The Minahan Scandal

The germ of these notes come from “The Maid and the Socialite,” an article in the Winter/Spring 2024 Voyageur magazine. The article, written by Lynda Drews, is a very condensed version of her book of the same title, released in 2023. I encourage people to pick up a copy. (Because the article is a summary, I have expanded using my own sources in places, rather than the book, because I was #12 on a waiting list to borrow the book from my local library. Don’t wait, buy it now!)

The Minahan family was influential in Green Bay from 1892 to 1954, which many of them living in the upper class Astor Heights neighborhood.

Dr. John Roger Minahan graduated from Chilton High School, Oshkosh State Normal School, and Rush Medical College in Chicago. He was president of his graduating class. He had a successful practice in Casco, but left in 1892 to work as a surgeon at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green Bay. He had already saved over a year’s salary, in part because he invested in land and rental property.

Mary Cenefelt (illiterate maid) arrived in Green Bay January 1893 from Minnesota. She was 25 and had already worked in various towns around the upper Midwest, including Escanaba. She spoke Czech and English. Soon after arriving in Green Bay, she was directed to Dr. Minahan because of stomach problems she had for the past two years. After a quick examination, Minahan said she had ulcers and dyspepsia, and gave her some pills to treat it. Minahan had been married, but divorced his wife after she was diagnosed with insanity.

May 1897, Mary sued Dr. Minahan for $15,000 over a botched operation in his private office that resulted in an abortion in April 1893. During the procedure he used iodoform. Minahan denied everything in the suit. His attorney, Patrick H. Martin, said, “She has told and denied this story and others several times within the last few years, and has made similar accusations against other physicians. It is my belief that she is mentally incompetent and influenced by others to commence this action.” (Although not reported in the newspaper, I believe that in court Martin would argue she had gone “insane” because of syphilis.)

In September, a jury agreed with her and awarded her $5,000. Minahan’s attorney, Patrick Martin, objected to the verdict and said the outcome was contrary to the testimony. Judge Hastings agreed and set aside the verdict. Mary’s attorney, J. Calvin Stewart, vowed to go to trial a second time.

The second trial began in December 1897, with Mary Cenefelt being grilled on both examination and cross-examination. The case took multiple weeks and it was standing-room only for those who wanted to be in the room. Minors were absolutely barred by Judge Hastings. Defense attorney Martin tried to convince the room that Cenefelt had asked for the operation and abortion. Mary denied this, saying she did not know what was being done to her until it was too late and she was still having physical symptoms from the operation at the time of trial.

A parade of witnesses came and went, including Dr. Minahan’s driver (Pat Mahoney) and two nuns who worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Using a combination of memory and hospital logs, they were unable to show Mary was having an operation at the time she said she was. A Dr. Oviatt of Oshkosh was called to present findings on Mary’s mental state. He sid she was not suffering from insanity or hysteria, but something he called nemorosis. Mary’s sister Carrie and brother John both testified she was honest and hard-working, while medical professionals Dr. Russell of Oshkosh and Dr. WW Gill of Madison spoke on her behalf about the medical trauma she experienced.The trial went on, with a slight break for the jury to spend Christmas with their families.

Starting back up, the trial ran through the beginning of January 1898. Dr. Minahan testified and denied everything up and down. As the trial wound down, it was declared the longest in Brown County history – court reporter said the transcript would be over 400,000 words. The jury went into deliberations, and returned after 40 hours. They had a strong disagreement, and could not come to a conclusion. It was a hung jury. The prosecution vowed to go to trial a third time.

But first… In March 1899, Minahan threw a party for his friend Dr. Richard Buchanan, who was engaged to Jessie Mae Hurlbut. Jessie was friends with Mollie Bertles, a college-educated socialite who lived in the Astor Heights neighborhood (926 Monroe Avenue) and invited her to the party. Rumor was that five eligible bachelors would be there, and four of them were doctors! Mollie walked the five blocks to Minahan’s house on Quincy Street – she was encouraged to walk when possible to alleviate her rheumatoid arthritis.

Mollie’s father came by his wealth through hard work, and then through real estate investments. He went from virtual unknown to store owner (sewing machines), fireman, alderman, bank officer and board of education member. Mollie graduated second in her class in high school and then earned a BA from the University of Wisconsin. She took up work as a fourth grade teacher and was active in the temperance movement.

