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'Gunfighter's Surgeon' Became a Southwest Legend

October 27, 2002|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

He's been dead for more than 90 years, but a frontier boxing champion and the man known as the "gunfighter's surgeon" came to life a few weeks ago to say a few words about his life and frontier medicine.

Dr. George Emery Goodfellow was among five deceased Angelenos remembered at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery during the West Adams Heritage Assn.'s annual living history tour. Actors decked out in period costumes portrayed the famous -- and infamous -- buried at the graveyard, known for its unusual epitaphs and tombstones.

Like many of the cemetery's permanent residents, Goodfellow is one whose noteworthy medical accomplishments, largely forgotten, should be recalled from time to time.

Whether he was pioneering the removal of enlarged prostates or tending wounded gunfighters on the mean streets of Tombstone, Ariz., he kept it all alive in medical reports. He became a Southwest legend and someone people pointed to and talked about during his brief time in Los Angeles.

Throughout a medical career that spanned more than three decades, according to a 1973 paper published by retired Pasadena urologist Earl F. Nation, Goodfellow achieved legendary status for his medical care of Tombstone's outlaws and lawmen. He has the distinction of being the first physician known to operate successfully on abdominal gunshot wounds, and was praised as the first to perform a successful "perineal prostatectomy" in 1891.

Goodfellow was born in 1855 and raised in the northern Sierra gold-mining town of Downieville. At age 12, his parents sent him to school in Pennsylvania. Two years later, he returned to the Golden State to attend the California Military Academy in Oakland. He returned to the East in 1872 at 17, this time to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

His Annapolis career was cut short when he knocked unconscious the school's first black cadet, John Henry Conyers of South Carolina, in a hazing incident. Because Goodfellow was the school's boxing champion, it caused a public uproar and he was suspended. Weeks later, Conyers was dismissed for fighting with his roommate.

Goodfellow's maternal uncle, John Baskin, a Utah judge, interceded with his friend, President Grant, and was assured that his nephew would be reinstated after the public furor subsided. His uncle left office, however, and Grant was then too busy winning reelection to fulfill his promise.

Rather than stay down for the count, Goodfellow began to study medicine with his cousin, a doctor. In 1877, he graduated from what is now the College of Wooster in Ohio, and that same year married a Pennsylvanian, Katherine Colt. Together they returned to Oakland, where Goodfellow opened a practice. Restless, he moved to Tombstone.

Hung Shingle Over Bar

In 1880, Goodfellow, 25, hung his shingle over the legendary Crystal Palace Saloon. The town of 2,000 residents already had 12 doctors, but only he and three others sported diplomas.

Over the next 11 years, his association with the likes of Wyatt Earp and his four brothers, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, John O'Rourke, alias "Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce," "Curly" Bill Brocius, "Buckskin" Frank Leslie, the Clanton and McLaury brothers, and a host of others, put money in Goodfellow's pocket and earned him the nickname the "gunfighter's surgeon."

After the infamous 1881 shootout at the OK Corral, Goodfellow helped to perform the autopsies on Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers.

He also tended to the living: It was Goodfellow who pronounced Morgan Earp's wound fatal after Earp was shot in the back while playing pool with his brother Wyatt. When Virgil Earp was later ambushed and his left arm almost blown off, Goodfellow removed four inches of shattered bone, saving the useless arm. With his good arm, Virgil could still handle a gun and later served as marshal in Colton.

Over the years, Goodfellow, a surgical innovator, published his medical findings. He early on observed that abdominal wounds from the Colt .44 or .45 were invariably fatal: "Gunfighters' maxim is 'shoot for the guts,' knowing that death is certain, yet sufficiently lingering and agonizing to afford a plenary sense of gratification to the victor in the contest."

In his notes on the "Impenetrability of Silk," he watched two gamblers, Luke Short and Charlie Storms, in a gunfight in 1881, just a few feet from where he stood. Short blasted Storms through the heart. Upon examining Storms, Goodfellow noted that the gambler's folded silk pocket handkerchief was stuffed into the chest wound. Goodfellow pulled out the handkerchief and out came the bullet, which had killed Storms when it penetrated the heart.

Serving as coroner at various times in Tombstone, his verdicts were the stuff of Wild West legend. In an autopsy report on a gambler named McIntire, shot in an argument over a card game, Goodfellow stated that he had done "the necessary assessment work and found the body full of lead, but not too badly punctured to hold whiskey."

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