She needs a finger

3 figures for fingerOn July 26th 1911 The Los Angeles Times carried what must be the most extraordinary classified ad in its history. The editor realised he had a story on his hands, promptly despatched reporters to find out more, and promoted the advertisement to a handsome slot on the front page.  The headline certainly makes you want to read more. And it’s well worth reading:

Probably the two most anxious persons in Southern California at present are Dr Fred B. West of Los Angeles and Mrs Reginald Waldorf, who is now at Catalina. The cause of distress is common to both, but Mrs Waldorf suffers the greater discomfiture. 

Sadly I can find no trace of these people outside the (several hundred) newspaper articles prompted by this one. Dr West was a surgeon, but there is no sign of him in the journal literature.

Mrs Reginald Waldorf
Mrs Reginald Waldorf

She is a rich and pretty young widow and an accomplished musician, in trouble because of the loss of an index finger, without which she cannot command the applause of an audience. He, a skilled young surgeon, is grieved because he has not yet been able to find another young lady poor enough or unselfish enough to sacrifice a digit for the grafting purposes of a doctor or to please the artistic temperament of the pretty pianist. 

This raises a medical question or two, to which I will return below.

Some time ago, Mrs Waldorf, whose home is in Philadelphia, accidentally cut the forefinger of her right hand on a rusty blade. Blood poison set in and it became necessary to amputate the finger in order to save her hand, and possibly her life. About two weeks ago Mrs Waldorf came to California, here to restore the health she had lost by reason of accident. She arrived in Los Angeles Monday morning, and immediately sought out Dr West, told him of her troubles, and lamented that she would never be able to play the piano again. 

“And that is not the worst of it,” she said. “It is so inartistic to be minus a finger when one has been used to five all one’s life. I would rather have a finger that I could not use than to have no finger at all. Do you think it would be possible to graft a finger on to this stub, providing one could first find the finger?” 

Er, no, is the short answer. But Dr West had different ideas.

Dr West told her that the operation would be very possible and she danced with delight. An alabaster cast of the left index finger was taken, together with accurate measurements. Dr West says he is going to get that finger if it takes him a year and if he has to make a house-to-house canvass of every city between, and including this city and San Francisco. “It wouldn’t do at all to disappoint her, you know,” he said.

Dr West’s assurances were either ignorant or straightforwardly dishonest. Although there were several known cases of severed fingers being reattached (see here for one unusual example), in 1911 it was utterly impossible to attach a finger – or indeed any other part of the body – taken from a different person. One intriguing possibility is that Dr West was aware of the contemporary experiments of Alexis Carrel, the great medical researcher who pioneered numerous important surgical techniques. In this period he was investigating transplantation, and his experiments included removing a dog’s leg and replacing it with one taken from a cadaver. This was successful in the short term but was doomed to fail, since the dog’s immune system would quickly have rejected the donor limb.

Meantime, from her retreat at Avalon, Mrs Waldorf spurs him on with appealing missives. “Dear doctor,” she wrote yesterday, “I am depending on you to get that finger for me. You must not fail me. I don’t care if it is a little expensive. Try the hospital wards; try anybody, anywhere, any time, but get the finger. Get a good, healthy tint, too.” 

Hang on a minute, Mrs Waldorf; specifying the skin colour seems a little demanding in these circumstances.

Dr West says that if any young lady wants to contribute to the young musician’s comfort as well as to add to the world’s art and earn a pretty little sum of money, more than the ordinary woman’s hand will earn for her in a long, long time, all she need do is to contribute one sound, pretty finger of the following description: 

Index finger of right hand, length three inches, distance from finger tip to palm thumb-joint 7 7/16 inches; proximal joint, 2 3//8 inches in circumference; middle joint, 2 5/16 inches in circumference; distal joint, 1 1/16 inches in circumference. 

Putting aside the practicalities for a moment, this all sounds highly dubious from an ethical point of view.

Dr West says he will begin at once to advertise for the right kind of a finger. He will carefully examine any digit brought to him or sent by mail, and will return to the owner if not available. The exact price for the right finger is not definitely decided upon, but it is rumoured that she who has and hands it over will be the richer by well over three figures. 

Even at 1911 prices, this seems scant compensation for willingly giving up a finger. And yes, you read that correctly: he was seriously suggesting that the donor finger could be sent in the post. Needless to say, after a few days in the mail the digit would be long beyond use, not to mention smelling to high heaven.

Naturally this caused a great deal of interest; the following day the East Coast newspapers carried the story. And the first reply came a few days later from a woman in New York, Mrs M. A. Soyer, who wrote to her local paper:

Willing to sell fingerIf the item advertising for a woman’s finger is really authentic, I should like to communicate with Dr West. I am so desperately in need of money that I am ready to grasp at this possible joke, in the hope that it may, after all, be true and that I may fit the bill of requirements. As nearly as I can judge from the list of dimensions given, the first digit of my right hand corresponds to a nicety with that required by the lady. It is a good little finger and has served me well and I shall be sorry to part company with it. But I think the lady could not do better than accept it, for it is well shaped, healthy and hasn’t a lazy bone. 

Reporters went to her house in the Bronx to check whether the offer was sincere. And indeed it was:

“It is for Ruth,” she began simply. “Ruth is my 10-year-old daughter, and she has only her mother to care for her. I would do anything in the world to bring her up with the advantages I consider essential, and I count it cheap to give up one finger. If that woman in Los Angeles will pay me $2,000 she may have the finger as soon as she wants it. I am as firmly determined as ever I was in my life. Just why do I need that amount of money? Because I will not bring up my child in a large city. I would rather see Ruth lying in her coffin than be forced to keep her any longer in New York.” 

