There were perks to being a doctor's wife, such as a luxurious home in Warwick's seaside village of Conimicut. But, for Emma (Wieland) Coffey, the privileges weren't worth the pains.
Emma was 24 years old when she married John Bernard Coffey on Aug. 4, 1914. The 27-year-old man had worked as a clerk in a Providence drug store before graduating from a medical school not recognized by the American Medical Association. The couple resided in Central Falls, Cranston and East Greenwich before settling into a home on Greene Street in Conimicut with their six children. All the while, a parade of endless lawsuits had them both marching into courts all over the state.
In the autumn of 1920, William Mathew of Pawtucket charged them both with smashing into his auto on Mineral Spring Avenue and asked for $5,000 in damages. A jury determined that because Dr. Coffey was driving his wife's auto at the time of the accident, he alone was responsible. He was ordered to pay Mathew $350 in damages.
In 1923, the doctor opened a new office at 1530 Cranston Street. The following year, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident in Warwick on the afternoon of Sept. 16, after he smashed into the auto of 51-year-old West Warwick grammar school teacher Bertha Remington Kent. He pleaded not guilty and bail was set at $800. George Koch, a 44-year-old druggist from East Greenwich, paid the bail but John failed to appear at the Oct. court hearing.
By 1925, John had opened a new office at 279 South Main Street in East Greenwich. That Sept., he was arrested again and fined $100 for driving while intoxicated and, the following month, his driving license was suspended. Three months later, he pleaded guilty to being a common drunkard. The court decided to let the RI Board of Health determine his fate. The organization chose not to take any action, in sympathy for the doctor having responsibility for a wife and several children.
In March of 1926, John relocated his medical office to 567 Reservoir Avenue. Days later, he was arrested for driving without a license. He pleaded not guilty, explaining that his wife, who had a legal driver’s license, was in the auto while he was driving, so he technically did nothing wrong. Bail was set at $5,000 and paid by a man named John Evans.
The couple’s sixth child was born in 1927. That same year, on the night of April 5, John was driving an auto without a license on Blackstone Street when he struck the auto bring driven by 35-year-old coal dealer Morris Mayberg, pushing the machine a distance of about 20 feet and injuring Mayberg’s passenger, Esther Rothberg. John’s license to practice medicine in RI was revoked and he was sentenced to serve 30 days in the Providence County Jail. Six months later, he was charged with practicing medicine and surgery without a license. Again, the court allowed the Board of Health to handle the matter and they agreed to reinstate the doctor’s license with the condition that he meet with them monthly so they could oversee his practice.
Although the courts and the Board of Health never seemed to run out of chances to give, Emma had done just that. She filed for, and was granted, a divorce. In Nov. of 1929, she brought John back to court, petitioning to have him held in contempt for failing to abide by the judgment that he pay her $50 per week alimony for the support of herself and their six children. He had also been ordered to make $70-per-month payments on the mortgage of the Conimicut house and hadn’t done so. Through his attorney he explained that the reason he was not making the court-ordered payments was because his income had become impaired. It was explained that the divorce had hit him like a “thunderbolt” and caused him to suffer a nervous condition. He was now about $13,000 in debt. He told the court that he had just opened a new office and was beginning to make money again. He claimed that he had earned $50 the previous week and that only $28 of that had been collected from patients.
When the judge asked him what he would comfortably be able to afford to pay in alimony, he stated $30. John explained he only had two dollars in the bank, and because he had no driver’s license, he had to employ a chauffeur whom he paid $20 per week. He told the court he was doing the best could, which Emma argued against. She narrated how he kept driving past her house on a continual basis, stopping to ask their children details about her daily movements. If he was doing the best he could, she announced, he would be at his office working and not watching her and interrogating the children.
The judge determined that a $20 decrease in the alimony order was fair. Emma responded by informing the judge that she had no fuel for the house and only one or two dollars in the bank. The doctor promised that he would have fuel delivered to the house and money to give her before 4:00 that day.
The following March, the couple was back in court. The doctor was still refusing to follow the orders for alimony and mortgage payments. Emma’s lawyer told the judge that she and the children were without money and in a very desperate condition. He asked the doctor if he could possibly provide her with some money at that moment. John pulled a five dollar bill from his pocket and threw it upon the table where Emma and her attorney were sitting.
