By Art Martinez de Vara
In 1895, Norbert von Ormay II applied for a medical license with the Illinois Health University and got caught up in the first diploma mill scandal in US History. Here is the story.
A headline in the September 5, 1896 edition of the Chicago Tribune reads, “Bogus Medical College Agent Held – ‘Dr.’ Norbert Von Ormay, Representing the Illinois Health University, is arrested at Galveston.” As Count Von Ormay sat in his jail cell on Galveston Island on that warn September day, his thoughts must have recalled the whirlwind of events that marked his life the previous ten years. Raised in an adopted middle-class Hungarian family, he had lived the quiet life of a government clerk until that fateful day he learned the truth of who he really was – the son of an executed Austrian-Hungarian Count and his 18 year old war bride who had lived on to become a wealthy Brazilian plantation heiress. Count Von Ormay II’s imprisonment marked the beginning of the end for him, much like it did for his father.
His father Count Norbert von Auffenberg descended from a long line of Austrian nobility, steeped in military traditions. His life was supposed to be one of service to his king. However, numerous changes had been taking place in European society throughout the first half of the 19th century. Both liberal reformers and radical politicians were reshaping national governments. Large swaths of the nobility were discontented with royal absolutism or near-absolutism. Norbert von Auffenberg was among these and he aided the Polish Revolution against his own Emperor, was caught and sentenced to death. Unexpected luck saved the imprisoned Count when he was released from prison by the Emperor who sought to appease the revolutionary mobs gathered in the streets of Berlin. Norbert von Auffenberg immediately fled to Hungary, where he joined the revolutionary army there and changed his name to Norbert Von Ormay. He married Vilma Rozvary, the young daughter of a Hungarian General. In June of 1848, Norbert Von Ormay was promoted to full Colonel and named Adjutant or personal assistant to Lajos Kossuth, the political leader of the Hungarian Revolution. Only a few months later, Col. Norbert Von Ormay, then head of the First Hungarian Rife Regiment, was captured and brought before infamous Austrian General Julius Jacob Von Haynau, who ordered his immediate execution for high treason. At the time of his execution, Norbert Von Ormay’s wife, Vilma was pregnant. She gave birth in Hungary then fled to Constantinople, outside of the reach of the Austrio-Hungarian Emperor, leaving the infant son behind. She later sailed for Brazil to begin a new life. In Brazil she married a wealthy plantation owner and lived there until the mid-1880s. In her will, she left her fortune to her long-lost son “if he could be found.”
It is currently unclear who raised Norbert Von Ormay II or what was his status being the son of an executed traitor. He married Francisca around 1875 and had two children Norbert III (b. ~1876) and Frio (b. ~1877). Then in 1885, at the age of 35 while he was working as minor government official, he received news of his large inheritance in Brazil. He quit his job and decided to move to Texas to become a cattle baron. This began a pattern whereby Norbert Von Ormay II used his newfound wealth to reinvent himself. In the end each attempt was a failure and a waste of his fortune.
The family arrived by ship in New York on March 14, 1885 and proceeded on to Galveston. His arrival in Galveston, 11 years prior to being arrested, had a striking contrast to the drab jail cell he now occupied. Newspaper accounts recall the sensational display of wealth and fanfare that accompanied his arrival. Spectators gathered to witness the bejeweled carriages, the scores of servants and the European fashion on display that accompanied this unusual arrival of nobility in Texas. From Galveston, Norbert had travelled to San Antonio, the capital of cattle country and on June 5, 1886, he and his family checked into the St. Leonard Hotel. The San Antonio Express wrote, “Norbert Von Ormay, a Hungarian nobleman….is seeking a location and to buy a large stock ranch." Among those who proposed selling their ranch was Charlotte Jones, the widow of Enoch Jones. Jones had at one time been the wealthiest man in Texas and had built his dream home on the Medina River at a cost of $40,000 beginning in 1856.
Local oral history recalls that the Count’s brief stay at the Castle on the Medina was caused by the respiratory ills of his wife. However, newspaper accounts refer to an enigmatic stranger appearing at the castle. Whoever this person was, he and the Count spent several days inside, not once leaving. Upon his departure, the Count prepared a hasty departure. He left with his affairs unresolved, abandoning his family and never to return to the town that took his name.
