top of page

The Doctor of the Wild West

Wikipedia :

Historic Women Southcoast:

Oregon Encyclopedia:

Hello and welcome to A Murderess Affair! My name is Gabrielle. This week, we’re talking about Marie Equi, a Wild West style of doctor who was devoted to provide care to those who were working class or poor. She gave birth control and performed abortions, and was very politically active.

Born April 7 1872, her mother was Sarah Mullins and father was John Rqui. She was the 5th of 5 daughters and attended high school for 1 year before dropping out to support her family by working in the textile mills. As a young woman, she had loudly and vocally expressed her disinterest in any man who would pursue her. She was in a relationship with another girl from her high school, Bessie Holcomb, and in 1892 she ended up quitting her job at the textile mill and going to live with Bessie in a house along the Columbia River.

They lived together outside a tiny city known as The Dalles, and on July 21, 1893 a local newspaper shared an article featuring a sensational story involving Equi and Holcomb, but not for the reason you may be thinking. Holcomb had been working as a teacher for the Wasco Independent Academy, and the superintendent had refused to pay her the salary promised for working that school year. Equi was livid, and began that day pacing in front of the superintendent’s office, who also happened to be a land developer AND a reverend, Orson D. Taylor. Furious at the mistreatment, Equi cornered Taylor when he tried to escape and horse whipped him until he agreed to pay.

So, not only did this get covered in the newspapers, but many of the townspeople also agreed with her actions. Like, really agreed. So much so that they held a raffle for the whip and gave Equi and Holcomb the money raised.

In 1897, Equi moved to San Francisco and completed 2 years of med school, starting at the Physicians & Surgeons Medical College, then moving to the University of California Medical Department, then back to Oregon and finishing school at the University of Oregon in 1903. Sometime between University of California Medical Department and the University of Oregon, she and Bessie Holcomb separated.

She was one of the first 60 women to be a physician in Oregon, and in 1905 she opened her own practice with emphasis on health concerns of women and children. She became a local hero when she volunteered and worked with victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

In 1906 San Francisco had an earthquake, recorded as one of the worst and most deadly earthquakes that have happened in the history of the United States. Actually, I looked this up and this disaster is still ranked as the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California as well as high on the lists of the worst American disasters. At the time and for nearly 100 years later this was the largest natural disaster and with the most deaths. Equi worked with another group of doctors and physicians to provide the massive relief needed since the local government had not been prepared and lacked the resources needed to help everyone. She ended up earning a medal and commendation from the U.S Army and recognition from the California Governor and San Francisco’s mayor.

The only female doctor on the Oregon mission, Marie was put in charge of an obstetrics unit in a 300-bed San Francisco hospital. Countless Oregon and California newspapers detailed stories of Marie’s compassion and professionalism. The U.S. Army awarded her with a medal and citation for her relief work.

Later in 1906, Marie returned to New Bedford for six months to take care of her mother Sarah, who died in February 1907.

Now, in addition to being one of the first women in Oregon to become a medical practitioner, she is also recognized as the first publicly known and open lesbian on the U.S West Coast, which is super cool. Her longest lasting relationship began in 1905 with Harriet Speckart. Speckart was the niece of the Olympia Brewing Company founder Leopold Schmidt, which is still around today. They were together for about 10 years before deciding to adopt a baby girl named Mary. Speckart and Equi remained close for their entire lives, even after their relationship ended and they continued to raise Mary together through their separation.

Now Equi was also an active member of the Portland’s Birth Control League and helped spread information and health advice about birth control even when it was considered illegal to do so. Sometime between 1905-1915 she began performing abortions without regard for social class or status, often using a sliding scale to have patients pay only what they could afford. Oftentimes, this meant charging wealthy women more for the procedure in order to help cover the costs of patients who couldn’t afford to pay. She also continued with her general medical practice as well.

It was around this time that she began to show up even more, if possible, on the radar of the US government as a “dangerous threat to national security.” In 1913, Equi joined the strike of a group of primarily women cannery workers at the Oregon Packing Company who were protesting poor working conditions, being paid only 5-8 cents an hour, and inconsistent working hours. At this strike, members of the Industrial Workers of the World and previously known Socialists joined and the strike grew to include the right to free speech. Equi ended up becoming one of its leaders because of her professional status. After days of picketing, the police ended up storming the strikers and Equi watched as a 30 year old pregnant woman was dragged away. Enraged, she confronted the officers and was severely clubbed.

