By JIM ZBICK
One of the many memorable characters in the Seinfeld sitcom series – that "show about nothing" – was a psychotic tough guy named Crazy Joe Davola.
A century ago, Schuylkill County had its own bizarre character in Jabez Burke, an eccentric who made national headlines by organizing his own group called, fittingly enough, the Crazy Society.
The English-born Burke came to America after an "unfortunate turn of affairs in which he lost all his money," according to the Tamaqua Courier. Here, he took on the trade of farrier, which he believed would propel him to an elevated position in his native Great Britain.
"One of his chief delusions was that some day he would return to England to take care of the king's horses," the Courier stated.
Burke craved attention, making himself a well-known character throughout the region. The Courier said he "frequently paraded the streets dressed in fantastic costume."
When he organized his Crazy Society, his intent was to include "all the notable men of the region." He tried to recruit members for his group by advertising in newspapers around the country and reportedly received applications for membership nationwide.
When it came to his veterinary work, however, some officials did not think his practices were all that funny. According to the Journal of Comparative Medicine and Surgery, Burkes gave the state medical board "considerable trouble" in the late 19th century.
The journal stated that Burkes had "somewhat new and novel methods," while proclaiming himself a "veterinary nurse." After the state board began receiving complaints about Burke, they notified him by letter to "stop practicing veterinary surgery."
The journal also told of one of the ploys Burke would use.
"He would find where there were lame horses, then offer to treat, nurse, and cure them for a stipulated sum," the Journal said. "No cure, no pay. In a few days he would claim the animal sound and demand his money.
"If not forthcoming, threats of lawsuits, followed by a compromise, generally wound up the case. After disturbing the peace and quiet of a community and ruffling the temper of the local vets and horseshoers, exit Mr. Burke."
Burke worked the Tamaqua area for a time, and then went to Mahanoy City where charges were filed by a disgruntled employee.
Dr. Hoskins, secretary of the state veterinary board, notified him to "quit his practice." After the correspondence failed, James W. Sallade, first president of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Examining Board, paid him a personal visit.
"I went there to see the fellow, and he had the audacity and impudence to abuse me and the board, claiming that the law was unconstitutional and that we were persecuting him," Sallade said of that meeting in Mahanoy City.
Unable to resolve the matter diplomatically, Sallade swore out a warrant, charging Burke with "illegally practicing veterinary medicine and surgery." His arrest followed.
The case was heard on July 19. 1901. Burke entered a guilty plea and promised the court never to violate the law again if it would deal leniently with him. The court said it would but reminded Burke that if he ever came up on a similar charge, any followup penalty would be severe.
Burke was given a $15 fine and sentenced to serve three months in jail.
Burke's mental health declined after that court case and, because of he was the founder of the Crazy Society, his story made national news. In 1903, The Saint Paul (Minn.) Globe ran a story under the headline "Promoter of a Freak Society Qualifies for His Crank."
Under a Pottsville dateline the article stated that "Prof. Jabez Burke, who in a moment of eccentricity and out of a spirit of fun started a 'crazy society,' has become unbalanced by the success of the venture.
"The weird notoriety he attained in a few weeks completely turned his head and he insisted on making speeches, singing songs and dancing at inopportune times and places. Owing to these peculiar eccentricities, the police have been obliged to arrest him and he is now in the county jail," the article said.
According to reports, Burke was found insane in 1903. He was transferred from the county to the state asylum in Harrisburg in June 1909 after suffering from "softening of the brain" and becoming "very violent."
During his final hours in the hospital, it appears that Burke mellowed and finally received some of the attention he had so desperately craved all his life.
"The hospital authorities took a liking to him and did everything in their power to cure him but he became gradually worse until the end came yesterday," the Courier reported in April of 1910.
He was about 60 years old. Fresh in the minds of local residents were his outlandish stunts, such as parading through the streets of Tamaqua and other area towns in "fantastic costumes."
James Sallade, the state veterinary official who had Burke arrested in Mahanoy City, outlived his rival by 11 years. Best known for getting the first veterinary law through the state legislature in 1889, Sallade died in Auburn in 1921, after suffering intense agony, a result of "paralysis of the bowels."