The deserter

Phineas Adams, deserterHere’s an entertaining snippet from Guy’s Medical Jurisprudence from 1812, concerning a young man who really didn’t want to be in the army:

Phineas Adams, a soldier in the Somerset Militia, aged 18 years, was confined in jail for desertion.

This barely does the poor lad justice – he was only imprisoned after numerous attempts to be invalided out of service. The Taunton Courier chronicled them; it all began when he approached the regimental surgeon with an ulcer on his arm:

Somerset regiment grenadier
A grenadier of the Somerset Regiment

On examination, it was quite evident, that the ulcer was occasioned by his own contrivance through blistering. Upon his recovery, which was considerably protracted by his conduct, influenced, no doubt, by the hope that his case would be pronounced incurable, and that consequently he would be discharged, he deserted from his regiment. Upon his apprehension he was committed to the gaol at Wilton, near Taunton, where he was attended by a medical gentleman, in consequence of a wound which he then exhibited on his leg, and which there is much reason to suppose was artificially produced. 

On the 24th of April, he fell down a flight of stone steps, and such was the violence of his fall that he severely injured a man with whom he came in contact, and was himself taken up with blood oozing from one of his ears. Being conveyed to bed he appeared to have suffered no material injury; but, a day or two afterwards he observed to the medical gentleman who attended him, that he thought he was getting deaf.  

A coward he may have been; but he was certainly blessed with perseverance. At this point he appears to have concluded that it would be best to simulate a coma.

From the 26th of April to the 8th of July, 1811 , he lay in a state of insensibility, resisting every remedy, such as thrusting snuff up the nostrils, electric shocks, powerful medicines, etc. When any of his limbs were raised, they fell with the leaden weight of total inanimation. His eyes were closed and his countenance extremely pale; but his respiration continued free, and his pulse was of a healthy tone.

He was fed regularly with eggs diluted with wine – and occasionally tea, which he sucked in through his teeth, as his jaws remained obstinately locked shut.

Pins were thrust under his finger nails to excite sensation, but in vain. It was conjectured that his illness might be owing to a fall, and a proposal was consequently made by the surgeon to perform the operation of scalping, in order to ascertain whether there was not a depression of the bone.

I do wonder whether this was entirely motivated by therapeutic concerns.

The operation was described by him to the parents at the bedside of their son, and it was performed—the incisions were made, the scalp drawn up, and the head examined.

All without an anaesthetic, needless to say.

During all this time be manifested no audible sign of pain or sensibility, except when the instrument with which the head was scraped was applied.

Scraping the denuded skull, in fact. Imagine that.

He then, but only once, uttered a groan. As no beneficial result appeared, and as the case seemed hopeless, a discharge was obtained, and he was taken to the house of his father. The next day he was seen sitting at the door talking to his parent; and, the day after, was observed at two miles from home, cutting spars, carrying reeds up a ladder, and assisting his father in thatching a rick.

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