Dr. Joshua Thorne (1832-1893)

The Fascinating Life of Kansas City’s Civil War Doctor

Dr. Joshua Thorne’s contributions to Kansas City cannot be understated.

By Diane Euston

  Stained glass windows, crown molding, and dark, rich oak with elaborate, intricate carvings surround the dining room. Murals of the Santa Fe Trail painted in 1903 tell the story of western expansion.

  Kansas City’ iconic Savoy Grill at 219 W. 9th St. has a storied past that rarely includes its oldest history. The Savoy opened in 1903 inside one of Kansas City’s fanciest hotels of the same name – a hotel built by a man whose history captures a period of our darkest days.

  Before the Savoy Hotel and Grill began, the land at 9th and Central was the home of Dr. Joshua Thorne, a man whose Republican politics were less-than-welcomed in pro-slavery Kansas City. Regardless, Dr. Thorne was able to persevere and become one of Kansas City’s most coveted citizens.

The Early Road for the Doctor

  Joshua Thorne was born in Bideford, England in 1832 to Baptist preacher Frank and his wife, Ann. He attended school in his native town until December 1845 when the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Baltimore, Md.

  In 1848, Joshua studied at Dennison University in Ohio before transferring in 1851 to St. Louis’s McDowell Medical College. In 1855, Dr. Thorne enrolled in post-graduate work in Philadelphia at the Homeopathic Medical College there.

  His fascination with homeopathy would be lifelong. He believed firmly the body could cure itself, and people could be cured by giving a medicine which, if given to a healthy person, would produce similar symptoms of that same illness but to a slighter degree. Homeopathy gained in popularity in the 19th century as an alternative to other medical practices.

  Dr. Thorne located in Winchester, Ill. where he married Nancy Haggard in 1858. He spent many years for his career bouncing from place to place, but after his marriage, he chose to settle permanently in Kansas City.

  His timing was curious. When he arrived in 1859, Kansas City was in the throes of the Border Wars, a regional fight over slavery. The city itself was founded by Southerners who believed in the peculiar institution, and for five years, Kansas was open to legal settlement. People staunchly against slavery came in droves to the territory in hopes of making it a free state.

  The population of Kansas City, settled mostly on the riverfront and the hills surrounding it, reached 4,418 in 1860, but the Civil War would create even more chaos in the region.

This hotel, known at different times as the Southern Hotel, McGee Hotel and the Planter’s Hotel, was converted into a Civil War hospital by Dr. Thorne.

A Surgeon in the Civil War

  Bands of bushwhackers and border ruffians destroying property continued to cause issues in the area after the nation was at war in 1861. Even though Missouri never ceded from the Union, the state was full of rebel sympathizers which put Kansas City at risk.

  Robert Van Horn (1824-1916), Kansas City’s mayor at the time, knew he needed the protection of Union troops in order to ensure the area was safe. In 1861, Robert Van Horn created Van Horn’s Battalion. Three companies were raised – one American, one Irish and one German.

  Dr. Joshua Thorne became the battalion’s surgeon and was ordered by the surgeon general of the United States to start a general hospital in Kansas City. He chose the Southern Hotel, built by Milt McGee as the location of the main hospital. Located on Grand Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets, he converted the hotel and a block of buildings into a functioning hospital. Dr. Thorne’s clear, logical mind made him the perfect choice for this position.

  A staunch Republican against slavery, Dr. Thorne would have faced adversity at the time. He had no qualms about calling out some of Kansas City’s top businessmen and leaders as enemies of the United States. In January 1863, he sat down and compiled a list of people who were “guilty of disloyal actions or uttering disloyal sentiments” in Kansas City. The list of 78 men included William S. Gregory, first mayor of the city, William Gilliss, Mary Ann Troost and John Calvin McCoy. This list would later be used to banish many of these families from the city until the end of the war.

  Interestingly, the hospital was only kept open until February 1864 when the government ordered it to be closed. Just eight months later, Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition would explode near Kansas City.

  Dr. Thorne recalled a story which happened in 1864. He claimed he had several different army chaplains under him but “the first one drank whiskey, the second ran away with a woman and the third was a thief.”

