Pothicary, Thomas MAGA © 2000-2007
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Virginia, Ill.

By: J. N. Gridley

Printed by the Enquirer



The town of Virginia when platted by Dr. Henry Hall, in May 1836, was in Morgan county, but an Act of the legislature, passed on March 3d, 1837, placed it in the new county named Cass organized by that act from all that part of Morgan lying north of a line running east from the Illinois river through the middle of Township 17 to the Menard county line.

The first physician to locate in the village of Virginia was, of course, its proprietor, Dr. Hall. The next one was Dr. Thomas Pothicary, who arrived there with his wife and three children, from Beardstown, in a wagon drawn by oxen, on the 4th day of July, 1836. The town then consisted of three houses, the residence of Dr. Hall and his store house just across from it on the road leading from Beardstown to Springfield, and a small building north of the public square near the lot on which Casper Magel resides, in which whiskey was sold by a man named Thomas Howard. Residing in the immediate vicinity of the embryo town were John DeWeber, Col. Amos West, Rev. Reddick Horn, and a few others to whom Dr. Hall had sold a few of the lots to constitute them promoters of the enterprise. Just what induced Dr. Pothicary to cast his destinies in this place will probably never be known nor can it now be ascertained where he lived, or what he did, for a year or more after his arrival; but a reasonable presumption is that he practiced medicine. the records show that he purchased of Rev. Reddick Horn, on September 11, 1837, for the sum of $68, lot No. 102, on the south side of the square, on which the Thompson building now stands, and thereon he immediately proceeded to erect a two-story frame building, that as soon as completed he threw open to the public as a tavern or "inn," as he styled it. And he continued entertaining travelers and boarders there, in connection with his very limited medical practice and the sale of some standard drugs and medicines, which displayed on a few shelves constituted Virginia's first drug store, until he removed to Beardstown in 1845.

(The records show that Dr. Thomas Pothicary also purchased of W. F. DeWeber lot No. 103 on March 29, 1841, of John Ream lot No. 104 in May, 1844, and lot No. 1 of Jas. Thornsbury on April 10, 1848; and that he conveyed to John H. Irwin lots 102, 103, 104 and 105, on April 22, 1851, the entire south side fronting the court house square excepting 106 in the Robertson block.)

Dr. Pothicary was born in Wilkshire, England, on the 21st of April, 1797. Of his boyhood life nothing is now known, excepting that his Quaker parents who were not of the patrician class, apprenticed him when a mere lad to a tailor, that he might learn that art, and there he served the period of his indenture with very meager educational advantages. Having served his time and arrived at manhood's estate he came to this country, and for some time worked as a journeyman tailor in the city of New York and its vicinity. He was very ambitious to acquire education, and after his day labors attended night schools, and devoted every spare moment to reading and study, and sorting his mind with varied knowledge that he never applied to practical use. In Jefferson county, New York, he married, on February 14, 1829, to Miss Betsey Pierce, who was born in the town of Adams in that county on the 24th of July, 1803, and was one of a family of eight girls and one boy. She was given but limited literary education, but learned to spin wool and flax, and weave and make her own clothing.

Concluding that the South presented to young beginners in the struggle for bread advantages for getting along superior to any he observed in the crowded towns of New York, he left that state with his wife a short time after their marriage, and journeyed southwest to Memphis, Tennessee, where he set in to work at his trade.

He may have settled first in Kentucky and then made his way to Memphis, having probably had in contemplation the purpose of undertaking the study of medicine. With his characteristic pertinacity he labored in the shop all day and often sat up half the night poring over medical books he borrowed or could afford to buy. He may be that when he thought himself sufficiently prepared he left the shop and sought localities wherein to launch out in professional life, as it is known that he resided for a time in Kentucky and also in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It is claimed by some of his descendants that he returned to New York City and received a diploma from one of its medical institutions; but is altogether probable that he was not a graduate of any college, and that his knowledge of medicine was neither extensive nor profound. Nevertheless, on his arrival in the incipient city of Virginia he at once took rank in the noble profession, and maintained that status - at least nominally - throughout life; and no doubt found it almost as respectable, if not so remunerative, as tailoring, which plebeian calling he thereafter forever renounced.