The Von Ormy Star has uncovered that in 1886, the Count left Von Ormy, Texas and travelled to Brazil where he took possession of the remainder of his mother’s estate. He then sailed from Rio de Janiero in early July of 1886, arriving at Baltimore, Maryland. A few days later he married Emma B. Hoschke in Hoboken, New Jersey, while still married to Countess Francisca who remained in Texas in the Castle. He and Emma travelled to Berlin, Germany where they hired an attorney, Friedrich Gustav Steiglich to return to Texas to settle their affairs.
In December of 1886, the Countess Francisca and her son Norbert III frequently travelled to San Antonio and checked into the St. Leonard Hotel. Perhaps they were seeking news of Norbert who had not yet returned? It was here that the Countess Francisca first encountered the German attorney, Friedrich Steiglich, who was unaware of her existence. Following their first meeting, he wrote that he met with “a woman named Francisca claiming to be the wife of Norbert and occupying the house.” Ultimately, the attorney arranged the sale of the Castle to Oscar Schmidt of Berlin for $14,000.00. The Countess received her half of the money and returned to Germany with her children.
The following year, in 1888, Count von Ormay II and his new wife, Emma, by then residents of Berlin, sailed to Bahia, Brazil, but did not remain long. Von Ormay II took the bulk of his inheritance and invested it in several large haciendas around Montemorelos, Nuevo León, Mexico. The Von Ormy Star has been unable to determine what happened to Emma Hoschke of Hoboken, or whether she followed Count Von Ormay II to Mexico. In an 1891 interview with the San Antonio Express, Count Von Ormay II presented himself as an enlightened industrialist. He praised Mexican President Porfirio Diaz for recruiting European investment and ushering in an age of progress, reason and industrial development in Mexico. While giving examples of other European investment in Nuevo Leon, Count Von Ormay II commented on the opening of the first Anhauser-Busch brewery in Monterrey, Mexico and the enthusiastic acceptance by Mexicans for German-style beer. His years as a Mexican industrialist were short-lived.
By 1891 Count Von Ormay II was back in Texas. He married for a third time to Elise Henrietta Mehrmann of San Antonio. Norbert and Elise travelled first to New York and then to Germany for their honeymoon. They settled in Galveston, Texas at 2714 Market St. In 1894, Count von Ormay filed a lawsuit against Oscar Schmidt, the name who had purchased the Castle on the Medina. In this lawsuit, Count Von Ormay II states that Schmidt had promised to pay the $14,000.00 for the Castle by exchanging land of equal value in Germany. The Count later discovered that Schmidt was a fraud and the land Schmidt promised to exchange was not owned by him. This series of business losses and bad real estate investments took a heavy toll on the Count.
In 1895 he read an advertisement in the Galveston Daily News that seemed to offer Count Von Ormay II, the failed government clerk, cattle baron and industrialist, an opportunity to reinvent himself yet again. It read “How to become lawful physicians. Lectures by mail. Illinois Health University, Chicago.” Through the mail, Count Von Ormay II became Dr. Norbert Von Ormay.
The Illinois Health University, also called at times the “Metropolitan Medical College” and “Independent Medical College” was incorporated by Dr. James Armstrong in Chicago on April 16, 1896 for the purpose of “the education of teachers in the science of health and the art of healing, and fitting men and women for the rights and duties of citizenship, and confer ring on such teachers, when qualified, such diplomas, degrees, or certificates ns the institution might deem proper.” The school quickly ran afoul of the medical community for practice of issuing medical degrees by mail. In a lawsuit filed in 1897 by the Illinois Attorney General to revoke the company’s charter (Illinois Health University vs. People of Illinois), the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that, “The company never conducted a medical school, college, or university, however, and its expressed object was never engaged in, and was a mere pretense; and the only business which the company followed was to sell, contrary to the policy of the laws of Illinois, medical diplomas to incompetent persons, and to confer the degree of doctor of medicine upon them, that they might practice medicine in states whose laws do not require the diploma of a reputable medical college, or a medical examination, as a condition precedent to practicing medicine therein, as do the laws of Illinois.”