  One hot summer day, Dr. Thorne was alerted that the chaplain sustained sunstroke at 12th and Main. The doctor jumped into an ambulance with a young Irish man riding along. When the men arrived, the Irishman jumped off  the ambulance and ran to the chaplain’s side. The Irishman cradled the chaplain’s head in his lap, looked up at Dr. Thorne and said, “Faith, doctor. I only wish I had half of his diseases – he’s drunk!”

  During Price’s Raid and the Battle of Westport, Dr. Thorne was in charge of all the wounded at all field hospitals, and he gave his personal supervision to every hospital. Around 3,000 men lost their lives, and without Dr. Thorne’s care, the list of casualties could have been larger.

A drawing of Fort Union at 10th and Central, the Kansas City headquarters for Union troops throughout the war.

Curious Careers and Interests After the War

  In March 1865, Dr. Thorne was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as an assessor of Internal Revenue – a precursor to the modern-day IRS. The government needed a way to pay for the Civil War, so an income tax was issued and later repealed. About 90 percent of the taxes came from liquor, beer, wine and tobacco.

  For “political reasons,” Dr. Thorne was removed in 1867 by President Johnson but appointed yet again by President Grant in 1869. He served in this position until the office was abolished in May 1873.

  Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876) was a friend of Dr. Thorne’s, and Hickok used him as his personal physician. Thorne allegedly removed 11 bullets from Wild Bill’s body years after he was shot. Wild Bill “was a frequent and familiar visitor” to Dr. Thorne’s home, and in 1872, Wild Bill accompanied Dr. Thorne when he raided an old stillhouse near Parkville, Mo. in his role as an assessor of Internal Revenue.

  Dr. Thorne also deeply studied various religious figures including Moses, Confucius, Buddha and Jesus. He was the son of a Baptist minister, but his natural curiosity led him to Spiritualism. Spiritualism emerged in the 19th century predominately among the middle and upper class and centered on the belief that the dead could communicate with the living.

  Along with Kansas City’s beloved Robert Van Horn, Dr. Thorne openly admitted and challenged traditional viewpoints on life after death. As a part of Kansas City’s Spiritualist Society, Dr. Thorne said that “as a religion, [spiritualism] was the best adapted to humanity.” He claimed, “I have made it a part of my life’s work to look into the peculiar phenomenon, and have traveled myself in this country and in Europe for the purpose of investigating its phases.”

  In June 1873, Dr. Thorne was preparing for an extended trip to Europe and was found in his buggy with a curious box on his lap. Without asking, Dr. Thorne gladly took the cover off of the box and “there was displayed to his astonished vision the full and complete skeleton of a man.”

  He said coolly, “You see before you everything that remains for the celebrated Indian chief, who was known to all the country [as] the Prophet.”

  The Prophet, or Tenskwatawa, was the brother of Tecumseh and a highly-respected leader of the Shawnee. After relocating to current-day Kansas City, Kan. in 1827 with 250 followers, he established Prophetstown and died near White Feather Spring in the Argentine neighborhood.

Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet. He was drawn in 1831 by artist George Catlin. Dr. Thorne claimed to have found his grave and removed the remains for study.

  When those viewing the alleged bones of the Prophet doubted that these bones in the box were of the Prophet, Dr. Thorne explained that a few Native Americans and William Gilliss, one of the 14 original founders of Kansas City, knew where his grave was.

  “One day [Gilliss] told me where it was and I went out alone to look for it,” Dr. Thorne explained. He was unable to find it, so he asked Gilliss to go with him.  They located it, and Dr. Thorne had the grave dug up and the bones attached to wires so it was complete and intact.

  Dr. Thorne kept this a secret for many years, he claimed. Since he was leaving for some time, he thought he would show it to the Kansas City College of Physicians.

  What happened to Dr. Thorne’s complete skeleton – the alleged bones of the Prophet – is unknown. In 1897, the oldest Shawnee and chief, Charles Bluejacket, returned to the area to work with the Wyandotte County Historical Society to locate the Prophet’s grave. The location had much changed, and he was unable to point it out exactly. He placed it about 100 feet north and east of the spring.

  Its location remains unknown, and the story of Dr. Thorne’s skeleton was never mentioned again. Today, a marker at the 3800 block of Ruby Ave. marks the area of the White Feather Spring and the approximate location of his burial. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places.

