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McHistory: Dr. William Hill, A Man Of Many Contradictions

Dr. William Hill, a 19th century physician who lived in Bloomington, helped professionalize medicine in McLean County, yet his abrasive personality earned him many detractors.
McLean County Museum of History
Dr. William Hill, a 19th century physician who lived in Bloomington, helped professionalize medicine in McLean County, yet his abrasive personality earned him many detractors.

A 19th century Bloomington doctor was a respected physician yet accused of stealing corpses. He was a Democrat in a town full of Republicans yet won election to the State House. He was a teacher of other doctors yet made a lot of enemies because of a difficult personality.

Dr. William Hill was full of contradictions.

Dr. Hill came to Bloomington in 1865 just after the end of the Civil War. He was born in Ohio and became a doctor through what was then a common, yet unconventional by today’s standards, path. He attended lectures, studied privately, and had what amounted to tutorials or apprenticeships with other physicians.

In an odd coincidence, Hill was the attending physician at the birth of "The Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan, and was a contemporary of Adlai Stevenson I.

Hill had practiced medicine in Salem, Ill., but joined the Union Army during the war.

After the war, Hill came to Bloomington in October of 1865, though he quipped that for him the war seemed to last a couple years longer. That’s because Hill was a Democrat, a party that largely backed slavery before the war. Hill had not, but he remained what was called an old-line, rock-ribbed Democrat and he didn’t care who knew it. The Twin Cities was Republican territory after the war.

Hill remarked to contemporaries that people in Bloomington "took him for a rebel of the deepest dye and had it in for him accordingly." This came out when he ran for the state House of Representatives.

“The brother of the man running for Congress tried to whip me. Failing in that he tried to shoot me. He failed on me as a target,” said Hill.

Hill said the gunman did hit someone else in the foot. Hill was elected to the Illinois House where he served for two years, said McLean County Museum of History Museum Archivist and Librarian Bill Kemp, adding Hill had an abrasive personality.

“From all available evidence, Dr. William Hill was extremely bright but also stubborn, quarrelsome, a loudmouth, and a little bit of a frat boy prankster,” said Kemp. “But he did have some qualities which lent itself to aiding the community in its early years and developing some medical professionalism, and for that he has a legacy.

“In later years when reflecting on his political career he said his primary activities were to receive his pay and raise a little hell,” said Kemp.

Although he was a respected public figure, he was accused of body snatching twice. He was known to take on young physicians, more than 35 during his career, a point of personal pride. The doctor would keep cadavers in his office to help during his lessons with these physicians.

One night a man had been run over and brought to the office, but he was beyond medical aid and died shortly after. Hill said an undertaker brought along a superstitious man to transport the body to the cemetery with his carriage.

“The driver was intently staring, intently gazing at the manipulations of the undertaker fastening the coffin down. On my dissecting table there was a subject covered with a cloth of course. Alan Stewart came in and uncovered the subject displaying it to the frightened gaze of my Irish friend.”

Two nights later, a mob arrived at the office of Dr. Hill after the news had spread with people demanding an explanation of Dr. Hill as a body snatcher.

A committee was appointed to find out the condition of his work, and Dr. Hill explained the situation to the mob’s satisfaction.

Dr. Hill was a key figure in the establishment of the McLean County Medical Society in the 19th century. He passed away in 1906, but his legacy survives in the home of 100 block of East Olive Street designed by noted architect William Pillsbury. It became known as the Pillsbury Mansion.

The home was razed to make way for the current Bloomington City Hall as that whole area was remade during urban renewal in the 1960s. Kemp said the fight to preserve the home by Hill’s granddaughter who lived there was just one of the things that sparked the historic preservation movement in Bloomington-Normal.

McHistory is a co-production of WGLT and the McLean County Museum of History, bringing you the voices and stories of McLean County people from days gone by. Charlie Schlenker produced this episode and the audio contains the voices of Bill Kemp and museum volunteer Scott Myers.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Maritza Navar-Lopez is a student reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the newsroom in 2021.
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