The Insane Doctor: Medicine, Drugs, and Murder in Small-Town Iowa

By 1930, 68-year-old George W. Appleby had practiced medicine for forty-years in the small town of Bristow, Iowa. In many ways, he was exactly what you’d expect – a white-haired elderly man who seemed to genuinely care about his patients and treated their various ailments with a healthy mixture of sage wisdom and medical knowledge.

George Wilder Appleby
Dr. George Wilder Appleby (Courtesy of Mike Appleby, via Find-A-Grave.com)

It probably came as quite a shock to them when federal agents arrested Appleby for trafficking narcotics. The man who was loved and trusted by so many was suddenly at the heart of a national drug smuggling investigation that had been tracking him for several months prior to the arrest.

According to H.G. Higbee, the federal agent in charge of the investigation, the almost-stereotypical small-town doctor had, since the middle of 1929, become one of the biggest narcotics buyers of narcotics, in his capacity as a doctor, in the entire Midwest. Obviously, law enforcement officials were very curious as to why a doctor in such a small Iowa town needed more medication than some physicians in Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis required for their much larger practices.

Agents soon discovered that Appleby was selling the drugs to whoever asked for them. One man, Elwin Walsten, was arrested as he was coming out of Appleby’s office on January 30, 1930. As the officers approached him, they saw Elwin drop a pill bottle into a nearby snow bank. When they recovered it, they discovered that it contained 100 morphine tablets.

Later the same day, Elwin’s wife, Gladys, was arrested at Appleby’s house. When the officers came in, they discovered her lying in bed, pretending to be sick.

The couple had come to Bristow at the end of 1929. Publicly, they sold novelties to earn a living, namely Christmas cards. In private, the Walsten’s were long-time drug addicts. Somehow, they found their way to Dr. Appleby.

While he was supplying locally, two men, Billy Fisher and F.B. Toal, said that they had received drug shipments from Appleby all across the state. Fisher even claimed to have gotten parcels from the doctor at various points across the county by mail.

When confronted, Appleby quickly confessed to the crime. When he was questioned about why he had masterminded a large narcotics ring, he gave a surprising answer. He stated that his recently deceased wife, Nellie, had been an addict when she was young. Because of that, he felt sorry for other addicts like she had been.

Appleby, true to his reputation, was cooperative and kindly, offering little resistance to authorities. He waived his right to receive a preliminary hearing, paid a $1000 bond, and went home to await his trial.

News of the drug ring arrests didn’t take long to circulate in newspapers around the state. Most small-town doctors pushing seventy-years-old were thinking about playing with their grandchildren or retirement, not starting a national drug ring. People were eager to find out more about Dr. G.W. Appleby.

Always ready to hit a hot story and sell more papers, newspapermen began to look deeper into his past. For a good majority of it, he had lived a quiet life with his wife, happily tending to the medical needs of Bristow and the surrounding area.

It was far from newsworthy. Still, you can’t keep good reporters down for long. Finally, they found something.

Most people have some kind of skeleton in their closet. The reporters so eager to dig up dirt on the drug-dealing doctor were probably expecting to find something more along those lines, like getting a hefty fine for prescribing too much drug medication. What they found was far worse.

To their utter astonishment, the kindly, hometown doctor was a murderer.

George Wilder Appleby was born in 1861 in Stockton, Illinois. After earning his medical degree and getting married, Appleby and his wife moved to Bristow, Iowa in 1890. The couple were quickly welcomed into the town.

He treated nearly everyone with gentle kindness, regardless of their background. He delivered babies, did consultations, and helped cure sickness to the very best of his ability. His wife, Nellie, was a religious woman, and quickly became active in the local church.

Things continued very well for the Appleby’s for several years and they seemed to be comfortable in their lives.

However, doctor’s sometimes shoulder heavy burdens.

People come to them, looking for deep answers. The very nature of their profession requires them to regularly handle life-and-death situations. Their patients want them to be miracle workers, able to cure every ailment and mend every wound.

But doctors are just people. No matter how skilled or knowledgeable they may be, they’re only human. It’s their job to stay cool, calm, and collected, all the while telling someone that the person they love most in the world is about to die.

This happens again and again over the course of years. The answers you give have little margin for error. You have to get things right. People are relying on you to save the day.

