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Tent City Hero

One of the tents used to house low-income tuberculosis patients near Tucson.

One of the tents used to house low-income tuberculosis patients near Tucson.

Sporting a pitch helmet, linen suit and big white mutton-chop sideburns, Oliver E. Comstock pedaled his bicycle along Tucson’s dusty roads with a soup kettle hanging from the handlebars. He will never be as famous as Wyatt Earp, but he was a real hero to the residents of southern Arizona’s Tent City.

This community, sometimes called Tentville, sprang up around 1900 in the desert north of the University of Arizona. There were no paved roads, streetlights or sewers, just low-income space for tubercular “hangers” to live cheaply while they recovered or died.

Comstock, an Alabama printer and Southern Baptist minister, came to Tucson in 1907 with his wife Jennie and 10 children because one of his young daughters suffered from tuberculosis. They lost her and another daughter to the disease, but the family stayed around to help others recover and ease the pain of those who weren’t going to make it.

Comstock built a home near Tent City, and in 1909 opened the Adams Street Mission at 1030 E. Adams just outside of Tucson city limits. The next year, after a man committed suicide because his illness kept him from supporting his wife and children, Comstock set up three wooden-framed tents for indigent TB sufferers and named it Mercy Emergency Hospital.

In a 1978 Journal of Arizona History article titled “Ointment of Love,” old-time Tucsonan Dick Hall remembered his childhood in Tent City and the man they called Brother Comstock. “The nights were heartbreaking,” Hall said, “As one walked along the dark streets, he heard coughing from every tent. It was truly a place of lost souls and lingering death.”

A natural-born fundraiser with a compelling cause, Comstock joined the Masons, the Odd Fellows and any tiny organization that could bring attention to his cause. He served on the Tucson City Council and as a justice of the peace, where he delighted in being addressed as Judge Comstock.

With help from the city, local charity groups and churches, Comstock’s work to help needy TB patients progressed. After best-selling author Harold Bell Wright put on one of his plays to raise money for Saint Mary’s Hospital, Comstock talked him into helping Mercy Hospital as well.

According to Hall, Comstock was “a tremendously successful beggar.” Hall said, “I remember him arriving on his bicycle Sunday morning — a small, lean man with white eyebrows to go with his white sideburns whiskers, an almost bald head and a reddish face. He wore round, shell-rimmed glasses through which he peered with sharp but kindly eyes.”

In a guest column in the Arizona Daily Star, Comstock said, “In our city is a hospital that is an oasis in the desert (of) tuberculosis, and is just outside the city limits at 1030 E. Adams. Today that hospital is better known as the Comstock Hospital and under control of the Organized Charities… As a humble servant of Him who said, ‘ye have the poor always with you,’ I appeal to one and all to give, oh give if your means, be it two pennies, a talent of silver or gold, that the precious ointment of love and attention can be continued all the year round.”

In 1928, Mercy Hospital was renamed Comstock Hospital in honor of its founder. By 1934, the institution was converted to a children’s hospital to care for handicapped children and undernourished victims of the Great Depression.

As the city began to expand in the 1930s, TB sufferers folded up their tents and moved away. Many recovered, and their children went on to become successful citizens of the world.

Comstock died of heart failure in 1937. Few remember his painstaking work, but to paraphrase his own words, God and those he helped knew what he did.

— Jim Turner. Photos courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society.

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