This Was Then: Dr. Bullitt

Rebellious Romeo or ‘high-grade imbecile’?

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On Oct. 21, 1925, Dr. John C. Bullitt of Vineyard Haven died at the age of 52 at the U.S. Marine Hospital of myocarditis, a viral heart infection. He was known around town as a retired physician, although if he had ever practiced medicine, it wasn’t on the Vineyard. Dr. Bullitt and his young wife Edna had summered on the Island for many years, and had recently bought Capt. Lorenzo Smith’s house on Main Street, which he had taken great interest in remodeling.

But their quiet Island life belied a controversial past. He was the millionaire son of John Christian Bullitt Sr. of Philadelphia, a prominent lawyer who was sometimes called the “Father of Greater Philadelphia.” He held a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, reportedly graduating 15th in his class. But shortly after receiving his diploma, he was committed to a sanitarium for a violent attack of “mania.” He would soon marry his nurse there, Josephine Zinque, who promised to protect him from the mysterious strangers he was convinced were pursuing him. Their marriage was eventually annulled on the grounds that he was of “unsound mind,” but the drama sent him back to the sanitarium for awhile, where he was placed under restraints.

By 1910, he was living in Norwood, Pa., where he reported himself to be a self-employed physician. He boarded with the family of John Dever, an ex-policeman who served as his personal caretaker and bodyguard. When he announced his intention to marry Dever’s teenage daughter, Edna, Dr. Bullitt’s brother Logan and two of his sisters filed an injunction to block the marriage. “John cannot take care of himself,” declared Logan.

Litigation stretched on for nine months and produced 1,100 pages of court testimony. Dr. Bullitt’s supporters, including his brothers William and James (the latter an Episcopal minister), testified to Bullitt’s gentlemanly ways, his interest in whist and pool, motorboating, pony racing, and boar hunting; and how he kept accurate account books for the local borough council. His accusers testified to his paranoid hallucinations, slovenly appearance, unlaced shoes, erratic speech, drool, and shared tales of violence and straitjackets. Dr. Frank Woodbury, secretary of the Pennsylvania State Lunacy Commission, declared that Bullitt was “constitutionally incapable of taking care of himself and his estate,” and lacked sufficient mental capacity to comprehend his rights and obligations. Other professionals testified that Bullitt was “demented,” “nutty,” “mentally deficient,” and “of permanently unsound, undeveloped mind.” One doctor declared that Bullitt “was of so low a grade of mentality that he felt some surprise that he graduated in medicine,” and called him “a moderately high-grade imbecile.” (A family chronicler would later add, “He was somewhat retarded, but did succeed to graduate from medical school, perhaps due to his father’s influence.”)

Doctors had reportedly diagnosed Dr. Bullitt with myxedema, or severe hyperthyroidism, which left untreated can cause mental deterioration. Many newspapers printed their opinion that the Bullitt family’s true objection was the marriage to a lowly and unprosperous policeman’s daughter. But Logan alleged, according to one paper, that Dever had bullied the two into an unwanted marriage for his own benefit. The fight tore the Bullitt family into two clashing factions, and a fistfight nearly broke out in the courtroom when Dr. Bullitt’s brother-in-law, Haller Gross (a former U.S. minister to Denmark) threatened to punch the Rev. James for his “lies.” Then Dr. Bullitt himself appeared in the courtroom in a surprise — and relatively sane — brief appearance.

 

On Valentine’s Day, 1911, the jury finally delivered the verdict — “We the undersigned jury find the defendant, Dr. John C. Bullitt, Jr., is not a lunatic.” The couple married that night in a thinly attended wedding ceremony performed by his brother, the Rev. James. And like so many curious folks, the newlyweds soon found some peace on a quiet isle called Martha’s Vineyard.