Monday, December 14, 2009

'Hanging by a Thread' or 'Between a Rock & a Hard Place!'

There are many sayings still current in modern English, in reference to being in an unwanted position or predicament, such as the following: 'stuck between a rock & a hard place; hanging by a thread; between the Devil and the deep blue sea; or 'the wolf is at the door,' the latter usually mentioned in reference to someone's dire economic conditions.

However, from frontier times to the modern era, there have been individuals who have found themselves in actual 'life-threatening' situations, yet through sheer courage, fortitude, and will-power, have failed to surrender themselves to depression, fear or hopelessness. Their perseverance through trials & tribulations are a testimony to us all, of the strength of the human spirit and the existence of an awe-inspiring 'will-to-survive.'

A recent example of the above is the true story of Aron Ralston, who in April of 2003, was forced to sever his own right arm with a pocket knife, in order to save his life, after being pinned down by a boulder, having little water, for some five days in a canyon in southern Utah. His courageous autobiography is aptly entitled, Between a Rock & a Hard Place, published just a few years ago.

Aron Ralston is by no means the only individual to find himself in such a life-threatening situation. In 1911, Daniel Snyder, revealed his possession of 'true grit,' when "he was caught beneath a fallen tree" in New York. A woodsmen by profession, Snyder's leg was being "crushed by the weight of tons of wood" and was literally hanging "by shreds" while "rapidly bleeding to death." He "crawled to his ax, severed the limb with it, ripped off his shirt, and checked the flow of blood by binding it tightly about the stump," and lay back awaiting the arrival of help which eventually came, requiring surgeons to 'per-fect' his "crude amputation by removing another portion of the crushed limb." (see, "Ax Surgery Saves Life," The Philadelphia Record, March 3rd, 1911, p.1, col.2).

An earlier and fantastic account of self-survival, also occurred in New York state in May of 1817, as recorded in many publications of the day. Mr. Artemus Shattuck (1795-1878), a native of Colchester, Connecticut (but living at the time in the small village of Wrights Corners, in Wyoming County), would endure an ordeal near Middlebury (same county) that few would wish to replicate.

While cutting wood in the forest, Mr. Shattuck's foot became entangled within the crack of a log "that had been partially split open," after a tree fell where he stood. He was consequently "raised several feet from the ground and suspended with his head downwards; and in such a position that he could not touch the ground..." His axe was out of reach and he was thus unable "to extricate himself." As one would assume, he immediately called for aid repeatedly, but no one could hear his repeated pleas for assistance.

Put yourself in Artemus Shattuck's position: He was hanging upside down; his foot "remained clenched in the cleft of the tree," while his voice was now gone from his constant yelling for help. To add 'insult to injury,' his head was aching from being suspended in such a precarious position; while the weather was very cold and he was also far removed "from any human being." What could he do under such circumstances? Death seemed to be the only 'escape route' left to him.

However, Mr. Shattuck came upon an idea, one that might save his life, or be responsible for his demise. He took from his pocket, "an old Barlow knife, and first cut off the leg of his boot and stocking," then tied a piece of fabric around his ankle as tightly as he could, in order to stop "the current of blood." Then, "with his knife, he unjointed his own ankle, and left his foot cut and separated from his leg in the cleft of the tree."

Falling to the ground, he next bound up his 'stump' with a napkin found in his dinner-basket,"made a crutch of a crooked stick," and started for home, for the most part crawling upon his hands and knees through the snow covered forest. Surprisingly, he made it to the house, fainted from loss of blood and exertion, but was found by family members and resuscitated, only to have a surgeon, Dr. John Cotes of Batavia, amputate his limb completely.

Remarkably, Artemus Shattuck survived his ordeal, an experience which truly affected his demeanor and outlook on life in general, and so turned his mind towards the ministry, rather than farming & forestry as had been his former occupation. He soon emigrated to North Carolina where he joined the Baptist Church, where by 1835 he was the minister of the 'Frienship & Mechanic's Hill Church' in Moore County of that Southern state. Later he would migrate to Mississippi, where trajedy would strike once again, with the death of his wife and youngest child, causing him to remove back to North Carolina.

By 1852 Artemus Shattuck would become the pastor of the 'Eight Mile Creek' church in Mobile, Alabama, and later a minister at Villanow, in Walker County, Georgia, where he would die at Lafayette, on August 23, 1878.

An interesting side-note to this story, concerns the reports of his dismembered 'foot,' and his repeated feeling of a 'ghost-limb,' something now documented within the medical field in regard to amputee victims. A story contained in the 'Presbyterian,' a Philadelphia publication of 1850-51,' carried an article entitled, "A Curious Fact," wherein witnesses claimed Shattuck asked for his foot to be retrieved. after which he was said to have felt the "coldness of the foot, and ...heat of the water" in which it was placed.

