S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

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

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panies), and, as the fall advanced, the want
of quinine and stimulants became a serious


annoyance. Moreover, our rations were run-
ning low; we had been three weeks without
a new supply; and our commanding officer,
Major Henry L. Terrill, began to be uneasy as
to the safety of his men. About this time it was
supposed that a train with rations would be
due from the post twenty miles to the north
of us ; yet it was quite possible that it would
bring us food, but no medicines, which were
what we most needed. The command was
too small to detach any part of it, and the
major therefore resolved to send an officer
alone to the post above us, where the rest of
the Seventy-ninth lay, and whence they could
easily forward quinine and stimulants by the
train, if it had not left, or, if it had, by a
small cavalry escort.

It so happened, to my cost, as it turned
out, that I was the only officer fit to make
the journey, and I was accordingly ordered
to proceed to Blockhouse No. 3 and make
the required arrangements. I started alone
just after dusk the next night, and during
the darkness succeeded in getting within
three miles of my destination. At this time
I found that I had lost my way, and, although
aware of the danger of my act, was forced to
turn aside and ask at a log cabin for direc-


tions. The house contained a dried-up old
woman and four white-headed, half-naked
children. The woman was either stone-deaf
or pretended to be so ; but, at all events, she
gave me no satisfaction, and I remounted
and rode away. On coming to the end of a
lane, into which I had turned to seek the
cabin, I found to my surprise that the bars
had been put up during my brief parley.
They were too high to leap, and I therefore
dismounted to pull them down. As I touched
the top rail, I heard a rifle, and at the same
instant felt a blow on both arms, which fell
helpless. I staggered to my horse and tried
to mount; but, as I could use neither arm,
the effort was vain, and I therefore stood still,
awaiting my fate. I am only conscious that
I saw about me several graybacks, for I must
have fallen fainting almost immediately.

When I awoke I was lying in the cabin
near by, upon a pile of rubbish. Ten or
twelve guerrillas were gathered about the fire,
apparently drawing lots for my watch, boots,
hat, etc. I now made an effort to find out
how far I was hurt. I discovered that I
could use the left forearm and hand pretty
well, and with this hand I felt the right limb
all over until I touched the wound. The ball


had passed from left to right through the left
biceps, and directly through the right arm
just below the shoulder, emerging behind.
The right arm and forearm were cold and
perfectly insensible. I pinched them as well
as I could, to test the amount of sensation
remaining j but the hand might as well have
been that of a dead man. I began to under-
stand that the nerves had been wounded, and
that the part was utterly powerless. By this
time my friends had pretty well divided the
spoils, and, rising together, went out. The
old woman then came to me, and said:
" Reckon you 'd best git up. They-'uns is
a-goin' to take you away." To this I only
answered, " Water, water." I had a grim
sense of amusement on finding that the old
woman was not deaf, for she went out, and
presently came back with a gourdful, which
I eagerly drank. An hour later the gray-
backs returned, and finding that I was too
weak to walk, carried me out and laid me on
the bottom of a common cart, with which
they set off on a trot. The jolting was hor-
rible, but within an hour I began to have in
my dead right hand a strange burning, which
was rather a relief to me. It increased as the
sun rose and the day grew warm, until I felt


as if the hand was caught and pinched in a
red-hot vise. Then in my agony I begged
my guard for water to wet it with, but for
some reason they desired silence, and at every
noise threatened me with a revolver. At
length the pain became absolutely unendur-
able, and I grew what it is the fashion to call
demoralized. I screamed, cried, and yelled
in my torture, until, as I suppose, my captors
became alarmed, and, stopping, gave me a
handkerchief, my own, I fancy, and a can-
teen of water, with which I wetted the hand,
to my unspeakable relief.

