Earth Doctor

Earth Doctor

According To Maude stories are inspired by the diaries of my great-grandmother Maude Phelps.

Edna Groat was desperate, “I had so many things wrong I wasn’t worth saving” she declared. Her husband, Peace-Justice (yep, that’s his name!) said she had been bedridden in severe pain for months. Frank Pinto’s hands, knees and ankles were “blown up” with rheumatoid arthritis, he couldn’t work. Joy Ripley’s son had been told by two doctors that he had cancer and only months to live.  Each had made the drive many times to the tiny town of Odessa, New York just south of Seneca Lake seeking a cure from the “Earth Doctor”, Leland H. Wickham.  Now, the four of them and twenty three others were witnesses in Wickham’s trial, charged with seven misdemeanor counts of practicing medicine without a license each charge carrying a $500 fine and possible year in jail. The trial began in December 1961 at the Schuyler County Courthouse in Watkins Glen, New York, Judge Liston F. Coon presiding. Leland Wickham and I are distant cousins.

Wickham was a nurseryman by trade specializing in growing the notoriously temperamental orchid.  Looking to improve plant health and growth he stumbled on a mixture he called the “dark preparation”, a dirt-like material composed of bacteria and fungi cultures. His concoction worked well with his plants and he theorized that it would also work in humans.  When a nursery customer reported giving the “dark preparation” to his dying son with miraculous results, Wickham knew he was on to something. “These microscopic organisms are like a combination wrecking crew and construction crew.  When they enter the bloodstream they demolish and breakdown diseased tissue and flush it away, leaving clean healthy bodies” he told the jury. … “I have only scratched the surface of the potential of this culture found in God’s own earth…”

Leland H Wickham in his nursery office

A devout Christian, Wickham believed he was doing God’s work by helping others always without charge.  If it was “God’s will to cure someone, I was willing to do my part too” he told an  investigator. He believed his dark preparation could cure cancer and diseases of the blood. He dispensed his remedy in a plastic bag always with the directions to take ½ teaspoon using a plastic spoon, never metal, at breakfast mixed with water or V-8 juice. 

A witness for the prosecution, Mrs. Dollora Makovitch was asked by prosecutor William Elder to describe her visit to the nursery.  She said she told Wickham she was suffering from a duodenal ulcer.  Wickham gave her a “character analysis” and told her she was temperamental and had a “quick disposition” and was very affectionate.  “He looked into my eyes with a big magnifying glass, felt under my arm and neck, and under my clothes. He said ‘you don’t have an ulcer, you have clogged passion glands filled with female sludge’”. He told her “if you don’t take this culture you will have to have a hysterectomy”.  Shaken by the experience Mrs. Makovitch went to her doctor immediately after returning home, “no one will ever know the two hours of anguish I went through…” she told prosecutor Elder. 

Yet, there were an equal number of Wickham supporters claiming relief or cures after taking the culture.  Edna Groat testified “I feel so good now I am papering my kitchen and I even went back to a second childhood and went Halloweening”. Doris Glennon testified she was crippled by arthritis and had to wear special shoes, “now I can wear any kind of footwear, even high heels”. Velma Vedder testified her eyesight was so poor before taking the culture that she couldn’t get around the house, “now I can do my own housework” she told the jury. 

A doctor for the prosecution testified “the psychosomatic effect of this thing is tremendous. What you’re seeing is the finest example of mass hysteria that you’ll ever see”.  Although no scientific analysis of Wickham’s culture was brought into evidence, newspaper accounts claim that doctors and scientists believed there was no medical benefit from the culture with some even suggesting there could be potential danger from unknown pathogens.

Wickham’s lawyer Michael LoPinto argued that the real defendant in the trial was the culture, not Wickham.  He told the jury in closing “If you had dandelions in your yard and someone ate them and found they had cured them of a disease and they wanted more, would it be right for you to say ‘no’?”  Prosecutor Elder in closing took issue with Wickham’s portrayal as a naive and passive participant.  He said that Wickham examined, diagnosed, and treated in what had become huge practice.  The issue of whether the culture cured or helped people was irrelevant to charges against him.

The 12 member jury reached their verdict in 55 minutes. Wickham was found guilty on four counts of practicing medicine without a license.  He was fined $500 and given probation and a suspended sentence provided he stopped dispensing the culture.  Six months later he was back in court accused of violating his probation and sentenced to three years in the county jail.  In 1963 an appeals court ordered his immediate release stating that his sentence was excessive.  Leland Wickham died September 30, 1967 at age 62 after a short illness.

Leland Wickham and I share fourth great ( grandparents William and Martha Wickham who were the first white settlers in the region surrounding southern Seneca Lake. The Iroquois Indians were the area’s original inhabitants.  The Wickhams were and still are a prominent family in the area. There is an annual Wickham reunion for all descendants, my mother and aunt have attended.  I learned about Leland and his trial from a collection of newspaper clippings in one of my great grandmother Maude Phelps’ scrapbooks.  

Among the scrapbook clutter this story jumped out at me. How could I miss it with headlines like “Odessa ‘Earth Doctor’ Sentencing Due Dec 18” or “Drama Filled Wickham Trial”.  My first thought was, Leland may have actually been on to something with his “preparation”.  As an outsider to the medical and scientific establishment of course he would be dismissed as a kook or charlatan, that has been going on for decades if not centuries.  I’d like to think that he was ahead of his time. Modern science now understands the importance of plants and other natural substances in the development of new compounds and drugs.  The vast majority of antibiotics in use today were derived from soil.  Rifamycin, an antibiotic used in the treatment of tuberculosis, can be found in the soil of the southwest. Epoxomicin, a natural molecule found in a hot spring in New Mexico is used in the manufacture of a number of anticancer agents. And the list goes on.

Leland H. Wickham was right, he was “only beginning to scratch the surface”. 

Rest in Peace Earth Doctor!


Details and quotes in this story come from news stories in the Elmira Star-Gazette.

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