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She cut. The bullet that slammed into the injured cowboy’s chest had come to rest next to his lungs and had to be removed. Dr. French widely opened the wound to extract the slug. Her hand was steady and eyes sharp. She was no stranger to performing complicated medical procedures under pressure. A woman in the profession in the 1890s was not readily accepted, and some ran the risk of being beaten if they were discovered practicing medicine. As this was an emergency, Dr. Emma French was given a free hand to do whatever she could to save the two patients before her. A pair of cowboys had gotten into a drunken brawl and were seriously hurt as a result. One had been shot and the other cut to pieces with a knife. After tending to the gunshot victim, she turned her attention to the man with the knife wounds. She put back into place intestines and muscle and stitched the inebriated soul together.
The incident occurred in Winslow, Arizona, in December 1892. A respected male physician visiting from Santa Fe, New Mexico, was called to the scene first but, after examining the two men, decided it was hopeless and left them to die. The authorities decided to send for Dr. French to see if she could save their lives. Within two weeks of the doctor operating on the mortally wounded men, both were back on their feet and back in the saloon.
Dr. Emma French was born Emma Batchelder in Uckfield, Sussex County, England, on April 21, 1836. Her poor parents were Mormon missionaries who wanted their two daughters and son to be prosperous and follow the ways of the church. Emma had studied medicine working as an apprentice for a local physician and wanted to pursue the profession. Her parents had other ideas. At the age of twenty-one, Emma took her parents’ advice to move to Zion, the location Mormon believers thought was the heavenly kingdom. Utah was considered Zion. In 1859, Emma and her best friend, Elizabeth Summers, traveled to America. Their passage was paid for by the Perpetual Emigration Fund of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Emma and Elizabeth traveled steerage on the ship to New York from Liverpool, and from there to the end of the Rock Island Railroad in Iowa City. They were among the four hundred plus people in the handcart company train under Captain James G. Willie departing on July 15, 1856.
The trip to Utah was expected to take a hundred days, a little more than three months. Members of the Willie Company, like those in similar companies, walked ten miles a day. It didn’t take long for the handcarts to begin showing wear and stops had to be made to repair the vehicles. Captain Willie insisted the problem with the carts was the load of goods piled inside them. When the company reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in mid-September 1856, the leader of the tour ordered the travelers to leave behind much of their nonessential provisions and personal belongings. Emma refused to obey the captain’s directive. In her cart was a copper washtub containing clothing that once belonged to her mother. Emma proved her defiance by sitting on top of the tub and refusing to leave.
Emma was confident she could join the Mormon handcart company that departed ten days after Captain Willie’s group. While waiting for the next company, Emma was able to support herself doing laundry and mending soldiers’ uniforms. When the next handcart company arrived at the post, she acted as midwife for those ladies giving birth on the journey. Fellow travelers noted how caring and self-assured she was at delivering babies. She did indeed join the next handcart company making its way to Salt Lake City and arrived at the destination on November 30, 1856. She had walked more than fourteen hundred miles.
On December 27, 1857, Emma met John D. Lee, a prominent church leader. The couple married less than two weeks after being introduced. She was his sixteenth wife. Lee moved Emma into his home at Harmony in southern Utah. During her time there, she received midwife’s training given to all Mormon women. She learned about surgery, disease diagnoses, and treatment from the many medical books on hand. She was fascinated with medicine and the specific drugs created to cure illnesses.
Emma and John had four children while living in Harmony, two boys and two girls. She also helped raise the son of her husband’s eighteenth wife, Ann Gordge. For a time, Emma, John, and their family were content with life in Utah, but an incident that occurred with her husband prior to their being wed threatened their happy ever after.
In September 1857, John Lee had been involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The Mountain Meadows Massacre involved the killing of western emigrants near Mountain Meadows, Utah. The emigrants, numbering more than one hundred thirty, were on their way from Arkansas and Missouri to southern California. While camping in the valley of Mountain Meadows in Washington County, they were attacked by Native Americans, and, it is alleged, by Mormons disguised as Native Americans. They held their ground for three days, when under promise of protection by John Lee, a Native American agent at the time, they left their barricade of wagons where upon the attack was renewed, and all one hundred thirty plus adults were slaughtered. Seventeen children were allowed to live and were distributed among Mormon families.
In early November 1874, seventeen years after the horrific events at Mountain Meadows, John Lee was arrested for murder by a deputy U.S. marshal and placed in jail at Camp Cameron near Beaver, Utah. His first trial resulted in a hung jury. The second trial, held in September 1876, resulted in a conviction.
Emma championed her husband throughout both trials and paid for the defense attorney by selling their livestock and with some of the funds earned operating a ferry John had purchased on the Colorado River in Arizona.
On March 23, 1877, John Lee’s death sentence was carried out, by his choice of a firing squad. According to the March 28, 1877, edition of the Green-Mountain Freeman, “Lee was taken to his place of execution between 10 and 11 o’clock in the forenoon and seated on his coffin about twenty feet from the five men who were to shoot him.” After the marshal read the order of the court, he asked Lee if he had anything to say before he was executed. “I wish to speak to that man,” Lee told the law enforcement agent. Lee pointed to a photographer nearby setting his canvas to take the accused’s picture. “I want to ask you a favor. I want you to furnish three of my wives a copy of the photograph, a copy to Rachel and Sarah C. and Emma B.” The photographer agreed. Not long after the exchange, Lee was shot and killed.
