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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

The curious case of Scott County's curious Doctor M.V. Mayfield

(Editors note: This article first appeared in August of 2017 on Today in Fort Smith. We are reposting it as a courtesy to one of our readers.)

Sometimes, things are not what they appear to be. Or they appear to be something they are not.

Such was the case with Dr. M.V. Mayfield, a pre-World War I era physcian who was a pioneer in medicine in Polk County. Dr. Mayfield who had been born in England came to Mena in 1918 and earned a reputation as “the cancer doctor”.

Little was known about the past of the good doctor. Victor Mayfield was seventy-one years old by the time the medical practice opened in rented rooms above the Central Meat market, located at 709 Mena Street in the heart of the business district.

Eventually, word came of two marriages in the distant past to different women and a jail fire in which the doctor was thought to have been killed several years earlier.

A letter from Belvidere, Illinois, claimed Dr. Mayfield was married and “frequented saloons and pool halls.”

The doctor also claimed to have worked for the government in Washington, D.C., though this was later repudiated.

More questions emerged than were ever answered.

Mena was far from just a sleepy little town at the time. During Dr. Mayfield’s time as one of the most prominent medical professionals in the region, much change hit the area.

Several years before Dr. Mayfield came to Mena, the town had been struck by three disasters — one fiscal, one cultural, and the other natural.

In 1910, the railroad moved its division shops from Mena to Heavener, Oklahoma. More than 800 jobs were lost in the transfer. Also, early in the 1900’s, Hendrix Academy, a private school, also closed. On April 13, 1911, Mena was struck by a tornado.

But Mena survived, albeit in a form that was typical of a lot of small towns located in isolated, rural areas. Part of that legacy included a period of time in which race relations were tenuous at best.

This tension, combined with changing job prospects with the relocation of railroad division shops, apparently convinced many African Americans to leave the area, and Mena slowly became a “sundown town.”

There were 152 black residents of Mena in 1900 but only sixteen in 1910. By 1920, the black population for the entirety of Polk County had fallen to just nine, and the March 18, 1920, edition of the Mena Star proudly advertised the small city as “100% white.”

In 1922, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in Mena, with between 2,500 and 4,000 citizens turning out to hear state kleagle D. E. Rhodes speak at the local ballpark on the principles of the Klan.

Through all of this Dr. Mayfield continued to practice medicine and treat patients from all walks of life, not only southwest Arkansas, but from far away as Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.

According to one source, Dr. Mayfield was friends with Chester Lauck and Norris Goff before they became “Lum and Abner” and the “social” drinking, pipe smoking doctor belonged to all the right clubs and organizations.

For all the things that the community had been through over the years, it was an incident on January 23, 1926 that put Dr. Mayfield…and Mena … in the crosshairs of the national media.

At the age of 79, the doctor’s heath was failing and in the cold winter months of 1926 Dr. W. C. Vandiver was called in to treat Mayfield for what seemed to be terminal illness.

During the course of that medical treatment, a shocking discovery occurred. When the doctor reached a point of not being able to even bathe, caregivers stepped in to make care of those duties.

It was then they discovered that “Victor” was actually “Victoria,” a biological female who had been living as a male over over 70 years.

As the news spread, Mena drew attention nationwide for its he-to-she doctor story. Calls came from news people in Fort Smith, Little Rock, Muskogee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and New York City as everyone wanted the details on the life or Dr. Victoria Mary Mayfield.

Mayfield was not able to pay her medical bills at the time and asked the photographer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, F. A. Behymer, for a $10 donation.

Friends of the doctor arranged for her care in the home of a woman named Sharp. People feared Mayfield would die without telling her life story, and a national effort was made to fill in the details.

In a few months, Mayfield recovered and left Mena. The August 3 issue of the Mena Star printed a letter from Mayfield saying she was living in David City, Nebraska.

She returned to Mena by 1927 but had to become a ward of the county for two years in the county farm at Rust (now Potter).

She died on August 24, 1929, carrying most of her life story with her.

She was buried in Gann Cemetery, south of Mena, as a pauper in an unmarked grave, and, as she had wished, in men’s clothing, with the service performed by a woman, Fannie Vise.

One footnote to the curious life of Dr. Mayfield.

In 1982, Hollywood producer Blake Edwards made a film version of a German musical farce that had been making the rounds in cinema and on Broadway in one form of another since 1933.

The first-ever movie of the story, which dealt with a woman portraying a man to infiltrate the nightclub scene in 1934 Paris, was conceived and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, one of the few Jewish artists that was allowed to continue makes films under the Nazi-regime of Adolph Hitler.

His inspiration for “Viktor und Viktoria”?

A yellowed clipping from the New York Times from January 1926 about a gender-bending doctor in Mena, Arkansas.

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