The aspiration to enter the medical profession was doubtless entertained by Thomas Pothicary while plying his trade in New York, probably before his marriage; and that was the motive that induced him to leave the east and descend the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Memphis, believing that the malarial and benighted South presented a far more encouraging field for the professional novice than did the more progressive and enlightened region north of the Ohio. Persevering in that idea by a course of hard study and training he finally subjected it to a practical test that proved it - in his case - to be a delusion and mistake. He failed as a practitioner, and discovered - as hundreds of other physicians have - that he was destitute of all natural aptness for that business, and that though fascinated by the theoretical study of medicine its practical features were to him distasteful, it not disgusting, and he very sensibly abandoned it. Boarding a steamboat at Vicksburg, with his wife and two young children and a few household goods, he ascended the Mississippi and then the Illinois to Beardstown, determined to carve out a new career in a new country that presented more genial, social, political and physical aspects.

For eight years Dr. Pothicary continued to run his "inn" and drug store in Virginia, buying, in the interim, other lots and selling some, and by the exercise of thrift, industry and economy gradually accumulating some wealth. In the meantime Dr. Hall's little prairie village was rapidly improving. Buildings were going up in all directions, several of them designed for various branches of business. Virginia in 1839 became the county seat of Cass and Dr. Hall built a court house on the west square. Charley Brady moved his carding machine from Princeton to the county seat; N. B. Beers built a steam mill down on the branch; Beadles and Jack Powell built a new hotel on the corner diagonally across from the Pothicary tavern; DeWeber had moved into town and also built a tavern on the east side of Washington square; W. H. H. Carpenter was a practicing attorney, and the medical staff of the village included Doctors Schooley, Tate, Lord, Conn and Stockton.

But the flourishing town of Virginia received a rude shock by the result of a special election held on the 4th of September, 1843, when the people of Cass county voted, (by 453 votes for to 288 against), to remove the county seat from that place to Beardstown. Very general depression of business and property values followed that action, and several Virginians, losing confidence in the ultimate success of the place, left it to seek more promising localities. On the other hand the success of Beardstown in acquiring the county seat gave that place quite an impetus in the line of material prosperity.

Dr. Pothicary pluckily stuck to Virginia for two years after its bitter defeat; but general reduction of patronage and active competition impelled him to move to Beardstown in the spring of 1845, where he opened out another tavern near the river on Main Street. That venture, however, was not crowned with the success he had anticipated, and after trying business there one year returned to Virginia in 1846. That spring Mexico declared war against the United States, and promptly invaded by thousands of American volunteers. Dr. Pothicary's martial spirit was not aroused as he had matters of greater personal importance than killing Mexicans to attend to at home. In the early months of 1847 he moved up in Sugar Grove precinct, six miles east of Virginia, having purchased of David B. Ayer the W of the SE and E of the SW of Sec 4 in Township 17, of Range 9, for which he received a deed on March 6th, 1849. There he built a home and settled down settled down in bucolic contentment and peace, and there his son and two daughters grew to maturity and married, his wealth increased, and his days were unmarred by misfortune or disaster. But soon the peaceful tranquility of his rustic life was disturbed by the insidious whisperings of the demon of avarice. In 1848 Jim Marshall, in digging a tail race for Capt. Sutter's sawmill at Coloma, California, discovered GOLD. That fact, soon known, kindled a furor of excitement that swept over the country - over the world - with the impetuous velocity of an old-time prairie fire.

Dr. Pothicary was one of its early victims. Without the sacrifice of property of material interests, he hastily began preparations to reach the newly-discovered land of Ophir. Several other citizens of Cass county, including some of his neighbors, were simultaneously attacked by the same infection, then known as the "gold fever", that soon "carried them off." California was then a terra incognita only accessible by the long, dreary route across the plains and mountains; or by the equally dreary and hazardous voyage by way of the Isthmus of Panama. Each route seemed to present some advantage over the other, to those profoundly ignorant of both; that by Panama promised greater speed, the other greater safety and economy. Dr. Pothicary preferred the more expeditious voyage by Panama. He had crossed the Atlantic and knew something of ocean transportation. He also knew something of the slow movement of oxen, that some intended to employ as means of locomotion over the land route. Said he: "Come and go along with me by way of Panama, and we will get there and have all the gold we want before those bull-whackers are half way across the plains."

