Idaho History

‘Old tooth puller’ of Boise, Wild West was as much character, historian as dentist

“In his long practice, Dr. Leonard never had the luxury of a dental parlor as elegant as this one.”
“In his long practice, Dr. Leonard never had the luxury of a dental parlor as elegant as this one.” Provided by Arthur Hart

Dr. J.C. Leonard was not only a dentist, but a man with tremendous energy and a wide-ranging curiosity about the American West and its prehistoric people. He certainly qualifies as one of Idaho history’s most interesting characters.

In February 1885, his dental practice was divided between Boise City and Bellevue in the Wood River country. His ad in the Statesman featured two engravings of a molar, before and after the addition of a crown, and read “Gas Administered, Consultations Free. No Cheap John Work.”

In August 1886, Montana’s Helena Daily Herald reported the arrival of “Dr. J.C. Leonard, formerly of San Francisco,” who had leased offices and would soon enter upon the practice of his profession. The Idaho Statesman noted in November that he was back in Idaho: “Dr. J.C. Leonard, of Silver City, has formed a partnership for the winter with Dr. Arnold of this city and will take up his residence in Boise City in a few days.”

We are led to wonder how Dr. Leonard managed to travel many hundreds of miles all over the West, at all seasons, and in all kinds of weather. In September 1899, the Idaho Daily Statesman picked up a story about Leonard from the Chicago Times-Herald in which the doctor is quoted: “I travel along with two mules, a cart, my dog, a gun and my tooth pullers, all alone. I manage to stay in each town long enough to pull a couple of barrels of teeth and dicker for some new specimens for the collection, and then move on.” The “collection” mentioned was what Leonard considered his legacy, entrusted to the museum of the University of Michigan.

In the fall of 1898, the Idaho Statesman reported that Dr. Leonard was starting upon an expedition through the desert regions of Arizona to investigate the remains of cliff dwellers there and in old Mexico. It noted that, “All agree that Dr. Leonard is the strangest combination of dentist, tramp, paleontologist and queer character that ever befriended a great university.”

“By the same process of astronomical reasoning by which the date of the building of the pyramids was arrived at, the doctor figures that he probed around Arizona in a section that was inhabited by a very intelligent set of people over 6,000 years ago. The doctor has with him, among other things, a mummy which he secured in Arizona. He keeps the mummy in his wagon and varies tooth pulling with exhibiting and delivering lectures. ‘I’ve got to be quite a lecturer’ he told a reporter last night. ‘I had an invitation to deliver a lecture at the university at Ann Arbor where I have sent a number of very interesting things. I lectured though Nevada not long ago and did very well. Altogether I took in about $3,000 on the trip. Just tell them that the old tooth puller is all right.”

In September 1899, the Statesman reported: “Dr. J.C. Leonard, whose absence from his accustomed haunts for a long time caused a report to get into circulation that his bones were bleaching on the mountains is again with us. He has been down in Nevada and reports that he recently sent from Austin to the University of Michigan a very nice addition to the collection that he had earlier sent to that institution.”

In October, the Statesman reported that “J.C. Leonard, the pioneer dentist and tourist, will celebrate his 61st birthday tomorrow. He has invited his friends to dine with him at the banquet room in Odd Fellows hall from 12 to 2 on that day. He declares it to be his intention to turn a handspring at high noon on Main Street by way of convincing the boys that he is just as young as he used to be.” Next day he did so, “with all the spirit of a young athlete.”

As well-known as he was throughout the West in his lifetime, neither we nor the University of Michigan has been unable to find out when or where he died.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email