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Fall from Grace: Dr. William Sabin Bennett

By Amy Phillips, Director of Education and Programs

Colorized portrait of Dr. William Bennett.

Dr. William Sabin Bennett was Meeteetse’s town doctor from 1899 until moving to Cody in 1909. Aside from being a well-respected physician, Bennett also served as mayor numerous times.

William Sabin Bennett was born in Lawrence, Kansas on July 1, 1870, to Joseph Dexter Bennett and Carrie Bennett. William had an older sister, Maud, and older brother, Frank. In 1880, the Bennett family lived in Venice, Illinois. William claimed Chicago was his home and his father, Joseph Dexter, received his training as a veterinarian there.

In 1891, William graduated from the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Chicago. Later that year, while filling in for Dr. McGown in Friendship, Wisconsin, William married school teacher Clara Elizabeth Holm. The couple moved from Wisconsin to Aspen, Colorado where they lived with William’s father for four months before moving to Craig, Colorado. William was issued a medical license for practicing in Colorado in 1892. That same year, in September 1892, the couple welcomed their first son, Bertram William Bennett, in Craig, Colorado. Two years later, their second son, Frank, likely named after William’s older brother, was born.

Advertisement for Dr. Bennett when he was at Craig, Colorado published in The Pantagraph Vol 3 No 45 January 12, 1894.

Dr. Bennett worked at a pharmacy and ran a medical practice in Craig, before moving to Rifle where he operated a pharmacy with W.S. Deal. Bennett sold the drug store to Frank Layner in 1897 and the family moved to Denver.

In 1899, the couple moved to Meeteetse, Wyoming, where they welcomed a third son, William Sabin Bennett, Jr. William Sr. was issued a medical license for Wyoming that same year. The following year, Joseph Dexter Bennett, named after William’s father, was born. The 1900 Census, taken before Joseph Dexter the younger is born, finds Joseph Dexter Bennett, Sr, living with his son with his three grandsons at school.

Newspaper article announcing the death of Frank Bennett was published in the Big Horn County News on January 20, 1906.

In 1906, William’s older brother, Frank, died in Denver while at work. Frank was a railroad engineer and died during a train wreck. One newspaper clipping stated the conductor fell asleep. How the death of his brother affected him is unknown, though Dr. Bennett went to Denver at the time of the event. After the event, both Dr. Bennett and his father continued their business interests in Meeteetse.

William Bennett also became increasingly involved in civic affairs. Two years later, in 1908, Bennett served as a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives. In May 1909, Bennett was also elected to the position of mayor of Meeteetse, winning out over the re-election of W.O. Steele. This was not the first time Benett served as mayor as he also won the election in 1907 against Angus J. McDonald.

While an upstanding member of the community by all appearances, in June 1909, William Bennett was involved in controversy. Unfortunately, it was the first of what would be many. Outside Henry Poole’s saloon, Dr. Bennett shot a fellow doctor, Dr. Phillips. According to a letter written by Dr. Bennett and published after the incident, he claimed it was self defense and Dr. Phillips was angry that Dr. Bennett, then the mayor of Meeteetse, had refused him a license to practice medicine in town. While Dr. Phillips accused Dr. Bennett of being jealous and wanting to keep Meeteetse to himself, Bennett insisted the decision was purely professional – that Dr. Phillips did not meet state board standards.

Later that year, in August, Bennett and his wife took a trip to Chicago where Bennett received seven weeks of training at the Chicago Postgraduate Hospital on a coil machine which produced x-ray and violet rays. Upon his return in September, he resigned as mayor of Meeteetse and moved to Cody. At the same time, Bertram, Dr. Bennett’s oldest son left home to attend St. John’s Military Academy.

The Wyoming Stockgrower and Farmer announced Dr. Bennett and Adam Hogg’s partnership.

Though the move may seem to be connected to the altercation with Dr. Phillips, an article published in April 1909 revealed that Dr. Bennett had plans to move to Cody before the event. Together with Adam Hogg, Bennett had bought the Cody Drug and Jewelry Company, just east of the Irma Hotel. Although operating a new business, Bennett kept his slogan from his Meeteetse drug store, “Bennett handles the goods.”

In an ironic twist of fate, Bennett sold his Meeteetse residence to Frank Blackburn who rented it to Dr. Phillips, the man almost shot by Dr. Bennett. It seems that Dr Phillips was able to practice in Meeteetse after all.

Dr. Phillips was able to practice medicine in Meeteetse despite his altercation with Dr. Bennett. Notice published in The Wyoming Stockgrower and Farmer on June 25, 1909.

