Dr. Mary Archard Latham, Spokane’s first female physician, quickly gained respect in the pioneer city after she began the practice in 1888.
Latham was a sought-after specialist, including childbirth and caring for women with difficult pregnancies. She helped found the city’s first library and the Spokane Humane Society. She did charity work, wrote letters to the editor, advocated for others and found homes for children in need of adoption.
Its effect is marked by busts and tributes—”doctor, essayist, library attorney”—among other statues of Spokane’s early leaders along Monroe Street in the former press building of The Spokesman-Review.
But Latham’s homage appears to be at odds with subsequent property collapses and legal entanglements, a mental breakdown following the accidental death of a son, a conviction for arson, and then an escape to the rugged state of Idaho before his arrest. She spent more than a year in Walla Walla prison.
Now, more about Latham’s life is covered in a new book, “Mercy and Madness: The Tragic Fall of Dr. Mary Archard Latham from Doctor to Phylon.” Spokane-based author and resident Beverly Leonberger Hodgins has an interest that goes beyond mere history. She has family ties with Latham.
“Mary’s grandfather is my fourth great-grandfather on my family tree,” said Hudgens, 72. Latham’s grandfather was John Archard, who was sometimes spelled Archard. His first wife died, but they had a son who was Latham’s father. John Archard and his second wife had Hudgens’ third grandfather.
“Mary’s father and my third great-grandfather have two half-brothers. Mary and I are distant cousins, but I can claim her.”
Six years ago, Hodgins began unearthing historical documents along with Latham’s plethora of written words. Hodgins leads each chapter with something that Latham wrote. She said a clearer picture of the doctor emerged from his early years in Ohio to tragedy later in life. Near presenting the book, Hodgins landed on a treasure.
“Perhaps two months before the final manuscript is due to be delivered, I have at last received the complete dossier of all things about Mary from prison.” This included a photo of Latham’s face, access card and letters at the time.
“One of the messages I particularly like was while on her parole; she’s very polite, and she’s writing to basically ask permission to practice medicine again.”
A different text topping the book is fixed, apparently from the sheriff, “Tell her she might do it with pleasure.”
He emphasized ‘with pleasure,’ said the author. ‘I thought this was telling us what he must have thought of Mary, even though she was a convicted felon in prison.’
Latham’s shot became the cover photo for the book.
“When I opened the picture, it filled my entire computer screen and found myself saying, ‘Hey Mary,’ because of her eyes. There are two old pictures in the book, but this picture was amazing for some reason. I felt like I was really seeing it for the first time.”
Hudgens said Latham’s perseverance is always shown, despite the tragedy, as has demonstrated her experience in healthcare especially for women and children and especially the poor.
“Mary had many firsts as a woman at the time, and I think she had a lot of guts,” Hudgens said.
“I think Mary has an incredible mind. It is clear from her letters to the editor and her articles that she is highly educated and very insightful. She is not afraid to speak her mind.”
One of Latham’s sisters, Eliza Archard Conner, wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and was a feminist. Their mother, Jane, mostly ran the farm and raised five daughters, “so they knew what a strong woman is.”
Jim Kirshner, a journalist who wrote about the doctor, said Latham’s story is emphatic book material HistoryLink.org in 2015.
“It is one of the most urgent and tragic stories in Spokane history,” Kirchner said. “It’s just a great story because she was so respected. In the beginning, she was a very important and pioneering figure in women’s healthcare at a time when there weren’t many, if any, female doctors around.
“She was really just considered a great merit of society, which made her downfall particularly tragic. It happened within a very short time.”
He said Latham’s story sounds like a Greek tragedy. “If you knew the first half of the story, and that’s all you know, you’d think she’d be a saint in the history of Spokane. But in the second half of the story, you could never have predicted the way the story would end.”
In 1886, at age 42, Latham received a medical diploma from the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery, two years after her husband Edward received his medical degree. They raised three sons and practiced together for a brief period in Ohio. But her “severe asthma”, sent her west to Spokane with their sons. Edward remained to close the business.
Hodgins said he arrived in Spokane in 1889, shortly before the “Great Fire” destroyed most of downtown and Latham’s home. Less than two years later, Edward went to the Colville Preserve to become their physician. They divorced after about four years.
Hodgins said Mary Latham continued her medical practice, drawing on her skills whether patients lived in shacks near the river or in mansions in the Browns Addition.
“I learned how much Mary loved children — giving birth to children and finding homes for the children who needed them,” Hodgins said. “She ran the Spokane Home Finding Society almost the moment I arrived until I retired, and even then, I don’t think it stopped.”
Hudgens also learned that Latham apparently performed abortions, then called them “illegal operations.” The newspaper quoted Latham as defending the doctors in a newspaper article.
“Mary advocates for other doctors, who are obviously among them I think, who have been brought into situations where a woman’s life is in danger because of, let’s say, a failed abortion, so they have to step in to save women’s lives,” Hodgins said.
“There was also a family rumor that Mary and her daughter-in-law Emma Latham had abortions together.”
Latham was accused in 1911 of performing abortions. She had been charged with the felony before, shortly after prison, but was dropped. This time, Kirchner wrote, a 17-year-old delinquent girl reported it to the police. His research found that the latter charges were dropped when Latham agreed to “retire from active life,” that is, medical practice. Authorities referred to her poor health and “weak” mental state.
But Latham is still helping others. In 1917, she agreed to care for a 12-day-old infant with pneumonia. She contracted pneumonia and died on January 20, 1917, at the age of 72.
More than half of the book covers Latham’s milestones and contributions, said Hodgins, a member of Women Writing the West who has written short stories, poems and screenplays. The writer moved with her husband from Oregon to Washington in 2006, and then Spokane in 2012.
“I wanted to understand Mary’s life. I wanted to know if she really did what she was accused of.”
Regarding the arson charge, Latham was suspected of burning a store and pharmacy in Mead to keep him from another woman, apparently her son James’ ex-fiancé, who claimed the property belonged to her, and won her in court. Hudgens said it was apparent in 1903, after son James was killed in a train accident at work, that Latham became promiscuous, but she still wasn’t convinced by what she called situational indictment.
“I’m not sure, because she was under the influence of people who seemed to be trying to profit from their association with her,” Hodgins said. “You have to read the trial chapter to understand it.”
Hudgens learned that Latham had a stroke shortly after her son’s death, and that she wanted to commit suicide.
Kirchner said the same Dr. Latham might not have returned after 1903. Her bad decisions and strange actions were not of the same woman she had been 10 years earlier “a very sharp and wonderful woman who had them all together”.
Hudgens also saw this change, but Mercy eventually triumphed over Latham’s legacy.
“Mary was merciful and merciful in the end,” Hodgins said. “She had moments of what some might say was madness, after the traumas she suffered, but she persevered in the end. She never gave up.”