Wednesday, December 28, 2011

People: The Leg, the Saw and the Ax

Today's pirate is a shadowy figure about whom we know very little. What we do know comes second hand from Philip Gosse via Johnson/Defoe and most of it has to do with a serious injury suffered, endured and recovered from. To this end, the brief story of William Taylor tells us a lot – perhaps more than we want to know – about medical treatment aboard the average freebooter in the Golden Age.

According to Gosse in his The Pirate’s Who’s Who, Taylor was “one of Captain Phillips’s crew.” Which Captain Phillips, for there were several, he does not say but we can reasonably rule out John Phillips, of whom we have previously spoken, based on the date of Taylor’s trial for piracy. Gosse does not give us a ship’s name or location, but indicates that Taylor was “wounded in the leg while attempting to desert.”

The true misery for unfortunate William Taylor begins here. There being no surgeon on board ship, Taylor’s mates took a very piratical approach to the would-be desert’s recovery: they elected the ship’s carpenter to amputate his shattered leg. It probably goes without saying that surgical instruments were not to hand either, so the carpenter took up a tool that he was familiar with and proceeded. At this point Gosse quotes, probably from Johnson’s History of Pirates:

Upon which [the carpenter] fetch’d up the biggest saw, and taking the limb under his Arm, fell to Work, and separated it from the Body of the Patient in as little Time as he could have cut a Deal Board in two.

Here we moderns imagine the pain that poor Taylor must have suffered under such work but other factors jump to mind shortly thereafter. Not the least of these is the bacteria swarming on that saw. By this era a well trained naval surgeon would, at the very least, have poured vinegar over the “instrument” to take off the worst of any visible muck.

Our carpenter, however, is not to be outdone by any quack doctor either in the way of pain or sterilization. The story continues:

he had heated his Ax as he perform’d the other Part for he so burnt the Flesh distant from the Place of Amputation that it had like to have mortify’d.

This grisly process resulted in a surprising recovery for the hearty if ill-fated William Taylor. Recovery enough, at any rate, for trial and sentence to hang; Gosse tells us that Taylor was found guilty of piracy in Boston on May 12, 1714. The end of the brief entry says, however, that “… for some reason not explained [he] was reprieved.”

Who exactly William Taylor was, and on what ship he went a-pirating remains a mystery. His fate after trial and reprieve is also unknown, as is just how long he lived with his sawed-off leg.

Header: The Amputation by Thomas Rowlandson


Capt. John Swallow said...

Funny ye should post this today - when just yesterday we watched a National Geographic special "Warrior Graveyard: Navy Of The Damned" - which studies forensic evidence from a recovered British Navy ship of what killed several sailors. The young Powder Monkey (between 11 - 13 yrs) it seems, caught a large piece o' shrapnel in his leg during a battle and had to have it amputated below the knee. While he did survive the amputation for some time (long enough to show signs o' healing) he eventually succumbed to an infection.

Brilliant bit o' history with some very accurate re-creations and tales o' the hard life at sea.

Pauline said...

Captain! Ahoy and Happy New Year.

I had read about that at the NatGeo website but I don't believe it has been released on their U.S. affiliate. Definately something I want to see; thanks for the recommendation.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Ouch! That's gonna leave a mark. I'm glad he was reprieved. It seems like he had suffered enough, but maybe that's just my modern sensibilities talking...

Sounds like he was more fortunate than the young Powder Monkey in Captain Swallow's story, anyway.

Pauline said...

Bad times for everybody, it seems. People really were tougher back then (especially at sea).