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Dr. J.C. Hearne, despite tainted reputation, served Hannibal well

This photo of Dr. J.C. Hearne in his later years was added to his Findagrave digital file by Pat McArron.


In 1882, Marcella Ellis Keating was a 26-year-old wife of a saloonkeeper and the mother of a 6-year-old son, William. Together, the family lived at 105 South Fifth St., Hannibal, Mo. During the evening of Sunday, Jan. 22, John J. Keating picked up a glass of what he thought to be water from the table. Instead of water, he gulped down cleaning fluid – containing ammonia – inadvertently left on the table by his wife.

Within seconds, John Keating began experiencing a reaction from the tainted fluid. His throat swelled, as did his tongue. Breathing became a struggle. Soon, severe pain attacked his stomach.

It was cold outside; the river ice was nearing harvest stage, and

the country roads were frozen solid enough to allow farmers to venture to and from town without getting mired down in mud. But it wasn’t so frigid that a doctor couldn’t make a house call in this time of great emergency.

Luckily for the Keatings, Dr. Joseph Carter Hearne lived and worked nearby. At first inspection, it was feared that Mr. Keating’s ingestion would be fatal. But Dr. Hearne’s skillful treatment was able to reverse the poison’s effects. The St. Louis Globe Democrat, in its Wednesday, Jan. 25, 1882 edition, reported that on the day after the emergency, the barkeep was well on his way to recovery.

Respected doctor

and surgeon

Dr. Hearne, best remembered in this community for his romantic involvement with the widow of Hannibal businessman Amos Stillwell following Stillwell’s murder on Dec. 28, 1888, was a Hannibal physician held in high esteem by his patients and colleagues.

On July 13, 2018, the story was published in the Hannibal Courier-Post and at regarding surgery performed by Dr. Hearne upon Jack Kinney in 1886. Kinney was a noted horse trainer, and Dr. Hearne successfully removed a four-pound benign tumor from Kinney’s abdomen; a rare and dangerous operation performed a decade and a half before the town’s first hospital opened.

Dr. Hearne was an 1870 graduate of the University of Missouri at Columbia, and in 1872 he graduated from the Jefferson Medical College at Philadelphia, Pa. He served a residency at the City Hospital of Philadelphia, before locating in Hannibal in 1874, where his father was an established businessman.

That same year, he married Fannie Elizabeth Brown. Together, they had four children, two of whom survived to adulthood: Eleanor Virginia and Katharan. Fannie Brown Hearne died in 1884 at the age of 30, and was laid to rest at Mt. Olivet Cemetery with two of their young children.

Frank P. Hearne – Dr. Hearne’s father - was co-owner of Hearne, Herriman and Co., wholesale lumber dealers, which was located on the southeast corner of Collier and Fourth streets in Hannibal in the mid 1870s.

In Hannibal, Dr. Hearne was instrumental in the establishment of the “Home of the Friendless,” and served as the home’s staff physician.

Dr. Hearne also served as Hannibal city physician for five years. In 1881, he was named chief surgeon of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Co., and later also served as assistant surgeon of the Wabash, St Louis & Pacific, the C. B. & Q., and the St. L., K. N. & W. railway companies.

In 1883, he was appointed by Gov. Crittenden as a member of the newly formed State Board of Health.

A biography of the doctor, published by the “Medical Examiner,” which is quoted on Dr. Hearne’s “Findagrave” site, contained the following:

“Possessing a ‘mortal aversion’ for quackery, he commenced an unrelenting war upon the charlatans who then infested the state, and drove them beyond the borders. He was severely criticized by the newspapers, who thrived by their quack advertisements, but this only served to nerve him for the fray, and had he been properly supported by others as fearless as himself, he would have rid the people of these pests for some time to come.”

In 1886, he purchased the property at 511 Broadway, and moved his office from the second floor of 302 Broadway to the new location. His home was at 303 N. Sixth.

The Hannibal Journal offered this endorsement to its readers, which was republished in the Palmyra Spectator on Aug. 6, 1886:

“We have long been convinced that if the Doctor will apply himself exclusively to the practice, it will be but a short time until he takes front rank in the profession in the west, and here where his skill has been tested he needs no recommendation from us.”

Leaving Hannibal

While the Stillwell scandal (he was ultimately acquitted of murder charges by a jury in 1895) effectively ended his medical career in Hannibal, he went on to build a successful career in San Diego, Calif., beginning in 1891. He was licensed to practice medicine in California in 1892, and later established the Hearne’s Private Surgery Hospital in San Diego.

In 1909 he had a new $10,000 residence built in Mission Valley, Calif. He died May 9, 1917 in San Diego.

Sad story of Othel Dodd

Not all of Dr. Hearne’s medical trials in Hannibal ended happily ever after. Such was the case with Othel Dodd, the 14-year-old son of John Dodd, a switchman in Hannibal’s Wabash yards, located where Hannibal’s water intake station is now located.

On Monday, Dec. 18, 1882, Othel was at the Wabash yards a mile north of Hannibal, when he noticed Switch Engine 108 coming up the track with a train of cars. He decided to ride the engine to his destination: Stillwell’s pork house downtown, where he worked as a cash boy.

At 2:30 p.m., according to the St. Louis Globe Democrat of Dec. 19, 1882: “As the engine passed him it was going at the rate of about six miles an hour. He grabbed the handrail on the rear of the tank and swung himself around to the footboard, but the board being quite slippery – he lost his footing and his hand hold at the time and fell upon the track lengthwise. As quick as he thought he rolled himself off the rail, but the cruel wheels caught both legs, severing one at the knee and the other below it.”

Dr. Hearne was called in on the case, and had the boy removed to his home at Third and Hill streets. An operation was scheduled, but later canceled when the doctor determined that the boy’s death was imminent.

Young Othel Dodd died that night, and was buried at the Clayton South Side Cemetery, Adams County, Ill.

Keating family

While John J. Keating survived his presumed accidental poisoning in 1882, he and his wife did not live long and prosperous lives.

Marcella Keating died April 6, 1883, at the age of 27, and John died Feb. 26, 1890, at the age of 45. Their son, William J. Keating, died in 1922, at the age of 33. They are all buried at Holy Family Cemetery.

Note: Thanks to Hallie Yundt Silver, Hannibal Free Public Library director, and the library’s board members, for adding the link to “Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers” to its reference collection. The Keating poison story, and the Dodd rail accident story were accessed from this site.

A book on the Stillwell murder, written in 1908 and edited by Chase Hickman in 2000, can be accessed via the Hannibal Free Public Library’s web site.

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