By Diane Euston
In the last issue of the Telegraph, we explored the interesting history of Excelsior Springs, established in 1881, and its ascent as one of the leading health resorts in the nation. At the center of this operation was the Elms Hotel, which opened to thousands of guests in 1888.
Because so many people with ailments traveled far and wide to take advantage of the healing waters, hotels such as the Elms had a full-time doctor onsite. One of The Elm’s earliest doctors has a history that leaves us scratching our heads even today. A difficult upbringing, a failed marriage, questionable character and mysterious deaths had Dr. George William Fraker’s name splashed across headlines nationwide. Although there are questions even today as to what was truth and what was fiction, Dr. Fraker’s story is one worth examining.
Early Life Full of Tragedy
Dr. Fraker’s parents, John and Sarah, were married in 1854 in Putnam Co., Mo. In 1855, they welcomed their first child, Cynthia. Around 1858, the couple uprooted from Missouri and moved to Wisconsin where George W. Fraker was born. The small family welcomed their third child, Nancy in 1860 as the eve of the Civil War was upon the nation.
Like many of the young men at the time, 30-year-old John answered the call of duty and enlisted in Company K, 5th Regiment of the Wisconsin volunteers in May 1861. His wartime career was short-lived; he died of typhoid fever in Fairfax Co., Va. just five months later.
This left Sarah a widow – alone and far away from family – with three children. When young George was just five years old, his mother died. The Kansas City Star later reported, “This affliction and the struggles consequent to it doubtless deeply impressed his mind – a feeling which grew with the years – so that as he became older a staid and sober demeanor always characterized him.”
John’s younger brother, also named George, stepped up to the plate and brought the children back to Missouri. Although Dr. Fraker later indicated that his Uncle George gave him a home and an education, records indicate the children ended up in the care of a 56-year-old farmer in Putnam Co. named Money Epperson.
For most of his young life, George worked as a day laborer on farms until he was around 16 years-old when a druggist named Johnson M. Reed from the small town of Triplett in Chariton Co. got wind that George knew a thing or two about medicine. Reed found young George digging a ditch on the side of the road and asked him to work with him.
The deal for an orphan with little family was too good to be true; George went at once to Triplett, moved in with the Reed family and began learning the drug store business. After Reed retired, a man named J.J. Wackley took over the business and kept George as an employee.
When George was about 24 years old, he rented a room from a Mrs. Bradley who had a young, attractive daughter named Bettie. In 1883, despite protests from her mother, Bettie married George W. Fraker. The next few years of their lives would begin the suspicious behavior that plagued his life for decades.
A Change in Careers
Shortly after his marriage, George was afflicted with illness. He went to St. Louis for an operation where doctors successfully removed a stone from his bladder. After a short return to Triplett, George went to Excelsior Springs to take advantage of the healing waters and speed up his recovery. There, he could see the future of the place as a health resort and his own place within it. With Bettie in tow, George moved to Excelsior Springs in 1885 and opened a dentist’s office.
How George was able to develop the skills to be a dentist remains unknown; however, his practice did well and he became a respected member of the community.
His career may have been taking off, but his marriage to Bettie was a bit more complicated. The couple was expecting their first child when Bettie came down with the measles and lost the baby. In addition, troubles at home grew out of George’s moodiness, and Bettie later told the newspapers that he “would not permit her to caress him.”
Later reports indicate that Bettie wanted her mother and sister to come live with them, and George would not have it. Regardless, Bettie’s frustration grew enough for her to leave her husband in Excelsior Springs, divorce him and move back to her hometown of Triplett.
His personal life may have been in disarray, but his career was just getting established. George long wanted to study medicine and followed his dreams when he enrolled in Kansas City Medical College where “members of the faculty of that institution say no one was ever more earnest or industrious in his application to study.” His professors saw a bright future for the doctor, so when he graduated in 1891, he carried out his diploma and a strong list of personal recommendations back to Excelsior Springs.
