Dr. Mary A. Latham, Spokane's pioneer female physician, flees into the mountains, to avoid jail time for arson, on July 22, 1905.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/31/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11172

On July 22, 1905, Dr. Mary A. Latham (1844-1917), Spokane's pioneer woman doctor, flees into the mountains to avoid a sentence of four years of hard labor in state prison. Latham -- previously known for her philanthropy, generosity, and care for the needy -- has just been convicted of arson. She set fire to her country store/pharmacy, which she did not want to fall into the hands of a rival. She is sentenced to four years of hard labor at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Afraid and mentally unstable, she takes a buggy into the mountains of northern Idaho and leads authorities on a seven-day manhunt. She loses her horse, abandons her buggy, and wanders the woods. She is eventually captured after a farm family discovers her in their kitchen, making breakfast. Latham is sent to prison, but will be released early because of poor health.

Dubious Judgment

Mary A. Latham had come to Spokane in 1887 as the city's first woman doctor, quickly established herself as a sought-after specialist, and was soon being extolled as a paragon of good works in the community. But her mental stability and judgment had been fading since 1903, when her beloved son James Latham (1870-1903), a Northern Pacific brakeman, was killed by a train that struck him in the Spokane rail yards. She quickly became entangled in numerous lawsuits over money and real estate and tried to extricate herself with dubious strategies, including forging deeds and wills.

She had deeded some property to her son, who did not have a will when he died, so she forged his signature on a bogus deed that transferred most of her property in trust to James Scribner, whom she apparently planned to use as a third-party shield against her creditors. But she also gave James Latham's fiancée, Jennie H. Johnson, a deed to 500 acres of land with a country store/pharmacy on it located in Mead, just north of Spokane. When Johnson tried to sell the Mead property she discovered that Latham had also given Scribner a deed for it. A complicated series of nasty court battles ensued, in which Latham resorted to more ill-advised strategies and unbelievable claims. Ultimately, on April 29, 1905, the court ruled in favor of Johnson, awarding the Mead store and property to her.

A week later, on May 7, the Mead store burned to the ground. Witnesses saw Latham, fully dressed, watching the fire, but she claimed to have been home in bed, even sending a fictitious letter to The Spokesman-Review making that claim.

Latham was arrested on May 10 and, after a dramatic and often emotional trial, the jury found her guilty of arson on June 18, 1905. They did, however recommend leniency on account of her age, 60, and her sex. Latham collapsed; a doctor later diagnosed her as having had a stroke. In fact, even during the trial reporters had described her as "partly paralyzed" and walking "with a pronounced limp" ("... Guilty of Arson"). The court allowed Latham to spend the period before her sentencing at the home of some friends, under the care of a nurse, with the stipulation that she not leave the home.

She soon violated that rule. At 9:30 p.m. on June 29, 1905, she walked out of the house, boarded a streetcar, and began talking to herself. She said she was on the way to meet James -- her dead son. She talked to herself and cried all the way downtown. Alerted by her friends, a police officer was waiting when she walked off the streetcar. She broke down completely, weeping and wailing. A headline noted that she "appears to be crazy" ("... Creates a Scene ...").

Sentenced to Four Years

Back in custody, she had come up with her own strategy: If she was too ill to appear in court for sentencing, she could never be sentenced. She went on a hunger strike. The Spokane Daily Chronicle ran a headline that read "Dr. Mary A. Latham Starving to Death." She had supposedly eaten only a few strawberries in the past 14 days. Later, she tried to poison herself with drugs, but friends found the drugs and took them away.

The unsympathetic judge, Miles Poindexter (1868-1946), soon to become a U.S. senator, ordered her carried into the courtroom on a cot. She remained on the cot through the sentencing, raising herself on her elbow only twice. The first time, she weakly declared, "I am not guilty" and the second she said "I am looking for my boy. Is he here?" ("Four Years ...").

Her attorney argued passionately that her past record of good deeds had earned her leniency. Judge Poindexter was having none of it. He said that the "defiant attitude of the defendant" and her "false testimony" were hardly deserving of leniency, adding that it was one of the most "aggravated" cases ever to come before him, and he was convinced of her guilt ("Four Years ..."). He sentenced Latham to four years of hard labor at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and fined her $1,000.

She was sent back to her friends' home pending incarceration. The next day she told a reporter, "I am innocent. I did not burn that building," and then added a more incendiary statement: "It was mine anyway, and I had a perfect right to burn it if I wanted to, for there was no insurance on it" ("I Had a Right ..."). The newspapers later characterized this as a confession, but she denied that she intended it that way.