The early spring of 1849 saw great bustle and activity on the part of several adventurous spirits in Cass county, as at many other localities throughout the country. With Dr. Pothicary went Dr. M. H. L. Schooley, John Buckley, Jos. Cosner and Mike Whitlinger, by way of St. Louis, New Orleans and Panama. They arrived in California in good time without incident or accident of note, and proceeded at once to the mines. With exception of Whitlinger, their success in scooping up gold fell far short of their expectations. Doctors Schooley and Pothicary soon separated after their arrival in the modern El Dorado, but before the expiration of a year both were heartily disgusted with their quest of the golden fleece, and resolved to return home as quickly as possible. Dr. Schooley had not exhausted the means he had taken with him, and at San Francisco took cabin passage for New Orleans on the same steamship that brought him to California. He changed to another ship after transit across the Isthmus, and on arrival at New Orleans great was his surprise to meet Dr. Pothicary who had come on the same vessel working his passage back as cook! The two Doctors had not met on shipboard as the one was in the after cabin, and the other's functions confined him to the forecastle gallery. Dr. Pothicary was, of course, flat broke, and Schooley generously advanced him the necessary funds to pay his way back to Cass county.

Dr. Pothicary had many strongly marked characteristics and peculiarities. He was not at all handsome in personal appearance; six feet in height, lean, bony, slightly stoop-shouldered, with harsh, furrowed features, small gray eyes and reddish brown hair, and dark complexion. Abrupt in manners, austere and reserved, and generally dressed very plainly, he presented but few surface indications of culture or refinement. Usually, absorbed in his own thoughts, he was not inclined to sociability, and in speech was dogmatical, often snappish, and seldom indulged in levity or laughter. But he was really of gentle nature, with most kind and sympathetic impulses, and to those who enjoyed his confidence and friendship he was an entertaining, pleasant and genial associate. All of his life he was an observant reader and meditative student, and though not a profound scholar, was a remarkably well-informed man of sound, practical education. His portrait illustrating this sketch was electrotyped from a dingy, faded, old ambrotype, the only portrait of him now extant.

He was nominally a Quaker, but so broadly liberal were his views concerning the momentous questions of man's final destiny, and Biblical higher criticism, that he might properly have been classed with Agnostics. Though one of the most honest, moral and honorable of men he belonged to no secret society and affiliated with no local church organization. In his personal habits, his abhorrence of vice, immorality, profanity and vulgarity, his utter intolerance of depraved and evil conduct, he was essentially a Puritan. In all these matters - in fact in most of his opinions - he was an extremist with fixed, immovable convictions. Expressed in the dialect of Arkansaw, he was "powerfully sot in his ways."

An incident that occurred at his "inn," in Virginia, in the spring of 1843 well illustrated his extreme regard for social decorum and propriety - the more noticeable because of its general rarity at that period. Governor Thomas Ford, with his staff and a company of Morgan county militia, stopped for the night in Virginia after the day's journey from Springfield when enroute to Carthage to investigate the Mormon troubles brewing there. The Governor and his Aids were entertained at the Pothicary tavern, and the soldiers camped on the public square. In stature Governor Ford was a small man little more than five feet tall, and by no means prepossessing in appearance. He was an eminent jurist of clear, strong mind, well versed in the law, but totally out of place as chief executive of the state. His elevation to that position proved unfortunate to him, as its associations led him into habits of intemperance, arrogance and profligacy that wrought his utter ruin. When in convivial mood, or specially irritated - as was often the case - he was a boisterous, profane talker, not at all choice in the figures of speech he employed to emphasize his discourse.

On the evening mentioned he was, after supper, beginning to assert his authority with his usual blasphemies and anathemas, when Dr. Pothicary politely but firmly told him that he did not permit profanity or vulgarity in his house, and the he (Ford)must desist from its use. The Governor was speechless with astonishment for a moment, but, recovering himself straightened up to his full five feet one inch, and retorted: "Do you know, G- D- you, sir, who you are talking to? I'll have you to understand, B- G-, sir, that I am the governor of Illinois." "I don't care who you are, sir," replied the Doctor, "but I'll have you to understand, sir, that I am the governor of this house, and if you continue such profane and ungentlemanly language I'll kick you out of it." Thereupon the Governor of Illinois subsided and soon thereafter went to bed.

No one ever had a kinder or more obliging neighbor than Dr. Pothicary. Though he had but few intimate friends and no confidants, he entertained all who called upon him with blunt but genuine hospitality, and was esteemed by all for his probity and integrity of character. He never refused a neighbor the loan of a horse, or team of horses, wagon, or anything he had on the farm; but never borrowed anything, doing without such things as he needed and as was without until he could buy them. A total stranger to the arts of flattery, and to deception in all forms, he was strictly correct and reliable in all business transactions, exact and methodical in all his private and public dealings, industrious, economical and frugal, and rigidly temperate in all things.

