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Dueling Doctors

Dec 30, 2011 10:39AM ● By Style

Whether legitimate or “quack,” the first doctors to arrive at a Gold Rush mining camp staked out their medical claims.

Some even threatened to fight anyone who jumped them. One such tight-fisted protagonist set up his office in Old Hangtown (Placerville). According to author and historian George W. Groh, a picaresque figure who called himself “Dr. Hullings” staked his claim as the first physician in the fledgling settlement and announced his intentions to defend his turf at all costs.

Groh describes him as a tall, heavy-bodied man who “swaggered about in a costume of black coat, Mexican sash, and velvet calzonera of bright green.” He was said to be competent enough, when sober. A vicious brawler, with a hot temper fueled by alcohol, Dr. Hullings had supposedly left New Orleans after killing a man in a café, and since his arrival in Hangtown, he had driven off several physicians who attempted to practice in the camp he considered “his privileged domain.”

But, there appeared in town one day, a competitor who could not be driven off. Doctor Edward Willis, a soft-spoken Englishman who had graduated with a medical degree from the esteemed Edinburgh University, set up a canvas tent and opened for business. He spread out his instruments on rugged pine shelves and an un-planed table. “There he laid out surgical tools, splints, jars of leeches, a microscope, stethoscope, instruments of dentistry, chemical retorts and vessels used in distilling,” says Groh. “In addition, he displayed several jars of anatomical parts preserved in alcohol which, he confided to a friend, were just for show because the miners expected it.”

Meanwhile, a seething Dr. Hullings had had enough of his rival. Allegedly, he strode into Dr. Willis’ tent, spat tobacco juice at a pile of pills he was rolling, and ordered him to “make tracks.” Calmly, Dr. Willis wiped away the tobacco juice and proclaimed that he “did not ‘make tracks’ at any man’s bidding.” Infuriated that Willis would neither run nor fight, Dr. Hullings left the tent, determined, once and for all, to banish the Englishman from his medical claim.

A few days later, after working himself into a heated frenzy, Dr. Hullings again barged into the English physician’s tent, but this time, he was accompanied by “a nasty looking gang of miners.” Hullings demanded to see his rival’s diplomas, which he instantly tore to pieces. He then spit tobacco juice in the face of Dr. Willis’ companion, a young Virginian named Paul Cham. Before Dr. Willis could react, Cham had felled the tobacco-spitting intruder with a blow. Dr. Hullings came up bellowing with a bowie knife in his hand, but someone got a hold of him before any blood was shed.

Further enraged, Dr. Hullings challenged both Willis and Cham to a duel, claiming that he would kill both of them, but Cham first. They set up the contest as “Cham vs. Hullings,” with Dr. Willis standing by for a second round, if necessary.

The duel took place in a deep, abandoned mining pit near Placerville. Hullings and Cham took their positions; an inquisitive and enthusiastic crowd leaned over the top of the pit. The Sheriff called, “Ready,” clapped his hands, and the pit exploded with the roar of gunfire.

Dr. Hullings lay dead, shot through the heart. Cham lay unconscious, three bullets in him. Fortunately, his friend, Dr. Willis was able to successfully treat his wounds. Some assert that Dr. Willis’ first “official” act upon returning to Placerville was to sign Dr. Hullings’ death certificate.