An article profiling Dr. Omar Palmer — the Wizard of Oto — appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1935.
OTO – The Wizard of Oto wasn’t of this world, or at least any world that hill-and-hollow Ozarkers knew back in the 1930s.
He wandered into the now-defunct Stone County village of Oto, a miles-long rickety ride from the nearest train station, with an air of debonair, and said his name was Omar Palmer.
It wasn’t his real name, and they suspected that. But he seemed friendly, and on a trek to leave his past life behind, so they simply accepted his word. Their interest grew, however, after he cured a local who was sick and no one else could help.
Word of his talent spread faster than gossip at a church pot-luck dinner. Around 7,000 patients sought his help within his first few months at Oto — and he saw every single one for free. The 70-something doctor said he simply didn’t need to earn more money.
“At 4 o’clock in the morning they start arriving,” noted the Jefferson City Post-Tribune in December 1933. “Farmers along the road are kept awake by the flashing headlights of cars that make the journey at night, hoping to arrive ahead of the crowd. Until late at night they keep coming, at the average rate of more than a hundred a day. On one day ‘the Wizard’ took care of 200 people. Every day a dozen or more are turned away, only to return the next day, or the next, to see the man.”
That frantic tempo continued until 1938, when Palmer’s legacy ended as abruptly as it began. After years of service, thousands of patients and nationwide notoriety, he moved away and the clinic closed. Today, there are still questions about his story that likely will never be answered — including his real identity.
“It was very mysterious,” says Julie Green of the Stone County Historical Society. “They don’t know who he was.”
Coming to Oto
Oto in days gone by. At left is the Cox home, where Palmer asked to stay on his first night in town. He later lived in the house with the family, and used it as a clinic. At right is the town’s general store and post office. (Courtesy of “The Wizard of Oto”)
Little is left of Oto, but it never needed a very large hitching post. When Palmer arrived in January of 1932, a post office, small store, barber shop, school and church house offered much of what locals required.
What the area lacked in modern conveniences was made up in natural splendor. As it remains today, the landscape’s pristine beauty features green, rolling hills and flowing waters of the nearby James River and chilly Crane Creek.
Besides the stunning scenery, remnants that remain include the Oto Community Church, and a gravel trail labeled Oto Road. Nearby, there’s a house still watching passersby — just as it did when Palmer came to town.
Back then, the dwelling belonged to Ettie and Henry Cox. They were the first folks Palmer met when he arrived in Oto, and they put him up for the night. Fueled by wanderlust, he told them he’d traveled a great far and wide before finding Oto.
A current view of the area where Palmer came in 1932. The home he first visited, and later practiced at, is just beyond the trees on the right.
After discovering Oto, however, he decided to stay a spell. Each day, he visited the Cox family to get drinking water “at the pipe” where a sweet stream flowed freely. Much of his time was spent fishing and relaxing, but he also visited the small post office to get his mail, and chat with locals.
What he didn’t do was mention his past, although a comment or two cropped up that got tongues wagging. Local sentiment is preserved in “The Wizard of Oto,” a book about Palmer:
“Tales of his background began peppering through the conversations, most of them conflicting. Some people quickly labeled him a quack, and few believed ‘Omar Palmer’ to be his baptismal name since no documents were discovered. When questioned about his alleged relation to the famous Sir Joseph Lister, credited with the discovery of antiseptic surgery, the doctor smiled and replied, ‘What difference does it make?’ Many believed the doctor to have headed one of the nation’s great hospitals, to have graduated from three major universities, to have been a world traveler. But many also believed that entertainment was his speciality.”
Palmer left Oto in April to visit friends, but was back by July and reestablished his camp near the river. That’s where he lived when the first call for medical help came.
Sources conflict on just who it was who needed aid: One says a farmer, another a mother. He was cited in the Leader & Press in 1933 saying it was simply a woman with pneumonia.
“I nursed her through her pneumonia, and then others in the neighborhood started coming,” he told the reporter back then. “It wasn’t until last spring they started coming in such numbers. And it’s been getting worse ever since.”
Just why people came was unclear, but maybe they were drawn by his doctoring. After all, he could heal when others couldn’t. Perhaps it was because of the extensive medical training he claimed to have. Maybe it was the mystery that caught their curiosity.
Or perhaps it was the fact of treating all for free.
“The poor are entitled to the same medical care as the rich,” he told a newspaper reporter in May 1935. “The time will come when medical treatment will be on the same basis as education, free to all, because human beings are entitled to the same consideration and because the country has an investment in the health of its citizens and loses it if they are incapacitated by ill health.”
