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Thread: Goofy myth perpetuated - again.

  1. #11

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    I was looking at The Journals of William A. Lindsey, a reprint of an Indiana doctor's journal with several 1830s procedures. As usual, he doesn't describe what the patient actually does to cope with the pain, although he acknowledges it:

    p. 77: I was fully 2 hours in dilating the uterus, and fully another hour in detaching the placenta... The operation was attended by excruciating suffering to the patient, and it felt sometimes fearful that she would be unable to bear up under it, and I was several times compelled to desist a short time owing to the exhausted and sinking exacerbations induced by the operation.
    p.66: Having made known to him... the necesity of an operation, I shall never forget the earnestness with which he emplored me not to operate on him. and he so far worked on my feelings & sympathies that it was with much difficulty that I could man my self up to the operating point; I had a son at home near his size & age, and could not help anticipating what my feelings would have been, had this unfortunate boy been my own son thus emploringly pleading with me not to operate on him... But I was much encouraged in the operation which I so reluctently commenced, by the manly resignation & fortitude of my patient, when he found the operation was commenced & would be performed.
    There's also the question of whose responsibility was it to deal with the pain? In modern life, I can't ever recall a doctor instructing me how to cope with pain. The dentist comes with the needle: "Just a little pinch," but never says "Be prepared to grip the arms of the chair" or "You can whine and whimper if you want,"--that's supposed to be my responsibility to initiate.

    So would the doctor say, "Bite down on this while I remove the bullet?" or was the coping method up to the patient?

    If the soldier was more familiar with surgery at home, he might remember what grandpa did when he had to have that cancer removed, or whatever. If the soldier was basing his actions on military life, and knew of the tradition of biting a bullet during punishment, he might choose that.

    All just speculation, of course... Just different ways of considering the issue.

    The biting of bullets by soldiers during corporal punishments seems to be the most common thing discussed in the early 19th century, as far as bullets go, though it's hard to say if the commonness was exaggerated because it's something "everybody knows" they did, or if it's something they actually often did.

    However, it occurs to me that during punishment, the smallness of a bullet would be an advantage, because if the goal is to show how brave and stoic you are, biting on anything large enough to be visible would advertise that you needed help to keep from screaming. Also, you'd be standing or lying face-down, thus less apt to swallow it (though surgeries or minor procedures without anaesthesia were sometimes done seated as well).

    The following is from the Sketches of Philosophy of Life by Sir T.C. Morgan, M.D., London, 1819.
    By the same principle may be explained the very singular fact, that great mental excitement suspends or supersedes the impressions of bodily pain. It elucidates, also, the relief which soldiers seek under punishment, from forcibly biting a bullet. In the latter case, the whole force of volition is expended in exciting the maxillary muscles; and by thus rendering the brain, in some degree, a centre of fluxion, it diminishes the irritability of the tissues, which are torn by the lash of the executioner.
    Hank Trent
    hanktrent@voyager.net

  2. #12
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    Default Don't Swallow

    This just occurred to me reading the above. Wouldn't there be a danger of a patient swallowing, choking on a bullet (piece of lead) during a great groan of pain? (I realize biting down is the supposed use and thus no swallowing, but who alway thinks to bite down in extreme pain?) Wouldn't thus a strap of leather, a stick or something else like a horse bridle make more sense from a patient's welfare perspective?
    Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

    Jas. Cox
    Civilian, but not always Civil
    53rd Indiana Vol. Inf. Co. I (for my Great, Great Grandfather Private William Haas)

  3. #13
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    This just occurred to me reading the above. Wouldn't there be a danger of a patient swallowing, choking on a bullet (piece of lead) during a great groan of pain? (I realize biting down is the supposed use and thus no swallowing, but who alway thinks to bite down in extreme pain?) Wouldn't thus a strap of leather, a stick or something else like a horse bridle make more sense from a patient's welfare perspective?

    Indeed. This is what I ask people when we discuss the topic at an LH - I ask them what's the first thing someone tends to do when they feel extreme pain. Scream, of course, but more specifically, they open their mouth wide to inhale enough air to do so. It ranges from the clenched-teeth hiss to the sudden gasp, but it's the same thing overall.

