If you think you know something about Arkansas history, pick up Tom Dillard's new book, “Statesmen, Scoundrels, and Eccentrics” ($22.95, paperback, University of Arkansas Press); you might be surprised. As the “Mr. Wizard” of Arkansas history, Dillard offers 74 portraits of the folks who, for better or worse, made us what we are today.
Dillard leads off in the 1500s with Hernando de Soto as the explorer whacks his way through heavy underbrush and swaths of Native Americans in order to establish the first European presence in these parts. From there, Dillard goes on to discuss folks who know how to turn a buck in lean times or pull together a government where none had previously existed.
Dillard covers a spectrum of authors, politicians, business people, and educators to flat-out kooks and frauds. His unbiased reports let readers make of these sketches what they will, but Dillard's quick to note that most of the folks here became noteworthy in spite of enormous odds. In a few cases, big reputations preceded characters like Davy Crockett and Jean LaFitte, the famous pirate, as they traipsed through Arkansas, each leaving his own indelible mark.
There's a long list of over-achievers here, too, like Ida Joe Brooks, whose famous father was part of the Brooks-Baxter war,
which ended Reconstruction in Arkansas. Denied entry into the all-male medical school here in 1887, she left the state to earn her medical degree in 1891 from Boston University School of Medicine. Finally, in 1914, she was allowed to join the staff of the University of Arkansas Medical School as professor in the Department of Nervous and Mental Diseases.
Dillard also shakes out his musty archives to find such treasures as Dr. John R. Brinkley, remembered as “the goat gland doctor,” whose specialty around 1915 was transplanting goat gonads into “tired men.” According to Dillard, many of his customers were “quite often satisfied with the procedure.” The oddest character in the book is Old Mike, who died in Prescott in 1911. His body was never claimed and, for the next 64 years, the mummified Old Mike remained on public display in a local funeral home. At the behest of the state, he finally was laid to rest in 1975.
Dillard is now head of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville. In 2002, through the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, he founded the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net), an excellent on-line reference tool for all things Arkansas. Dillard will talk about his book at noon April 7 at the Butler Center's “Legacies & Lunch” program at the Main Library in Little Rock.