As has been stated repeatedly within this blog, there are numerous subjects, topics, human interest stories, etc., of every kind, certainly enough to 'whet the appetite' of both scholar & lay person, to be found in the vast & diverse collections, of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

(For a few sources on Artemus Shattuck & his experience, see: J. H. French, Gazetteer of the State of New York, 7th Edition (1860): 714; Lemuel Shattuck, Memorials of The Descendants of William Shattuck (Boston: Dutton & Wentworth., 1855): 286-288; Andrew W. Young, History of the Town of Warsaw, New York (Buffalo, NY: Sage, Sons & Co., 1869): 53-55)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

With a Stake in the Heart: Suicides or 'Self-Murder' and a Peculiar Custom

During the Civil War in September of 1863, one Margaret Tinney, age 23, a native of New Jersey residing on Trout Street in Philadelphia, committed suicide by taking a large "horse pistol," which she promptly placed within her mouth, then "pulled the trigger," after which the "upper part of her head was almost entirely blown off." A few days later she would be buried in Lafayette Cemetery, with her 'official' cause of death being listed as: "suicide by shooting."

Why Ms. Tinney did what she did is unknown. Perhaps she had a lover who'd been killed in a battle prior to that time, and thus felt alone without him, or she could simply have suffered from emotional distress, depression or some hormonal imbalance. The science of medicine or knowledge of disorders was not as advanced as it is today, but the fate of her body after death, would have been carried out much differently, if she had died previous to the American Civil War.

As late as November 29, 1908, the Philadelphia Public Ledger carried an account entitled, "Two Girls Who Tried to Die Are Repentant," individuals who were "arraigned" before a magistrate or judge, and "charged with attempting suicide," or 'self-murder.' The act of suicide for many centuries, was considered a felony or capital crime in many parts of the world.

The famed English writer, Charles Dickens, in his work, The Old Curiosity Shop, first published in 1841, has a character named Quilp, whose body was found washed ashore, after which an inquest was held on the spot, where it was determined that the man had committed suicide. However, the verdict did not end here. As we're told in Dickens literary tale, Quilp "was left to be buried with a stake through his heart in the centre of four lonely roads."

Lest we think such actions are limited only to the British Isles, fiction or literature, it is recorded in the records of Westmoreland County, Virginia, how on August 25th, 1661, "a man servant of Mr. William Frekes who was Drowned in the Creek neare to his master's plantacon {plantation}...hath wilfully cast himself away..." Thus according to local custom, he was "to be buried at the next cross path as the Law Requires with a stake driven through the middle of him in his grave, hee having wilfully Cast himself away."

The above was not an isolated case, since one Thomas Moverly, "a well known and highly esteemed citizen of the County of Westmoreland," had also committed felo de se, or suicide, considered a 'felony' at that time in 1726. Moverly's corpse was "buried in the fork of a lonely cross-roads," in Westmoreland, with a sign posted stating, "Thou has cast thyself away, wilfully." Such a posting was made as a 'warning' to others who would attempt such rash actions.

It was common practice for many centuries, that those who committed suicide, could not be interred in 'holy ground,' within a church cemetery or graveyard, a similar restriction being also reserved for such malefactors as murderers and thieves. Thus, in 1660 in Massachusetts, the Colonial legislature considered suicide to be 'wicked & unnatural' and thus enacted a law that every suicide victim "shall be denied the privilege of being buried in the common burying place of Christians, but shall be buried in some common highway...and a cartload of stones laid upon the grave, as a brand of infamy, and as a warning to others to beware of the like damnable practices."

As the result of an Act of King George IV, for July 8, 1823, at least in England, such practices as those mentioned above, were finally "put an end to," and considered to be a "barbarous mode of interring suicides," though another would transpire as late as 1825. Prior to that time, an individual committing suicide also prevented his spouse or family from inheriting any properties left by the deceased, but all was automatically "forfeited to the King."

It is interesting as well, when 'Duels' were such a prevalent custom in the United States, particularly during the 18th & 19th centuries, in such places as Massachusetts, that in order to dissuade individuals from engaging in such practices, those who were killed in a conflict were denied, "the right to be buried in a coffin," plus their bodies were "interred near the place of execution, or in the public highway, with a stake driven through them."

Just recently, the well-presevered skeleton of a middle-aged man, uncovered in a Turkish cemetery, at Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, was disinterred and found to have been "nailed to his coffin with eight-inch iron spikes," through his neck, pelvis, and ankle.

Many societies feared that the 'soul' or 'spirit' of the deceased, would rise up and haunt the living, thus the reason for placing stones upon the corpse, or the custom of impalement and internment at a 'crossroads,' in order to prevent the spirit from leaving the grave. A 'crossroad' was also in the 'shape of a cross,' thus the inherent 'power' of the holy icon or symbol would hopefully prevent the ghost of the deceased from leaving his or her grave, in order to harass those left behind. A 'crossroad' would also purportedly 'confuse' the restless spirit as to which direction it should go, in order to inact its spiteful revenge.

Such laws, beliefs, customs, or superstitions as those mentioned above, and other peculiar accounts from historical records, may be found in abundance here, at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.