The things he saw represented a little of a lot: There were kidney infections, and babies who needed delivering. He is said to cure appendicitis, eye infections, rheumatism, styes, stomach issues, female trouble, a 12-day nose bleed and even a case of polio. When someone had a serious condition that he believed required surgery, he referred them on to another doctor — who always concurred with Palmer’s diagnosis.
Most folks, however, were simply treated with herbs initially processed in the Cox kitchen.
“Mrs. Cox doesn’t know how many gallons of various drugs she produces in a day,” wrote a reporter for the Leader & Press in 1933. “But she does know that she can’t find room on her kitchen stove to cook her meals. The pots are always boiling, filling the house with their strange, intermingled odors.”
At various times, those herbs were gathered by a variety of locals.
“There were very few men in this area who, at one time or another, did not dig roots for him,” wrote Lillie Jackson, a local woman who published a booklet about Palmer entitled “The Old Oto Doctor” in 1997. “They dug all over Stone and surrounding counties. My friend, Freda Young, and I once dug a half sack of blood root, hauled it (to Palmer) on the school bus, and sold it for about 50 cents.”
There were some, however, who didn’t appreciate Palmer’s medical missionary efforts. Other local doctors — who couldn’t compete with free — made “no secret of their hearty dislike of him,” as one newspaper put it. Those feelings likely contributed to his arrest in July 1933, propelled by the Missouri Department of Health, for practicing medicine without a license.
But those he helped quickly came to help him.
“As soon as word of the arrest got around, Palmer was surrounded by many of his followers, and he had no difficulty in finding signers for a $1,000 bond,” reported the Leader & Press in December 1933.
The support continued: In October 1933, Palmer was acquitted when no one would testify that he had accepted money for his services. The scene at the courthouse was recounted by famed folklorist Vance Randolph in his book “Ozark Superstitions,” who also noted that Palmer was perhaps the most famous yarb — Ozarks-speak for herb — doctor ever known.
“The yarb doctor walked out of court a free man and was greeted with loud cheers from the assembled yokelry. Somebody even shot off some firecrackers, ordinarily reserved for Christmas and the Fourth of July,” Randolph wrote.
At that point, local attorneys decided there wasn’t a point in pursuing the case further.
“We could prove he had no license, but we can’t prove he’s charging anything,” Prosecuting Attorney P.J. Harper told the newspaper at the conclusion of the case. “We’d have to take an individual case, you see, and the parties wouldn’t do it. Popular sentiment’s too strong for him. No one would testify against him.”
Palmer’s fame only continued to grow. He was sought by newspapers for stories, but he never permitted their photographers to snap his photo because, in his mind, it would allow the outside world to recognize him. However, he would conduct interviews like one with a Kansas City Star reporter who asked the doctor about his real identity in 1933.
“That I cannot tell you,” the doctor said. “Not because of anything disgraceful or dishonorable in my past, but I retired from the outside world several years ago, discarded my last name as as to be entirely lost to the world that knew me, and separated from my past. I had a nervous breakdown, and I came into the quiet backwoods to get away from the world and rest.”
The reporter countered back: “You are not resting, far from it. How did you come to take up medical practice here?”
“‘La Forzo del destiny,” the doctor said. “I was forced into it by destiny or fate.”
The Springfield newspaper reporter who came to visit Palmer in 1933 was assigned to do a series of feature stories about the doctor. He came with an artist, dispatched to sketch the doctor since photographs weren’t allowed. The first of their stories was published on Dec. 15, and brought readers along on the reporter’s trip to Oto:
“A man who appeared to be a native wandered over to our car. We asked him where we could find Omar Palmer, the Oto doctor. He took his corn cob pipe out of his mouth, spat and pointed, with the pipe, at the house.
“‘Was you lookin’ for treatment?’ he asked. We told him we were not.
“‘I was gonna say, if you was, some of these people been here since 4 o’clock this morning, and you’d have to go up to the door and register. There’s a dozen or more registered up there already.’
That experience wasn’t an unusual one, and the Coxes’ lawn often looked liked a used car lot. By that time, the clinic lived in the home, as did Palmer after his camp washed away.
“At one time, a reporter counted 14 out-of-state licenses on cars parked around the Cox yard, their owners hoping to see Palmer for a diagnosis,” printed the “History of Stone County, Missouri,” a book about the area.
Those folks created a unique atmosphere, one recounted in “The Wizard of Oto”:
“People arrived in Galena, Crane or Hurley by train then journeyed on to Oto by foot, car, carriage or by horse. The crowds would overflow the house. The living room filled, then the stair steps, then the porch. Many were forced to wait on the grounds. After signing the waiting list posted on the front porch, the ‘patients’ sought diversions until their meeting time.
