Author of the forthcoming novel, The Only Living Man With A Hole In His Head, inspired by the true story of Phineas Gage.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chapter One posted

Here I have posted the first chapter of my novel "The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head".  Beginning in 1867 when Dr.  John Harlow, the doctor who treated Phineas for his brain injury, traveled from Boston to San Francisco, seven years after his patient's death, to exhume the skull and the tamping iron that he had been buried with. The Gage family had consented to the request. Doing so would be the only way Dr. Harlow could prove that the injury did occur as he had reported it. He would dramatically present the skull, tamping iron and his case notes at the 1868 Massachusetts Medical Society conference in front of the many colleagues whom had ridiculed him for his findings regarding Phineas Gage nearly two decades earlier. Enjoy!

December, 1867
San Francisco, California

It was not that Dr. John Martyn Harlow enjoyed digging up

corpses, and, in fact, in his forty-nine years, that would be only

his second exhumation, but sometimes a man had to disturb the 

resting bones of another man. It was the right thing to do for the 

right reason. That had included journeying to San Francisco, not on one

railroad, for it would be two additional years, in 1869, that the

entire territory of the United States would be linked by

uninterrupted rail line, but rather having to transfer between four

separate lines to arrive at the fast growing city by the bay. As Dr.

Harlow, attired in a choice suit custom made by one of Boston's

finest tailors, scanned the horizon, and its port with the neat row

of wooden buildings along the shore, each one belching smoke from a

coal stove, he found it hard to consider that hardly twenty months

prior, the whole area had been rocked by a major earthquake. None of

the folks back in Dr. Harlow or the dead man's hometown in rural

Vermont could much comprehend what an earthquake even felt like. But

there, on October 8, 1865, as one of the newspapers reported, there

existed "scarcely a house in the city that does not show some mark of

the visitation, in cracked walls, open joints, flaked plaster, or a

cranky position and many of the old heavy brick structures are so

shaken up and twisted as to be dangerous to the occupants".

Dr. Harlow, thin and slightly haunted looking, his neat salt-and-

pepper beard more salt than pepper with each passing birthday,

thought about how appropriate the miserable weather was for the scene

playing out before him. Rainy, cold, the foggy morning lent Laurel

Hill Cemetery a more macabre aura than usual. The final resting place

of numerous citizens, wealthy and poor alike, which would fittingly

include the grave of Andrew Halladie, famed inventor of the cable

car, so associated with the metropolis, the fifty-four acre graveyard

also served as a place where families would picnic and young couples

would promenade among the dead.

Moisture softened the dirt into mud, making it appear as if it

were a giant cake batter waiting to be mixed. A dampness that seemed

to permeate every cell of his body the way he had seen Scarlet Fever

do so in many of his unfortunate patients.

The grave diggers went about their work diligently. Dr. Harlow

was acquainted with the knowledge that many corpses were being dug up

to be sold to medical schools as cadavers. It was a lucrative

endeavor, but one that he did not approve of. As he watched the men

work, he wondered if they were indeed part of the grisly trade. That

was not his main concern, at least at the moment.

SWACK! Another fresh shovelful of mud was tossed aside.

Holding an umbrella, Dr. Harlow stood impatiently with two other


"Just how long will this be, Harlow?" Judge Johnson, the older of

the men, between coughs, inquired.

"Does the act of digging up a corpse creep you out, Judge?" Dr.

Harlow asked.

The Judge, one of San Francisco's most respected public officials

and a person whose social butterfly wife, Lilly, appeared to know

everybody who was anybody in the whole region, simply stated, with

disdain, "Certainly not. I shall have other commitments to attend


Whether or not we approve, death is a natural part of the cycle

of life,” the physician's observation fell on indifferent ears.

The third observer, David Shattuck, took it all in stride. He

freely held a flask which he'd take a sip from every so often. Not

that it was a party or a celebration or anything like that that he

was attending. After all, it was his kin whose bones were being so

thoroughly disturbed. Nor was he an excessive drinker who could throw

'em down real good - at least not anymore.

SWACK! Dr. Harlow's ears perked up at the sound of a shovel as it

hit wood.

The Judge impulsively shoved a legal document into David's hand,

as if he were clutching a piece of cloth ablaze and couldn't wait to

get it out of his age-spotted fingers. "It's official," the Judge

coughed some more, "he's exhumed." That was not climate for a man

with a cold.

David stared at the legal papers and uttered, "Thank you, Your


Again, one of the grave diggers forcefully bore down his shovel,

hitting and splintering wood.

"For God's sake!" Dr. Harlow cried out. "Be careful." Those men

were acting like they were participating in a log-splitting contest.

David took another swig from his trusty flask, extended it via

his hand to Dr. Harlow, an edgy man who did not seem to notice the

bottle at all.