In Cody, Bennett’s popularity continued. In her 1989 article “Dr. William Sabin Bennett: The Rise and Fall of a Pioneer Doctor” Ester Johansson Murray wrote, “Bennett was well received in Cody. He was a slim, handsome man with dark hair and mustache, energetic, amiable and had all the social graces of a polished gentleman. He was closely connected with every major event in Cody” she goes on to say that he was elected as president of the school board, mayor, and a great promoter for the town (41).

Dr. Bennett’s drug store in Cody, photography courtesy of the Park County Archives.

Notice in the Park County Enterprise detailed the damage to the drug store on July 6, 1910.

Just after moving to Cody for his new business enterprise, a fire caused damage to the drug store. The insurance companies, emphasis on plural, must have covered the damage because later that month, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, along with business partner, Adam Hogg, spent the weekend at Pahaska Tepee with other prominent families including George Beck, William T. Hogg (Adam’s brother), and Mrs Chamberlain.

In June 1911, William’s son, Joseph “Joe”, took ill. Mrs. Bennett takes him with her to Wisconsin, her home state, where they see a specialist who advises them to keep Joe at a lower altitude. Dr. Bennett went to be with his wife and son and in July, wrote to employee, Emil Shibler, in Cody that Joe was steadily improving. By the end of the month, the family was back in Cody. Using his time away, Bennett had taken a course at the Northern Illinois Optical School and could now replace eyeglasses.

In 1912, the paper endorsed Dr. Bennett as he ran for Senator for Park County. The paper stated, “Dr. Bennett is a progressive republican of the highest type and is eminently qualified for this exalted and responsible position. He has spent 21 years in Wyoming and knows every prominent man from one end of the state to another. He is in touch with every movement that tends to build up his commonwealth and if elected will a [sic] valuable acquisition to the state at large as well as Park county. His pleasing personality and thorough knowledge of human nature put him in a position to secure legislation and his broad mind and wide experience give him wisdom and judgement [sic] on any question that comes up.”

Despite the ringing endorsement, Bennett did not win the election. But perhaps the loss is not as surprising as it seems. The Meeteetse News published an article in October, the month before election, claiming to have so much dirt on Bennett from his time in Meeteetse that he would never be considered for public office.

Despite his loss of a state office in 1912, in 1913 Bennett was elected as mayor. He also becomes the president of the School Board. About this time, Cody is visited by multi-millionaire John W. Gates on a hunting trip. Gates returned from his extended trip to the Thorofare and became ill. Dr. Bennett was called to consult with Gates’ personal physicians and, upon Gates’ death in his private railcard, accompanied the body to New York. Despite the morose occasion for the trip to New York, Dr. Bennett sent a telegraph that said the trip was, “Special all the way.”

Bennett remained away from Cody until December, returning right before Christmas with new merchandise for his store. Bennett was again called back to New York in the spring of 1914 on behalf of Gates’ death and completed a postgraduate course at the Polytechnic college hospital. According to an interview of Ray Prante by Ester Johansson Murray, it was at this time that changes in Bennett’s personality and actions became apparent.

The Meeteetse News published this notice on October 26, 1912 claiming to have dirt on Bennett that would make him unfit for Park county politics.

In 1916, we find William’s oldest son, Bertram Bennett, returned from military school and operating a life insurance company in Park County. With Bertram home, Joe in high school, William Jr. away at Cornell, and no account of Fred, we find Dr. Bennett in numerous tricky situations.

In May, the newspaper reported the results of a court case involving the First National Bank vs. W.S. Bennett. Bennett, unable to pay its debt to the bank, had to declare bankruptcy. Bennett must have managed to pay off his debt, as the receivership was discharged the following month.

Then, in August, Dr. Bennett was pinned under a car with an unnamed woman. The Basin Republican reported that the car accident occurred at 3 am. While Dr. Bennett, as a physician, was known to make patient visits at all hours of the night and day, around this time he was also reported to be having extramarital affairs. The newspaper reports make no mention of unseemly conduct, so it could have been an entirely innocent affair.

In May 1917, Bertram Bennett left Cody for military examinations that would later place him as the Captain of Company K, which you can read about here. During the war, things were relatively quiet for the Bennett family, other than notices and letters from Bertram in the newspaper.

In the summer of 1918, Dr Bennett purchased a silver mine in Ely, Nevada. A notice published in November 1919 mentioned that F.A. Whitney, D. H. Wilson, E.P. Bowman, and Martin Pratt were also involved in the silver mine venture.

