Dr. John C. Handy possessed a number of admirable human qualities and was much admired by Tucsonans whose health needs he had ministered for seven years.
But he had a character flaw – a fiery, violent temper. That temper left him lying on a Tucson sidewalk in September 1891, gut-shot and dying.
Handy was born in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 20, 1844, and moved with his parents to California in 1853.
He earned his medical degree in San Francisco and served as an Army surgeon at Fort Apache and Camp Thomas, where he was said to have acquired an Apache wife and a passing skill with the language. It was there that he killed the post trader over a “matter of honor.” He was acquitted.
Handy was named in November 1886 as first chancellor of the University of Arizona, but was removed from office the following year for refusing to attend regents’ meetings for six months after quarreling with them.
The deadly encounter that would claim his life occurred Sept. 24 at the corner of Pennington and Church streets. There Handy encountered another of the Old Pueblo’s professional men, lawyer Francis J. Heney, whom the doctor had sworn to kill.
The pair “had words” and, as the argument grew more heated, Handy was said to have reached for Heney’s throat, prompting the lawyer to draw a revolver. Handy gripped the lawyer’s wrist in an effort to disarm him or deflect the muzzle of the weapon away from himself.
Several individuals approached after hearing a single shot fired. They found both men struggling and then falling to the ground, Handy bottommost and still gripping Heney’s wrist.
It took a deputy and others some effort to remove the handgun from Heney’s grip and Handy’s fingers from Heney’s wrist. At that point, it was noticed that Handy had been shot in the lower abdomen.
Handy told bystanders that Heney had shot him. Heney, in turn, said Handy had attacked him first. The doctor had a revolver in his own pocket, but had not drawn it. It was removed by a bystander and given to the investigating deputy.
What had precipitated the fatal set-to was Handy’s suit for divorce from his second wife, Mary Page Scott Handy. She was the daughter of Larcena Pennington Page Scott, who had gained local fame by crawling through the desert for more than a week to escape Apaches who had kidnapped her and then lanced her and left her for dead.
The doctor had made it known around Tucson that any attorney foolish enough to represent her in the divorce case “would be sorry.” Heney had ignored the doctor’s threat and had been working with Mrs. Handy in the divorce proceedings.
After the shooting, the wounded doctor was taken to his office a block away, and then to his home. Heney surrendered to authorities and arranged to be represented by attorney Selim M. Franklin. His bond was set at $6,000 and was promptly posted by three friends.
Drs. Michael Spencer and Hiram Fenner removed the bullet, which had nearly penetrated Handy’s body, from near the base of his spine.
However, Handy insisted that Tombstone’s Dr. George Goodfellow be called to try to repair the internal damage. Goodfellow was widely known for his expertise in treating gunshot wounds – and, coincidentally, for his own hot temper.
Courtroom testimony indicated that Handy had said repeatedly in public that he intended to kill Heney, and that on one occasion he had intentionally driven his buggy close enough to the lawyer to graze him as he walked along the street.
Goodfellow came by buggy and rail to Tucson, arriving about 8:15 p.m. the day of the shooting. The operation was begun two hours later, and he found 18 perforations in Handy’s intestines, which he immediately set about cleaning and closing.
Handy, however, died before the surgery could be completed, at 1:15 a.m. Sept. 25. Masonic funeral rites were held here, and his sister accompanied the body by rail to Oakland, Calif., where he was buried in a family plot near his father.
Heney, who lived until Oct. 13, 1937, later became a California Superior Court judge. One of Handy’s sons, John C. Handy Jr., reportedly swore he would kill Heney to avenge his father’s death, but changed his mind after meeting him and became a lifelong friend, instead.