S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

The autobiography of a quack and the case of George Dedlow online

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food, and absurdly scared. Then that old fool


squirming on the floor got on to my nerves.
I went on and on, and at last into Second
street, until I came to Christ Church, of all
places for me. I heard the sound of the
organ in the afternoon service. I felt I must
go in and get warm. Here was another silly
notion : I was afraid of hotels, but not of the
church. I reasoned vaguely that it was a
dark day, and darker in the church, and so I
went in at the Church Alley entrance and sat
near the north door. No one noticed me. I
sat still in a high-backed pew, well hid, and
wondering what was the matter with me. It
was curious that a doctor, and a man of my
intelligence, should have been long in guess-
ing a thing so simple.

For two months I had been drinking hard,
and for two days had quit, being a man ca-
pable of great self-control, and also being
short of money. Just before the benediction
I saw a man near by who seemed to stare at
me. In deadly fear I got up and quickly
slipped through a door into the tower room.
I said to myself, " He will follow me or wait
outside." I stood a moment with my head
all of a whirl, and then in a shiver of fear
ran up the stairs to the tower until I got
into the bell-ringer's room. I was safe. I


sat down on a stool, twitching and tremulous.
There were the old books on bell-ringing, and
the miniature chime of small bells for in-
struction. The wind had easy entrance, and
it swung the eight ropes about in a way I did
not like. I remember saying, " Oh, don't do
that." At last I had a mad desire to ring
one of the bells. As a loop of rope swung
toward me it seemed to hold a face, and this
face cried out, "Come and hang yourself;
then the bell will ring."

If I slept I do not know. I may have done
so. Certainly I must have stayed there many
hours. I was dull and confused, and yet on
my guard, for when far into the night I
heard noises below, I ran up the steeper
steps which ascend to the steeple, where are
the bells. Half-way up I sat down on the
stair. The place was cold and the darkness
deep. Then I heard the eight ringers down
below. One said : " Never knowed a Christ-
mas like this since Zeb Sandcraf t died. Come,
boys ! " I knew it must be close on to mid-
night. Now they would play a Christmas
carol. I used every Christmas to be roused
up and carried here and set on dad's shoulder.
When they were done ringing, Number Two
always gave me a box of sugar-plums and a


large red apple. As they rang off, my father
would cry out, "One, two/' and so on, and
then cry, "Elias, all over town people are
opening windows to listen." I seemed to
hear him as I sat in the gloom. Then I
heard, " All ready ; one, two," and they rang
the Christmas carol. Overhead I heard the
great bells ringing out :

And all the bells on earth shall ring
On Christmas day, on Christmas day.

I felt suddenly excited, and began to hum
the air. Great heavens ! There was the old
woman, Aunt Rachel, with her face going
twitch, twitch, the croak of her breathing
keeping a sort of mad time with " On Christ-
mas day, on Christmas day." I jumped up.
She was gone. I knew in a hazy sort of way
what was the matter with me, but I had still
the sense to sit down and wait. I said now
it would be snakes, for once before I had
been almost as bad. But what I did see was
a little curly-headed boy in a white frock and
pantalets, climbing up the stairs right leg
first ; so queer of me to have noticed that. I
knew I was that boy. He was an innocent-
looking little chap, and was smiling. He
seemed to me to grow and grow, and at last


was a big, red-headed man with a live rat in his
hand. I saw nothing more, but I surely
knew I needed whisky. I waited until all
was still, and got down and out, for I knew
every window. I soon found a tavern, and
got a drink and some food. At once my fear
left me. I was warm at last and clear of
head, and had again my natural courage. I
was well aware that I was on the edge of
delirium tremens and must be most prudent.
I paid in advance for my room and treated
myself as I had done many another. Only a
man of unusual force could have managed
his own case as I did. I went out only at
night, and in a week was well enough to
travel. During this time I saw now and
then that grinning little fellow. Sometimes
he had an apple and was eating it. I do not
know why he was worse to me than snakes,
or the twitchy old woman with her wide eyes
of glass, and that jerk, jerk, to right.

I decided to go back to Boston. I got to
New York prudently in a roundabout way,
and in two weeks' time was traveling east
from Albany.