The pair of grave diggers, both youthful men, typical of the

profession that was populated by those who were unskilled at little

else or had yet to take on a respectable apprenticeship, took pride

in the fact that former president Abraham Lincoln himself had once

worked in the trade. Matthew, the stronger of the two, knelt beside

the heavy coffin to tie a thick rope around its handles. Then he

hopped out of the freshly dug burial space. Taking rope in hand, the

grave diggers attached it to the saddles of the two standby muscular

horses and slapped their rumps.

"He's been dead for seven years," Judge Johnson barked. "What

could you possibly hope to find?"

"I hope to find the truth," Dr. Harlow spoke with truthfulness.

In what gave the impression of occurring as fast as a bolt of

lightning hitting a tree, the rope slipped off the coffin, which then

began a perilous slide down six feet of mud, eliciting a "For God's

sake!" cry from Dr. Harlow. As the one closest to it, the healer

immediately dived to his knees to grab the handle to slow the

crashing fall, but the weight of the coffin dragged him with it. Part

of the coffin cracked open, as if an egg shell dropped carelessly by

a child onto a kitchen floor - "DAMN!", was the only word that

streaked in the good doctor's mind - and the bones of a foot came

protruding out. Dr. Harlow flashed a wicked grin at the grave

diggers, who, without hesitation, leaped back into the grave to re-

attach the rope.

Moments later, in the compact cemetery hut, lit by lantern, the

thundershowers heavier and splashing annoyingly through holes in the

roof, Dr. Harlow and David watched as the grave diggers removed the

bulky lid. Full of anticipation, the out-of-towner could feel his own

heartbeats as pronounced as the precipitation that fell on him. The

corpse came into view. David took another gulp from his flask as he

noted how rotted to black the remains had become. Perhaps his

brother-in-law being dug up like a deep-rooted bush wasn't such a

wise idea after all. Then again, it had been his mother-in-law's

decision. His presence was purely as the law required to be "the

family member of record" to witness and receive the documentation of

said disinterment.

Dr. Harlow, at once saddened by the sight of his deceased friend

and former patient, but also elated at what the opportunity would
mean for the medical world, carefully touched the head. His fingers

gently glided to the top of the cranium, ending at a large lump.

Memories of two decades earlier came flooding back, swimming like a

school of minnow in his mind. This was, however, not the appropriate

time to reminisce. David nudged him, "Doctor Harlow?"
"David. You're second kin," Dr. Harlow stated as he regained his

composure, "By law, well, I won't force you. Do you want to?"

"I reckon it's only fitting."
David positioned himself at the top of the coffin. He had to be

strong, not physically, but emotionally, spiritually, that was

the important thing. Not a religious person by any stretch of the

imagination, David yet felt that a higher power did govern the

Universe and surely there was a purpose for his standing in the

cemetery at that moment in time about to do the unthinkable. David

placed a hand on each side of the cranium and, in one rapid motion,

with Dr. Harlow holding the body down, twisted off the head, the

movement punctuated with a creaking sound.

"You feeling right?" Dr. Harlow asked as David handed him an open

hat box filled with cotton.

Passing the skull to Dr. Harlow, he mumbled, "Right as rain."

Dr. Harlow, cradling the precious cargo, nestled it in the bed of

white. Suddenly, the notion of something missing came over him like a

cold shiver. The physician with the once dry turned soggy garments

snapped his own head back toward the open coffin. "Where is it?", he

demanded of no one in particular. Dr. Harlow, who began to search

frantically, broke off a piece of coffin wood, then impulsively

tossed it aside. "Not here. I know he was buried with it."

David indulged himself another comfort sip from his trusty flask

as he and the soiled grave diggers looked at one another, confused.

Had this visitor from back east gone mad? Had he contracted the much

feared Scarlet Fever, possibly from one of his patients? Was the

stress of what he was doing getting to him?

Dr. Harlow grabbed the lantern and peered into the coffin. "It

simply must be...A HA!" A partial smile of relief adorning his face,

he lifted up a Tamping Iron, and what an impressive rod it was -

three feet in length, one-half inch in diameter, weighing thirteen

pounds, one end pointed, the other with a crowbar tip. The perfect

tool for a railroad foreman to have in his arsenal. Taking it in one

hand, Dr. Harlow absentmindedly rested his other on the decayed body

in the coffin.

"Extraordinary," David blurted out.

The grave diggers watched restlessly. To them, this was just

another gig. Just another corpse in just another coffin in just

another cemetery. No questions asked. That was, as long as they 

were paid in gold coins, preferably, or good old US of A currency.

Finally, one of them asked, "Sir, shall I remove the remains?"

Dr. Harlow could hardly take his eyes from the Tamping Iron, but

managed to reply, "That's quite all right. I have what I came for. Do

you mind finishing? I haven't much time to prepare it for the 

train ride."

"I'll put him to with what dignity is left him."

The healer placed the cover on the box and proceeded to carry

both the head and the Tamping Iron out of the hut.

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