The Scandalous Dr. Weightnovel
By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
Dr. Weightnovel was a tall man, with a full head of hair who was known as a libertine and hedonist. Scandal always followed in his wake.
Frederick Leontiff Weightnovel, an émigré from Russia, arrived in Tampa around 1885, and set up shop as doctor who treated "feminine complaints". He was also an abortionist, who on the side peddled his own brand of hair tonic.
His office and apartment were located on Whiting Street, which marked the south border of Tampa where it abutted at Fort Brooke.
Weightnovel was no stranger to controversy. In 1887, the International Medical Congress described him as a Polish man with a "dark complexion, long, kinky hair and shaggy eyebrows." He dressed eccentrically as well. He was barred admission because he violated the ethics of the profession by putting his portrait on his calling cards.
In 1896, he became a squatter in a portion of Tampa known as the "Reservation", which was owned by Lizzie Carew. The place had once been a garrison known as Fort Brooke. She had brought the problem to the courts that decided in her favor, however Weightnovel along with other squatters organized a meeting to incorporate the area into a town named Moscow and to elect him as mayor.
With approval of Weightnovel as the Mayor, scores of squatters representing many nationalities took possession of the property living in filthy hovels and huts. They were thrown out after several months.
By 1896, Dr. Weightnovel had still not been granted a certificate to practice medicine by the board in Florida, and he decided to sue one of the doctors on the board.
However there was one incident that Dr. Weightnovel could not wriggle out of.
In June, 1902, an 18-year-old girl died under mysterious circumstances at Weightnovel's apartment. He was arrested on a charge of manslaughter.
His practice was described by a local newspapers as "what has long been regarded as the most infamous den of criminal malpractice that ever flourished in a respectable community."
The day previous to Weightnovel's arrest, Captain Carter of the police department was told a corpse was being moved from the doctor's apartment. Upon arriving there he found it was a young woman, and she had already been given over to the care of Undertaker J. L. Reed, who later testified the body was badly contorted. Dr. Weightnovel had made out the death certificate
She was identified as Irene Randall of Quincy, Florida. Her father was A. A. Randall who owned a large tobacco business located between Quincy and Midway.
The girl had come to Tampa seven months before to learn dress making from her aunt, Laura J. Christian.
Captain Carter found out that Irene Randall had returned to Tampa without her family's knowledge. Upon her arrival she went to Dr. Weightnovel's establishment on Whiting Street. He ascertained that she had gone there for an abortion. She had told a friend that a well-known young man of the city was the father of her child. His name was Robert Floyd. He denied that he was the one to ruin the Randall girl.
Something happened that caused Weightnovel to call in another doctor the day before her death, however there was nothing the physician could do for her. The cause of death on the certificate was listed as peritonitis.
Irene Randall's body was sent to Quincy for burial, and the authorities requested an autopsy to be completed.
It was noted that Weightnovel advertised himself as a "specialist in diseases of women" but his practice was always conducted in a very quiet manner.
Police also took possession of his books, records and letters which provided evidence of previous violations.
Amy Droty owned the "notorious house" on Fifth Avenue where it was alleged Floyd took Irene to seduce her. She denied the incident.
There was a letter written to Floyd by Irene Randall detailing her anguish at his betrayal, and placing their place of assignation as Amy Droty's house on Fifth Avenue. She said she was taken there by force and drugged into semi-consciousness. The letter was sealed and stamped but never mailed. It was found among Weightnovel's papers.
Another letter indicated that Irene’s parents knew where she was and what "treatment" she was receiving.
Attorney Cohen who represented Weightnovel, said that the girl was treated by a doctor at Quincy and sent to Weightnovel to await the effects of the treatment, and to avoid inquiries close to where she lived.
While awaiting his preliminary hearing, Weightnovel did not suffer for it. He had a valet who attended him, and his food was purchased for him and prepared by the jail chef. He had a comfortable cot, changes of clothing and a large fan which he used continuously.
Weightnovel would argue with reporters. One described it as: "he puffed like an angry toad, swung his arms wildly in the air, and discharged several volley of fervid objurgations". He would roar, "No one except my attorney can interview me," while beating his chest.
Judge Robles was presiding over the trial, and Colonel Hugh C. Macfarlane was engaged to prosecute the doctor. John P. Wall was representing Robert Floyd who would be tried separately. Two of the most important witnesses were Dr. U. S. Bird and J. M. Grantham who performed the autopsy. Dr. B.G. Abernethy attended Irene before she died, and from her own lips heard her sad story.
On the day of the hearing, Dr. Weightnovel attended dressed in an immaculate suit, and carrying a palm-leaf fan which he was known to always have with him.