    If someone has a small object like a musket ball between the teeth it seems likely to me that when/if they open their mouth to make a noise in response to pain they may well dislodge that bullet they are biting and depending on the position it either falls onto the ground/floor or falls back into the gullet -esophagus or trachea. A larger item, more soft, ie leather strap or chunk of rope can be cut wider than the average mouth, so if the patient does open their mouth involuntarily, it's less likely for the gag to slip.

    It seems like common sense to me. Of course evidence has been presented that it may have happened before the war, and after reviewing it I may very well revise my discussions on the subject.

    I know, citing movies is poor citation, but Master and Commander had the surgeon using a large mouth gag and some laudanum on a midshipman before he removed the boy's arm. I actually stood up in the theater and yelled "Yess! They got it right for a change!!" when I saw the scene. I ignored the stares, though a side benefit was getting a whole row to myself - very sudden-like.
    Noah Briggs

  4. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by NoahBriggs
    [I]
    I know, citing movies is poor citation, but Master and Commander had the surgeon using a large mouth gag and some laudanum on a midshipman before he removed the boy's arm. I actually stood up in the theater and yelled "Yess! They got it right for a change!!" when I saw the scene. I ignored the stares, though a side benefit was getting a whole row to myself - very sudden-like.
    Masters and Commanders had the medicine of the time period very accurate. I was also impressed by the medical scenes and how accurate they appeared to be.

    As to the correct rigging of the ship...a friend of mine who is into that ships of that timeperiod told me some of the rigging on the ships was incorrect for that period of time. Just goes to show we are not the only time who is into accuarte information and movies.
    Marc Riddell
    1st Minnesota Co D
    2nd USSS
    Potomac Legion

  5. #15
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    Comrades,

    FWIW, in "A Soldier of the 71st", which is a wonderful period account of a private's service during the Napoleonic War, there is mention of viewing a soldier being lashed, and he is given a piece of leather to bite down on.

    It is also interesting to note that doctors at the VA Hospital here have also reccomended a small strip of leather for patients to chew upon when dealing with chronic pain. I kid you not. One of my close friends who is also a patient there uses this technique as part of his physical therapy. He believes it also gives him a psychological benefit when dealing with the rehadilitation, as well as the chronic pain.

    respects,
    Tim Kindred
    Medical Mess

  6. #16
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    What about the ball itself? The e-bay description says that it is a .44 cal round ball. What civil war era weapon could that possibly have been used in? A private weapon from home? It's a little too small for a .45 pistol, and too big for a .36.
    It just seems like and odd projectile to find around a civil war surgery.
    Marvin Boyce
    Dardanelle, Arkansas

  7. #17
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    Default maybe a .44 ?

    Quote Originally Posted by mboyce
    What about the ball itself? The e-bay description says that it is a .44 cal round ball. What civil war era weapon could that possibly have been used in? A private weapon from home? It's a little too small for a .45 pistol, and too big for a .36.
    It just seems like and odd projectile to find around a civil war surgery.
    perhaps it was a .44 pistol?

  8. #18
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    Comrades,

    let me add a couple of points here.

    1.) Ask yourself thisL Where are all these "pain bullets" coming from? The medical staff certainly isn't hauling around cases of bullets. The soldiers have all of their equipment taken from them (personal items receipted for) when they arrive at the hospital, and many, if not birtually all, have their weapons and accoutrements left behind when they reach the field dressing station, or just dropped in place when picked up by the ambulance or litter bearers. It's excess gear, and excess weight, and the medical staff doesn't want to deal with it.

    2.) Where are all these round balls coming from? Virtually all issued pistol ammunition, north or south, was conical ball. The only round ball was either .69, or OO buckshot from buck&vall cartridge, or buckshot rounds. With the number of wounded these facilities treated, finding cartridges and breaking them open to take out the ball so the wounded would have one to "bite" on, would leave a great deal of powder about, with all the attendant hazards that entails. It also takes time, and ahain, where are the cartridges coming from? Almost every account by wounded men speaks of leaving the weapon and accoutrements behind if possible. In many cases, they stripped them off in order to examine their own woulnds before evr seeking aid.