The judge ordered John to pay $200 toward the cost of Emma’s attorney. But the rest of his determinations were not helpful to her. He announced that the cost to maintain the Conimicut house was more than John could afford and that she and the children needed to seek more modest accommodations. Her lawyer felt this reckoning was ridiculous. He explained that the doctor had the ability to earn close to $15,000 per year if he concentrated on working instead of drinking sprees. The attorney stated that he found it hard to believe that John was only making $25 per week, as he now claimed, yet employed a chauffeur at a cost of $5 per day and was able to also handle the costs of his living accommodations, vehicle and medical office. He implored the judge to order John to make the mortgage payment on the Conimicut house as foreclosure was threatened if a $70 payment was not made immediately.
John’s lawyer argued that wasn’t possible as John’s debts were currently anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. The judge ruled that he would do nothing to prevent foreclosure, explaining that the couple had been living above their means when they purchased the home. He informed Emma that she was going to have to cut back on luxuries and learn to live without such things as a telephone. He urged the couple to sell the property.
In April of 1931, the sheriff spent two weeks searching for John before locating and arresting him for failure to make regular alimony payments. He was now more than $1,000 behind. He was sentenced to Providence County Jail. His ex-wife and children were receiving relief from Warwick’s Overseer of the Poor. No sooner had he finished serving his time and been given five years-worth of probation when he was arrested again in May. This time he was charged with violating the Harrison Narcotics Act. Passed in 1914, the act required physicians to register and purchase an annual tax stamp which allowed the government to regulate the production and distribution of opiates and cocaine. Narcotics agents had discovered that even though John had written out morphine prescriptions to patients, he had kept no records and had not provided the patients with the amount of morphine written on the prescriptions.
Bail was set at $2,000. John had arranged to have his mother pay the bail but the court would not allow a relative to make the payment. Alice Manwaring, a licensed nurse from Brooklyn and a native of RI, agreed to furnish bail in exchange for the Conimicut house.
That Oct., John pleaded guilty to the charges against him. The normal course of action would have him shipping out to the US Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas but the court again took pity on him. His mother, 81-year-old Helen (Egan) Coffey, was reportedly in failing health and devoted to her son. The judge sentenced John to serve one year at Providence County Jail where it would be arranged for him to see his mother once a week. The judge added that, if his mother’s health continued to fail, the number of visits would be increased.
It wasn’t long after his release in 1932 when John was arrested yet again. Narcotics agents discovered he had gone to a drug store to have seven prescriptions filled. One of them was alleged to be for a man who had actually died five days prior. John admitted his guilt and added that he had also sent prescriptions through the mail to a patient in Maine, another violation of the narcotics laws. He was arrested, held without bail and placed in the custody of a US Marshall.
The case was heard over the course of two years. In June of 1934, testimony had John going to the office of dentist Joseph Scanlon in Pawtucket to sell him 100 tablets of morphine for $10. Three days later, he allegedly returned with 50 more tablets which he wanted to sell for $5, however Scanlon wasn’t interested. In addition, the prominent Baltimore doctor whose signature appeared on John’s medical degree was stating that it was a forgery. John was now facing the reality of a stint at Leavenworth. When he stated he did not want to fly there in a plane, it was arranged that the US Marshall would drive him.
John’s mother lived until the autumn of 1936. Emma had moved around from Blake Avenue to Maplewood Avenue, obtained a job as a home hand-sewer for a necktie factory and, with a little charity from the Town of Warwick, supported her children on her own. She later went on to work in the personnel department of a machine shop in Providence and died in 1961.
Out of prison, John settled himself at Bullock’s Point Avenue in East Providence. In 1937, he was arrested for stealing an auto belonging to Edward Balfour, a 54-year-old Providence jewelry manufacturer. Balfour reported the auto stolen from Centredale and it was later found in John’s possession in Johnston. John was held on $1,000 bail but charges were later dropped when police reported they could not prove criminal intent.
By 1940, John was living on Friendship Street in Providence, still operating his private medical practice. He died on Nov. 4 of the following year at the age of 54.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.