Upon returning to the town, Dr. Fraker opened up a medical practice and continued to diligently study. Within short order, the doctor became well-known for treating kidney disease.
This success led the owners of the Elms Hotel to take notice. They were looking for a resident physician, and Dr. Fraker seemed to fit the bill. “People who sought relief from the health-giving waters of the springs were directed to him as a competent and painstaking physician,” the Kansas City Star reported.
Even with his budding medical career, Dr. Fraker wasn’t without enemies. It seemed that the townspeople either loved or loathed him. It was noticed by the town that Dr. Fraker always seemed to be in the company of young men who he would hire to assist him as “an office boy” and offer for them to room with him. There was a cycle of young men in and out of his life, many later claiming that they left the doctor’s company due to disliking “the doctor’s ways.”
This peculiar habit of housing young men could be explained as the doctor simply taking a chance on them much like the chance given to him as a boy. Nevertheless, Dr. Fraker developed a fondness for a boy named Johnnie Edmunds, just 13 years old, whose parents could provide the basics for him but couldn’t supply him an education. After his parents moved to Kansas City, Johnnie was offered a job as an office boy for Dr. Fraker. It was promised that when the boy came of age, Dr. Fraker would send him to medical school. Plans were even made for Johnnie to accompany the doctor on a trip to the Pacific in July 1893.
Young Johnnie Edmunds was working for Dr. Fraker when he mysteriously disappeared.
Life Insurance and Promises
Dr. Fraker did make it to the Pacific coast in 1892 when he learned that his Uncle George who had been so kind to him had not fared well. In 1887, Uncle George lost his wife after they moved to Seattle, and one year later, he was dead as well. Uncle George’s two adult children went off to make a living while the five youngest were left in an orphan’s home.
One of the children- a daughter- was adopted by a family. Two others found a temporary home with a prominent man of the community. One of the orphan boys, 11-year-old Adolph, ran away from the orphan’s home in Seattle and ended up working as a farm laborer for a man in Santa Rosa, Calif. In 1891.
Adolph claimed the man was unkind to him and made him work all day in a cornfield. In retaliation, “the little fellow put carbolic acid in his employer’s coffee in order to get away.” The man was able to recover, but little Adolph Fraker was sent to the Whittier Reform School in Los Angeles for five years.
Adolph was seen as a bright young boy who did quite well while at the reform school. He was apprenticing as a shoemaker when, in 1892, a strange, attractive stranger came to visit him. It was his cousin, Dr. George Fraker. There, the doctor “took great fancy to [Adolph], providing him with costly presents and declaring his intention of taking the boy east and giving him an education.”
Dr. Fraker sent letters to each of his orphan cousins proclaiming that he would be back for a visit in July 1893.
After his return to Missouri, the doctor’s actions continued in a peculiar direction. In May 1893, he took out eight different life insurance policies totalling over $58,000. Considering the doctor’s salary was around $1,800 per year, this action in itself was a red flag that went unnoticed.
He made each life insurance policy payable to his two sisters and his deceased uncle’s five orphaned children. During a visit at his sister’s, he told her of the policies that left each sister $5,000- the rest was to be paid to Adolph and his siblings. After a brief yet pleasant visit, Dr. Fraker returned to Excelsior Springs.
Death by Drowning?
On July 10, 1893, Dr. Fraker took a break from his medical practice and joined a party of friends who went fishing in the Missouri River near Camden. With him was a cast of some people with questionable character: J.T. Triplett and George Harry, two old friends from Camden Co., “a Spaniard” from Denver named A. Menendez and a well-known Black man from Excelsior Springs named Jake Crowley.
Dr. Fraker left a note for Johnnie Edmunds, letting him know that their trip to the Pacific coast would be delayed a few days.
At about 9:30 p.m. that evening, the party equipped with only one lantern began casting their lines into the Missouri River. The doctor chose a place to fix where there was a deep curve in the water and the current struck at great force and carried large, heavy logs downstream. The Kansas City Star commented, “It does not look at all like a good place to fish.” Alas, the men spread out and cast their lines into the dark waters.