    I am personally inclined to disregard any such items as "pain bullets" as being actual medical relics, and attributing them all to spent rounds or dropped rounds being chewed by animals, especially hogs and boar. With the availability, even in CS rmies, of palliative care, and the examination of the logistics of obtaining literally hundreds, if not thousands, of unspent rounds by the medical staff, it's time to put this myth to bed.

    Other's mileage mat, of course, vary. Just sayin'...
    Tim Kindred
    Medical Mess

  9. #19
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    I have a couple of modern .577 caliber minie bullets which I had fired into an embankment during a live fire at a range. I noted when I dug them out that the bullets were deformed, and often had deformations which could be interpreted as teeth marks. Full speed projectiles, spent rounds, riochets, and in some cases through-and-through hits on bodies will deform a minie bullet upon impact. A minie bullet which hits a solid surface such as metal or stone will actually "disappear" in the form of silvery-looking flakes at the base of the stone or metal surface. I witnessed this at the same range I pulled the deformed bullets.

    Note to Hollyweird - musket ammunition is made of soft lead. Lead bullets don't spark on impact with metal or stone surfaces. Period. Neither will copper; most modern rounds are copper-jacketed. This is why factories that work with volatile fumes or substances have the workers using copper tools.

    At least stop with the sparking bullets nonsense in action movies. Thanks.

    Sorry for the off-topic rant.
    Noah Briggs

  10. #20

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    Remember, I'm not coming at this from the point of view of debunking eBay artifacts. The fact that most pen erasers are fraudulantly sold as Civil War scalpels today, is less interesting to me, than what scalpels were used.

    So I'm trying to figure out how to explain away the 19th century mentions of soldiers biting on bullets during punishment, and the quote I posted above about surgery too.

    Was it an urban legend even then, that nobody was actually doing? It's possible. Did soldiers ever do it in some past age, either during punishment or medical procedures? How long ago did it become only a legend?

    I wonder if the key point is that bullets kept people from screaming, which was important during punishment (shows they can't break your spirit), but not so much during medical procedures, when the doctor was on your side and would either give you anaesthesia or understand if you reacted during a minor procedure where anaesthesia wasn't required.

    Perhaps the legend/reality began for punishment--which is where it does show up most in the early 19th century--and today has been shifted into a pure legend about coping with wounds, now that people have forgotten that soldiers ever had to deal with flogging.

    For those who've been exposed to injuries in war-like situations, where medical care is delayed or less than ideal, do victims today want to bite on anything for pain? I've never been hurt that bad or seen anyone who is, to know. I don't think it's something I'd choose--I'd rather grip an object with my hands. But I dunno.

    Quote Originally Posted by TimKindred
    1.) Ask yourself thisL Where are all these "pain bullets" coming from? The medical staff certainly isn't hauling around cases of bullets. The soldiers have all of their equipment taken from them (personal items receipted for) when they arrive at the hospital, and many, if not birtually all, have their weapons and accoutrements left behind when they reach the field dressing station,
    I don't see that as much of an objection. It's like saying, when a soldier's flogged, he's not wearing his cartridge box, so where does he get a bullet?

    Common sense would indicate that he's thinking ahead. If a soldier has already heard from old soldiers that biting a bullet will ease pain, he already knows he's hurt and may need medical procedures when he still has bullets with him

    Not saying that anyone actually did it. But biting bullets for punishment shows it's a deliberately pre-planned coping strategy, so if someone wanted to bite a bullet, that's how he'd get it.

    On the separate issue of where are these artifacts coming from...

    2.) Where are all these round balls coming from? Virtually all issued pistol ammunition, north or south, was conical ball.
    I am personally inclined to disregard any such items as "pain bullets" as being actual medical relics, and attributing them all to spent rounds or dropped rounds being chewed by animals, especially hogs and boar.
    Hmm... that still leaves open the question of why did hogs primarily chew on round balls, and not conical balls, if conical balls would be the most common spent or dropped rounds?

    Now I'm curious about something else. When were the first "pain bullets" being discovered? People were scavenging for battlefield artifacts almost before the bodies were cold. If "pain bullets" were discovered while veterans were still alive, and we could find what veterans believed they were, that would go pretty far toward ascertaining their origin.

    Hank Trent
    hanktrent@voyager.net

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