That seems a little extreme. Mrs Soyer then explained that her daughter had nearly died after catching scarlet fever in hospital while recovering from measles – which really is bad luck – and that she had received a government grant of land in order to set up a homestead in Minnesota. Her interview closes with the best quote published in any newspaper in 1911:

“I must get out into the open with my baby. So my finger is for sale.” 

A second offer followed, also from a single mother hoping to make a better life for her daughter. Mrs Minnie O’Herrin of Chicago explained that she wanted to sell her finger so that her 6-year-old Isla could have a musical education:

Haven’t I made every other sacrifice a mother is capable of making? I will be the happiest person in the world if this can be done.”

Now the story takes an extraordinary turn. Three weeks after the advertisement was placed, Mrs Waldorf received a letter from one of the most celebrated Americans then alive, Dr Mary Walker:

I have just read that you desire to purchase a right index finger. Will you give me enough to erect a consumptive ward on my estate here? I have saved hopeless cases, and because I declare consumption is not contagious money is not forthcoming to erect a ward. I finish this letter not using my index finger.

MARY E. WALKER, M. D.

Surgeon in War of 1861-65

PS If return ticket is sent, will come immediately, so you can decide if my finger is desired by yourself.

Dr Mary Walker
Dr Mary Walker

Mary Edwards Walker was a truly remarkable person, one of the first female doctors in the United States, who served as an army surgeon during the Civil War. She remains the only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war she became a leading campaigner for women’s suffrage, in addition to running her tuberculosis hospital. She was often attacked for her politics, and for her preference for wearing masculine clothes. This ‘foible’ indeed counted against her in this case. The response from Dr Fred West was not only curt, but surprisingly rude:

No woman who wears trousers can furnish that finger – and Dr Mary Walker’s greatest claim to fame is that she wears them. Besides Dr Walker is too old. Her finger would not do even if Mrs Waldorf was inclined to pay the exorbitant price Dr Walker asks. 

Charming. By this time it seems that Dr West was fielding offers on an almost daily basis. Indeed, the next day he received one from William E. Moreland in Maryland:

Moreland is employed as the shipping clerk in a local department store, and has an exceedingly well-developed hand.  “Sure, I’ll give her my finger, if she will pay for it,” he said. “I have been practising writing with the second finger and it goes just fine. If she wants a finger she might just as well have a good one, and I believe this is strong enough for any woman,” and he gazed lovingly at the digit he is willing to sell for $20,000 cash.

Note that the price has gone up considerably since the ‘over three figures’ stipulated in the original ad. Too much, evidently, since Dr West did not accept the offer. The tale had one more extraordinary twist, as reported by the newspapers on August 23rd:

Viola Larsen, a Chicago girl, who has succeeded in keeping herself in the limelight of publicity by a series of unusual stunts, today offered to sell the index finger of her right hand to Mrs Reginald Waldorf of Philadelphia, who advertised for one. She said she needed the money.

A Chicago reporter sent to interview Miss Larsen concluded – correctly – that she was a timewaster. A quick perusal of his paper’s cuttings archive revealed that her antics included:

  • Viola Larsen
    Viola Larsen

    Stealing a horse and carriage. In court she explained that she was writing a novel about a criminal and wanted to be arrested ‘for the experience’, so that she could write about it more accurately.

  • Getting herself committed to an insane asylum (for the same reason)
  • Organising ‘The Sacred Annoying Club’, an anarchist group for young women.

But her most unusual stunt – fittingly – involved another strange classified advertisement. In 1909 she placed a notice in the Chicago press offering to sell herself as a slave. She explained that ‘Chicago was so sordid that it was useless to find favour in the world unless one sold oneself for money.’ The ad was answered by one William Brown, who was so smitten that he proposed three days later. Predictably, their marriage foundered after a couple of weeks when Viola decided that wedded life was not for her after all. Naturally, she chose to explain herself in the newspapers:

I am going to wed for life a literary career. I married Wm Brown to know life as a wife. It is distasteful to me – at least life as HIS wife. He loved me too intensely, too prolongedly, too insistently. 

I suspect that Wm Brown was well shot of her. But where does this all leave poor Mrs Reginald Waldorf and her missing digit? Sensibly she did not accept the offer of Viola Larsen, who received a mauling in the newspapers.  Alas, at this point the trail goes cold. There is one telling reference to Mrs Waldorf in an article about Alexis Carrel’s transplant research published that December. Mulling over the implications of human transplantation, the reporter points out the ethical problems involved in the buying or selling of organs for transplant. He wonders whether others might follow the example set by Mrs Waldorf by offering extravagant sums to buy a kidney or a lung – a perceptive and prescient objection.

But that’s the last time the names of Dr West and Mrs Reginald Waldorf appeared in print. So what happened? It’s almost certain he was not foolish enough to attempt the finger transplant, which would have been unsuccessful and might even have killed his attractive young patient. One of the earlier articles contains a possible clue:

Dr West has been notified by attorneys for the Waldorf estate in Philadelphia that no fabulous sum can be paid for the finger and hints are given that the widow is not as wealthy as was reported.

A cynic (who, me?) might suggest that the impressionable young surgeon was bowled over by this ‘rich, pretty young widow’ and made an outrageous promise to impress her, before being scared off when he realised that she might not be his route to fame and fortune after all.  Perhaps he answered Viola Larsen’s letter; I think they might have been a good match.

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