It is unnecessary to detail the events by
which, finally, I found myself in one of the
rebel hospitals near Atlanta. Here, for the
first time, my wounds were properly cleansed
and dressed by a Dr. Oliver T. Wilson, who
treated me throughout with great kindness.
I told him I had been a doctor, which, per-
haps, may have been in part the cause of the
unusual tenderness with which I was man-
aged. The left arm was now quite easy,
although, as will be seen, it never entirely
healed. The right arm was worse than ever
the humerus broken, the nerves wounded,
and the hand alive only to pain. I use this
phrase because it is connected in my mind


with a visit from a local visitor, I am not
sure he was a preacher, who used to go
daily through the wards, and talk to us or
write our letters. One morning he stopped
at my bed, when this little talk occurred :

" How are you, lieutenant ? "

" Oh/ 7 said I, " as usual. All right, but this
hand, which is dead except to pain."

"Ah," said he, "such and thus will the
wicked be such will you be if you die in
your sins : you will go where only pain can
be felt. For all eternity, all of you will be
just like that hand knowing pain only."

I suppose I was very weak, but somehow I
felt a sudden and chilling horror of possible
universal pain, and suddenly fainted. When
I awoke the hand was worse, if that could be.
It was red, shining, aching, burning, and, as
it seemed to me, perpetually rasped with hot
files. When the doctor came I begged for
morphia. He said gravely : " We have none.
You know you don't allow it to pass the
lines." It was sadly true.

I turned to the wall, and wetted the hand
again, my sole relief. In about an hour Dr.
Wilson came back with two aids, and ex-
plained to me that the bone was so crushed
as to make it hopeless to save it, and that,


besides, amputation offered some chance of
arresting the pain. I had thought of this
before, but the anguish I felt I cannot say
endured was so awful that I made no more
of losing the limb than of parting with a
tooth on account of toothache. Accordingly,
brief preparations were made, which I
watched with a sort of eagerness such as
must forever be inexplicable to any one who
has not passed six weeks of torture like that
which I had suffered.

I had but one pang before the operation.
As I arranged myself on the left side, so as
to make it convenient for the operator to use
the knife, I asked : " Who is to give me the
ether?" "We have none," said the person
questioned. I set my teeth, and said no

I need not describe the operation. The
pain felt was severe, but it was insignificant
as compared with that of any other minute of
the past six weeks. The limb was removed
very near to the shoulder- joint As the sec-
ond incision was made, I felt a strange flash
of pain play through the limb, as if it were
in every minutest fibril of nerve. This was
followed by instant, unspeakable relief, and
before the flaps were brought together I was


sound asleep. I dimly remember saying, as
I pointed to the arm which lay on the floor :
"There is the pain, and here am I. How
queer!" Then I slept slept the sleep of
the just, or, better, of the painless. From
this time forward I was free from neuralgia.
At a subsequent period I saw a number of
cases similar to mine in a hospital in Phila-

It is no part of my plan to detail my weary
months of monotonous prison life in the
South. In the early part of April, 1863, I
was exchanged, and after the usual thirty days'
furlough returned to my regiment a captain.

On the 19th of September, 1863, occurred
the battle of Chickamauga, in which my regi-
ment took a conspicuous part. The close of
our own share in this contest is, as it were,
burned into my memory with every least de-
tail. It was about 6 p. M., when we found our-
selves in line, under cover of a long, thin
row of scrubby trees, beyond which lay a
gentle slope, from which, again, rose a hill
rather more abrupt, and crowned with an
earthwork. We received orders to cross this
space and take the fort in front, while a
brigade on our right was to make a like
movement on its flank.


Just before we emerged into the open
ground, we noticed what, I think, was com-
mon in many fights that the enemy had
begun to bowl round shot at us, probably
from failure of shell. We passed across the
valley in good order, although the men fell
rapidly all along the line. As we climbed
the hill, our pace slackened, and the fire grew
heavier. At this moment a battery opened
on our left, the shots crossing our heads
obliquely. It is this moment which is so
printed on my recollection. I can see now,
as if through a window, the gray smoke, lit
with red flashes, the long, wavering line,
the sky blue above, the trodden furrows,
blotted with blue blouses. Then it was as if
the window closed, and I knew and saw no
more. No other scene in my life is thus
scarred, if I may say so, into my memory. I
have a fancy that the horrible shock which
suddenly fell upon me must have had some-
thing to do with thus intensifying the mo-
mentary image then before my eyes.