The newly degreed medical doctor, Dr. Norbert Von Ormay, established his practice in Galveston in 1896 and began selling medical degrees for the University. The Chicago Tribune reported in its September 5, 1896 edition on Count Von Ormay’s arrest, “Dr. Norbert Von Ormay who went to Galveston, Tex., nine months ago with a Kickapoo Indian medicine outfit, was held there yesterday in $200 bonds to the grand jury on a charge of illegal practice of medicine. He acted as agent for the Illinois Health University and Wisconsin Electric College and offered to sell diplomas for from $25 to $125, and without putting purchasers to the trouble of attending lectures or doing anything further than answer a series of questions under oath. He acknowledged on the stand that he got his diploma from Chicago by this method upon the payment of a certain sum of money. One of the witnesses for the prosecution swore that Von Ormay agreed to furnish a diploma to him within fourteen days, although the witness had no knowledge of medicine. Three diplomas from Illinois Health University have been recorded at the District Court since Von Ormay started up. One held by a local veterinary surgeon has been surrendered. The holder of another is now in Mexico. Von Ormay used the mails to advertise his diplomas and the facts have been placed before the Postmaster-General. Standard medical publications the two institutions named as frauds. “
We can gain further insight into Dr. von Ormay’s role with the Illinois Health University from the testimony of James De Barth who gained his medical degree in the same way and subsequently sold degrees for the University. De Barth testified that he “was at one time professor of medical jurisprudence…and was also salesman of diplomas and writer of pamphlets, setting forth the advantages to be gained by a course in the institution.” The Chicago Tribune reported that, “[De Barth] helped to ‘graduate’ students from the school. According to his testimony the process was peculiar, but simple. It consisted in getting as much money as possible out of a prospective physician and then giving him a diploma beginning with the Latin word ‘Salutem.’ It was signed with the names of the full faculty. De Barth said that when "Dr." Armstrong had trouble in taking students through the necessary process he was always called in. A short talk would do the work and the student would, then be prepared to go forth and minister to the needs of the sick. But his chief business was to go forth and sell diplomas to outside students who thought that life is too short to spend four years in getting a medical education when it could be had on payment of a few paltry dollars. ‘Mr. Armstrong told me never to let a few dollars stand in the way of graduating a person, and I didn't,’ said De Barth. ‘I got what I could out of them and that was my business.’”
Reaction to the arrest in several states included calls for medical education reform and regulation. Galveston medical doctor, L.S. Downs, M.D. wrote this scathing letter to the editor of the Texas Medical Association, "An unworthy impostor has just been brought to a sense of his crime of practicing medicine without qualifications, in this city. Our Von Ormay, of foreign nativity has been practicing for the last nine months on a diploma issued by the Illinois Health University, of Chicago. It seems that this institution has a charter issued by the state of Illinois; and while there is no doubt as to its mode of selling diplomas, their machine-made doctors are practicing in a half dozen states in the union. Von Ormay was also selling these sheep skins at from thirty-five to one hundred dollars to men of no medical attainments. He was arrested and bound over to the grand jury on the grounds of practicing without a legal right. The case will come up for hearing at next term of court, but he will not be convicted because he is practicing under a license issued by a "legally chartered institution," which the laws of Texas recognizes. Von Ormay made application for membership in our Association. Of course he failed utterly, but as our by-laws stand now he could have become a member, with all the rights and privileges of the most worthy." L. S. DOWNS, M.D., Galveston, Texas.
In 1899, Illinois passed a new law outlawing diploma mills. The same year the State of Missouri prohibited the practice of Medicine to holders of degrees from Illinois Health University and Wisconsin Electric College. The Texas Medical Association reformed its qualifications for membership. In 1900, "Dr." James Armstrong, the president of the Illinois Health University was sentenced to one year and a fine of $500 for using the mails for fraud purposes. The charges against Count Von Ormay were dropped because he was practicing under a license issued by a "legally chartered institution." Elise Von Ormay continued to practice as a midwife.
Following this scandal, Count von Ormay II reinvented himself yet again. In 1898, the year following the scandal he was listed in the Galveston City Directory as a baker. Count von Ormay II disappears from the historical record in 1899, possibly a victim of the infamous Storm of 1900 .