I felt well, and my spirits began at last to
rise to their usual level. When I arrived in
Boston I set myself to thinking how best I


could contrive to enjoy life and at the same
time to increase my means. I possessed suffi-
cient capital, and was able and ready to em-
bark in whatever promised the best returns
with the smallest personal risks. I settled
myself in a suburb, paid off a few pressing
claims, and began to reflect with my ordinary

We were now in the midst of a most absurd
war with the South, and it was becoming
difficult to escape the net of conscription. It
might be wise to think of this in time.
Europe seemed a desirable residence, but I
needed more money to make this agreeable,
and an investment for my brains was what
I wanted most. Many schemes presented
themselves as worthy the application of in-
dustry and talent, but none of them alto-
gether suited my case. I thought at times
of traveling as a physiological lecturer, com-
bining with it the business of a practitioner :
scare the audience at night with an enumera-
tion of symptoms which belong to ten out of
every dozen healthy people, and then doctor
such of them as are gulls enough to consult
me next day. The bigger the fright the
better the pay. I was a little timid, how-
ever, about facing large audiences, as a man


will be naturally if he has lived a life of ad-
venture, so that upon due consideration I
gave up the idea altogether.

The patent medicine business also looked
well enough, but it is somewhat overdone at
all times, and requires a heavy outlay, with
the probable result of ill success. Indeed, I
believe one hundred quack remedies fail for
one that succeeds, and millions must have
been wasted in placards, bills, and advertise-
ments, which never returned half their value
to the speculator. I think I shall some day
beguile my time with writing an account of
the principal quack remedies which have met
with success. They are few in number, after
all, as any one must know who recalls the
countless pills and tonics which are puffed
awhile on the fences, and disappear, to be
heard of no more.

Lastly, I inclined for a while to undertake
a private insane asylum, which appeared to
me to offer facilities for money-making, as to
which, however, I may have been deceived by
the writings of certain popular novelists. I
went so far, I may say, as actually to visit
Concord for the purpose of finding a pleasant
locality and a suitable atmosphere. Upon
reflection I abandoned my plans, as involv-


ing too much personal 'lab&r* to suit one of'
my easy frame of mind.

Tired at last of idleness and lounging on
the Common, I engaged in two or three little
ventures of a semi-professional character,
such as an exhibition of laughing-gas, ad-
vertising to cure cancer, " Send twenty-five
stamps by mail to J. B., and receive an infal-
lible receipt," etc. I did not find, however,
that these little enterprises prospered well in
New England, and I had recalled very for-
cibly a story which my father was fond of
relating to me in my boyhood. It was about
how certain very knowing flies went to get
molasses, and how it ended by the molasses
getting them. This, indeed, was precisely
what happened to me in all my efforts to
better myself in the Northern States, until
at length my misfortunes climaxed in total
and unexpected ruin.

Having been very economical, I had now
about twenty-seven hundred dollars. It was
none too much. At this time I made the
acquaintance of a sea-captain from Maine.
He told me that he and two others had char-
tered a smart little steamer to run to Jamaica
with a variety cargo. In fact, he meant to
run into Wilmington or Charleston, and he


was to carry Quinine, chloroform, and other
medical requirements for the Confederates.
He needed twenty-five hundred dollars more,
and a doctor to buy the kind of things which
army surgeons require. Of course I was
prudent and he careful, but at last, on his
proving to me that there was no risk, I
agreed to expend his money, his friends',
and my own up to twenty-five hundred dol-
lars. I saw the other men, one of them a
rebel captain. I was well pleased with the
venture, and resolved for obvious reasons to
go with them on the steamer. It was a
promising investment, and I am free to re-
flect that in this, as in some other things, I
have been free from vulgar prejudices. I
bought all that we needed, and was well sat-
isfied when it was cleverly stowed away in
the hold.

We were to sail on a certain Thursday
morning in September, 1863. I sent my
trunk to the vessel, and went down the even-
ing before we were to start to go on board,
but found that the little steamer had been
hauled out from the pier. The captain, who
met me at this time, endeavored to get a
boat to ferry us to the ship ; but a gale was
blowing, and he advised me to wait until


morning. My associates were already on
board. Early next day I dressed and went
to the captain's room, which proved to be
empty. I was instantly filled with doubt,
and ran frantically to the Long Wharf,
where, to my horror, I could see no signs
of the vessel or captain. Neither have I
ever set eyes on them from that time to this.
I thought of lodging information with the
police as to the unpatriotic design of the ras-
cal who swindled me, but on the whole con-
cluded that it was best to hold my tongue.

