Medicine, moonshine & morphine

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Rowdy tales from the past 

Medicine needed mechanics and muscle          

by Jeanne Arnold from her 1972 Journal Times interview

You need medicine, mechanics and muscle when Dr. Walter C. Roth, age 80, began practicing medicine in 1916. If you didn’t have medicine, you thought of home remedies. If you didn’t have the equipment, you built it. “I had several kids with thighs broken, and I’d build a scaffold over the bed and we’d just hang them up.”

“It was almost fun getting from Franksville to the hospital in the winter. We didn’t have cars so we’d put them in the back of a bobsled, put some straw in the bottom and went out for a ride.

“I’ve delivered more babies than any other doctor—more than 500 babies in their homes and never had one infection. You can deliver a baby on horse blankets and it will not get infected. If there was anesthetics given, you gave them yourself or you had the husband help you, but half of them didn’t need anything. We used psychology or hypnosis or whatever because most of them went through it very well.”

Dr. Walter Roth was a GP who also did surgery. After helping so many Racine surgeons and collecting a $10 fee for assisting, he decided to do his own surgery and give the surgeon assistant the $10. He said he started with an appendix and then went to hernias, hysterectomies, gall bladders and more. The operation cost what the patient was worth. “Some would cost nothing; some would get by for fifty bucks; the average price for an appendix was $100. “Doctors would do that a lot, treat patients for nothing. I’ve done that all my life. Now everything is insurance. We had no insurance in those days. None.

Without antibiotics, diseases like pneumonia were self-limited. “You did what you could for the patient and he did one of two things—he either died or he got well.

During a polio epidemic, Dr. Walter Roth (age 80) in Racine. Lots of them died or were crippled. Children were put in Lincoln Hospital (on Prospect St.) and treatment was limited to making them more comfortable, and if paralysis set in, they would exercise their arms and legs or the area of stiffness. In some cases, limbs which were useless were amputated, he said. “You would amputate rather than have a useless arm hanging around. You just did what you could”


Dr. Roth meets Capone’s gang     

Dr. Roth told me of a run-in with the Al Capone gang that could have been a shoot-out on Dec. 19 in 1926 or 1927. “One of my Sturtevant clients called me that night, told me to gas up the car and come to his farm with the lights out. He’d been sheltering a run-away farm hand who was hiding from the owners of a nearby bootleg still (short for ‘distill’). I didn’t know all of the details until I got there.”

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His hired hand, Frank, heard the gang plot to kill him that evening. When the time was right, Frank jumped out a window when the gang was searching for him.

“He got in the back of my car and I went just as fast as that old Studebaker could go, and the car behind me was going just as fast as I was going. Was I being chased? Well, I never stopped to find out. When I got near the tracks in Sturtevant, the gateman was swinging the lantern at the crossing to stop traffic. I never stopped but went on through to St. Luke’s Hospital in town. (at 14th and College Ave.)

“’Frank! Get down to the bottom of the car,’ I shouted.”

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“‘Oh,’ he said, ‘Me is. Me not scared now.’”

“Well Me is! “

“The bootleggers all had machine guns and they would riddle the car if they saw Frank. I admitted him to the hospital and he was assigned to the first floor. He said he could be shot there for sure and they put him on the second floor. I called Sheriff Skewes who wanted to get the gang right away, but Frank, a Lithuanian, said it would be suicide if Skewes got there that night. Were there a few Lithuanians in another gang?”

“After I “went home, I got a phone call from the nurse, Miss Berg. She said, “’There are some men here to see Frank.’”

“And I said, and she wasn’t so dumb, ‘You never got anybody by the name of Frank.’

“’No,’ she said. She didn’t know, she said, but she thought maybe I took him to St. Mary’s.” (At 16th St. and Grand Ave.)

Dr. Roth concluded, “The FBI took Frank away and it never came to court. Of the five Italians running the still, the boss got out on $2,500 bail, the rest on $500 bail. A week before the trial in March, the boss got killed in an ambush on a Kenosha church step and they never had the trial.”


“Dr. Roth fights them off”            

Of the thirty some physicians in this county, nobody has as many experiences as he did, said Dr. Walter Roth in 1972.

“One summer night about 2 o’clock, I got a phone call from a gal who lived on Harbridge and 12th St. Then I lived at 1819 12th Street. She said, ‘There’s a man over here and we can’t control him. Will you come over and see what you can do with him?’

“Sure. I’ll come over—and I did. Gosh. Here comes out one gal with a light blue kimono on and another comes out with a nice little pink kimono on, and I said to myself, ‘What kind of place is this?’ I never knew it was there. So when I got though looking at all the girls, the man wasn’t there. He’d crossed the street and went into a back door there. So I hopped over there.”

Dr. Roth found him and another man sitting in the first room. “Both were as drunk as they could be and they started fighting so hard the plaster fell off the wall. I always carry something in my little grip so I grabbed a needle and gave him a half a gram of morphine, and that isn’t what you usually give either. He sat in a chair which was a mistake because the door was on the other side of the room with the other guy wobbling toward him. I told him if he didn’t sit down, I’d call the cops.”

“Call the cops,” he said. “I was a cop for 12 years and I know every one of them.”

“He comes out with a knife about eight inches long—and a big blade. And I’m sitting there and can’t get to the door. And I’m no weakling either. I waited for my chance, grabbed his hand that had the knife and with the other I put my thumb on the nerve over the eyeball. He said, ’You’re going to put my eye out.’

“I’ll take your eye out unless you drop the knife! So he dropped the knife and after he sat down, I picked up the knife. It had a rubber blade.

“And I didn’t sleep all night after that.”


Dr. Walter Roth , age 80, in 1972 in a Journal Times photo by Arthur Haas

Dr. Roth asks an ethical question                       

Dr. Walter Roth taught contagious diseases at the School of Nursing as well as obstetrics, nutrition and diet. He said they were good students who were all willing to learn.

The doctor is not immune to personal tragedy. His wife, Agnes, had a stroke on Christmas Day and after several more strokes was a patient at Westview Nursing Home (at 16th and Ohio St.)

He reflected, “I took care of her myself for those many years. Bill Little was here and he saved her life about three times…and he feels a little bit like I do. We shouldn’t have done that because she wouldn’t have what she has now. We both felt,” he paused, “we would have been better off if we could have allowed her to die…Here she is…doesn’t know herself, can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t feed herself.”

It’s a problem doctors face every day, he said. “What should you do?” he pondered. “Should you permit them to die and go out of the picture or should you do everything you possibly can to save them, knowing that they’re going to be hopeless invalids.”

Dr. Roth, in his 80th year, has never been a patient in the hospital for any illness.

 “You must have been a very strong man, Dr. Roth,” I said.

“I am yet,” he said emphatically.


Graphics by Mary Nelson

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