At various social gatherings and dances, Mollie and the doctor grew closer. He was successful and had many powerful friends, including the local bishop (Mesmer). Mollie could not help but be attracted to him, despite what she found to be some character flaws – he was always suspicious and jealous. As recently as two weeks before their marriage, he flew into a rage when he suspected she had been seeing an ex-boyfriend behind his back. They had met for lunch with her mother present, that was all. He dropped the matter and they were wed on November 22, 1899. Now married, Mollie left her employment at Howe School. They spent their honeymoon traveling through Europe and would have two sons.

November 1899: Mary’s brother John returned to Cooperstown late at night by horse and entered his brother-in-law’s saloon where he had a key. Once inside, he shot himself in the chest and above his left temple. The next morning, he was found by his brother-in-law John Vanish (sp?) in a pool of blood. No note was left, so the reason for his action was unknown. There was speculation that he had been studying too hard and had been driven insane, as well as possibly having a disagreement with his girlfriend the night before the suicide. He was brought to Kellnersville in Kewaunee County for funeral and burial. (The Cenefelt family were pioneers of Kellnersville.)

The Mary Cenefelt case was eventually resurected in November 1901, now with H.E. Cochems acting as Mary’s attorney. On this third time, the jury came back with the verdict the judge wanted: Dr. Minahan was not guilty.

October 29, 1904: Mary allegedly visited the doctor and told him to pay her, give her free medical treatment, or she would either kill him or blind him by throwing acid in his face. He called the police and she was locked up for alleged extortion. She could not afford the $500 bail and was bound over for trial by Judge Monahan (no relation to Minahan). Before the trial was due to come up December 5, she was bailed out. Her attorney filed a complaint of prejudice against Monahan and had the trial moved to Judge Hastings’ court, which would be in March. (Why Monahan is worse than Hastings when Hastings is the one that ruined her first civil trial is beyond me!)

This dragged on for ages until the prosecutor (District Attorney Cady) eventually dropped the charges completely in March 1906.

In May 1910, Dr. Minahan filed for divorce against Mollie citing cruel and inhuman treatment. She fired back, accusing him of brutal treatment. Attorney Victor Minahan represented his brother, while Patrick Martin (from the Cenefelt case) represented Mollie. The court sided with Mollie, and the case was appealed to the state supreme court. Ultimately, a year later, Mollie was awarded $23,000, custody of the children, the household furniture, and $30 each month for alimony.

Following the divorce, Mollie apparently lived comfortably with her alimony and settlement, as well as her social status. She was involved in various organizations, most notably as chairman of the Brown County Red Cross (which became a big deal during World War One). She never remarried. Dr. Minahan was married a third time, and I’m not aware of any problems in that third marriage.

February 26, 1918: Mollie was walking along the train tracks just south of the Green Bay city limits, along the Fox River. This was about one block from her home at 409 Lawe Street. He was in quarantine with her son John, who had scarlet fever, and wanted exercise. Avoiding other people to reduce risk of infection, she chose the tracks. One train crew saw her as she was walking behind Hochgreve’s brewery. Another train rounded the bend and apparently Mollie did not hear it. Engineer Carl Fogle pulled the brakes, but it was too late – Mollie was hit hard, one leg severed at the knee, the other at the ankle, and her head gashed in causing instant death.

1923: Dr. John R. Minahan was summoned to Chicago. His oldest son, John Jr., had ended his life in a fraternity house at the University of Chicago by firing a bullet into his brain. Some later reports referred to this as an “accident” but that does not seem to be the case.

February 19, 1925: Led by premonition that “something fearful had happened” Dr. Minahan hurried to Juneau Park, Milwaukee. He had read in a newspaper that an unidentified young man had shot and killed himself there. The young man proved to be Dr. Minahan’s younger son, Robert C., 21 years old, a student in the medical school of Northwestern University. At first the reason for the suicide was said to be a woman. A note was found on his body from “Louise” who said she was leaving to marry “Buddy Hills.” It was soon suspected this letter was a ruse by Robert to throw off his family. Not unrequited love, but a tilt with his father over money matters, was responsible for the suicide, said an uncle of the victim.

Lynda Drews purchased the Victor Minahan home (644 South Jackson) in 1977, an event that ultimately lead to her book.

Next time we will discuss another member of the Minahan family who died in a (very famous) tragic accident.

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