The yard surrounding the house became a playground. Some played checkers underneath the spreading shade of the box elder. The huge walnut tree shaded a guitar picker and fiddler. A small crowd would gravitate toward that which interested or entertained them the most. Some people chose to visit with old friends that they probably hadn’t seen for quite some time. And some made new acquaintances. If the list filled to number 50, the patients camped near the creek or on the river bank. At dusk the sounds of tree frogs, crickets, people softly laughing while spreading an evening meal in anticipation of the next day’s wait blended in a carnival atmosphere.”
It sounded far less fun for Palmer. His comments were recounted in the same book:
“The crowd never melts away. For example, yesterday morning I got up at 9 and probably 100 persons were waiting to see me. I worked steadily all day seeing as many as I could, until dark and right on all night stopping only when I was so completely fagged out that I could no longer stand at 6:30 this morning. I went to bed then, leaving just as many waiting and slept four hours until 10:30 forenoon. Then I went at it again, and probably I will work until 3 or 5 o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Despite the intense schedule, Palmer did seem to have a social life — and an interest in young women. Accounts indicate that the 70-something Palmer proposed marriage to at least two locals in their 20s. The first was a woman named Christobell, who turned him down.
The second was a widow named June Powell from Aurora, who had a young daughter. The couple met when the woman accompanied her father on his appointment at the clinic. Love ensued between 27-year-old Powell and 72-year-old Palmer, who wed in the early 1930s.
After marrying, the couple added two daughters to their family: Frances, born in January 1935, and Emma, born in April 1937.
Palmer moved his practice to Hurley in 1934. (Courtesy of “The Wizard of Oto”)
Palmer continued at Oto until 1934, when Hurley’s leaders lured him away with the promise of free housing and clinic space. It was an offer likely extended because of business opportunity instead of benevolence (and perhaps accepted out of desire to have more space with his new wife).
The new clinic, housed in a rock building right along Spring Creek, increased his accessibility and visibility.
“Since Palmer came to Hurley a year ago, the town has seen prosperity such as it never knew before,” noted the Sedalia Democrat in March 1935. “Automobiles from all over the Ozarks crowded the narrow Main Street. Pedestrians choked the one sidewalk. People slept in their cars, even pitched tents and camped, waiting to see the man they thought could heal them.”
The new space also allowed something else in 1935: The start of Oto Remedy Company, through which the doctor sold his prescriptions nationwide.
According to a 1995 article in the Post-Dispatch, the pharmacy made Palmer a wealthy man.
Advertisements for Palmer’s prescriptions appeared in a variety of newspapers across the country. (Courtesy of the Sedalia Democrat)
At the time, however, his primary focus remained treating patients. That continued for the next few months, but started to change in October 1937 when he moved to Aurora. He continued seeing patients there until February 1938, when the clinic in Hurley suddenly closed.
That month, June Palmer and her attorney, J. William Cook, arrived to pay off employees and remove fixtures and supplies. They also came bearing a letter from the doctor himself:
Palmer sent a letter about the clinic’s changes to his employees in 1938. (Courtesy of “The Wizard of Oto”)
At the time, locals hoped the clinic might reopen, but feared it wouldn’t. “The closing of the clinic came as a shock to the little town as the patients who went there for the wizard’s medicine spent hundreds of dollars monthly while awaiting treatment,” according to the book “The Wizard of Oto.” “As one citizen put it, ‘We thought we’d been ruint.'”
The definite decision came in May 1938, when a form letter was sent to his patients. In it, Palmer wrote he would soon be able to see them at his estate near Pineville. Dubbed Rockford Grange, it’s where he built a three-story, natural rock mansion overlooking an artificial lake stocked with fish.
It officially marked the end of the mystery medicine man’s time in Stone County.
No one seems to know for sure what spurred his rapid departure from the community who loved him so much. One theory, discounted today but discussed at the time, tied him to Germany during World War II.
Crane attorney Robert Wiley, now his mid-70s, grew up in the area and recalls his uncle getting in touch with his mother “because there were some rumors that maybe he was agent for the Germans in some fashion.”
“But that was all BS,” says Wiley. “I don’t think that was true. And nothing ever came of that. But that was still lingering in the community.”
Although little information is available, it seems that Palmer did continue to see patients at various times throughout the rest of his life.
Palmer died at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Prairie Grove, Ark., on April 13, 1946 and was buried at Maple Park Cemetery in Aurora. His widow soon moved to Oklahoma, taking their children with her.
His death ended a chapter in Ozarks history — but not a legacy.
Wiley, the local historian, recalls a mother bringing her child from New York in the 1950s for the famous doctor’s aid. Looking back, he believes they came seeking a cure for the child’s “affliction from birth,” perhaps one that left the youngster unable to talk.