On the Lam

Meanwhile, a new so-called friend -- a shady character named John W. Prall -- convinced her that she could still avoid prison by paying thousands of dollars in bribes to the judge and the prosecutor. Then she could go on the lam for a few years until the whole thing blew over. "What a scenario," wrote historian Barbara Cochran. "But Mary believed him!" (Cochran, 208).

So late at night on July 22, 1905, Latham hid in the bottom of a wagon driven by a friend and went to Mead. From there, she lit out into the mountains of northern Idaho in a horse and buggy, accompanied only by her dog. When word got out that Latham was missing, a sweeping manhunt began. The Spokane County sheriff even posted an observer at Fourth of July Pass in Idaho, suspecting she was heading east.

Instead, she was wandering aimlessly in the woods south of Sandpoint, Idaho. She had a bad leg and no outdoors skills. She showed up at the farmhouse of some people named Schraeder and ate some food. Then "she struck into the timber" and "drove as far as she could, and then for some reason, unhitched her horse" ("... in County Jail"). The horse ran off and she tried to follow it on foot, but lost her way. She had thus abandoned her buggy and all of her provisions. She was seen at two other farmhouses during the week, begging for food. Her dog, perhaps wisely, chose to stay at one of the farmhouses.

Now she was alone, wandering from farmhouse to farmhouse, asking for food. Word had leaked out that she was in the area. On July 29, the Schraeders woke up to find her back in their kitchen, making herself breakfast. After she left, they notified authorities, who arrived on July 30 and found her in a nearby farmhouse eating dinner. When the Spokane County sheriff walked in the door, she said to him, "Why, here is a familiar face" ("... in County Jail").

"Just Too Tired"

She was taken to the Spokane County Jail, where she expressed surprise at all the fuss. She said she was not on the lam; she had "simply gone camping with some friends" ("... in County Jail"). This story was easily punctured, since she had been seen alone in at least three farmhouses and no friends stepped forward to corroborate that story. Yet she said she "had no idea of running away" and "only wanted to get away for a little while to rest," while admitting that she was "just too tired and too sick to think" ("Just Too Tired ..."). She also diagnosed herself as suffering from mental shock, "a cyclone of force on the nerves, and the nerves collapse. Under favorable conditions this strain can be overcome, but often a patient so affected never regains normal condition" ("Just Too Tired ...").

Latham would later concoct an even more outlandish story, which she recounted in court during Prall's trial on attempted bribery and conspiracy charges. Her plan, she testified, was "to cross the Rocky Mountains, float down the Missouri River in a houseboat and escape into Mexico" ("... Conspirator?"). A dumbfounded attorney asked, "Do you mean to tell this jury that, as old a woman as you are, you did not know better than to try to reach the headwaters of the Missouri alone? ... [Were you] to get a pair of wings and fly across?" ("... Conspirator?"). The question was disallowed before she could answer.

Latham was finally sent to Walla Walla in early 1906 to serve her sentence. However, she was released early because of poor health. She died in 1917.

Mary Latham is now remembered in Spokane mostly as a force for good in the city's early days. Her bronze bust looks out over Spokane's downtown, along with 11 other founding fathers and mothers of Spokane. A memorial headstone, erected in 2007 at the Greenwood Memorial Terrace, says that the final years of Mary's life were undeserved "for such a kind and caring woman" (Cochran, 213).

Sources: Barbara F. Cochran, Seven Frontier Women and the Founding of Spokane Falls (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publishing, 2011), pp. 189-214; "Dr. Latham Is Found Guilty of Arson, Jury Recommending Leniency," The Spokesman-Review, June 20, 1905, pp. 1, 9; "Dr. Mary A. Latham Creates a Scene, Woman Convicted of Arson Appears to Be Crazy," The Spokesman-Review, June 30, 1905, p. 1; "Dr. Mary L. Latham Starving to Death," Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 1, 1905, p. 1; "Four Years for Dr. Mary Latham," Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 20, 1905. p. 1; "I Had a Right to Burn that Place," The Spokesman-Review, July 21, 1905, p. 1; "Dr. Mary Latham in County Jail," The Spokesman-Review, August 1, 1905, p.1; "Just Too Tired and Sick to Think," Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 2, 1905, p. 1; "Is Dr. Latham the Conspirator?" The Spokesman-Review, October 21, 1905, p. 7; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Latham, Mary A. (1844-1917)" (by Jim Kershner), http://historylink.org (assessed December 31, 2015).

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