Hm. Doesn’t this sound familiar. Almost as if the primary response of the police structure hasn’t changed since the early 1900s. Wow. What a complete and totally unseen shock.

The strike ended a few days later, but the brutality Equi witnessed radicalized her even more. She declared herself a Radical Socialist and anarchist and became an extremely influential voice when it came to the unemployment crisis of 1913-1914, demanding better working conditions for those jobless in Oregon.

When Margaret Sanger, essentially the mother of Planned Parenthood and well known birth control and women's health advocate visited in 1916, Marie Equi was one of her close colleagues who helped distribute packets about Sanger’s Family Booklet, a booklet essentially spelling out what birth control was and advocation towards safe sex. Equi and Sanger were arrested along with a handful of other women and men who were found distributing these pamphlets. Essentially, nothing happened to them. The men were fined, but those fines were later dropped, and the women were released with a warning.

After working with Sanger, Marie went to the West coast and helped treat workers of the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies”, who’d been hurt

Soon after her work with Sanger, Marie travelled to Seattle to treat injured members of the Industrial Workers of the World, “Wobblies” who had been hurt at the dock on their way to support striking mill workers. The Industrial Workers of the World were a radical union that believed in one union for all with all authority and management shifted to the workers. By this time, the unemployed were known as “her army” and striking workers were known as “her boys.”

In 1914, Marie traveled back East on a predominantly political trip that included a stop in New Bedford. She was the official representative of Portland’s Unemployed League to the First National Conference on Unemployment in New York. Marie also did postgraduate work at Massachusetts General Hospital with Richard Cabot, pioneer in hospital social services. She spoke at a rally for the jobless at Boston Common. During her family visit to New Bedford, the New Bedford Standard called her “the little fighting doctor” who led a “one-woman fight . . . for the unemployed of Oregon and won.”

Now, the United States was becoming increasingly involved with entering World War I, which Equi objected to. She thought that entering this war was nothing more than a “grab for profits by capitalists and an imperialistic adventure for the government.” As Portland began to grow more and more nationalistic, Equi became even more of a political insider, protesting pre-war campaigns and bringing banners that said things like “Prepare to die workingmen, KP Morgan & Co want preparedness for profit.”

Others didn’t take too well to her protests, and she was attacked at one of them, which led to a massive fight and a subsequent arrest.

This didn’t stop Equi though, she continued to protest even as the US entered the war in 1917, and this was when she was arrested under the newly revised Espionage Act. She was charged and convicted of sedition. Equi attempted to appeal to higher courts but was rejected, until President Woodrow Wilson commuted her 3 year sentence to a sentence of 1 year and a day.

She was 48 years old at this time, and started serving her time in San Quentin State Prison on October 19, 1920. Her other prisonmates at this time were women serving sentences for homicide, theft, and performing abortions. She was infamous for being the only “political” prisoner during this time. After serving 10 months, she was released on August 9, 1921 with a reduced sentence for good behavior.

Equi was released just in time for the Red Scare, and most of her friends imprisoned or restricted greatly from participating in protests. She chose to return to her medical practice, and resume her life there. Her friend, the current IWW leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived with her and her daughter on and off for a decade or so. When Equi had a heart attack in 1930, she sold her medical practice and Flynn worked as her assisting her for several more years. When she was recovered, Flynn moved back to the East coast and became a national leader for the Communist Party USA.

Despite being retired for all intents and purposes, many radical and labor leaders would come and visit her at her home, paying their respects and listening to her advice. In 1950 Equi spent a year at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland after fracturing her hip in a fall. She then went to a nursing home just outside of Portland, and died 2 years later on July 13, 1952 at 80 years old.

Her obituaries were published in newspapers across the US, Portland, New York Times, Massachusetts, all mourning the day she died. She’s written about by one of her friends as “a woman of passion and convocation (and) a real friend of the have-nots of this world.”

Recently, in August 2019, Equi was one of those inducted into the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood that honors LGBTQ people who’ve “made significant contributions in their fields.”

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page