An Early Victim of Identity Theft

While I have been fortunate never to have been the victim of identity theft, I suspect the feelings of those victimized are similar to those of us who have experienced a home burglary. My wife and I experienced the latter nearly thirty years ago: a daytime smash and grab operation through a backyard window while we were away at work. All we lost physically was a pillowcase filled with some jewelry items. Still, I still remember the distinct feelings this crime triggered—a sense of personal violation, insecurity, vulnerability and, of course, anger. I suspect Dr. Emma W. Mooers experienced similar emotions over a century ago.

Emma W. Mooers graduated from the University of Michigan medical college in 1884. She was one of thirteen women in a 92-member graduating class. She later practiced at McLean Hospital in Waverly, Massachusetts and by 1896 made her way to the Neuropathology Department at Harvard Medical School. Obviously, this was a very talented physician. Shortly before her arrival at Harvard, Dr. Mooers first learned that someone been practicing medicine under her name.

Dr. Emma W. Mooers, University of Michigan medical school, Class of 1884

Sometime in 1894 or ’95, Victor Vaughan (Dean of the Michigan medical school) received a letter of complaint from a physician in a small north Michigan town. The disgruntled doctor claimed a UM grad, Dr. Emma Mooers was practicing nearby; and in a manner he deemed highly “irregular.” However, Vaughan knew that Emma Mooers was in Massachusetts, not Michigan. Vaughan told the doctor they had an imposter in their community and to take action immediately. Before an arrest could be made, the faux Dr. Mooers fled. Vaughan and his colleagues soon tracked the imposter to Chicago but again the faux Dr. Mooers eluded authorities, fleeing before they could arrest her. Then silence—for the next few years nothing more was heard of the faux Dr. Mooers.

Fast forward to the year 1900. The real Dr. Emma Mooers is firmly established at Harvard when Dr. S. D. Van Meter, Secretary for the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners, received an inquiry from Dr. Emma W. Cory for a license. In her application, she supplied a certificate from a Univ. of Michigan official attesting to Emma Mooers graduating in 1884, explained Mooers as her maiden name and that her original diploma had been destroyed in a fire—thus the certificate.  The Colorado board, trusting the UM document and unaware of what Vaughan knew, issued a license. Soon enough, Dr. Cory’s conduct of her practice aroused the board’s suspicions but as Van Meter later wrote, “Suspicions without proof are worthless.”

The faux Mooers, now practicing as Dr. Cory, almost got away with her identity theft. In fact, she would have if she had not run into, and struck up a conversation with, Dr. Laura Leibhardt—Michigan class of 1884! Recall there were only 13 women in that graduating class. Far too few for Leibhardt not to recognize it was an imposter standing before her claiming to be Dr. E. W. M. Cory, class of ’84. Leibhardt alerted the board; they filed formal charges with an arrest warrant forthcoming soon after.

Dr. Laura Leibhardt, UM Class of 1884

“Dr” Cory was probably overconfident. She had kept one step ahead of the authorities at least twice before. Now she even had in her possession an official certificate from UM attesting to her graduation. Why should she run again? Rather than bolt, she remained in state and showed up for her trial. What she didn’t know is that the real Dr. Emma Mooers had boarded a train and had traveled to Denver for the trial!

What an immensely satisfying moment it must have been for Dr. Emma Mooers to see her imposter convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. The Colorado board must have felt similarly. In an era of relatively poor communication and little coordination in verifying credentials, medical imposter stories like this one litter the professional literature. When Dr. Van Meter wrote about the Cory-Mooers case at length many years later, it was just one of a half dozen that he shared for the memorable elements they contained.

If that was all there was to this story, it would still be worth present as an interesting saga in its own right. But the epilogue I wish to share ties things up in a rather unexpected way.

For starters, we don’t know who Emma Cory was in reality. Furthermore, we don’t know how or why she selected Dr. Mooers for this identity theft and imposture. Their paths must’ve crossed in some way—tangential or otherwise—but how so remains a mystery.

To the disappointment of the real Dr. Mooers and others, the Colorado district court took pity on the imposter. The court suspended Emma Cory’s one year sentence and placed her on parole. Why? Her attorney undoubtedly placed great emphasis during the sentencing phase on his client’s status as a mother of several children. Cory fulfilled the conditions of her parole and, according to Van Meter, later practiced the “healing arts” as a discipline of Mary Baker Eddy. Otherwise, she seems to have disappeared from the historical record—at least to the extent of my cursory google searches. Perhaps a reader of this blog would like to do a little sleuthing?

And the real Dr. Emma Mooers? A hint of the tragic and the eerie followed her. Having to deal with several years of someone stealing her identity was bad enough. Fate was even less kind as Dr. Mooer’ promising career was cut short. She and her a colleague became infected while studying the tissue of a man who died of septic tonsillitis. Her colleague recovered; she did not—dying of streptococcus poisoning on May 31, 1911. She was only 52.

And the eerie element I mentioned? Well…check out the gentleman pictured next to her in their UM class of ’84 photo.

Mooers and H. W. Budgett

His name was Herman Webster Mudgett. Doesn’t ring a bell does it? But look closer—the photo may look familiar…you may even get a sense of ‘Where have I seen this guy before?’ if you a fan of the true crime genre. Let me help.

Think Devil in the White City…think H. H. Holmes, notorious serial killer. Now do you recognize him?  

Mooers, Budgett and Leibhardt, UM Class of 1884

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Sources:

S. D. Van Meter, “Medical Forgeries,” in Colorado Medicine, C. S. Bluemel, Ed.  (May 1925), 169-77

Victor Vaughn, “Papers Fraudulently Obtained,” JAMA. March 8, 1902, 658-59

A Handbook for Speakers on Public Health (Chicago: AMA Press, 1914) p. 463

Composite Photo, UM School of Medicine, Class of 1884. HS1501

Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.