Gordon Truesdale’s Gaseous Head: A Tale of Grave-Robbing and Gas Gangrene

Whew, hello, it’s been a while! I want to say that it’s working full time and trying to stay on top of funeral school that’s keeping me busy, but the real culprit is that there’s too much good TV to watch and I can’t multi-task. If I could research and write while simultaneously watching Stranger Things, I would be a much more productive human being, but alas, I do not possess that particular power — woe is me. Anyway, I’m currently working on a longer post about how the anatomist William Hunter once straight up stole someone’s body because he wanted to put it on display, and how that was very much not okay. It’s a sad story, and a reminder that people have gotten away with a lot of really terrible stuff in the name of science, because even though science is super awesome and greatthe people who do science can still be massive butt-hats.

While that post is still incubating, it did remind me of another tale I came across in my internet travels about a body-snatcher who got absolutely dunked-on by karma, so in the interests of keeping the content flowing I will share that as a prelude-slash-pre-emptive palate cleanser (that’s obviously not a real thing, but feel free to come back and re-read this post after that one [once it’s posted], I guess?). This post doesn’t include any pictures that are super gross, but it does contain a truly gruesome description of something gross that honestly, I would feel bad if I didn’t warn you beforehand to gird your loins for because it is INTENSE. Side-note, do not, DO N O T google image search gas gangrene after you read this, I did it, and it was a poor life choice, so just trust me on this one. DON’T DO IT.

grave-robber
“Don’t worry, I am most definitely putting these bones back IN this grave, I SWEAR” (image via paganpressbooks.com)

And now, the story.

The incident in question happened in 1880, the heyday of both phrenology and grave-robbing, and these two hobbies came together in a really unfortunate way for one Mr. Gordon Truesdale of South Bend, Indiana. Phrenology, for those who aren’t aware, is a now thoroughly debunked ‘science’ that involved feeling the lumps and bumps of a person’s skull and determining their personality characteristics from them. Ol’ Gord was a budding phrenologist looking to add to his skull collection, and, since he lived in a place and time where human remains were difficult-to-impossible to legally acquire he turned to grave robbing (not that human remains are exactly easy to acquire these days, but it is legal enough that looting graves isn’t the first thing people jump to).

munch_blossom-of-pain
Pictured: A man who thoroughly regrets his PPE/grave-robbing decisions. (A Blossom of Pain, Edvard Munch, 1898)

Luckily (sort of), Truesdale also lived in a place and time where disease abounded and medicine did not, so the mortality rate was pretty high, leaving a fairly steady supply of the recently deceased and their freshly dug graves for him to plunder.

 

It happened that a young South Bend lady named Sarah Platts died of consumption (tuberculosis) at around the same time that Gordon was looking to expand his collection of phrenological specimens, so, when her grave was discovered to have been opened and her head removed, suspicion immediately fell on our intrepid phrenologist. What followed is probably one of the greatest examples of karmic retribution ever, if you believe in that sort of thing, and a fantastic lesson in why you should always wear PPE when handling corpses and/or robbing graves (please don’t rob graves) if you don’t. I’ll leave it up to the report in the Anderson Intelligencer of April 22, 1880 to tell the rest of the story because GODDAMN:

“About three weeks ago Truesdale went to a physician and asked if a person could become poisoned in handling a dead body. He received an affirmative reply and appeared to be much troubled. He complained to his wife that his nose was paining him terribly and he believed he was taking the erysipelas. He began doctoring himself with bread-and-milk poultices, but without success. His face began to swell rapidly, and in less than three days it and his head became twice their natural size and lost all semblance to human shape. A physician was called in against the wishes of Truesdale. He found the man suffering terribly. His lids were drawn by the tension of the skin and writhed themselves away from the teeth in unceasing pain. The cuticle across the bridge of the nose and over the forehead was so distended with the mattery substance underneath that it seemed as if it must burst every moment. The eyes were swollen almost to bursting from their sockets and were turned with pain until hardly anything but the whites could be seen. It was evident that a terrible poison was slowly but surely permeating the man’s whole system.

The physician, after a careful examination of the unwilling patient, cut open his skin from about the center of his nose almost to the roots of his hair, and then made another across the forehead almost from temple to temple. From these incisions there oozed a mass of loathsome, detestable putrescence, so terrible in its stench that the attendants, save one, ran from the house. Other incisions were made in different parts of the scalp, from which the hair had been shaved, and from these this terribly offensive matter oozed constantly, until the swelling was reduced and the head and face assumed nearly their normal size. Attempts were then made to free the incisions of matter by injecting water into them. It was noticed that when water was forced into the cut in the forehead it poured out of the holes in the scalp. As one of the attendants said, “it seemed as if all the flesh between the skin arid bone had turned into corruption and ran out.”

