Dragging his bowels after him

A case in surgery

Medics and their journals have always loved a curiosity, however long ago it occurred. This case was reported in the Medical and Surgical Journal in 1871, more than a century after the ghastly events it relates had taken place:

John Stetson, aged thirty-eight, farmer, also accustomed to slaughter cattle, July 19, 1768, in a paroxysm of insanity secreted himself in a lonely place near a swamp, and with a butcher knife made a cesarean section of his own body, ripping himself open from sternum to pubis.

One would expect a farmer ‘accustomed to slaughter cattle’ to know a quicker and less painful method of doing away with himself, but he must have had his reasons.

As soon as the deed was done, he came to himself, but could not make his cries for assistance heard. He rolled himself about among the leaves in agony; making also fruitless efforts to reach a neighboring spring, crawling upon the ground and dragging his bowels after him.

A graphic, albeit not particularly appealing, mental image.

At length he became exhausted and probably fainted, and thus the bleeding was staunched; so he remained during the night. In the morning he was found, and life not being extinct, he was placed upon a straw bed and that upon a bier procured from the burying ground, and so conveyed to his house.

Being taken home on a bier is a bit like being conveyed to the hospital emergency department in a hearse.

Dr. Moses Baker was in attendance, and first bathed the protruding bowels in warm milk and water, carefully cleansing them from the dirt and leaves with which they were covered. He then carefully replaced them within the cavity of the abdomen securing them with sutures, compresses and a bandage. Dr. B. watched over his patient with intense assiduity, making very frequent visits. By his request Dr. Joseph Warren, a distinguished surgeon, who afterwards fell in the service of his country at the memorable battle of Bunker Hill, saw the case, but made no change in the dressings, kindly saying that he could not have dressed the wound more skilfully himself.

This entire procedure, in an era before antiseptics, is a positive recipe for infection. Milk – unpasteurised as it would have been in 1768 – is alive with microbial life, and it is a miracle that none of the micro-organisms present took up permanent and fatal residence in his abdominal cavity.

On examining the account books of Dr. Baker now in my possession, I find the last charge for attendance and dressing was on the twenty-fourth day of August, thirty-six days after the injury. On the twenty-sixth there was a charge “for salve,” when it is to be presumed the wound was so nearly healed as to need no further surgical attendance. The recovery was perfect, and the patient was able to labor in the same manner as he had done before the injury. He lived afterwards forty-three years until 1811, when he died at the age of eighty-one.

And for forty-three years John Stetson could count himself the luckiest man alive.

3 thoughts on “Dragging his bowels after him”

  1. What a story! – One can only imagine how much ‘guts’ it would have taken to drag yourself along the ground, entrails in tow after doing that to yourself!! Thanks for sharing.

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