The men nearby later reported that “there was a cave-in and Fraker fell into the water.” Closest to the doctor fishing was Jake Crowley who screamed that he had fallen into the waters and disappeared.
Friends claimed he fell into the water, but “none of them positively swore to seeing him go under.” George Harry tried to jump into the water in a panic to save his friend. The more the men talked, the more convinced they were that they saw the doctor go in and not emerge. With no light available to search, the men left the scene and telegraphed several of the organizations that Dr. Fraker belonged to in Excelsior Springs to see if they could aid them.
The next day, a party of men went to the site and searched high and low for Dr. George Fraker. There was no evidence at all of the doctor, and all went away with the opinion that he had met his death.
As people tried to piece together the goings-on of Dr. Fraker’s life, more questions would emerge. One of these suspicions was that the young 15-year-old boy, Johnnie Edmunds had also disappeared.
It was generally accepted by the community that Dr. Fraker was dead. But, lawyers for the insurance companies who were set to have to pay out over $58,000 weren’t so sure. This is when Dr. Fraker’s lifestyle was put under a microscope.
Two Years of Mystery
One year after Dr. Fraker’s plunge into the Missouri River, the insurance companies were in court fighting to postpone any payout until a body was recovered. Even when they lost a case in Liberty, Mo., they were able to get a new trial.
One of the most sensational accusations was that Dr. George W. Fraker was a woman. The Kansas City Star reported, “His voice was soft and feminine. His gait was feminine and he seems to have prided himself on acting as nearly like a woman as possible. . . When talking with men on the street he was nervous and kept himself continuously in motion.”
The accusations were so absurd that the police even called upon his surgeon from St. Louis and his ex-wife, Bettie. Both adamantly insisted that Dr. Fraker was a man- not to mention he wore a well-groomed beard on his face. “Dr. Fraker,” the newspapers wrote, “was not a woman. His physical organization was that of a man.” The reason that the insurance companies were keen to get to the bottom of this rumor was because if he had been a woman, the policies would be null and void – and it was certainly in their best interest to keep the rumors circulating as to Dr. Fraker’s questionable character.
The newspapers across the nation called this case “one of the most sensational cases in the history of litigation in Missouri.”
Some claimed to see him in St. Louis on the streets while others, including his own family, adamantly denied that they had heard from him. By April 1895, the deadline to find Fraker alive was upon the insurance companies. In response, the Kansas Mutual Life Insurance Association offered a whopping $20,000 to anyone able to identify and lead them to Dr. Fraker. The deadline was August 10.
The deadline came and went with no one able to prove that Fraker was still alive, so a portion of the insurance money was handed over to the two sisters and the guardian appointed to distribute the money to the Fraker orphans.
It seemed at the time that the state was convinced that Dr. George W. Fraker was buried somewhere deep underneath the current of the Missouri River.
Lost and Found
Just as the insurance companies were cutting checks, their luck changed. An attorney for the Kansas Mutual Life Insurance Association was fishing through letters when one stuck out; it offered to tell them where Fraker was. The informant said that the doctor had gone to Wisconsin and then to Minnesota.
Acting on the tip, Mr. Herrick, a lawyer for the insurance company, went to Minnesota where Fraker was allegedly living. A postmaster in a small town confirmed that the man was living about 45 miles north of the town under an alias.
After securing a warrant, the lawyer and the sheriff went deep into the woods to a two-room shack. Looking very much like a hermit who had lived a long time in seclusion, a skinny man sporting “short burnsides and a mustache” emerged from inside. When the lawyer used his name, “Fraker turned pale, quivered and fell to the ground.”
After his arrest, Dr. Fraker claimed he did fall into the river but found a piece of driftwood and floated down the river for miles. When asked why he didn’t return to Excelsior Springs to let everyone know he was alive, Fraker said his physical condition led him to Kansas City where he went to a rooming house and stayed four days.