Emma took over operations at the ferry after Lee’s execution. The business paid well, and she supplemented the ferry income with a small herd of cattle. Plans to live a peaceful life raising her children and working on the river were dashed when Mormon church members overtook the ferry and Emma’s home. Members of the Sixth U.S. Cavalry helped move the widow and her family, their personal belongings, and the cattle she owned to Sunset City, Arizona, three miles east of Winslow.
Emma had no intentions of staying in Sunset City long. She was contemplating where to settle and how she and her children would get there when she met Franklin French. She had met Franklin while she was working at the ferry several months prior to their Arizona encounter. The tall, heavily built, dark-complected man was prospecting the Grand Canyon country when he and Emma were first introduced. Franklin noticed the widow was struggling and offered to lend a hand. He would help drive her cattle wherever she wanted to go. Franklin and Emma and her brood traveled south to a railroad town known as Snowflake. Emma and Franklin fell in love with one another on the journey, and the two were married on August 8, 1879. Franklin resumed prospecting, and Emma tended to the children, home, and livestock and offered her services as a doctor to the community. She had few patients at first, but an unfortunate accident in the summer of 1880 brought her more business than she cared to have.
A sudden torrential flash flood raged down Cottonwood Wash in mid-August 1880. Pushing across the region, it demolished a long bridge being constructed by the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. So swift was the twenty-foot-high wall of muddy water that workmen on the structure had no warning of approaching disaster. Men were tossed into the deluge and smashed wreckage of big timbers.
As the head rise fell rapidly after losing power plunging into the Little Colorado River, victims were pulled out of the mud. The dead were placed in one railroad contractor’s tent for burial, and the injured in another. Steel rails ended forty miles eastward, and no emergency train could get to the scene. There was no doctor or nurse at the main construction camp anyway. Unless attended to quickly, some of the worst injured would surely die.
In this desperate situation, one of the gang bosses said to the civil engineer in charge, “Why don’t you send a rig down to their ranch for Mrs. Emma French? She learned doctoring the hard way, but there’s none better.”
Leaping at this straw of hope, a man was dispatched in a buckboard to get her. On arrival, Emma went right to work. First aid was given to those with broken arms and legs and internal injuries. Some of the railroad workers who were not injured helped Emma splint fractured limbs. After the injured were taken care of, she remained to doctor them during recovery.
By the time the broken leg cases were able to hobble around some, a mysterious fever broke out among the workmen. Under Emma’s supervision everyone recovered.
In 1881, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad decided to extend its road construction to Hardy, twelve miles east of Winslow. They built a two-story station house in Hardy for railroad staff to conduct their business. Section workers kept to the upper floor, while Emma used the first as a hospital. Her practice thrived.
In addition to caring for those in the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad’s makeshift hospital, Emma traveled from Gallup, New Mexico, to Flagstaff, Arizona, to help railroad employees working up and down the line and camping in remote locations. Railroad executives transported Dr. French to her patients in a special car. A new hospital was built in Winslow in the late 1880s, and Emma was hired to be a part of the staff. Not only had she tended to the hundreds of railroad surveyors, track layers, and ranchers in the region, but she had helped deliver numerous children to railroad employee’s wives and the wives of Native Americans living nearby.
Emma was always ready to help when someone was sick or hurt. She kept her medical bag near the front door and the uniform she wore while on the job, laundered and pressed. She was a fanatic about cleanliness and insisted the instruments she used and her examination room be routinely scrubbed and sterilized.
In 1891, an epidemic of diphtheria struck the Mexican section of Winslow. It spread rapidly, and the afflicted were attended to by Dr. French. For six weeks she worked administering vaccines and caring for men, women, and children suffering from the disease.
Emma shared her medical expertise with the Navajos who lived in the area. Many Navajos suffered with an ocular disease known as trachoma. The infection was contagious and had potential to cause blindness. Emma taught them the importance of keeping faces clean and dirty hands away from their eyes. She also supplied them with clothes and food whenever needed.
Dr. Emma French died on November 16, 1897, at the age of sixty-one. She spent her last moments with her husband discussing his latest prospecting trip. She excused herself to make their lunch and collapsed on the way to the kitchen. An article in the November 27, 1897, edition of the St. John’s Herald about Emma’s passing noted, “She was filled to overflowing with the milk of human kindness. No matter how inclement the weather, or what hour of the day or night, she was always ready to respond to the call of the afflicted, whether rich or poor.”
Emma’s funeral was held at her home and was a grand celebration of life. In addition to the many friends and loved ones in attendance were Santa Fe Railroad officials and county and territorial leaders. Railroad officials ordered all trains passing through Winslow at the time of the service to stop for a full minute out of respect for the doctor’s contributions. Engineers driving the trains into and out of the yard did not sound the train’s whistle or bells for the same reasons.
Emma’s tombstone reads as follows: Mother at rest. Emma B. French. Born in Uckfield, Sussex County, England, April 21, 1836. Died November 16, 1897. Dr. French.
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