Silver was not Dr. Bennett’s only investment. The first advertisements and mentions of the Rainbow Petroleum Company appear in 1918, listing W.S. Bennett as president. He is partnered in the business with E.P. Bowman (also involved in the silver venture), Henry Pool,  Adam Hogg, P.E. Markham, Dr. Chamberlain, and R.C. Hargreaves. It seems Bennett also retained property on the Greybull River where he was involved in drilling for oil, although whether or not that property was involved with the Rainbow Petroleum venture is unknown.

Advertisement for the Rainbow Petroleum & Refining Company published in The Northern Wyoming Herald on June 12, 1918.

Despite his diverse investments, or perhaps because of them, Bennett’s financial troubles surfaced again in 1919 as Dr. Bennett sold the drug store to Dr. Trueblood and C.W. Lambert. The same month, Dr. Bennett visited Meeteetse to sell his real estate holdings consisting of a log cabin next to A.J. McDonald’s residence.

Bertram Bennett, now secretary to Governor Carey and living in Cheyenne, married in January 1920. While Mrs. Bennett made the trip down to Cheyenne for the wedding, Dr. Bennett was notably absent. A newspaper clipping in March 1920 mentioned that Dr. Bennett had been on a four-month trip purchasing oil rights in several states including New Mexico, Arkansas, Texas, and Nevada. In May, Bennett was listed as one of the new owners of the Cody Enterprise as the paper announced a change of ownership.

In September 1920, Dr. Bennett and his family moved into a house at Beck Avenue and 1st Street but newspapers also reported that Bennett bought a home in Thermopolis, apparently intending to move his medical practice with him. Despite the Thermopolis purchase, over the next few months Dr. Bennett was still responding to medical calls in the Cody-area. In December, the Enterprise reported that Dr. and Mrs. Bennett had moved from their home on Beck Avenue and 1st Street to an apartment at the Irma Hotel.

The Cody Club officially removed Dr. Bennett from his position as County Health Officer. This notice was published in The Northern Wyoming Herald on June 22, 1921.

On June 22, 1921, the same date as William S. Jr’s engagement was announced, the Cody Club, Cody’s Chamber of Commerce, officially removed Dr. Bennett as County Health Officer for his behavior of “a disgraceful nature.” Murray wrote, “This resolution must have been another embarrassment to the family, especially to Bert Bennett, who worked in Governor Carey’s office.” She does not mention William Jr. who was also a public servant, newly appointed to his work in the district attorney office of Denver, Colorado.

On August 17, 1921, The Northern Wyoming Herald reported that Dr. Bennett claimed he was robbed of two hundred dollars by a highwayman on Wilson Lane. The officers did not even begin an investigation.

The following month, Dr. Bennett was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and reckless driving, a tendency noted by the papers when he was still a popular doctor. Dr. Bennett paid his fines and was released.  Later that same month, William Jr. married Alice Downer at the home of her parents in Denver.

Article published in The Northern Wyoming Herald detailed Dr. Bennett’s arrest for carrying a concealed weapon.

In November 1921, Bennett found himself, along with D.H. Wilson whom you will remember was a business partner in the Rainbow Petroleum venture, in another court case over money. This time with the bank in Thermopolis.

By December, the newspapers published that Dr. W.S. Bennett moved to Greybull, where he lodged at the Big Horn Hotel. At this time, Mrs. Bennett is on an extended visit to Cheyenne, where she is staying with Bertram and his wife. The couple’s youngest son, Joe, who was still away at Yale University, decided to spend Christmas with friends, the famous Colgate family being one, in New York.

In May 1922, William Bennett Jr. and his wife moved to Greybull, a decision perhaps motivated by the location of his parents.

Then, in late 1922, Dr. Bennett was embroiled in the biggest scandal yet. In November, Dr. Bennett took a trip to Lodge Grass, Montana where he was invited to set up a practice by the town there. On his return trip, he stayed at a hotel in Sheridan, Wyoming. During these trips, Dr. Bennett was accompanied by Mrs. St. Claire, nurse, and her seven-year-old daughter. All very innocent, except for two details: Mr. St. Claire was not on board with the trip and, when staying in Sheridan, Dr. Bennett and Mrs. St. Claire gave the hotel false names. Though they were assigned different rooms on different floors of the hotel, the Greybull Tribune reported, “A raid on the room occupied by the pair at 3:45 o’clock yesterday morning brough sensational developments. Mrs. St. Claire is said by the officers to have attempted to escape by crawling out the window.”

Mrs. St. Claire held that Dr. Bennett had taken ill in his room and she had simply been in the room to take care of him, as she was, after all, a nurse. Police, however, held that the lights were off and the door to the room locked.