The stress builds. Like so many other stressful jobs in the world, some are able to find positive outlets to cope. Others find negative ones, like alcohol, or drugs. No matter whichever road they choose, sometimes they aren’t able to get rid of all the stress, and it just continues to build inside them.

Cracks begin to form, warning of a potentially dangerous situation where something has got to, finally, break loose.

Sometime in 1899, Appleby called a fellow doctor and friend, a man named Hobson, for a consultation.

While he was there, Hobson could see the tell-tale signs of being overstressed in his friend. He was well aware of the toll the job could take on a doctor. Appleby was a reliable doctor who treated not only the town that he lived in, but all of the farmers and their families for some distance around. That kind of work can take a toll on a person, and Hobson became concerned that his old partner was overworked.

Dr. Hobson suggested that Appleby take some time off. He could come and work in Hobson’s own practice in Hampton, Iowa. It would still allow him to work, but also to get away from his daily stresses and responsibilities. Appleby gratefully accepted.

By January of 1900, Appleby was one of at least three physicians working at Hobson’s office in Hampton. The three seemed to get along well together, and there were no worries about Appleby’s ability as a doctor.

On January 10, Henry Marty and his wife came in with their 10-month old son. The infant boy was only a little sick, some minor illness that children get that would pass quickly. Still, the concerned parents wanted a doctor to examine her, just to make sure that she was alright.

Dr. Hobson understood. It was part of his job to ease the fears of his patients, and if a quick examination of Baby Wearly would make her parents feel better, than a quick exam wouldn’t hurt anything.

As he was about to go in to see him, one of his office staff approached him. Someone had just contacted them, and Hobson was needed at their home.

In 1900, house calls were an everyday part of the medical profession, especially in more rural areas. A doctor never knew what exactly they would be responding to, so there was no way to know how long they would be gone.

Still, it wouldn’t be right to simply ignore the Marty’s. Luckily, he had another doctor that was available.

Hobson went and found Appleby and explained the situation to him, asking if he would take care of Baby Marty. Appleby readily agreed, and Hobson left to see his bed-ridden patient.

Dr. Appleby went straight to the examining room where the Marty’s waited.

When the worried parents saw the doctor, they must have felt some relief. Here was the person who could ease their concerns and help their little boy.

Without a word, Appleby crossed the room and roughly grabbed the baby from his parents. Henry and his wife immediately protested Appleby’s treatment, probably asking what he was doing. They probably also told him not to treat their baby like that.

Appleby ignored them, laying Baby Marty on the examination table.

Without warning, the doctor grabbed the poor babe’s head in both hands, hooking his thumbs under his chin and clamping his fingertips firmly on the top of his skull. Then, mercilessly, Dr. Appleby began to squeeze.

His head and face were smashed under his pitiless grip, blood pouring from his mouth and nose.

Then, lightning fast, Appleby tore his hands away and grabbed the baby’s ankles, wrenching him off the table and into the air with a sickening jerk.

The parents fought desperately to get their daughter away from the murderous doctor, but to no avail. No matter how hard they tried, the Marty’s could not free their child. As they clutched and grabbed and clawed, the insane doctor began to twirl the child over his head.

Screaming, Mrs. Marty ran to get help while Henry fought on.

A few moments later, one of the office staff ran into the room, joining Henry in wrestling the baby away from Appleby. But even their combined might was no match for the insane Appleby, who continued swinging the infant. Then, another physician, Dr. Rich, ran into the room, joining the struggle. Together, the three of them were finally able to wrest the child away from Appleby.

Rich immediately went to treat the injured baby. His well-trained physicians mind must have already realized that they were too late. Baby Marty was dead.

But Dr. Rich wouldn’t give up. Despite what was obvious to him, Rich still poured a stimulant liquid onto a spoon and prepared to give it to him.

As he reached his hand forward to the still babe, Appleby knocked the spoon from Rich’s hand. Staring at his fellow physician, Appleby, his eyes filled with madness, said that Jesus had instructed man to “Suffer little children to come unto me.” He told Rich that she was dead anyway.

The authorities were called immediately and the insane Appleby arrested.

A few hours after his outburst, Appleby seemed to have calmed down a great deal. When asked why he had killed the baby, the doctor replied that he was aware of everything that he was doing at the time, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Given his behavior, it was probably no surprise to anyone that officials at the mental hospital at Independence, Iowa, were sent for. They came and collected Appleby, taking him back to Independence, where he was promptly committed.

independence iowa mental hospital
Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, Independence, Iowa. (Courtesy Google Images)

In the aftermath, life went on. The Marty’s buried their daughter and mourned. The Appleby family, meanwhile, probably remained apprehensive about the condition of their beloved husband and father.