In political opinion Dr. Pothicary was in his earlier life in this country a whig, and after organization of the republican party transferred to it his allegiance and was for the rest of his days one of its stalwart and most loyal supporters, but refraining from taking an active part among politicians. He was an ultra republican because he thought that party better represented his views of correct government and human liberty and equality, and not from motives of personal gain or benefit. His residence in the south acquainted him with the institution of slavery which he cordially detested, and vehemently denounced on all occasions - in Illinois; but probably was more guarded in expression of his radical opinions when south of Mason's and Dixon's line. In regard to his adopted country he was intensely patriotic and faithful to every duty of the American citizen. During the civil war, though far passed the age for military service, he accepted the position of district provost marshal, and was unremitting and unrelenting in the discharge of every duty connected with drafting recruits for the Union armies, until restoration of peace. So assiduous was he in that service the he gained the bitter enmity of every "copperhead," and of some of the stay-at-home "trooly loyal," in his district. He was shot at from ambush, on one occasion causing his horse to throw him, and from which he received severe injuries. He was threatened with lynching and mobbing, but still went on fearlessly with his enrollment work.

At length the weight of advancing years admonished him to retire from further active business pursuits and situated himself and wife for the enjoyment of well-earned rest and quietude for the remnant of their days. Preparatory to leaving the farm he purchased lot No. 4 in Stowe's first addition to Virginia, and there rebuilt the house thereon into which he moved in the year 1870.

Surrounded with all accessible comforts and conveniences the Doctor was well situated for enjoyment of the few pleasures of life remaining in his declining years. But unfortunately - as often occur in old age - a chronic disorder, tolerated for some years, intensified by his failing vitality, rendered his existence a torture and burden. In his eightieth year he underwent the operation of lithotomy, successfully performed by Doctor David Prince, the famous Jacksonville Surgeon. From that ordeal he rallied, but though the surgical wound speedily healed, it afforded him only temporary relief, and his protracted suffering again became intolerable. A year or more passed without amelioration of his condition. He then thanked his attending physicians for their untiring efforts to mitigate his misery, and told them he well knew that at his age recovery was impossible, and even permanent relief from pain was hopeless, and said he had resolved to endure the agony no longer. As usual in such cases, but little attention was given to his intimation of suicide notwithstanding his well-known trait of obstinate determination of purpose.

About three o'clock in the morning of July 3, 1878, when the inmates of the house and neighborhood were asleep, he stealthily descended the stairs from his room to the moonlit lawn in front of his residence, and there sitting down on the grass, with the coolness and skill of an expert surgeon, he cut down with a razor, and severed the left inguinal artery and then called to his wife and calmly told her the deed was done. A neighbor was immediately aroused but the Doctor expired before he could be returned to his room.

Several days before he had given his relatives special instructions as to the manner in which he desired to be buried, and that was with the strictest usual circumspection he chose the lawn for the place of his self-immolation in order to avoid soiling the bedding and carpet of his apartment, and on leaving to descend the stairs he wrote, by the light of the full moon, with chalk, on his grandchild's blackboard in the hall, his last earthly message as follows: "Bury me as I have directed." There was in his suicide not the slightest trace of aberration of mind, and it was evident he had made all preparations for it with the most deliberate premeditation. His age at the time of his death was 81 years, 2 months and 12 days. He was buried next day in the Robinson burying ground three and a half miles east of Virginia. He was survived by his wife and three children: Mary E., Joseph M., and Julia L.

His wife died at the residence of her daughter Mary in Seneca, Kansas, on February 1, 1886, aged 82 years, 5 months and 24 days.

Mary E. was born in Kentucky, on October 6, 1833, was married, in Cass county, Ill., to Thomas Byron Collins on the 27th of September, 1859, and died in Seneca, Kansas, on the 6th of December, 1899.

Joseph M. was born in Kentucky, July 13th, 1835, was married on May 18, 1870, and died in Illinois, January 4, 1878.

Julia L. was born in Virginia, Ill., January 16, 1841, was married in Cass county, Ill., October 19, 1860, to Charles C. Robinson, and now resides with her oldest son, C. M. Robinson, in Portland, Oregon.