The Lunatic at the Door: A Thrilling Episode in the Life of a Physician: c. 1860s

Victorian surgical scalpels

It was shortly after a more than heavy clinic in one of the largest medical colleges where a number of local physicians were taking a well-deserved rest, and over their cigars began to talk “shop.” Experiences in their early practice formed the topic of the conversation when one of the oldest practitioners present said:

“There is one experience in my life I will never forget if I live to be a hundred,” and when his colleagues leaned back comfortably in their chairs a group of attentive listeners, he continued:

“It’s many years ago and I had an office then in the basement of a building on Eighth street waiting patiently for patients. I remember it was a bitter cold night and my landlady, her two daughters and the servant were out, the ladies having gone to the theater and the girl to a ball. The only living thing near me was my pet canary, and even it had gone to sleep in its cage. I was deeply absorbed in a medical work when I was disturbed b y a loud knock at the door. When I opened it a tall man, in fact, a veritable giant, confronted me.

“’Are you the doctor?’ was his salutation.

“’Yes, sir; step in.’ I was shivering in the cold, and I was glad when he closed the door behind him. By the light of the lamp and that which the fire from the grate threw out I saw, as I said before, a tall man, seemingly stout as a bull, dressed in a heavy frieze coat, the fur cap with the visor well pulled down shaded the upper part of his face, while a grizzled beard hid the rest. I had hardly made this mental survey before my prospective patient repeated his question:

“’You’re the doctor?’

“’Yes; what can I do for you?’

“Before answering he walked over to the chair whereon he had thrown his coat, and, reaching into a side pocket,


“It was a knife, gentlemen that to my eyes appeared a foot long. I didn’t have much time to think, for before I could make a move he stood between me and the street door, while I knew there was no chance of escape by the rear door, which I had locked and bolted. I did some quick thinking, for in a second it flashed upon me that I was in the presence of a lunatic. Before I could devise a plan of action he spoke again.

“’I ain’t going to hurt you,’ and he grinned while he spoke. ‘If you’ll do as I tell you. If you refuse—‘ and instead of finishing the sentence, he tapped the back of my chair with the knife significantly.  ‘I tell you what I want. You see I’m a sick man, and my trouble is that there’s a bird in my stomach peckin’ at my entrails I want you to cut in there and get the d__d thing out.’

“I knew it was useless to argue with a lunatic, and so I told him to lie down in my operating chair. Once in it I might chloroform him, and while he was under the influence of the drug I could easily make my escape and summon assistance. Somewhat relieved by the thought that my deliverance was near, I acquiesced in the proposal and prepared for the coming trial. I induced him to divest himself of his coat, vest and shirt, but all the time he kept his knife handy. When at last he laid down on the chair he kept the dangerous weapon in his right hand. Finally his had dropped back, and I reached up for the chloroform bottle. He saw the action, and in a jiffy he raised up:

“’No, you don’t,’ he said. ‘I’ll take no drug. If you’ve got to cut me I’ll see it done.’

“’Here was a dilemma I had not figured on, and all my hopes went glimmering. But an inspiration came. ‘Very well,’ I said, as I picked up a scalpel and bared the flesh over the region where the mysterious bird was located in the opinion of my addle-brained patient. My hand was perfectly steady and I cut slowly, hardly more than grazing the skin. Then I reached over where my bird cage hung, I slipped my hand through the door and snatched the astonished songster from its roosting place and gave it the liberty of the room. With


its wings it settled on the bookcase. ‘You are all right now,’ I said to my patient, who had watched the flight of the bird with wide-opened eyes.

“’Yes, thank God, and you have saved me.’

“Apparently he was sane in a moment. He leisurely put on his clothes, laid a five-dollar bill on my desk and departed as mysteriously as he had come. I did not notify the police, nor did I ever heard of my queer patient again.”

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 2 January 1898: p. 16

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is probable that “the largest medical college” was the Medical College of Ohio, Cincinnati, Ohio, founded in 1819. While undoubtedly an admirable training ground for physicians, there was considerable irregularity in the methods the College used to obtain specimens for the dissecting table. A sensational case connected with the College was “The Harrison Horror,” involving the corpse of John Scott Harrison, son of the late President William Henry Harrison.


5 thoughts on “The Lunatic at the Door: A Thrilling Episode in the Life of a Physician: c. 1860s

  1. chriswoodyard Post author

    And very lucky he had a bird handy! One shudders to think what might have happened if the patient had thought himself the victim of a reptile infestation such the unhappy young lady of Cleveland, Ohio who died of lizards.
    Cleveland, O., Dec. 16. Two live lizards three and a half inches long, several smaller ones, and a number of lizard eggs, were taken from the stomach of Lovel Herman, nineteen, four days before she died, according to Dr. A.J. McIntosh. A post-mortem examination showed that the wall of the stomach had been attacked by the animals, the doctors say. The heart had enlarged to three times its normal size.
    For several years she had been ill, complaining that something was clawing at her stomach. Specialists were puzzled until finally Dr. McIntosh, working on the theory that it was a tapeworm, found the lizards.
    Miss Herman drank water from a spring in which there were lizards, when she lived at Millersburg, twelve years ago, and it is believed that she swallowed the eggs or the young animals at that time and that they grew while in her body. She craved meat and eggs during the four months of her illness and it is believed she demanded such animal food because the lizards, as well as her body, had to be fed. She ate ravenously, but weighed only eighty pounds.
    Incidentally, the health officials refuse to accept the certificate of death based upon the lizard theory, declaring that no such case has been reported since the days of primitive medicine.
    Fort Wayne [IN] News 16 December 1910: p. 28
    [From The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales]


  2. Louise kahler

    Fascinating. I just finished reading “the anatomists wife”. I like your anecdote better… good work!



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