On the evening of November 25, 1936, Dr. Edwin Katskee gave himself a large injection of cocaine and calmly recorded his observations as the narcotic took effect. While he likely knew that death was imminent, he made no apparent attempt to get help or administer the antidote he had close at hand. Instead, he continued to write notes on the wall of his Omaha,Nebraska office though, as he slowly lost consciousness, the handwritten notes became increasingly difficult to read.
Describing what he had done as a "scientific experiment with death," the 34-year-old Katskee included the following statement: "Narcotic addiction will be a major problem in the U.S. in the near future. But I maintain that we MDs should know more about than the addicts themselves." He also added a series of instructions for emergency resuscitation including the need for artificial respiration and an oxygen tank as the victim was transported to the nearest hospital. But nobody was there to rescue him at the end. Instead, his body was discovered by his father the following morning as he came to investigate why his son had failed to return home the previous evening. All that remained was one final question: Had he intended to commit suicide and, if so, why?
Born and raised in Nebraska, Edwin Katskee had always been an exceptional student. Along with being a member of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, he went on to graduate from the University of Nebraska medical school in 1924. He interned at King's County hospital in Brooklyn where he apparently faced considerable harassment due to his Jewish background though he managed to earn a specialization in proctology and returned to open a Lincoln, Nebraska medical practice in 1927. He also married Bernice Diamond and they would eventually have two children together. In the years that followed. Edwin stayed fairly active as a physician-researcher, including presenting at a number of professional conferences and becoming an amateur photographer. Aside from being robbed at gunpoint in 1931, his life appeared fairly uneventful and he and Bernice became prominent figures in Lincoln society.
But by 1936, the year of his death, Dr. Katskee's life began to fall apart. In August of that year, Bernice filed for divorce citing "extreme cruelty" and asking for custody of their two young children. Not long afterward, Edwin experienced a series of health crises, including gall bladder surgery and spending time in a sanitarium. Just two months later, Edwin's uncle, Arthur Katskee committed suicide following a nervous breakdown.
At the beginning of November, Edwin moved to Omaha and opened an office there closer to his parents' home. Bernice stayed in Lincoln with their two children but, by all accounts, Edwin remained in good spirits despite the end of his marriage. Certainly nobody had any idea of what was about to happen. On November 25, just hours before his death, Dr. Katsbee came down to the lobby of his office building to speak with the bellboy, Jerry Thomas. The bellboy later told police that the doctor appeared nervous and exited. Wearing what was apparently a cuff for checking blood pressure around his arm, Katsbee sent Thomas to a nearby pharmacy with a prescription he had prepared. It was for a sizable dose of narcotics (which could still be legally obtained at the time with a doctor's note). He also gave the bellboy a book to be returned to the local library.
After coming back from the pharmacy, Thomas gave Katsbee the order and didn't see him again until 11:30 pm that same evening. That was when Katsbee called him into his office and showed him the various messages scrawled on the wall. Thomas was even more startled when Katsbee told him not to let anyone erase what he had written as it was part of his research. He then had Thomas test his reflexes by hitting both knees with a book. After being satisfied that his reflexes were normal, he sent the bellboy back to his desk. Not long afterward, he called Thomas into his office again and asked him to tighten the rubber band around his arm. That would be the last time anyone saw him alive.
While Edwin Katskee hadn't given any indication of what he was planning, the notes scrawled on his office walls provided a running account of what he was experiencing as he slipped into unconsciousness. Whatever his real motivation, he seemed determined to save his final thoughts for posterity. One note on the wall read "Results will be recorded in an RX book (which was never found afterward). Have a university or any medical college give you an opinion of my findings. They better be good because I'm not going to repeat the experiment. I will not be able to observe vomiting, someone else do that. I drank one can of beer previous to medication." Among the symptoms he carefully described were: "1. Speech and only tongue movable - Can't understand that movable tongue and no speech. Voice O.K.; 2. Staggering gait preceding paralysis; 3. Paralysis..." This paralysis apparently passed after a time as he was able to continue his description of his symptoms. The note on the wall went on to say: "Eyes mildly dilated. Vision excellent. Partial recovery. Called help. Convulsions decreased when brain functioned on thoughts. Deeper the thinking, less the paralysis and convulsions."
In what may have been his final note, he wrote "All memory gone. Phone numbers and addresses not clear that come. They must be there originally and are driven up by this super sensation." He also added what was likely a final editorial on his experiment: "Advise all inquisitive MDs to lay off this stuff." When his father found Katsbee's body the following morning, the rubber tube was still on his arm though the rest of the blood pressure equipment was in another room. Police found cocaine and morphine in containers near his body and they also found puncture marks suggesting Katskee had injected the morphine as well. There were also signs that he had staggered around the room during the course of his convulsions and, possibly, had been trying to get help despite being disoriented.
There was still some legal wrangling over whether Dr. Katskee had intended to commit suicide or not. Though he had written "Narcotic poisoning, not a suicide" in bold letters on his office wall, people aware of the recent turmoil in the doctor's life were not so certain. No formal inquest was ever held and the coroner simply ruled that Edwin Katskee had taken his own life. He justified this conclusion stating that, "As a medical man, he knew an overdose of the narcotic would prove fatal."
While family members disputed the suicide explanation and suggested it had simply been an experiment gone wrong, no real evidence to prove this ever surfaced. Certainly none of the experimental notes he referred to in his final statement ever turned up afterward. In what was perhaps the ultimate irony, his scribbled notes about his death were deemed to be useless from a scientific perspective and Edwin Katskee faded into obscurity. Though his final description of what he was experiencing as he died is probably unique in the annals of medicine, the mystery surrounding his death would remain his final accomplishment.