It was, as I perceived, such utterly spilt
milk as to be little worth lamenting, and I
therefore set to work, with my accustomed
energy, to utilize on my own behalf the re-
sources of my medical education, which so
often before had saved me from want. The
war, then raging at its height, appeared to
offer numerous opportunities to men of talent.
The path which I chose was apparently a
humble one, but it enabled me to make very
practical use of my professional knowledge,
and afforded for a time rapid and secure re-
turns, without any other investment than a
little knowledge cautiously employed. In the
first place, I deposited my small remnant of
property in a safe bank. Then I went to


Providence, where, as I had heard, patriotic
persons were giving very large bounties in
order, I suppose, to insure the government
the services of better men than themselves.
On my arrival I lost no time in offering my-
self as a substitute, and was readily accepted,
and very soon mustered into the Twentieth
Rhode Island. Three months were passed
in camp, during which period I received
bounty to the extent of six hundred and
fifty dollars, with which I tranquilly de-
serted about two hours before the regiment
left for the field. With the product of my
industry I returned to Boston, and deposited
all but enough to carry me to New York,
where within a month I enlisted twice, earn-
ing on each occasion four hundred dollars.

After this I thought it wise to try the same
game in some of the smaller towns near to
Philadelphia. I approached my birthplace
with a good deal of doubt; but I selected a
regiment in camp at Norristown, which is
eighteen miles away. Here I got nearly
seven hundred dollars by entering the ser-
vice as a substitute for an editor, whose pen,
I presume, was mightier than his sword. I
was, however, disagreeably surprised by being
hastily forwarded to the front under a foxy


young lieutenant, who brutally shot down a
poor devil in the streets of Baltimore for at-
tempting to desert. At this point I began
to make use of my medical skill, for I did
not in the least degree fancy being shot,
either because of deserting or of not desert-
ing. It happened, therefore, that a day or
two later, while in Washington, I was seized
in the street with a fit, which perfectly im-
posed upon the officer in charge, and caused
him to leave me at the Douglas Hospital.
Here I found it necessary to perform fits
about twice a week, and as there were sev-
eral real epileptics in the ward, I had a
capital chance of studying their symptoms,
which, finally, I learned to imitate with the
utmost cleverness.

I soon got to know three or four men who,
like myself, were personally averse to bullets,
and who were simulating other forms of
disease with more or less success. One of
them suffered with rheumatism of the back,
and walked about like an old man j another,
who had been to the front, was palsied in the
right arm. A third kept open an ulcer on
the leg, rubbing in a little antimonial oint-
ment, which I bought at fifty cents, and sold
him at five dollars a box.


A change in the hospital staff brought all
of us to grief. The new surgeon was a quiet,
gentlemanly person, with pleasant blue eyes
and clearly cut features, and a way of look-
ing at you without saying much. I felt so
safe myself that I watched his procedures
with just that land of enjoyment which one
clever man takes in seeing another at work.

The first inspection settled two of us.

"Another back case," said the assistant
surgeon to his senior.

" Back hurt you ?" says the latter, mildly.

"Yes, sir; run over by a howitzer; ain't
never been able to stand straight since."

" A howitzer ! " says the surgeon. " Lean
forward, my man, so as to touch the floor-
so. That will do." Then turning to his aid,
he said, "Prepare this man's discharge

" His discharge, sir ? "

" Yes ; I said that. Who 7 s next ? "

"Thank you, sir," groaned the man with
the back. "How soon, sir, do you think it
will be?"

"Ah, not less than a month," replied the
surgeon, and passed on.

Now, as it was unpleasant to be bent like
the letter C, and as the patient presumed that


his discharge was secure, he naturally allowed
himself a little relaxation in the way of be-
coming straighter. Unluckily, those nice
blue eyes were everywhere at all hours, and
one fine morning Smithson was appalled at
finding himself in a detachment bound for
the field, and bearing on his descriptive list
an ill-natured indorsement about his malady.