  After his extended vacation to Europe, Dr. Joshua Thorne returned in 1874 and established a general practice.

  In 1882, Dr. Thorne organized the Board of Examining Surgeons in the city to examine and treat veterans of the Civil War. For the first three years, Dr. Thorne saw over 2,000 veterans.

  In addition, Dr. Thorne organized the Homeopathic Society in Kansas City, served on the board of the Kansas City Hospital College and taught anatomy. By the 1880s, he was the oldest practicing physician in the city.

A postcard of the Hotel Savoy at 9th and Central. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

Hotel Thorne and a Longstanding Legacy

  Dr. Thorne lived with his wife and his one surviving child, Adelaide, at 221 W. 9th St. in a two-story frame house that was “once considered an elegant suburban residence.” The home was built after the Civil War and was marked by a large cottonwood tree in the front yard.

  As street grading happened throughout the city, the house could only be reached by a large flight of stairs. In 1889, the doctor opted to level his home, grade the area and build a business block in the city. At the center of this was a plan to build “a European hotel second to none this side of Chicago.”

  In 1890, the five story Hotel Thorne opened to the public. It included “elevator service, electric lights and heat in every room.” The “commodious and stately hotel building” rented rooms at one dollar per day and became one of the most popular hotels in the city. One novel convenience offered was free baths “for the convenience and comfort of guests.”

  In July 1892, Dr. Thorne sold the hotel for $200,000 – half of it in cash and the other half in property in Florida.  For 20 years, his health wasn’t great, and he had acute bronchitis that affected his breathing. Even after selling the hotel, Dr. Thorne lived with his wife in the building he conceived as being the best hotel in the Midwest.

  On July 9, 1893, Dr. Joshua Thorne passed away inside his rooms at the Hotel Thorne. He was only 62 years old. At the time of his death, he was said to own 36,000 acres of land in Florida.

Headline announcing Dr. Thorne’s passing on June 9, 1893 in the Kansas City Star.

  Just one year after his untimely death, the Hotel Thorne had new owners after the hotel sat vacant for a time. William A. Jamison and John Arbuckle, “the coffee magnate” who revolutionized coffee sales by selling roasted coffee in one-pound packages purchased the building and began repairs.

  Several changes occurred to the building that Dr. Thorne built. The property was enlarged from five stories to six and included 225 guest rooms. For reasons unknown, the new owners scrapped the name and rechristened the property as the Hotel Savoy. It reopened December 6, 1894.

  In 1903, the Savoy Grill opened after an addition to the property became tremendously popular for their steak and seafood selection. The green tile, dark wood, and beautiful stained glass made it one of the most iconic restaurants in Kansas City. Guests included Teddy Roosevelt, Will Rogers and John D. Rockefeller. The No. 4 Booth became known as the President’s Booth; Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Regan all dined at the Savoy in this special spot.

  The Savoy Grill was the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the city until it closed in 2014. The property was sold in 2013 to 21c Museum Hotels, a Louisville-based boutique hotel company that extensively renovated the building. It reopened in 2018, and the beautiful Savoy resumes as a restaurant and hotel.

A 1932 advertisement in the Kansas City Star

Dr. Thorne in Memory

  His name may have been removed from one of Kansas City’s most iconic places, but Dr. Joshua Thorne’s contributions to Kansas City cannot be understated. As a doctor, he brought homeopathic medicine and vital medical care to soldiers during the Civil War. He continued his care of veterans for decades after the war. His involvement in Spiritualism leant to his mysterious character yet highlighted his philosophic side – a man always searching for answers.

  Dr. Thorne’s political views were frowned upon, but he never wavered as a Republican.  He was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and annually celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. He was asked by both Union and Confederate veterans to speak at many Decoration Days.

  Early historian Theodore S. Case was a personal friend of Dr. Joshua Thorne’s and served with him in Van Horn’s Battalion. Case wrote of Dr. Thorne in 1888:

  “[Dr. Joshua Thorne] is one of those who have watched and aided the growth of the city and are connecting links between old Kansas City and the new; living figures in its history and prophets of its future greatness – always liberal in thought, courteous in expression, and helpful in all the relations of citizenship.”

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.


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