When I awakened, I was lying under a tree
somewhere at the rear. The ground was
covered with wounded, and the doctors were
busy at an operating-table, improvised from
two barrels and a plank. At length two of


them who were examining the wounded
about me came up to where I lay. A hos-
pital steward raised my head and poured
down some brandy and water, while another
cut loose my pantaloons. The doctors ex-
changed looks and walked away. I asked
the steward where I was hit.

" Both thighs," said he j " the doctors won't
do nothing."

"No use? "said I.

" Not much," said he.

" Not much means none at all," I answered.

When he had gone I set myself to thinking
about a good many things I had better have
thought of before, but which in no way con-
cern the history of my case. A half-hour
went by. I had no pain, and did not get
weaker. At last, I cannot explain why, I
began to look about me. At first things
appeared a little hazy. I remember one
thing which thrilled me a little, even then.

A tall, blond-bearded major walked up to
a doctor near me, saying, "When you 've a
little leisure, just take a look at my side."

" Do it now," said the doctor.

The officer exposed his wound. "Ball
went in here, and out there."

The doctor looked up at him half pity,


half amazement. " If you 've got any mes-
sage, you 7 d best send it by me."

" Why, you don't say it 7 s serious ? " was the

" Serious ! Why, you >re shot through the
stomach. You won't live over the day."

Then the man did what struck me as a
very odd thing. He said, "Anybody got a
pipe ? " Some one gave him a pipe. He filled
it deliberately, struck a light with a flint, and
sat down against a tree near to me. Pres-
ently the doctor came to him again, and
asked him what he could do for him.

" Send me a drink of Bourbon."

" Anything else ? "


As the doctor left him, he called him back.
" It 's a little rough, doc, is n't it ? "

No more passed, and I saw this man no
longer. Another set of doctors were han-
dling my legs, for the first time causing pain.
A moment after a steward put a towel over
my mouth, and I smelled the familiar odor of
chloroform, which I was glad enough to
breathe. In a moment the trees began to
move around from left to right, faster and
faster; then a universal grayness came be-
fore me, and I recall nothing further until


I awoke to consciousness in a hospital-tent.
I got hold of my own identity in a moment
or two, and was suddenly aware of a sharp
cramp in my left leg. I tried to get at it to
rub it with my single arm, but, finding my-
self too weak, hailed an attendant. "Just
rub my left calf," said I, "if you please."

" Calf 1 said he. " You ain't none. It >s
took off."

" I know better," said I. " I have pain in
both legs."

"Wall, I never!" said he. "You ain't
got nary leg."

As I did not believe him, he threw off the
covers, and, to my horror, showed me that I
had suffered amputation of both thighs, very
high up.

"That will do," said I, faintly.

A month later, to the amazement of every
one, I was so well as to be moved from the
crowded hospital at Chattanooga to Nash-
ville, where I filled one of the ten thousand
beds of that vast metropolis of hospitals. Of
the sufferings which then began I shall pres-
ently speak. It will be best just now to de-
tail the final misfortune which here fell upon
me. Hospital No. 2, in which I lay, was in-
conveniently crowded with severely wounded


officers. After my third week an epidemic
of hospital gangrene broke out in my ward.
In three days it attacked twenty persons.
Then an inspector came, and we were trans-
ferred at once to the open air, and placed in
tents. Strangely enough, the wound in my
remaining arm, which still suppurated, was
seized with gangrene. The usual remedy,
bromine, was used locally, but the main
artery opened, was tied, bled again and
again, and at last, as a final resort, the re-
maining arm was amputated at the shoulder-
joint. Against all chances I recovered, to
find myself a useless torso, more like some
strange larval creature than anything of
human shape. Of my anguish and horror
of myself I dare not speak. I have dictated
these pages, not to shock my readers, but to
possess them with facts in regard to the rela-
tion of the mind to the body ; and I hasten,
therefore, to such portions of my case as best
illustrate these views.