The surgeon came next on O'Callahan,
standing, like each of us, at the foot of his
own bed.

" I 've paralytics in my arm," he said, with
intention to explain his failure to salute his

" Humph ! " said the surgeon ; " you have
another hand."

" An' it 's not the rigulation to saloot with
yer left," said the Irishman, with a grin, while
the patients around us began to smile.

" How did it happen ? " said the surgeon.

" I was shot in the shoulder," answered the
patient, "about three months ago, sir. I
have n't stirred it since."

The surgeon looked at the scar.

"So recently?" said he. "The scar looks
older; and, by the way, doctor," to his jun-
ior, "it could not have gone near the
nerves. Bring the battery, orderly."


In a few moments the surgeon was testing
one after another, the various muscles. At
last he stopped. " Send this man away with
the next detachment. Not a word, my man.
You are a rascal, and a disgrace to honest
men who have been among bullets."

The man muttered something, I did not
hear what.

" Put this man in the guard-house/ 7 cried
the surgeon, and so passed on without smile
or frown.

As to the ulcer case, to my amusement he
was put in bed, and his leg locked up in a
wooden splint, which effectually prevented
him from touching the part diseased. It
healed in ten days, and he too went as food
for powder.

The surgeon asked me a few questions, and
requesting to be sent for during my next fit,
left me alone.

I was, of course, on my guard, and took
care to have my attacks only during his ab-
sence, or to have them over before he arrived.
At length, one morning, in spite of my care,
he chanced to enter the ward as I fell on the
floor. I was laid on the bed, apparently in
strong convulsions. Presently I felt a finger
on my eyelid, and as it was raised, saw the


surgeon standing beside me. To escape his
scrutiny I became more violent in my mo-
tions. He stopped a moment and looked at
me steadily. " Poor fellow ! " said he, to my
great relief, as I felt at once that I had suc-
cessfully deceived him. Then he turned to
the ward doctor and remarked : " Take care
he does not hurt his head against the bed;
and, by the by, doctor, do you remember the
test we applied in Carstairs's case ? Just tickle
the soles of his feet and see if it will cause
those backward spasms of the head."

The aid obeyed him, and, very naturally,
I jerked my head backward as hard as I

"That will answer," said the surgeon, to
my horror. "A clever rogue. Send him to
the guard-house."

Happy had I been had my ill luck ended
here, but as I crossed the yard an officer
stopped me. To my disgust, it was the cap-
tain of my old Rhode Island company.

"Hello! " said he; "keep that fellow safe.
I know him."

To cut short a long story, I was tried, con-
victed, and forced to refund the Rhode Island
bounty, for by ill luck they found my bank-
book among my papers. I was finally sent


to Fort Delaware and kept at hard labor,
handling and carrying shot, policing the
ground, picking up cigar-stumps, and other
light, unpleasant occupations.

When the war was over I was released. I
went at once to Boston, where I had about
four hundred dollars in bank. I spent nearly
all of this sum before I could satisfy the ac-
cumulated cravings of a year and a half with-
out drink or tobacco, or a decent meal. I
was about to engage in a little business as a
vender of lottery policies when I first began
to feel a strange sense of lassitude, which
soon increased so as quite to disable me from
work of any kind. Month after month passed
away, while my money lessened, and this
terrible sense of weariness went on from
bad to worse. At last one day, after nearly
a year had elapsed, I perceived on my face a
large brown patch of color, in consequence
of which I went in some alarm to consult a
well-known physician. He asked me a multi-
tude of tiresome questions, and at last wrote
off a prescription, which I immediately read.
It was a preparation of arsenic.

" What do you think," said I, " is the matter
with me, doctor ? n

"I am afraid/ 7 said he, "that you have a


very serious trouble what we call Addison's

" What >s that ?" said I.

"I do not think you would comprehend
it," he replied; "it is an affection of the
suprarenal capsules."

I dimly remembered that there were such
organs, and that nobody knew what they
were meant for. It seemed that doctors had
found a use for them at last.

" Is it a dangerous disease ? " I said.

