by Carl E. Bartecchi, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine
Featured in the August-September-October 2023 Colorado Medicine Colorado Medicine.
Who would have thought that from Trinidad, Colo., one of the most distinguished and accomplished physicians and entrepreneurs would arise in the latter half of the 19th century? Michael Beshoar, MD, was probably one of the most unrecognized American physicians of that era.
A book; a biography by his grandson Barron Beshoar, “Hippocrates in a Red Vest;” Michael’s own book, “All About Trinidad and Las Animas County Colorado;” and more than eight large boxes (Beshoar Family Papers) donated to the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library tell the story of the most prominent physician of the old, Wild West.
Born in a small Pennsylvania town in 1833, Michael went on to graduate from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1853. In 1861, Beshoar, with his friends and neighbors, joined the Confederate Army where he served as a surgeon in the medical corps. He was captured by the Union Army in 1863 and ended up as a prisoner of war. However, after signing an Oath of Amnesty, he was allowed to join the Union Army where he served as an assistant surgeon until the end of the Civil War.
Following his medical career, Beshoar pursued private practice ventures, eventually ending up in Denver, whose population in 1867 was under 4,000. His success in Denver was hindered by the “anti-southern” bias of that community. That encouraged him to look farther to the south, to the town of Pueblo, which was more friendly to southerners and had only one doctor for its population of 400 at that time. Besides initiating a medical practice in Pueblo, he opened the first drug store between Denver and Santa Fe, N.M. In that same year, 1867, he also found his way south to Trinidad, Colo., a town of about 400 inhabitants that also favored southerners. He arrived there just seven years after the first settlers. He started a medical practice there and opened up a pharmacy. In Trinidad, he moved into a boarding house run by the sister of the famous [chief of the Oglala Sioux], Red Cloud. She was also the aunt of the [indigenous American] known as Crazy Horse.
Trinidad, with its gambling halls and popular saloons lent itself to plenty of drunken brawls between the Americans, Mexicans and the [indigenous Americans] that frequented the town and lived in the surrounding area. This allowed Beshoar the opportunity to utilize the surgical and orthopedic skills that he had acquired during his training and his experience in the Civil War, providing his services to all sides of these conflicts. He was often the only physician available and capable of treating the wounded from these frequent conflicts and the traumatic injuries common in the agricultural, mining and industrial settings of the region. His successful “care of wounds” brought him wide acclaim. He was also one of the only physicians who provided medical care for the local Native American population during his early days in Trinidad, for they were often unable to pay for their care and medications.
A perusal of copies of his billing records indicate a wide range of medical services that he provided. These services included “minor and more important surgical operations, ordinary and difficult obstetric cases and ordinary and acute cases, often including medicines.” He also provided “tooth extractions, bloodletting and cupping, and local and distant house calls.” He proudly noted that his charges were at least one-third lower than those adopted by the Colorado Medical Association.
Beshoar’s papers and writings suggested a knowledge of and use of a large number of chemical preparations which might not be considered useful today. However, he possessed numerous prominent medical journals of the period that supported such remedies. He also utilized several of the herbal remedies popular at the time. In his writings, he recognized that there was a class of common ailments for which no cause could be detected on extensive examination. For such ailments he notes that the doctor “placates the patients feelings with a prescription for such an elegantly flavored and highly palatable elixir as may at the time happen to suggest itself to his mind.” Beshoar also had in his armamentarium “red and white placebo pills.”
It was apparent that Beshoar wasn’t going to let his therapeutic and diagnostic capabilities get behind the present day norms. He introduced the first X-ray machine in Southern Colorado. The first X-ray picture taken with the new machine showed his old Civil War wound, a Union rifle ball in his leg.
Later in his career Beshoar launched a monthly magazine – The Medical Educator, which he stated was “for the common people but was also needed by doctors.” In this magazine, he discussed new or useful medical developments that he gleamed from regional and international medical journals as well as comments on his own findings and experiences. It contained treatments that lay readers might try for common problems like headaches, stresses, snake-bites, various pains and a variety of addictions. He wrote monthly articles about the nature and history of the medical customs of the [indigenous Americans], Mexicans, and their healers. He was very familiar with and critical of drugs and herbs used by the Mexicans of the American southwest, giving numerous examples of what he considered to be useless treatments. However, faced with the more effective treatment of gonorrhea by the native “medicos,” he studied their native herb used in their treatment of gonorrhea, found it to be effective and used it successfully in his next 200 cases. At times, he would find other native treatments that he would study, possibly modify and in some cases adopt.
