Hodgins said.
“There also has been a family rumor that Mary and her daughter-in-law Emma Latham performed abortions together.”
Latham was charged in 1911 with performing abortions. She’d had that felony charge before, soon after prison, but it was dropped. This time, it involved a delinquent 17-year-old girl telling the police, Kershner wrote. His research found that the latter charges were dismissed when Latham agreed to “retire from active life,” meaning medical practice. Authorities noted her poor health and “impaired” mental condition.
But Latham still helped others. In 1917, she agreed to care for an infant 12 days old with pneumonia. She contracted pneumonia and died on Jan. 20, 1917, at 72.
More than half of the book covers Latham’s milestones and contributions, said Hodgins, a Women Writing the West member who has written short stories, poems and screenplays. The author moved with her husband from Oregon to Washington in 2006, then Spokane in 2012.
“I wanted to understand Mary’s life. I wanted to know if she really did what she was convicted of.”
For the arson charge, Latham was suspected of burning down a Mead store and pharmacy to keep it from another woman, apparently her son James’ former fiance, who claimed the property was hers, and won in court. It’s clear in 1903 after son James was killed in a train accident at work, that Latham became unhinged, Hodgins said, but she’s still unconvinced about what she called a circumstantial conviction.
“I’m not sure, because she was under the influence of people it appears who were trying to profit from their association with her,” Hodgins said. “You kind of have to read the trial chapter to understand.”
Hodgins learned Latham suffered a stroke not long after her son’s death, and that she wanted to commit suicide.
The same Dr. Latham probably never came back after 1903, Kershner said. Her poor decisions and bizarre actions weren’t those of the same woman who 10 years prior was “a very sharp and brilliant woman who had it all together.”
Hodgins also saw that change, but mercy won in the end regarding Latham’s legacy.
“Mary both gave mercy and received mercy in the end,” Hodgins said. “She did have moments of what some would say is madness, after the traumas she experienced, but she persevered in the end. She never gave up.”
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