" I fear so," he answered.

" Don't you really know," I asked, " what 's
the truth about it ? "

"Well," he returned gravely, "I 'm sorry
to tell you it is a very dangerous malady."

" Nonsense ! " said I ; " I don't believe it " ;
for I thought it was only a doctor's trick, and
one I had tried often enough myself.

" Thank you," said he ; " you are a very ill
man, and a fool besides. Good morning."
He forgot to ask for a fee, and I did not
therefore find it necessary to escape payment
by telling him I was a doctor.

Several weeks went by; my money was
gone, my clothes were ragged, and, like my
body, nearly worn out, and now I am an
inmate of a hospital. To-day I feel weaker


than when I first began to write. How it
will end, I do not know. If I die, the doctor
will get this pleasant history, and if I live, I
shall burn it, and as soon as I get a little
money I will set out to look for my sister.
I dreamed about her last night. What I
.dreamed was not very agreeable. I thought
it was night. I was walking up one of the
vilest streets near my old office, and a girl
spoke to me a shameless, worn creature,
with great sad eyes. Suddenly she screamed,
" Brother, brother ! " and then remembering
what she had been, with her round, girlish,
innocent face and fair hair, and seeing what
she was now, I awoke and saw the dim light
of the half -darkened ward.

I am better to-day. Writing all this stuff
has amused me and, I think, done me good.
That was a horrid dream I had. I suppose I
must tear up all this biography.

" Hello, nurse ! The little boy boy "

"GOOD HEAVENS!" said the nurse, "he is
dead ! Dr. Alston said it would happen this
way. The screen, quick the screen and
let the doctor know."



HE following notes of my own
case have been declined on vari-
ous pretexts by every medical
journal to which I have offered
them. There was, perhaps ?
some reason in this, because many of the
medical facts which they record are not al-
together new, and because the psychical de-
ductions to which they have led me are not
in themselves of medical interest. I ought
to add that a great deal of what is here re-
lated is not of any scientific value whatso-
ever; but as one or two people on whose
judgment I rely have advised me to print
my narrative with all the personal details,
rather than in the dry shape in which, as a
psychological statement, I shall publish it
elsewhere, I have yielded to their views. I



suspect, however, that the very character of
my record will, in the eyes of some of my
readers, tend to lessen the value of the meta-
physical discoveries which it sets forth.

I AM the son of a physician, still in large
practice, in the village of Abington, Scofield
County, Indiana. Expecting to act as his
future partner, I studied medicine in his
office, and in 1859 and 1860 attended lectures
at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadel-
phia. My second course should have been in
the following year, but the outbreak of the
Rebellion so crippled my father's means that
I was forced to abandon my intention. The
demand for army surgeons at this time be-
came very great ; and although not a gradu-
ate, I found no difficulty in getting the place
of assistant surgeon to the Tenth Indiana
Volunteers. In the subsequent Western
campaigns this organization suffered so se-
verely that before the term of its service
was over it was merged in the Twenty-first In-
diana Volunteers ; and I, as an extra surgeon,
ranked by the medical officers of the latter
regiment, was transferred to the Fifteenth
Indiana Cavalry. Like many physicians, I
had contracted a strong taste for army life,


and, disliking cavalry service, sought and
obtained the position of first lieutenant in
the Seventy-ninth Indiana Volunteers, an
infantry regiment of excellent character.

On the day after I assumed command of
my company, which had no captain, we were
sent to garrison a part of a line of block-
houses stretching along the Cumberland
River below Nashville, then occupied by a
portion of the command of General Rose-

The life we led while on this duty was
tedious and at the same time dangerous in
the extreme. Food was scarce and bad, the
water horrible, and we had no cavalry to
forage for us. If, as infantry, we attempted
to levy supplies upon the scattered farms
around us, the population seemed suddenly
to double, and in the shape of guerrillas
"potted" us industriously from behind dis-
tant trees, rocks, or fences. Under these
various and unpleasant influences, combined
with a fair infusion of malaria, our men rap-
idly lost health and spirits. Unfortunately,
no proper medical supplies had been for-
warded with our small force (two com-

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Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellThe autobiography of a quack and the case of George Dedlow → online text (page 5 of 7)