When Mr. Truesdale was told that he could not possibly recover, he called his wife into the room and confessed to her that he robbed the Platts girl’s grave, and referred to a certain night when he left the house and refused to tell her where he went at the time when he committed the crime. He said that he dug down to the head of the coffin, broke it open and, taking his knife, cut around the neck of the corpse through the flesh to the bone. He then placed one of his feet on the breast of the corpse, and, taking the head in his hands, pulled and jerked and twisted it until it came off by mere force. He afterward disjointed the lower jaw and threw it where Fred Auer found it. He closed his confession by telling her where the skull would be found, under the straw in a certain manger in the stable. It was found there and given up to the Platts family.

The last three days of Truesdale’s existence were terrible, not only to himself but to those who watched him. The poison from some corpse (for it is believed he had recently opened several graves,) which was communicated to his system by picking a raw spot on the inside of his nose, appeared to course through every vein in his body. Not only was his person offensive to the eye, but the odor and heat of his breath was so offensive that it was impossible for the attendants to wait on him properly. The breath was so poisonous that when one of the attendants held his hand six inches from the dying man’s mouth it stung the flesh like hundreds of nettles. Those who waited on him were obliged
to wear gloves, as it was impossible to wash the odor from their hands. The day he died his flesh was so rotten that it seemed as if it would drop from the bones it touched, and his eyes actually decayed until they became sightless.

For two days before his death a coffin had been in readiness, and the orders of the physician were to place him in it as soon as the breath left his body and get him under the ground immediately. After his death none of the attendants had the temerity to touch the corpse, for fear of being poisoned, so they gathered the sheets on which the body lay at each end, and thus lifted it into the coffin. The lid was quickly screwed down, but before a wagon could be procured the body swelled and burst it off. It was then strapped on, but when the coffin was taken from the wagon at the graveyard, just at daylight, it again flew off, and the body appeared to swell visibly before the horrified attendants’ eyes. The fetid, noisome stench from the putrid mass within was such that no one could attempt to replace the cover, and the coffin was covered from sight as hurriedly as possible.

The day after the funeral, or burial, rather, the wife of Truesdale was confined at a neighbor’s house, this fifth child also being a girl. The Truesdale house will not be fit to occupy for several days, as all efforts to fumigate it thus far have failed. The doors and windows have been left open day and night, but the stench is still as bad as when he died. As one of the attendants said, “It still seems as if you could cut the air in that house with a knife.”

(credit to Strange Company for typing up the original newspaper article,  thus allowing me to copy and past it with ease – what a gem!)

Woof, that unflinching, 19th century detail though — Yikes. I guess journalists had to be extra skilled at painting a picture with their words when visual media wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now. In case you were wondering (and I know you were), the disease progression described in the article is very likely gas gangrene, which is caused by the bacteria Clostridium perfingens. Gas gangrene, also known as clostridial myonecrosis, is an extremely virulent flesh-eating disease – think necrotizing fasciitis ( I wouldn’t image search that one either, to be honest) on steroids. C. perfringens can cause tissue gas in dead bodies as part of the normal process of decomposition — gas gangrene is basically what happens when the bacteria get an opportunity to throw down on living tissue, essentially you’re decomposing despite still being very much alive (although if you contract gas gangrene, it’s a pretty fair bet that your “very much alive” status will not remain so for very long).  

While you can contract gas gangrene from contact with a body that is already infected with the bacteria — for example, through handling the body of someone who died from complications of gas gangrene — it’s actually more likely that our friend Gordon Truesdale picked it up from the soil that he had to dig through in order to desecrate Ms. Platts’ grave, because that’s commonly where the bacteria likes to hang out so that it can feed on the various bits and pieces of organic matter therein. Unfortunately for Gord, the treatment for gas gangrene is massive doses of antibiotics coupled with tissue debridement and/or amputation. Since you can’t amputate a person’s head, nor is there a lot of tissue to remove, he probably wouldn’t have been able to be saved with even modern medicine, let alone the medical treatments available in 1880, although a modern doctor might have been able to dose him up with better painkillers in the meantime while his face decomposed without him actually being dead.

Well, until next time, sweet dreams, try not to think about this while you’re eating, and definitely don’t Google image search gas gangrene. I’ll even include the least gross picture in the search results to alleviate your curiosity, YOU ARE WELCOME:

gas-gangrene
Seriously though, don’t image search this shit if you value not having puked in your mouth today. (image via emedicine.medscape.com)

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