Was Barron County's Plaster Doctor a Huckster or a Healer?
He certainly didn't look like a doctor. "He wore a plain woolen shirt open at the neck, an unbuttoned vest, and generally went barefoot" according to journalist Earl Chapin. "Two small gold rings adorned his pierced ear lobes. He went long periods without shaving and he took snuff."
But John Till had an idea about curing the human body of its ills, an idea he spent much of his life putting into practice.
Till was born in Austria in 1869 or 1870. He emigrated to Wisconsin in 1898, passing through Canada on his way. A lumberjack by trade, he carried with him to America a theory and a prescription given him, he said, by a Swiss doctor.
The theory was this: Human diseases and conditions -- cancer, rheumatism, appendicitis, ulcers, and "all other ailments," even corns, bunions, and varicose veins -- were caused by poisons in the body. If one could draw the poisons out, the body would be healed.
The prescription was this: Croton oil and kerosene mixed into a plaster and applied to the patient's back. Croton oil causes the skin to blister. These blisters weep -- suppurate -- fluid, and in this fluid lay the body's poisons. So the theory went.
Till's first home in America was with his sister, Bertha Stroberl, who lived between Almena and Turtle Lake. There, Till applied his salve to one patient, and then another, and his fame spread. Soon Almena thronged with the wretched, who came on foot, on horse, on the train from all parts of the region and as far away as Canada.
"Three local hotels were jammed," according to Chapin, "and private homes within a radius of miles opened all available spare rooms to visitors.... Two trains daily brought people seeking cures for various ailments. The coaches were so crowded that people stood in the aisles. As they stepped off the train a dozen hack drivers greeted the newcomers with the cry, 'Cab to John Till's'."
In 1905, Till treated a Somerset woman, Melinda Cloutier, who had an abcess in her cheek. It cleared up. The Cloutiers told their neighbors of this healing and, apparently, gathered patients for him. He travelled to Somerset several times to treat groups of people, and as more of his business shifted there, he moved onto the farm Melinda Cloutier worked with her husband Octave.
Pastor John Rivard, of St. Anne's Parish, Somerset, described Till's work ethic, and his method. "Beginning at 6 in the morning and working until 10 at night, Till would feel the patient's jugular vein and tell them what their trouble was. The sufferer's back was laid bare. Till would take his sponge and smear his croton oil concoction from neck to base of spine. Cloutier in the meantime would sew in the person's garments some cotton batting. This would soak up the running matter from the skin inflamed by Till's powerful counter-irritant. In time the back would almost be like raw beef. The batting would remain two weeks and then a second treatment might be in store."
As many as thirty rigs a day brought patients from the train depot out to the Cloutier farm. Till never charged for his treatments, but, according to the Almena's Centennial, "Patients often left money, frequently a silver dollar. The story is told that the money was dropped into a five-gallon pail. So many people saw the doctor that after a few days, it took two men to carry the pail to the bank." Till deposited as much as $3000 in a two-week period. Somerset residents shared the riches: They rented their spare rooms at 50¢ a day, meals extra.
"Many seeking cures were nearly dead when they arrived in Somerset," wrote Chapin. "Once a rig brought a man who was dead on arrival at the Cloutier farm. In spite of Mrs. Cloutier's protest he was brought into the house. The authorities were called and Till was charged with the man's death.
"The plaster doctor was arrested several times and brought to trial in Hudson. He would be acquitted and 'returned in triumph to Somerset to be greeted by hundreds awaiting consultation'."
In 1908, Till took the Cloutiers on a trip to Austria. On their return, Till was delayed on a technicality at Ellis Island; the Cloutiers journeyed on home without him. Till, feeling slighted, never returned to Somerset, but set his sights again on Almena.
For his second sojourn in Almena, according to the Centennial book, Till "erected a large, two-story 'clinic' and house that came to be known as 'The House of John Till'.... The clinic overflowed and patients were housed in Almena. Fred Miller, Sr., told of the old cheese factory, on 101 Soo Ave. E., housing patients for 35¢ a night. Sometimes three men shared a bed. A bakery was constructed in Almena in 1908 to fill the needs of the busy hotels."
By 1909, 500 to 600 people a week were visiting the House of John Till. "One night," The Cumberland Aduocate reported, "20 [people] had to sit in chairs in the Hotel Mason and over 50 slept in the depot."
Till not only attracted the attentions of the sick and feeble, however. Somerset, Almena, Turtle Lake: wherever he went, the State Medical Board followed. Till was arrested numerous times for practicing medicine without a license and finally found guilty in Barron. He was sentenced to six months, but after a petition signed by 6,500 people including five doctors was presented to the court, Till was released on the condition that he would leave the country. Which, in 1922, he did.
Till went back to his homeland, Austria. But during the war, the Nazis took all of his lands and possessions and left him a pauper. He used his U.S. citizenship to return to the States after the war, but a scant year later, he died of a heart attack at a farm near Hudson on Independence Day 1947.
Was Till the "wonder healer" many claimed he was or simply a charlatan?
Certainly, there seems to have been no science behind his medicine. And although he never charged a penny, he reaped a plenty. Still many folks-it seems-were glowing in their testimonials. CVM has in its postcard collection a note written from a Flo Hinterberg Kurth, which reads, "My mother had a tumor growing under her arm. It was operated on but it grew again, so she went to Dr. Till & his plaster drew it out & she wasn't bothered any more."
(The note is handwritten in pencil; it is a little curious, however, that the card bears no stamp, postmark, or address -- and that another card much like it, in pencil, from the same woman, never sent, also rests in the CVM collection. Could this have been an early form of direct-mail advertising? Were these two cards part of a stack prepared in bulk, but by chance left waiting to be sent out?)
Chances are that Till meant only good, and perhaps he, like his thousands of followers, was a true believer. We'll leave our story to a singer of his praises. A fellow named Samuel Tufts, of Knapp, published a song about the good "doctor," which goes, in part,
So off we start for Somerset, our hearts began to cheer,
We are all bound to reach the goal, for life it is so dear;
We know he's cured thousands, morefeeble yet than we,
So all hurrahfor Somerset, that Dr. there to see . . .
I can run and jump so nimble now, like 20 years ago,
So I thank the Doc at Somerset, and to him you all should go.
This article is based in part on reports in Wisconsin Lore and Legends by Lou and John Russell; Earl Chapin's Tales of Wisconsin, compiled and edited by Wayne Wolfe; The Cumberland Advocate; and the Almena Centennial. CVM has a collection of photographs of John Till and a document folder on the healer, as well as hundreds of other topics of regional interest. The Barron County Historical Society at Pioneer Village, Cameron, also has a collection of photographs of Till, along with, we were told by the president of the BCHS, some of his implements.