Dr. Bennett and Mrs. St. Claire were arrested and fined $50 each, which Dr. Bennett paid. The paper also reported that “Her husband is said to have filed suit for divorce against her, asking custody of their small daughter. She and the physician are said to have fled from her husband, who telegraphed Thursday to local police to be on the lookout for his wife.”

Despite paying the fee and being released from Sheridan, Dr. Bennett and Mrs. St. Claire were being investigated over a violation of the Mann white slave act, which made it a criminal act to transport any women or girl in interstate or foreign commerce for the purposes on prostitution, debauchery, or other immoral purposes.

Amidst the scandal, William Jr. and his wife welcome their first child, a son whom they name William Sabin Bennett III.

Article detailing Dr. Bennett’s attempted escape to Mexico appeared in the Greybull Standard on December 29, 1922.

A trial in the federal court in Cheyenne commenced on April 19, 1923, but not before Dr. Bennett was captured in an attempt to escape to Mexico in December 1922. The Greybull Standard reported, “Dr. W.S. Bennett, of Greybull, Wyo, sought for a month by the Denver bureau of investigation of the department of justice on charges of violating the Mann white slave act, was arrested Friday by a United States customs officer at Nogales, Ariz., as the doctor was attempting to cross the line into Mexico.”

He was not the only one trying to escape the authorities. Mrs. St. Claire had been arrested on Christmas Day in Denver “on a warrant charging conspiracy to violate the white slave act.”

In April, Dr. Bennett appeared in federal court in Cheyenne. During the trial, Mrs. St. Claire testified that her involvement with Dr. Bennett was strictly business in nature. She also argued that purchases made by Dr. Bennett in Denver at an apparel store were simply loans that were later paid for by Mr. St. Claire. Mr. St. Claire also testified during the trial, stating that for two years Mrs. St. Claire had to rely on her own wages for the support of herself and their child. At this point, he dropped the suit for divorce against her.

Interestingly, William Jr. testified in the trial, adding further credence to the story that Mrs. St. Claire was in Dr. Bennett’s employment as a nurse and nothing more. During his testimony, William also claimed both his parents were living in Rawlins, where William Jr. was a practicing attorney, at the time.

According to the Greybull Tribune, “After deliberating seventeen hours, the jury in the trial of Dr. W.S. Bennett, formerly of Greybull, charged with violation of the Mann act, in the federal court in Cheyenne last week, reported that with the vote standing 9 to 3 for acquittal it was impossible to reach a verdict.” A retrial was set for November in Cheyenne. When November came around, a new trial date was set for December 10, 1923. The Sheridan Post Enterprise reported on December 7, 1923, “James, Fowler, Orville Staggs, former members of the Sheridan police department, and Grant Rogers, finger-print expert of the department, have been subpoenaed as witnesses in the tre [sic] case of Dr. W.S. Bennett of Greybull, charged with violation of the Mann act, which will open in federal court in Cheyenne next Monday.” The Sheridan Post Enterprise must not have been privy to the fact that a motion for continuance was filed on December 4, postponing the trial to May 1924.

Just two months before the new trial date, Dr. Bennett died in Ely, Nevada. In a brief notice published by the Park County Herald on April 2, the paper noted that Bennett had been practicing medicine in Ely for several months. According to the Directory of Deceased American Physicians, Dr. Bennett had been granted a license in Nevada in 1918 and began practicing there on March 15, 1924, just two weeks before his death. Bennett’s death certificate attributed cause of death to chronic alcoholism and “moonshine.”

Mrs. Bennett returned to her childhood home of Friendship, Wisconsin, where she began teaching school in 1925; she would eventually retire in 1933.

Unfortunately, Clara would outlive all of her children except for Bertram. We were unable to find any account of Fred after the 1900 census. William Jr. must have moved with Clara to Friendship. After divorcing Alice in late November 1926, William Jr. passed away in December where he was living in Wisconsin. He was buried in the Friendship cemetery. Joseph Bennett, who had been employed as a professor since 1923, died in 1953 when he was run over by a motor car.

The 1950 Census finds Clara living with her niece, Clara Smith, in Friendship, Wisconsin along with her son, Bertram, whose name is misspelled on the census as “Bertrand”. Clara died in 1956 and is buried in the Friendship cemetery. After his mother’s death, Bertram remained in Friendship, passing away in 1963 at the age of 70. Bertram was buried alongside his mother and brother in Friendship.

Correspondence to Clara Smith from Mrs. Carlson revealed that she accompanied Bertram and his mother back to Meeteetse in 1941 for a visit.

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