The citizens of Bristow and Butler County probably wondered what had happened. What had caused a gentle doctor, loving family man, and upstanding member of his community to suddenly commit such a heinous act?

The experts at the mental hospital stated that it was likely that the stress and hardship of managing a large medical practice like his had initially caused his physical health to decline, and then eventually began to degrade his mental health.

Appleby was treated at the hospital for the next four months. According to the doctors there, he made significant strides toward recuperation and rehabilitation. The hospital felt that his mind had been rebalanced. Appleby had exhibited no symptoms of the madness that had caused him to commit his horrible crime.

In their expert opinion, Dr. George Appleby was cured. He was released under his own recognizance and returned home to his family.

In general, the people in the region welcomed him happily. They had known him to be a kind and gentle man for several years, and they apparently had faith in the mental hospital to have returned his temporarily unhinged mind to a state of balance.

Not surprisingly, Appleby didn’t bring up the events of January 1900, probably not wanting to talk about what he had done. Appleby would say, however, that the mental hospital at Independence had completely cured him. Whatever they had done, it was exactly what he had needed to return to normal.

He began to practice medicine again, and he and his wife returned to their church. They raised their children and remained active in various aspects of town life. No charges were ever brought against Dr. Appleby in the death of Baby Marty.

Life continued quietly for the Appleby’s for the next several years. If anyone made any mention of the events of 1900, they did so either privately or in hushed whispers.

In 1929, Nellie died, and Appleby began his drug ring.

Bailed out of jail by relatives, Appleby settled in to await his trial. During that time, he continued to live out the life he always had. He delivered babies, visited family members in Ames, Iowa, and even took one patient to the hospital in Iowa City to receive an operation.

On June 12, 1930, Appleby was charged with the illegal sale of narcotics. However, he didn’t go to prison, and was allowed to continue living free. He continued to actively practice medicine until 1933, when he retired.

In 1943, George Wilder died of a heart attack ten years later at the age of 82.

Was it a mental breakdown brought on by stress that caused Dr. G.W. Appleby to murder a helpless child in 1900? Or was it something deeper that was always there, lurking beneath the surface?

Ultimately, we’ll probably never know.

The frontiers of the human mind are still a mystery. Contemporary scientists, doctors, and psychologists continually further into the field, pioneers pushing the boundary of what is known and understood just a little further.

Their explorations are no doubt filled with excitement and wonder at the things they are able to find. But, in the darkness just beyond their reach and understanding, there are still strange and terrible things that will fill us not with fascination, but with terror.

 

Sources

‘Mad Deed of A Doctor.’ The Courier, 1/10/1900

‘Dr. Appleby’s Crime.’ The Evening Times-Republican, 1/10/1900

‘Insane Doctor’s Crime.’ The Des Moines Register, 1/10/1900

Doctor’s Awful Act. The Davenport Democrat, 1/10/1900

‘Shocking Deed.’ The Davenport Weekly Reader, 1/12/1900

‘May Charge Murder.’ The Courier, 3/09/1900

‘Appleby’s Condition.’ The Courier, 3/16/1900

The Greene Recorder, 5/8/1912

‘Mrs. G.W. Appleby at Bristow Passes Away.’ The Greene Recorder, 4/10/1929

‘Mrs. Appleby Dies at Bristow Today.’ The Courier, 4/6/1929

‘Widespread Dope Ring Broken by Doctor’s Arrest.’ The Courier, 1/31/1930

‘’Dope’ Doctor Is One Who Killed Babe At Hampton.’ The Courier, 2/1/1930

‘Physician Free on Bonds Pending Trial on Narcotic Charge.’ The Mason City Globe-Gazette, 2/1/1930

Bristow Doctor is Held to Jury. Des Moines Register, 2/1/1930

‘Two Girls Born.’ The Mason City Globe-Gazette, 3/14/1930

’10 Indicted by Federal Jury.’ The Mason City Globe-Gazette, 6/12/1930

‘Submits to Operation.’ The Mason City Globe-Gazette, 9/1/1930

‘Dr. G.W. Appleby.’ The Courier, 1/22/1943

 

 

 

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