“By that time, he was long gone,” says Wiley, who notes that his mother was a ticket agent for the Missouri-Pacific depot. “She took them in (for the night), and then next day she got them tickets and they were able to take the train back to New York.”
Questions still unanswered
The Cox home, where Palmer practiced, as it appears in 2017.
More than 70 years after his death, many questions still puzzle about Palmer. Did his family wonder what happened to him? What happened to the remedy company, which operated for a few years longer before seemingly disappearing? Why did he try so diligently to forget his past?
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that they will ever be answered. Most folk who remembered him firsthand simply are no longer around.
One of the greatest connections to Palmer is the home in Oto, which still stands today. A knock on the door reveals its inhabitants know of its former life — and not only because of what is said in books.
“I’ve heard voices, flashes of light,” says Kasey Lightfoot, who has lived in the home for around three years and says she believes the house is haunted. “I think (it’s) Mr. Palmer’s spirit, as well as the lady who helped him.”
She also mentions another visitor, one she believes is a little girl who visited as a patient. “She comes out in the wintertime,” says Lightfoot, noting the child apparition appears to be wearing a nightgown. “She came out last year and asked by daughter to play.”
“Apparently they like us here. They’re not mean to us,” she says, adding that “I feel pretty honored to live here because of the history.”
In years past, local writers have worked to compile histories of the famed doctor.
One was published in 1997, when local newspaper columnist Lillie Jackson created a booklet telling stories of people who Palmer helped at his clinic in Hurley. “It is such a shame that stories of his wonderful works were not recorded when they happened, for they were fascinating stories of miracles performed by a hobo who became a famous doctor,” wrote Jackson in the booklet. “These stories, like the doctor, are now lying beneath the sod, never to be recorded.”
Another source — the most comprehensive one about Palmer — was an aforementioned book entitled “The Wizard of Oto.” Written by local woman Carley Andrus in 1985, its content was was largely based on journal entries by Ettie Cox from when Palmer worked and lived at her Oto home.
The journal would likely provide valuable information about the famous doctor. Unfortunately, its location is a mystery. Upon Ettie Cox’s death, the journal passed to her daughter, Fannie Cox. However, when Fannie Cox died in 1991, her possessions were bequeathed to a minister in Marionville. So far, attempts to find the journal have been unsuccessful.
There’s a chance Palmer’s children could give some some insight — if they were alive. Unfortunately, his daughters have since died, the last one passing away in 2016. He still has grandchildren living in the Ozarks, but a family member says they were told very little about Palmer.
Perhaps it’s the way Palmer wanted it.
“Palmer remained a mystery man to the last,” recorded an unidentified newspaper article in “The Wizard of Oto.” “He spoke of medical institutions and leaders in America and Europe and did it familiarly and accurately. He called himself a man without a country. Where he came from or what he was before he arrived here in the Ozarks will probably never be known, but the people trusted him and believed him. And he will never be forgotten.”
Want to learn more?
The Stone County Historical Society has information at its museum in Crane that the public can read. They also sell copies of “The Wizard of Oto,” which are available for $10.
“Concealing his name and past, the old doctor of Oto set ups a free clinic deep in Ozarks,” The Kansas City Star, Dec. 31, 1933
“Crowds seek a miracle man in Ozark hills,” Jefferson City Post-Tribune, Dec. 15, 1933
“Emma Vaughn,” obituary, 2016
“Frances Berger,” obituary, 2013
“Hundreds pay last tribute at funeral for mystery man of medicine of Ozarks,” Joplin Globe, April 16, 1946
“The mystery doctor who became the wizard healer,” F.A. Behymer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 5, 1935
“Mysterious ‘Healer’ brings prosperity to little hamlet in Ozarks region,” Sedalia Democrat, March 3, 1935
“The Old Oto Doctor,” Lillie Jackson, 1997
“Ozark Superstitions,” Vance Randolph, 1947
“Ozark Wizard,” Bill Smith, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 24, 1995
“Strange legends are told about ‘The Wizard of Oto,'” Allen Oliver, Springfield Leader & Press, Dec. 16, 1933
“Thongs seek healing by ‘The Wizard of Oto,'” Allen Oliver, Springfield Leader & Press, Dec. 15, 1933
“The Wizard of Oto,” Carley Andrus, 1985
“Wizard concocts medicine from native Ozarks herbs,” Allen Oliver, Sunday News and Leader, Dec. 17, 1933
“‘Wizard of Oto’ wins new fame in Ozark hills,” Jefferson City Post-Tribune, May 17, 1935