Dr. Abernethy testified at the preliminary hearing, "I went to see Irene Randall at the urgent request of Will Hawley on June 17. Weightnovel met me at the door, told me the girl had taken heavy medicine and had a miscarriage. I found her on the bed, entirely nude and waving her hands. She said to me: 'Doctor, I am dying. I am not afraid to die, but I do not want to die so young, when I can be of service to my family. I want you to tell me if I am dying: don't deceive me, because I want to see my mother. I asked the doctor to telegraph her, but I know he has not done so. Promise me that you will do so. That doctor hasn't treated me right.' When I returned at 6 o'clock she was much worse. Weightnovel was very much excited. I gave her all the relief possible."
The autopsy disclosed that death was caused by septic peritonitis resulting from a perceptible injury produced by an instrument. The operation had been done within two weeks of death. Gestation was three months advanced. It confirmed that an abortion had occurred and that an operation had been performed.
A neighbor named Frank Middaugh testified that on the night of June 17, he was awakened by the cries of a woman in distress calling out "Doctor! Doctor!" He went to investigate, and found the cries came from a darkened room. In an adjoining room Weightnovel was sitting with his feet on a table fanning himself, while the cries continued. Another neighbor also heard the cries and Weightnovel telling the patient to be quiet.
The undertaker said that Weightnovel had asked him to remove the body as quietly as possible.
The police captain described that when he arrested Weightnovel he tried to hide a bundle of female underclothing and sheets. The officer took them, and found they were stained with blood and medicine.
Newspapers weighed in as to whether Weightnovel, who was openly being called an abortionist, would be convicted. Some considered it extremely doubtful since he had a "long list of names of prominent women of the city" who he treated, and that they would exert influence to gain his freedom.
Weightnovel had no choice but to remain in jail since he could not pay the $2,000 bond.
The trial was scheduled for 1903, but in the meantime it appeared that certain compromising letters had been found among Weightnovel's papers, including some tied to prominent citizens.
Isaac Steward, a judge in Volusia County’s criminal court had obtained the letters, but refused to say how he came into possession of them. He was sentenced to 30 days for contempt of court by a Hillsborough County judge for refusing to disclose his source. He even refused to be sworn in. He claimed he did not have information in the Weightnovel case, but in another case of abortion performed at Limona that involved Stetson University.
Judge Stewart said that he was brought to Tampa at the instigation of Governor Jennings, whose "hirelings and tools were trying to cover up the corruption which had existed at Stetson University."
Judge Stewart was representing John B. Stetson, the millionaire hat manufacturer who founded Stetson University at Deland. Apparently there had been an alleged illicit relationship between President Forbes of Stetson University and a teacher. There were letters written by the woman to Dr. Weightnovel.
In January 1903, Frederick L. Weightnovel was found guilty of manslaughter as charged. He was sentenced to six years in the penitentiary. Within a few days a motion was filed for a new trial citing errors on the part of the court.
In December 1903, he was granted a new trial by the supreme court. In January, 1904, four citizens paid $500 each, for the bond to release him from jail pending the new trial.
Fortunes turned against Dr. Weightnovel though, and in April 1906, he was suffering from heart disease, and he had been admitted as a charity case at the city hospital. His case was still pending in the criminal court.
In May, 1906 he died, "penniless and unmourned." He had suffered a paralytic stroke.
It was noted that he had been exiled from Russia to Siberia as a nihilist, but escaped from Siberia and found his way to Tampa. He was buried in Tampa's Woodlawn Cemetery on May 19, by undertaker J L. Reed.
It was said that with his death many secrets died, which if made known would have shaken the social fabric of Tampa. Is this why the second trial was not pursued? Were there those in high stations who feared what Dr. Weightnovel might disclose if put on the stand? It seemed that he knew about some of the dirtiest laundry, many so-called upstanding citizens wanted to keep in the linen closet.
There’s an unsubstantiated story that described where in 1885 he held the Free Love Society's banquet at a hotel in Ybor City. Invited were over two dozen of Tampa's most sought-after bachelors. On the menu was exotic foods served by Black women who were entirely naked. Tampa citizens were outraged, and for his troubles Weightnovel spent the night in jail.
As to poor Irene Randall, it seems she doesn’t lie quiet in her grave. A Tampa ghost tour described where she haunts a brown building (once Weightnovel’s office) across from the Fort Brooke Parking Garage. The reason given for her unrest is that she knew something was terribly wrong, and she was under the impression her mother would come to see her. She died with that wish unfulfilled.
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Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer