Was Dr. Fred Vernette’s testimony in Stillwell murder case in 1895 the truth, or revenge?

Nearly hidden by trees during the summer, this grand structure stands on the hillside on the northwest corner of U.S. 61 and Route MM in Hannibal. Believed to have been built in the 1870s, the structure was used by Dr. Fred Vernette at the turn of the 20th Century as a sanitarium. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

Part One of a two-part series.

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

It was a reasonably clear night, in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 1888. Dr. Fred Vernette, arriving in Hannibal from St. Louis on the 1 a.m. the “K” line, walked from the railroad depot toward his office, located at 700 Broadway. He walked alone along the north side of Broadway. The intersection of Fifth and Broadway was illuminated by electric lights.

As he approached this intersection just before 1:15 a.m., he saw an acquaintance, a fellow physician.

“I met Dr. Hearne at Fifth and Broadway,” Dr. Vernette would later testify. “He was coming north across the street. I think he was about the middle of Broadway when I first saw him. I was on the sidewalk, and I estimate that I was within 30 feet of him. He went north, up Fifth street. He passed directly in front of me, going on the west side of Fifth street.”

Dr. Vernette’s words were spoken to a grand jury, and placed Dr. Hearne near a murder scene. His words would later help indict Dr. Hearne for the murder of Amos Stillwell. Stillwell was killed with an axe while sleeping in his bed; his house was located just a half block from the aforementioned intersection.

By providing this testimony to the grand jury, Dr. Vernette became a chief witness for the prosecution. His statement was considered very damning to the defense.

Adversaries

The alleged meeting between the two physicians at the Fifth Street intersection was not their first encounter.

Four years prior, in 1884, Dr. Vernette was a practicing physician in Montgomery City, and Dr. J.C. Hearne was secretary of the State Board of Health. Dr. Hearne initiated a complaint against Dr. Vernette, which resulted in the board’s revoking Vernette’s certificate to practice medicine.

Vernette’s certificate was revoked because he advertised. The St. Louis Post Dispatch took a stand against Dr. Hearne’s action on Feb. 7, 1885. The certificate was ultimately reissued, but bad blood remained between the doctors.

During testimony in the Hearne’s murder trial in Dec. 17, 1895, the defense tried to discredit Vernette’s eye-witness account by citing the pre-existing animosity between the two physicians.

Ultimately, Dr. Hearnes was acquitted of the crime.

Vernette biography

Fred Vernette was born circa 1842. The 1880 census indicates his birth was in Cuba, his father a native of France and his mother a native of New York state. Dr. Vernette served as a surgeon with the Union Army during the Civil War, from1863-1865. He graduated from the Physio-Medical Institute, Cincinnati, in 1865.

He first married Paradine Keeth, born in 1853, the daughter of John Keeth, of Miller County, Mo.

They had two daughters, Emma and Ella.

Dr. Vernette’s medical certificate, which had been revoked in 1884, was reinstated in 1887.

Mrs. Vernette was granted a divorce from her husband in 1890. In August 1891, Fred Vernette married Fannie W. Simpson of Macon, Mo. They subsequently had two children, a son, Paul Vernette, and a daughter, Vesper L. Vernette.

Medical practice

On Nov. 29, 1883, the Mexico Weekly Ledger described Dr. Fred Vernette of Montgomery City as “one of the most skillful and successful specialists in the treatment of chronic diseases, in the state.”

The doctor traveled across the region, bringing his expertise to people who might not otherwise be served.

In 1882, Dr. Vernette traveled from his home near Cuba, Mo., to Mexico, Mo., every Saturday to help patients with chronic illnesses. His office was in the Jones’ Hotel.

The July 6, 1882 Mexico Weekly Ledger (newspapers.com) carried the following announcement: “Dr. Fred Vernette will visit Mexico every Saturday for the purpose of treating chronic diseases of both male and female. He uses no poisons in his treatment, consequently his remedies can be used by all with perfect safety. If, upon examination, your case should seem to be incurable, he will so state to you.”

During August 1882, the Mexico Ledger reported that Dr. Vernette’s office in Montgomery City was burned by a suspected incendiary.

In March of 1883, work was near completion on Dr. Vernette’s new $3,000 home in Montgomery City.

On Aug. 28, 1889, Dr. Vernette was granted a patent for an electric dental instrument.

In 1890, he was living on 5 acres to the west of the Hannibal city limits, on what is now the northwest corner of U.S. 61 and Route MM.

Sanitarium

A large brick house rests upon this hilltop. Now boarded up, the house itself has an interesting past.

Dr. Vernette operated a sanitarium called Elmwood in the house, which was highly popular resort, attracting patients as far away as Boston.

Loring Bullard, in his book, “Healing Waters: Missouri’s Historic Mineral Springs and Spas,” notes that this large brick house was built as residence in the 1870s. (Kate Ray Kuhn, in her book, “The History of Marion County, Missouri,” said that the first owner was Benjamin Hall.)

Bullard, in “Healing Waters,” noted: “In 1890, local physician Dr. Fred Vernette bought the property and opened the Elmwood Sanitarium. He drilled two mineral wells, one reaching 1,435 feet deep, to supply patients with the “water cure.” Drinking and bathing in the “lithiated magnesia” waters, patrons sought relief for gout, catrrh, and kidney and bladder diseases. Vernette bottled and sold the water for twenty five cents a gallon.”

Dr. Vernette and his family were living in this hilltop house in July 1893, when a fire burned the barn and threatened other nearby properties. The Quincy Daily Journal of July 8, 1893, reported: “Dr. Vernette’s horses were in the barn, but fortunately they were gotten out without injury. A chicken house, in which were nearly one hundred fine chickens, located a short distance from the barn, also burned. The fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin as there had been no fire near the building during the day previous.”

In late April, 1897, the Quincy Daily Journal announced the marriage of Miss Emma Vernette, daughter of Dr. Vernette from his first marriage, to Mr. H.C. Sessemann of Harrisburg, Pa. The wedding took place at the Vernette home near Hannibal.

Dr. Vernette died at his home on Friday, Feb. 26, 1904, after a lingering illness. He was 62. He is buried in Hannibal’s Riverside Cemetery.

NEXT WEEK

Dr. Vernette’s healing legacy continues after his death.

This is an advertisement from the 1894 Hannibal city directory, accessed via the Hannibal Free Public Library’s website. Dr. Vernette believed in mineral water cures, and treated patients as far away as Boston.

 Recent Posts