While researching the life of character actor Guy Kibbee, I bumped into the story of his grandfather, George Washington Kibbee, who had died before Guy was even born. G.W. Kibbee wasn’t an actor, but a self-made man of the nineteenth century who may have been a snake-oil salesman, was possibly a bigamist, and who certainly died too young, a hero.
I’m going to let the newspaper clippings do most of the talking for Dr. Kibbee, but first a little summary about the man. Upon his death Kibbee was hailed by the Phrenological Journal as a “professional character” for having “an uncommonly strong development of Firmness, Approbativeness, and Hope.” One newspaper headline simply referred to him as “Courageous Kibbee,” after the good doctor died on a volunteer mission to New Orleans where he brought his “Fever Cot” with hopes of saving lives during an 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic. Weakened by his travels Dr. Kibbee became afflicted with the disease and his death, which came on one of his own cots, became page one news across the nation.
It was hard for me to believe that the respected physician was the same man who advertised his skills as piano tuner in newspapers for several years, but according to the locals he was one in the same. He hawked his water cure in ads that would probably make Barnum take pause, and also took time to advertise Anderson Spring Bed Bottoms, possibly a precursor to his fever cot. “The doctor was a disciple of the hygienic medical system, also a dentist, a piano tuner, a sewing machine repairer, and general utility man,” wrote the editor of Bloomington, Illinois’ Daily Pantagraph, a paper that carried Kibbee’s various advertisements throughout the late 1850s into the ‘60s.The newspaper clippings below follow Dr. G.W. Kibbee from Nashville, TN to Bloomington in 1859. He makes a quick return to Nashville in 1960-61, before heading back to Bloomington as a doctor in 1862. By 1876 he’d moved the family to Salem, OR, which I first thought was his final stop ahead of New Orleans in 1878, but not quite. The Phrenological Journal included a few otherwise unpublished biographical bits that landed him in Oregon from New York (not Nashville or Bloomington) in July 1877, and then sent him back to New York again in the Spring of 1878. Then he moved his family to Highlands, North Carolina, but once the fever broke out in New Orleans he made another quick trip to New York to get his affairs in order before making his final trip south to New Orleans, where he died in late September 1878.
Dr. Kibbee was all over the place, but another descendant, June Kenney, may have revealed part of the reason why when she wrote about her connection to Kibbees in 2001: “As the family story goes, my great-grandfather [G.W. Kibbee] had practiced medicine and fathered one family in the South prior to the Civil War. Then he came north to Cincinnati, OH, met my great-grandmother, an older, well-to-do spinster schoolteacher whom he married. They had three children, my grandmother being the oldest and only girl.”
More on Dr. Kibbee's background from the Phrenological Journal: “He was born in Connecticut about 1826; he studied Phrenology in 1843, and lectured on that subject with some success. He was graduated in medicine about 1849, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and from that day to the day of his death he had been a worker, wherever opportunity afforded, in ministering to the wants of the sick.” Not before tuning some pianos.
Several clippings chronicling the life and times of Dr. George Washington Kibbee follow, but first, a summary of the 1860 census, which catches up with the doctor and the first of his families in Nashville.
Two-year-old James Kibbee later fathers the actor Guy Kibbee, but what’s more interesting is James’ place of birth, Tennessee, as compared to that of his younger brother, Charles, who was born in Illinois. This follows along with Dr. Kibbee’s traveling between Bloomington (or actually Normal, IL) and Nashville during this same period. Further evidence connecting Dr. G.W. Kibbee to Guy Kibbee comes after the doctor’s death: Guy's father James confirms that Dr. Kibbee was his father in a Texas newspaper.
Below - From the Nashville Union and American, January 25, 1853:
Below - Same paper, March 28, 1857:
Below - The Pantagraph of Bloomington, IL, June 15, 1859:
Below - Also The Pantagraph, October 31, 1859:
Below - Weekly edition of The Pantagraph, May 9, 1860 (uh oh!):
Below - Back to Tennessee, from the Clarksville Weekly Chronicle, September 6, 1861:
Below - And back to Illinois, from the Daily Pantagraph, August 5, 1862:
Below - Another version of the "Water Cure" ad, in The Pantagraph, September 15, 1862:
Below - The Pantagraph, February 4, 1863:
Below - The Pantagraph, August 24, 1864:
Below - The Pantagraph, October 8, 1866:
Below - The Pantagraph, November 22, 1866:
Below - Jumping ahead ten years to Salem, from the Weekly Oregon Statesman, March 10, 1876:
Below - Same paper, April 7, 1876:
Below - Same paper, June 9, 1876:
(That's "yield fortunes," though I keep reading it as "yield tortures" for some reason.)
Below - Dr. Kibbee arrival in New Orleans is covered nationwide. Here, the Helena Daily Independent describes his fever cot treatment. September 6, 1878:
Below - Beginning of the end. Local coverage of Dr. Kibbee in New Orleans from the Times Daily-Picayune, September 21, 1878:
Below - Same paper, next day, September 22, 1878:
Below - Same paper, September 24, 1878:
Below - Same paper, September 25, 1878:
Below - Bloomington's Pantagraph connects Dr. Kibbee back to Illinois. September 30, 1878:
Below - Also The Pantagraph, October 1, 1878:
Below - From Texas, the Brenham Weekly Banner, October 11, 1878: