THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A QUACK
THE CASE OF GEORGE DEDLOW
By S. Weir Mitchell, M.D., LL.D. Harvard And Edinburgh
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A QUACK
THE CASE OF GEORGE DEDLOW
Both of the tales in this little volume
"Atlantic Monthly" as anonymous
contributions. I owe to the present
owners of that journalpermission
to use them. "The Autobiography of a
Quack" has been recast with large additions.
"The Case of George Dedlow" was not written with any intention
should appear in print. I lent the manuscript
to the Rev. Dr. Furness
and forgot it. This gentleman sent it to the Rev. Edward Everett
Hale. He, presuming, I fancy, that every one desired to appear in the
"Atlantic," offered it to that journal. To my surprise, soon afterwards
I received a proof and a check. The story was inserted as a leading
article without my name. It was at once accepted by many as the
description of a real case. Money was collected in several places to
assist the unfortunate
man, and benevolent
persons went to the "Stump
Hospital," in Philadelphia, to see the sufferer
and to offer him aid.
at the end of the story was received with joy by
the spiritualists as a valuable
proof of the truth of their beliefs.
S. WEIR MITCHELL
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A QUACK
At this present moment of time I am what the doctors call an interesting
case, and am to be found in bed No. 10, Ward 11, Massachusetts General
Hospital. I am told that I have what is called Addison's disease, and
that it is this pleasingmalady
which causes me to be covered with large
blotches of a dark mulatto tint. However, it is a rather grim subject
to joke about, because, if I believed the doctor who comes around every
day, and thumps me, and listens to my chest with as much pleasure as
if I were music all through--I say, if I really believed him, I should
suppose I was going to die. The fact is, I don't believe him at
all. Some of these days I shall take a turn and get about again; but
meanwhile it is rather dull for a stirring, active person like me to
have to lie still and watch myself getting big brown and yellow spots
all over me, like a map that has taken to growing.
The man on my right has consumption--smells of cod-liver oil, and coughs
all night. The man on my left is a down-easter with a liver which has
struck work; looks like a human pumpkin; and how he contrives to whittle
jackstraws all day, and eat as he does, I can't understand. I have tried
reading and tried whittling, but they don't either of them satisfy me,
so that yesterday
I concluded to ask the doctor if he couldn't suggest
some other amusement.
I waited until he had gone through the ward, and then seized my chance,
and asked him to stop a moment.
"Well, my man," said he, "what do you want!"
I thought him rather disrespectful, but I replied, "Something to do,
He thought a little, and then said: "I'll tell you what to do. I think
if you were to write out a plain account
of your life it would be pretty
well worth reading. If half of what you told me last week be true, you
must be about as clever a scamp as there is to be met with. I suppose
you would just as lief put it on paper as talk it."
"Pretty nearly," said I. "I think I will try it, doctor."
After he left I lay awhile
thinking over the matter. I knew well that I
was what the world calls a scamp, and I knew also that I had got little
good out of the fact. If a man is what people call virtuous, and fails
in life, he gets credit at least for the virtue; but when a man is
a--is--well, one of liberal
views, and breaks down, somehow or other
people don't credit him with even the intelligence
he has put into the
business. This I call hard. If I did not recall with satisfaction
energy and skill with which I did my work, I should be nothing but
disgusted at the melancholyspectacle
of my failure. I suppose that
I shall at least find occupation
in reviewing all this, and I
think, therefore, for my own satisfaction, I shall try to amuse my
convalescence by writing
a plain, straightforward account
of the life I
have led, and the various devices by which I have sought to get my share
of the money of my countrymen. It does appear to me that I have had no
end of bad luck.
As no one will ever see these pages, I find it pleasant to recall for my
the fact that I am really a very remarkable
am, or rather I was, very good-looking, five feet eleven, with a lot
of curly red hair, and blue eyes. I am left-handed, which is another
unusual thing. My hands have often been noticed. I get them from my
mother, who was a Fishbourne, and a lady. As for my father, he was
rather common. He was a little man, red and round like an apple, but
very strong, for a reason I shall come to presently. The family must
have had a pious liking
for Bible names, because he was called Zebulon,
my sister Peninnah, and I Ezra, which is not a name for a gentleman. At
one time I thought of changing it, but I got over it by signing myself
Where my father was born I do not know, except that it was somewhere in
New Jersey, for I remember that he was once angry because a man called
him a Jersey Spaniard. I am not much concerned
to write about my people,
because I soon got above their level; and as to my mother, she died when
I was an infant. I get my manners, which are rather remarkable, from
My aunt, Rachel Sanderaft, who kept house for us, was a queer character.
She had a snug little property, about seven thousand dollars. An old
aunt left her the money because she was stone-deaf. As this defect
upon her after she grew up, she still kept her voice. This woman was the
cause of some of my ill luck in life, and I hope she is uncomfortable,
wherever she is. I think with satisfaction
that I helped to make her
when I was young, and worse later on. She gave away to the
idle poor some of her small income, and hid the rest, like a magpie,
in her Bible or rolled in her stockings, or in even queerer places.
The worst of her was that she could tell what people said by looking at
their lips; this I hated. But as I grew and became intelligent, her ways
of hiding her money proved useful, to me at least. As to Peninnah, she
was nothing special until she suddenly bloomed out into a rather
stout, pretty girl, took to ribbons, and liked what she called "keeping
company." She ran errands for every one, waited on my aunt, and thought
I was a wonderful person--as indeed I was. I never could understand her
fondness for helping everybody. A fellow has got himself to think about,
and that is quite enough. I was told pretty often that I was the most
selfish boy alive. But, then, I am an unusual
person, and there are
several names for things.
My father kept a small shop for the sale of legal stationery and the
like, on Fifth street north of Chestnut. But his chief interest in life
lay in the bell-ringing of Christ Church. He was leader, or No. 1, and
the whole business was in the hands of a kind of guild which is nearly
as old as the church. I used to hear more of it than I liked, because my
father talked of nothing else. But I do not mean to bore myself writing
of bells. I heard too much about "back shake," "raising in peal,"
"scales," and "touches," and the Lord knows what.
My earliest remembrance
is of sitting on my father's shoulder when he
led off the ringers. He was very strong, as I said, by reason of this
exercise. With one foot caught in a loop of leather nailed to the floor,
he would begin to pull No. 1, and by and by the whole peal would be
swinging, and he going up and down, to my joy; I used to feel as if it
was I that was making the great noise that rang out all over the town.
My familiar acquaintance
with the old church and its lumber-rooms, where
were stored the dusty arms of William and Mary and George II., proved of
use in my later days.
My father had a strong belief
in my talents, and I do not think he was
mistaken. As he was quite uneducated, he determined that I should not
be. He had saved enough to send me to Princeton College, and when I
was about fifteen I was set free from the public schools. I never liked
them. The last I was at was the high school. As I had to come
down-town to get home, we used to meet on Arch street the boys from the
grammar-school of the university, and there were fights every week. In
winter these were most frequent, because of the snow-balling. A fellow
had to take his share or be marked as a deserter. I never saw any
personal good to be had out of a fight, but it was better to fight
than to be cobbed. That means that two fellows hold you, and the other
fellows kick you with their bent knees. It hurts.
I find just here that I am describing a thing as if I were writing
some other people to see. I may as well go on that way. After all, a
man never can quite stand off and look at himself as if he was the only
person concerned. He must have an audience, or make believe to have one,
even if it is only himself. Nor, on the whole, should I be unwilling, if
it were safe, to let people see how great ability
may be defeated by the
crankiness of fortune.
I may add here that a stone inside of a snowball discourages the fellow
it hits. But neither our fellows nor the grammar-school used stones in
snowballs. I rather liked it. If we had a row in the springtime
threw stones, and here was one of those bits of stupid
custom no man can
understand; because really a stone outside of a snowball is much more
serious than if it is mercifully padded with snow. I felt it to be
a rise in life when I got out of the society of the common boys who
attended the high school.
When I was there a man by the name of Dallas Bache was the head master.
He had a way of letting the boys attend to what he called the character
of the school. Once I had to lie to him about taking
another boy's ball.
He told my class that I had denied the charge, and that he always took
it for granted that a boy spoke the truth. He knew well enough what
would happen. It did. After that I was careful.
Princeton was then a little college, not expensive, which was very well,
as my father had some difficulty to provide even the moderate
I soon found that if I was to associate
with the upper set of young men
I needed money. For some time I waited in vain. But in my second year
I discovered a small gold-mine, on which I drew with a moderation
shows even thus early the strength of my character.
