Two doctors got into a war of words in the Nanaimo Free Press back in 1881. (file photo)

T.W. Paterson column: ‘Newspaper warfare’ overshadowed Nanaimo woman’s 1881 death

Cowichan Chronicles historian looks at series of Nanaimo Free Press letters to the editor

“The offer to bet on a subject of this sort shows that Dr. Gamble is a heartless, unfeeling man.”—William Sinclair, bereaved husband.

BY T.W. PATERSON

Today’s ‘freedom of the press’ truly pales alongside that of yesteryear. Just read some of the letters to the editor of the old Nanaimo Free Press in which citizens carped, castigated and condemned, often in prose that was both purple and passionate.

In December 1881 A.W. Gamble, MD, denied that he was responsible for the death of a patient, identified only as Mrs. S., during childbirth. Having failed to gain personal satisfaction from Dr. D. Cluness, whom he believed to be the source of the rumours, he resorted to the press:

“If I were guilty of malpractice in this case and he knew it, it was his duty as a coroner to summon a jury and have the matter properly investigated. But such a course would not suit… I will make Dr. Cluness a proposition viz: that each of us place in the hands of Mr. James Abrams, MPP, ($100) or ($500) if the Dr. prefers that amount, subject to the following conditions:

“I will prepare a full and correct statement of the case in question, giving an account of all I did, and ordered (many of my instructions were not carried out), and certified by the nurses. Such statement shall … be submitted to the professor of midwifery of the University of California, with the request that he shall … send a written decision to Mr. Abrams, MPP, as to whether he considers my treatment of the case was judicious or whether I am deserving of censure.

“If he decides in my favour the money deposited with Mr. Abrams to become mine; if against me to be handed over to Dr. Cluness. The proposal I think a very fair one, especially as I do not even know the name of the professor, but from the fact of his holding that position have no doubt he is quite competent to decide between us. I want no newspaper warfare in the matter, but require of the Dr. a categorical reply, will he accept the proposal or not?”

First to respond publicly to Gamble was Margaret Gullion, one of the nurses who’d attended to Mrs. S. Brief and to the point, she insisted that his instructions had been strictly followed by her colleagues. “I don’t want to say much about this matter but any certificate I can sign would not be favourable to Dr. Gamble. I have nothing to say in his favour.”

Next to write was William Sinclair, who identified himself as the bereaved husband. He was no fan of Gamble’s either: “…I may plainly state that in my opinion had Dr. Gamble allowed me to bring Dr. Cluness in to assist when I wished to do so, my children would not [be] motherless today. This he prevented me from doing by menacing behaviour and by cursing and swearing and running down Dr. Cluness, completely cowing both me and the nurses.”

Sinclair defended their care of his late wife: “…I believe from what [they] told me, from what I saw myself and from all I can learn, that had Dr. Gamble’s skills been greater and his management better, this great mischief and misfortune to me and my little ones would not have occurred…. I believe Dr. Gamble was deficient both in skill and management. Dr. Cluness only attended after Dr. Gamble gave my wife up for lost and as he [Dr. Cluness] said he could only ‘smooth down the pillow of death,’ an office which he did, and when to the last moment Dr. Gamble refused to consult with him…”

Sinclair having refused to pay him, Gamble threatened to sue him for $50. “I told him that was what I wanted. He then wished to God that I and all belonging to me were dead. I…still say that if Dr. Gamble can show before a Court of Law that he [is] entitled to any money from me I will pay him…

“In conclusion I would say that I don’t thank Dr. Gamble for making my wife’s death the subject of newspaper correspondence. He has forced these remarks upon himself. I thank him still less for making it the subject of a bet. The offer to bet on a subject of this sort shows that Dr. Gamble is a heartless, unfeeling man.”

Thus far, Dr. Gamble’s appeal to public opinion had been folded, spindled and mutilated — without so much as a word from Dr. Cluness. Now it was the turn of the highly respected family and colliery physician, and coroner, to have a go at his feisty colleague: “I see by your issue of last Saturday that Dr. Gamble considers (whether justly or not is not for me to say) his professional reputation is on the wane; and that I have been the cause of injury to him in this respect…” As to Gamble’s charge that he’d turned him away from his office, Cluness replied: “He…was threatening and offensive, and I adopted the only course available under circumstances of that description — I showed him the door.”

As had the nurse and the widower, Cluness strenuously objected to Gamble’s having gone public. As for Gamble’s challenge to bet him as much as $500 to have the professor of midwifery of the University of California pass judgment upon his medical care of Mrs. Sinclair, Cluness was scornful: “Dr. Gamble appears to be flush — money is plentiful to him — I am glad to know it. Medical men are not always thus favoured of Providence…

Dr. Gamble is a sporting man. He is prepared to risk $100 — nay $500 if necessary — in a bet or wager that he did not commit manslaughter, or some offence very much like it, provided the money is put in the hands of a member of parliament and his own statement is taken as the basis on which the wager would be decided.

“Good Doctor! Kind man! Innocent, very innocent creature! Has the Doctor lived much in a sporting country? Has he lived in California? Has he ever heard his sporting friends speak of what is known as a dead thing? Is he in the habit of betting on a certainty? How many wagers would he like to take on the same terms? Would he risk all his available capital in this way? If so, where, oh! where is he going to find his betters? He will submit the statement on which the bet is to be decided and choose the umpire — kind man! Very kind man!

“…I will not put up any money on an event involving a question of homicide where the only statement of the facts connected with that event is to be supplied by the opposite party and the umpire is also to be chosen by him. I don’t think the Doctor will get many bets of that description in Nanaimo. He had better try a more verdant community. I am, etc., D. Cluness, MD.”

William Sinclair lost his wife, two unborn children and his privacy. Dr. Gamble, the gambling man of medicine, lost the war of words. That same week he placed all his household goods, his horse and harness, up for sale, terms cash.

www.twpaterson.com

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