In his magazine he was also critical of many of the same accepted medical practices of the day. An example being treatments touted for pneumonia which he claimed was “the most deadly of all human maladies” destroying more lives than any other disease. He noted that with true pneumonia cases as well as with other potentially lethal diseases of his day, that there was “only one healing power and that is one and the same with the Power which created and which maintains.” Many therapists of Beshoar’s era were often left with therapeutic approaches which we might today classify as alternative medicine that offered little more than a placebo effect. These therapies supported by the practitioners care, attention, concern and support no doubt helped those patients without a serious illness. In his magazine, he attacked all forms of medical quackery and Christian Science as “dangerous menaces to health.” He noted that medical men often “devote themselves too exclusively to the cure by medicines and not enough to the prevention and cure of disease by hygienic measures.”
Beshoar was very concerned with the general health of his community. He encouraged and endorsed school lunches. He openly expressed his concerns about food safety, encouraging city authorities to appoint competent food inspectors. He was elected to school board positions and even appointed Superintendent of local schools over a period of many years. His feelings about tobacco were suggested in his reference to it as a “filthy weed.” He was one of the first to help [Indigenous Americans] and Hispanics with smallpox vaccinations. During a smallpox epidemic in 1877, he inoculated hundreds of adults and children, saving many lives. He donated 35 acres of prime land to the Catholic sisters allowing them to go forward with fundraising for a hospital in Trinidad.
Beshoar established his credentials as a prominent figure in what we call the American Wild West when we realize the individuals who played a prominent role in Trinidad’s history during the period of his practice and often interacting with them. Bat Masterson was a deputy sheriff and later sheriff, between 1878 and 1889. Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers arrived in Trinidad straight from the famous shootout at OK Corral in 1881. Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were deputy sheriffs at the same time in Kansas. Kit Carson medically consulted Beshoar just prior to Carson’s death.
As suggested earlier, Beshoar was much more than a physician. He founded the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper in 1868, the oldest daily newspaper still going strong after 153 years. In 1881 he set up the Trinidad Publishing Company that evolved into the Trinidad Daily Advertiser. One of Beshoar’s staff at the Advertiser was Alfred Damon Runyon, who was considered quite the “archetype of all the drunken and whoring reporters of all times.” Beshoar also started a Cattleman’s newspaper and a Spanish weekly newspaper. He wasn’t afraid to use his newspapers, along with his vocal support and political clout, to support working men trying to unionize the powerful mining industry in Southern Colorado
Beshoar authored one book, but not a medical text. His "All About Trinidad and Las Animas County, Their History, Industries, Resources, Etc.” was a 118-page history, encyclopedia, directory and almanac according to his grandson. It covered the pre-white period of the county where he dwelled, the taxes, new coal mining camps, tables of local statistics, records of county and town office holders, organizations, lodges, distances, elevations and more raw data that documented his vast knowledge of everything of importance in his area.
The knowledge that he accumulated no doubt contributed to his success as an entrepreneur who was successful in a variety of ventures. He was involved with mining interests – coal mines in Colorado, Zinc mines in Missouri and Arkansas and other mineral explorations in New Mexico and Mexico. He was an officer and a director of the Board of the Las Animas Railway and Telegraph Company. He founded a steam laundry, a brickyard, launched the Trinidad Oil Company and bought and sold real estate. At one time he owned a brewery, a billiard hall and the previously mentioned drug stores. Through his newspaper he enjoyed close ties with local ranchers and farmers that occasionally resulted in financial rewards.
The fact that Beshoar was involved in the politics of medicine is apparent from a copy of his business card found in the Denver Public Library collection.
Beshoar’s involvement in local, state, national and almost international politics is quite impressive. He held local positions such as the first Las Animas County Court Judge. He was a County Coroner, County Clerk and a Colorado State Legislator. His biography suggests that he served these important elected positions with distinction, providing examples of his efforts. His involvement with national politics caused him to be offered the post of Minister to Argentina, by President Grover Cleveland. He regretfully declined that post because of his need to attend to his growing family and his businesses.
Michael Beshoar died peacefully at the age of 74. His grandson claimed that his chief legacies were his compassion for the poor and the minorities and a special feeling for the Spanish-speaking peoples of the Southwest. The editor of the local newspaper, Dan Stone, was a long standing antagonist of Beshoar. In announcing Beshoar’s death, he paid tribute to Beshoar with the following words. “Here in Southern Colorado, where he has spent a half century doing good among the people, in the cities, and over the broad mesas where the long grass waves, and deep in remote canyons where the feet of white men seldom tread, his multitude of dark skinned friends will hear of his passing; in the pueblos and among the scattered huts of the sheepherders, the Answering of the Call will be told, and their heads will be bowed in sorrow, for he was ever and always their true, staunch friend in their greatest hours of need.”
Carl E. Bartecchi, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Colorado School of Medicine
I am indebted to Sarah Ganderup, Special Collections Librarian and to the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, Beshoar Family Papers (WH1083) for use of their services and access to the information in the Beshoar Family Papers and to Kay Bartecchi for her review of the manuscript.