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Rx for Living

Written by Diana H. Kunde.

Not too many people survive their own executions. During the Civil War, Eli S. Penwell, a long-suffering doctor from Bonham, survived not only that but a good deal more.

Dr. Penwell (1819-1892) came to Texas from Indiana with his family in the late 1840s and set up a medical practice in Bonham, where he soon became an active and well-liked member of the community. Still, he had been against secession, and he had been born a Yankee. One night in 1864, a friend warned that a militia unit was seeking him as a northern sympathizer. Frightened, the doctor left town with about a dozen other alarmed residents, who hoped to reach Union-held Fort Smith, Arkansas. On the way, Confederate deserters, one of whom was probably a spy, joined the group. It wasn’t long before Confederate troops found the runaways, killed some, and captured others, including Penwell. They then continued onward to deliver the prisoners.

One night while celebrating, the soldiers decided to hang Dr. Penwell. Fortunately for him, they muffed the job: His weight bent the tree limb and brought his toes to the ground. The doctor survived. In the light of day, the soldiers thought better of their action and delivered him to military authorities. After months in prison, he was tried for treason, but with the help of able defense lawyers, he was acquitted.

Penwell didn’t stick around to find out what might happen next. Still fearing the Confederates, he fled to Mexico in the fall of 1864, a harrowing journey that involved hiding during the day and traveling by night. From Mexico, he found passage to New Orleans and then to Illinois, where he again set up a medical practice. After almost a year, his family was able to join him.

Ten years after the war ended, Eli Penwell returned to Texas with his family and once again practiced medicine in Bonham. He died there of natural causes 17 years later. A historical plaque in the town, on the south side of the Fannin County Courthouse square, recounts Dr. Penwell’s ordeal.

From the August 2006 issue.

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