After shaving off his beard, he left Kansas City and traveled to Milwaukee. From there, he found himself in Minnesota and living in the shack where they found him. He blamed the newspapers for the reason he went into hiding – not the insurance payout.
On September 3, 1895, Dr. Fraker was met at Union Depot in Kansas City by the sheriff of Ray Co. who placed him under arrest. Many doubted he would be prosecuted because the insurance companies hadn’t paid out most of the money.
Johnnie Edmunds resurfaced for a short time, claiming that he was traveling throughout the United States and then disappeared again. His involvement in the disappearance and “death” of Fraker was never proven.
$9,000 had been paid out of the insurance policies, and the family was able to return the money. Dr. Fraker was indicted on four counts, including attempting to obtain money under false pretenses. He made bail and surprisingly returned to Excelsior Springs.
He never served time for the insurance scam and continued to practice medicine.
More Mysteries Emerge
While practicing in Kansas City at 12th and Grand, scandal followed Dr. Fraker. Two boys, both 14, came forward and claimed that while living with him at separate times, they suffered abuse. The authorities in Kansas City quickly arrested Fraker and charged him with five counts of mistreatment.
Like most incidents in Dr. Fraker’s life, this remains a mystery; charges must have been dropped because the case disappeared from the newspapers.
However, his luck was short-lived when R. Cyril O’Neal, just 19 years-old, passed away inside Fraker’s home and offices at 1209 Grand Ave. in September 1907. Arriving in the United States in 1905 from Derby, England, the attractive Cyril O’Neal traveled throughout the country as a member of Volunteers of America. The two men met in Excelsior Springs when the young, handsome Cyril was ordained as a preacher.
Described as a “bosom friend” who was “intimately associated” with Dr. Fraker, Cyril’s health began to fail him and he died. Dr. Fraker signed the death certificate and listed the cause of death as Bright’s Disease. Suspicions immediately surrounded the death, and the coroner refused to allow the body to be buried until there was an inquest. Symptoms prior to death, the coroner said, indicated slow poisoning.
Dr. Fraker told the newspapers that Cyril “was ill and friendless and I looked after him.” He also said that Cyril had no life insurance.
One account states that the true cause of death was “due to septic poisoning caused by a bite.” Cyril’s younger brother came to stay with Dr. Fraker and believed in his innocence.
Fraker was not indicted for the death of Cyril O’Neal, and he was quietly buried at Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence.
The End of a Life of Suspicion
The last eight years of Dr. Fraker’s life were spent somewhat quietly at his practices in Excelsior Springs and Kansas City. Some of his old habits continued, including seeking out the company of young men.
On November 1, 1917, Dr. George W. Fraker passed away at Wesley Hospital in Kansas City after a continued illness. He is buried at Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence- the same place where Cyril O’Neal was buried just shy of a decade earlier. In his probate, he wrote, “Having no living wife and no natural children, I give and bequeath all the remainder of my property. . . to my beloved adopted son Robert Wilhelm Fraker.”
It was to be so.
Just 16 years old, a young boy who hadn’t known the doctor for long, was given all of his estate. Robert was born Robert Wilhelm Ratliff in 1901, and his parents were still living. The nature of his relationship with Dr. Fraker is unknown, but the boy who struck a fancy with Dr. Fraker lived his whole life with his adopted name and died in 1956 in Kansas City, Kan.
One doctor who suffered many great losses as a child lived a peculiar life often splashed across newspapers nationwide. It is impossible to tell today the truth from fiction, but Dr. George Fraker’s strange life captivated America for many years. What we do know is that this man felt the need to rescue others while sacrificing his own reputation and committing fraud.
In truth, it’s a sad story of someone who seems to have made questionable decisions despite better judgement. Examining the life of Dr. Fraker displays how scandals heaved across the headlines sell newspapers, and deciding what is accurate is up to the reader even today.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com