I used to go home once a month for a Sunday visit, and on these
occasions I was often able to remove from my aunt's big Bible a five- or
ten-dollar note, which otherwise
would have been long useless.
Now and then I utilized my opportunities at Princeton. I very much
desired certain things like well-made clothes, and for these I had to
run in debt to a tailor. When he wanted pay, and threatened to send the
bill to my father, I borrowed from two or three young Southerners; but
at last, when they became hard up, my aunt's uncounted hoard proved a
last resource, or some rare chance in a neighboring
room helped me out.
I never did look on this method as of permanent
usefulness, and it was
only the temporary
folly of youth.
Whatever else the pirate
necessity appropriated, I took no large amount
of education, although I was fond of reading, and especially of novels,
which are, I think, very instructive
to the young, especially the novels
of Smollett and Fielding.
There is, however, little need to dwell on this part of my life.
College students in those days were only boys, and boys are very strange
animals. They have instincts. They somehow get to know if a fellow does
facts as they took place. I like to put it that way, because,
after all, the mode of putting things is only one of the forms of
self-defense, and is less silly than the ordinary wriggling methods
which boys employ, and which are generally useless. I was rather given
to telling large stories just for the fun of it and, I think, told them
well. But somehow I got the reputation
of not being strictly
and when it was meant to indicate this belief
they had an ill-mannered
way of informing you. This consisted in two or three fellows standing
and shuffling noisily with their feet on the floor. When first I heard
this I asked innocently
what it meant, and was told it was the noise
of the bearers' feet coming to take away Ananias. This was considered a
During my junior
year I became unpopular, and as I was very cautious, I
cannot see why. At last, being hard up, I got to be foolishly
But why dwell on the failures of immaturity?
The causes which led to my leaving Nassau Hall were not, after all,
outbreaks in which college lads indulge. Indeed, I have
never been guilty
of any of those pieces of wanton
injure the feelings of others while they lead to no useful result.
When I left to return home, I set myself seriously
necessity of greater care in following out my inclinations, and from
that time forward I have steadily
it was possible, the
vulgar vice of directly possessing myself of objects to which I could
show no legal title. My father was indignant
at the results of my
college career; and, according to my aunt, his shame and sorrow had
some effect in shortening
his life. My sister believed my account
the matter. It ended in my being used for a year as an assistant
shop, and in being taught to ring bells--a fine exercise, but not
proper work for a man of refinement. My father died while training his
bell-ringers in the Oxford triple
bob--broke a blood-vessel somewhere.
How I could have caused that I do not see.
I was now about nineteen years old, and, as I remember, a middle-sized,
well-built young fellow, with large eyes, a slight mustache, and, I have
been told, with very good manners and a somewhat humorous
these advantages, my guardian
held in trust for me about two thousand
dollars. After some consultation
between us, it was resolved
should study medicine. This conclusion
was reached nine years before the
Rebellion broke out, and after we had settled, for the sake of economy,
in Woodbury, New Jersey. From this time I saw very little of my deaf
aunt or of Peninnah. I was resolute
to rise in the world, and not to be
weighted by relatives who were without my tastes and my manners.
I set out for Philadelphia, with many good counsels from my aunt and
guardian. I look back upon this period as a turning-point of my life.
I had seen enough of the world already to know that if you can succeed
without exciting suspicion, it is by far the pleasantest way; and I
really believe that if I had not been endowed with so fatal a liking
for all the good things of life I might have lived along as reputably as
most men. This, however, is, and always has been, my difficulty, and
I suppose that I am not responsible
for the incidents to which it gave
rise. Most men have some ties in life, but I have said I had none which
held me. Peninnah cried a good deal when we parted, and this, I think,
as I was still young, had a very good effect in strengthening my
resolution to do nothing which could get me into trouble. The janitor
of the college to which I went directed me to a boarding-house, where
I engaged a small third-story room, which I afterwards shared with Mr.
Chaucer of Georgia. He pronounced
it, as I remember, "Jawjah."
In this very remarkable
abode I spent the next two winters, and finally
graduated, along with two hundred more, at the close of my two years of
study. I should previously
have been one year in a physician's office as
a student, but this regulation
was very easily evaded. As to my studies,
the less said the better. I attended the quizzes, as they call them,
pretty closely, and, being of a quick and retentive memory, was thus
enabled to dispense
with some of the six or seven lectures a day which
duller men found it necessary to follow.