In January, 1864, 1 was forwarded to Phila-
delphia, in order to enter what was known
as the Stump Hospital, South street, then in
charge of Dr. Hopkinson. This favor was
obtained through the influence of my father's
friend, the late Governor Anderson, who has


always manifested an interest in my case, for
which I am deeply grateful. It was thought,
at the time, that Mr. Palmer, the leg-maker,
might be able to adapt some form of arm to
my left shoulder, as on that side there re-
mained five inches of the arm-bone, which I
could move to a moderate extent. The hope
proved illusory, as the stump was always too
tender to bear any pressure. The hospital
referred to was in charge of several surgeons
while I was an inmate, and was at all times
a clean and pleasant home. It was filled with
men who had lost one arm or leg, or one of
each, as happened now and then. I saw one
man who had lost both legs, and one who had
parted with both arms ; but none, like myself,
stripped of every limb. There were collected
in this place hundreds of these cases, which
gave to it, with reason enough, the not very
pleasing title of Stump Hospital.

I spent here three and a half months, be-
fore my transfer to the United States Army
Hospital for Injuries and Diseases of the Ner-
vous System. Every morning I was carried
out in an arm-chair and placed in the library,
where some one was always ready to write or
read for me, or to fill my pipe. The doctors
lent me medical books ; the ladies brought me


luxuries and fed me; and, save that I was
helpless to a degree which was humiliating, I
was as comfortable as kindness could make me.
I amused myself at this time by noting in
my mind all that I could learn from other
limbless folk, and from myself, as to the pe-
culiar feelings 'which were noticed in regard
to lost members. I found that the great
mass of men who had undergone amputa-
tions for many months felt the usual con-
sciousness that they still had the lost limb.
It itched or pained, or was cramped, but
never felt hot or cold. If they had painful
sensations referred to it, the conviction of its
existence continued unaltered for long peri-
ods ; but where no pain was felt in it, then
by degrees the sense of having that limb
faded away entirely. I think we may to
some extent explain this. The knowledge
we possess of any part is made up of the
numberless impressions from without which
affect its sensitive surfaces, and which are
transmitted through its nerves to the spinal
nerve-cells, and through them, again, to the
brain. We are thus kept endlessly informed
as to the existence of parts, because the im-
pressions which reach the brain are, by a law
of our being, referred by us to the part from


which they come. Now, when the part is cut
off, the nerve-trunks which led to it and from
it, remaining capable of being impressed by
irritations, are made to convey to the brain
from the stump impressions which are, as
usual, referred by the brain to the lost parts
to which these nerve-threads belonged. In
other words, the nerve is like a bell- wire.
You may pull it at any part of its course,
and thus ring the bell as well as if you pulled
at the end of the wire; but, in any case,
the intelligent servant will refer the pull to
the front door, and obey it accordingly. The
impressions made on the severed ends of the
nerve are due often to changes in the stump
during healing, and consequently cease when
it has healed, so that finally, in a very healthy
sutmp, no such impressions arise; the brain
ceases to correspond with the lost leg, and,
as les absents out toujours tort, it is no longer
remembered or recognized. But in some
cases, such as mine proved at last to my sor-
row, the ends of the nerves undergo a curious
alteration, and get to be enlarged and al-
tered. This change, as I have seen in my
practice of medicine, sometimes passes up
the nerves toward the centers, and occasions
a more or less constant irritation of the nerve-


fibers, producing neuralgia, which is usually
referred by the brain to that part of the lost
limb to which the affected nerve belonged.
This pain keeps the brain ever mindful of
the missing part, and, imperfectly at least,
preserves to the man a consciousness of pos-
sessing that which he has not.

Where the pains come and go, as they do
in certain cases, the subjective sensations
thus occasioned are very curious, since in
such cases the man loses and gains, and loses
and regains, the consciousness of the presence
of the lost parts, so that he will tell you,
"Now I feel my thumb, now I feel my
little finger." I should also add that nearly
every person who has lost an arm above the
elbow feels as though the lost member were
bent at the elbow, and at times is vividly
impressed with the notion that his fingers are
strongly flexed.

Other persons present a peculiarity which
I am at a loss to account for. Where the
leg, for instance, has been lost, they feel as
if the foot were present, but as though the leg
were shortened. Thus, if the thigh has been
taken off, there seems to them to be a foot at
the knee ; if the arm, a hand seems to be at
the elbow, or attached to the stump itself.


Before leaving Nashville I had begun to
suffer the most acute pain in my left hand,
especially the little finger j and so perfect was
the idea which was thus kept up of the real
presence of these missing parts that I found
it hard at times to believe them absent. Often
at night I would try with one lost hand to
grope for the other. As, however, I had no
pain in the right arm, the sense of the exis-
tence of that limb gradually disappeared, as
did that of my legs also.

Everything was done for my neuralgia
which the doctors could think of; and at
length, at my suggestion, I was removed, as
I have said, from the Stump Hospital to the
United States Army Hospital for Injuries
and Diseases of the Nervous System. It was
a pleasant, suburban, old-fashioned country-
seat, its gardens surrounded by a circle of
wooden, one-story wards, shaded by fine trees.
There were some three hundred cases of epi-
lepsy, paralysis, St. Vitus's dance, and wounds
of nerves. On one side of me lay a poor fellow,
a Dane, who had the same burning neuralgia
with which I once suffered, and which I now
learned was only too common. This man
had become hysterical from pain. He car
ried a sponge in his pocket, and a bottle of


water in one hand, with which he constantly
wetted the burning hand. Every sound in-
creased his torture, and he even poured water
into his boots to keep himself from feeling
too sensibly the rough friction of his soles
when walking. Like him, I was greatly
eased by having small doses of morphia in-
jected under the skin of my shoulder with a
hollow needle fitted to a syringe.

As I improved under the morphia treat-
ment, I began to be disturbed by the horrible
variety of suffering about me. One man
walked sideways; there was one who could
not smell ; another was dumb from an explo-
sion. In fact, every one had his own ab-
normal peculiarity. Near me was a strange
case of palsy of the muscles called rhom-
boids, whose office it is to hold down the
shoulder-blades flat on the back during the
motions of the arms, which, in themselves,
were strong enough. When, however, he
lifted these members, the shoulder-blades
stood out from the back like wings, and got
him the sobriquet of the "Angel." In my
ward were also the cases of fits, which very
much annoyed me, as upon any great change
in the weather it was common to have a
dozen convulsions in view at once. Dr. Neek,



one of our physicians, told me that on one
occasion a hundred and fifty fits took place
within thirty-six hours. On my complaining
of these sights, whence I alone could not fly,
I was placed in the paralytic and wound
ward, which I found much more pleasant.

A month of skilful treatment eased me
entirely of my aches, and I then began to
experience certain curious feelings, upon
which, having nothing to do and nothing
to do anything with, I reflected a good deal.
It was a good while before I could correctly
explain to my own satisfaction the phenom-
ena which at this time I was called upon
to observe. By the various operations al-
ready described I had lost about four fifths
of my weight. As a consequence of this I
ate much less than usual, and could scarcely
have consumed the ration of a soldier. I slept
also but little ; for, as sleep is the repose of
the brain, made necessary by the waste of its
tissues during thought and voluntary move-
ment, and as this latter did not exist in my
case, I needed only that rest which was neces-
sary to repair such exhaustion of the nerve-
centers as was induced by thinking and the
automatic movements of the viscera.

I observed at this time also that my heart,


in place of beating, as it once did, seventy-
eight in the minute, pulsated only forty-five
times in this interval a fact to be easily
explained by the perfect quiescence to which
I was reduced, and the consequent absence of
that healthy and constant stimulus to the
muscles of the heart which exercise occa-

Notwithstanding these drawbacks, my
physical health was good, which, I confess,
surprised me, for this among other reasons :
It is said that a burn of two thirds of the
surface destroys life, because then all the ex-
cretory matters which this portion of the
glands of the skin evolved are thrown upon
the blood, and poison the man, just as hap-
pens in an animal whose skin the physiologist
has varnished, so as in this way to destroy
its function. Yet here was I, having lost at
least a third of my skin, and apparently none
the worse for it.

Still more remarkable, however, were the
psychical changes which I now began to per-
ceive. I found to my horror that at times I
was less conscious of myself, of my own ex-
istence, than used to be the case. This sen-
sation was so novel that at first it quite
bewildered me. I felt like asking some one


constantly if I were really George Dedlow or

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Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellThe autobiography of a quack and the case of George Dedlow → online text (page 6 of 7)