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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Category Archives: Unbelievable

Salem Trade School Interview

About three years ago I recorded the podcast on the Salem Trade School. It’s a fantastic story. If you have never heard about the Salem Trade School before, I strongly encourage you to go back and listen to it. Here is the original episode:

Briefly, in the late 1920’s the Salem Trade School played football against many of the high schools around Salem, Massachusetts. They were awful, losing game-after-game, year-after-year. Then, they surprisingly won one game and it was discovered that the Salem Trade School was completely fictional.

The school really didn’t exist and it was soon learned that the team was basically a money-making scheme that had been put together by a man named Harold Burgess.  

A couple of months after I posted that episode, I received an email from a man named John Murphy, who’s dad had played on the team. John and I have spoken a number of times since the podcast was originally posted and I asked him if I could record our latest conversation and he graciously agreed.

Here is Part 1 of my interview with John Murphy where he discusses the Salem Trade School:

John was also involved in the initial launching of FIRST Robotics, where he worked with famed inventor Dean Kamen (Segway) for two years. In Part 2 of my interview with John, he discusses FIRST and how he became involved with it.

 

The Monster Crash at Crush

Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, people purposely smashed two locomotives head-on at high speed solely for entertainment purposes. At a time with no movies, TV, or radio, tens of thousands of people would show up to these events.

The brainchild behind this crazy idea was a Chicago railroad equipment salesman and former railroad conductor named A.L. Streeter. He attempted to have one of the railroads in his home state smash the two engines together, but none seemed interested.

Streeter approached the financially-strapped Cleveland, Canton and Southern Railroad and they agreed to give his idea a chance. The plan was to put two of their older locomotives back in service, get them in tip-top shape, and then crash them at high speed on the railroad’s Waynesburg track, which was located southeast of Canton, Ohio.

Streeter set the admission price at 75-cents (approximately $22.50 today) and anticipated at least 20,000 people in attendance. A fence was set up along the track to both keep customers safe and to ensure that they paid their way into the venue.

When smash-up day July 20, 1895 finally arrived, everything was set to go. Trainloads of spectators arrived every fifteen minutes and the crowd began to swell. The two engines, now renamed “Protection” and “Free Trade” after the opposing political beliefs of the time, sat on the tracks awaiting word that they should back up to their starting points, open throttle, and barrel toward each other.

That would never happen. It was estimated that only 200 people paid to see the show. The rest opted to either watch from the distance or bypass the fence. Unable to get the crowd back behind the fence, Streeter canceled the planned wreck for safety sake. That also meant that Streeter lacked the funds to pay the railroad the $2,400 (about $72,000 today) fee that they had charged to destroy the trains. Streeter personally lost an estimated $800, which would be about $24,000 today.

In 1896 the Columbus, Hocking Valley, and Toledo Railroad built a brand-new recreational park to entice people to ride its rails on the weekends. They chose a picturesque location approximately 25-miles (40 kilometers) south of Columbus, Ohio and named the new destination spot Buckeye Park. In addition to making use of a natural spring lake for swimming and boating, they built a toboggan slide, a few buildings for entertainment, and a playground for the kiddies. Those all sound like fine bits of entertainment but what they really needed was something big to promote their new pleasure destination. You know, something huge. Something that would instantly grab the public’s attention. Something like smashing two locomotives into each other on opening day.

Today we celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, but in 1896 most localities celebrated it on Saturday May 30th. As the traditional kickoff to the summer season, it was also a great date for a railway collision.

The railroad’s PR machine was put into action at full throttle. Newspapers across the nation ran story after story on the planned crash. It was promoted as a scientific experiment, one in which observers armed with their notebooks and Kodak cameras could observe a real train collision under controlled conditions. The fact that the railroad charged the audience to ride on their trains to the event, that they had to pay an admission fee, and buy refreshments from the booths that they set up was supposedly only being done to cover the cost of the experiment.

Yeah. Right. Who were they fooling? Scientific experiment my foot…

Estimates of the crowd in attendance for the big event varied from a low of 18,000 to a high of 25,000 people. Two obsolete 35-ton locomotives were chosen for the impending duel. Formerly known simply as numbers 12 and 21, the locomotives were rechristened the A.L. Streeter and the W.H. Fisher, who was an official with the railroad. Each would pull three cars and a caboose to their demise.

The two locomotives at Buckeye Park just prior to the collision.
The two locomotives at Buckeye Park just prior to the collision. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

Prior testing had determined that the two engines accelerated at different rates. As a result, the W.H. Fisher was placed 3,600 feet south of the starting point and the A.L. Streeter at a point 3,000 feet north.

Using a newfangled invention called the telephone, the two conductors were given the signal to open throttle at 4:10 PM. As the trains started toward each other, the conductors jumped off to safety. To keep up the illusion of impending doom, Streeter placed two dummies dressed in conductor garb on each train.

And then… Wham!

The collision of the two trains at Buckeye Park just at the moment of impact.
The collision of the two trains at Buckeye Park just at the moment of impact. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

The two trains smashed into each other within 100-feet (30 m) of their calculated point of impact. The locomotives both rose up into the air and came to rest in an almost A-shaped configuration. One could still clearly read the names A.L. Streeter and W.H. Fisher on the coal cars, while the trailing gondolas had all been totally destroyed.

Image of the Buckeye Park Crash taken about 1-second after the collision.
Image of the Buckeye Park Crash taken about 1-second after the collision. 
Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896)

One injury did mar the event: T.P. Peck, chief clerk in the general passenger office, was struck by a flying bolt and suffered a compound fracture below his right knee. Yet, Streeter’s staged train crash was, well, a smashing success. It was deemed so successful that officials in attendance from other railroads recruited him to do additional crashes in Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York.

The Buckeye Park crash about two minutes after the collision.
The Buckeye Park crash about two minutes after the collision. Image from The National Magazine (Volume 5, Number 2, November 1896) 

And, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Soon other promoters were planning their own train crashes.

Buckeye Park Crash 1896
People climbing on the wreck of the two trains after the smoke cleared. (Reddit image.)

One of these was a man named William George Crush. He had been hired in August 1893 by the Missouri – Kansas – Texas Railroad – better known as the Katy – to be their General Passenger Agent for the entire state of Texas. That’s not a job that you hear much about today, but in the heyday of the railroads, this was a position of incredible importance. It was W.G. Crush’s name that appeared on just about every ticket, poster, timetable, or advertisement that the Katy produced during his tenure. Crush was basically the invisible wall between the riders and upper management at the railroad.

Mr. Crush believed that if the Katy could stage a stunt similar to the one that had just been completed by Streeter at Buckeye Park, the Katy line could grab a stronghold on the Texas railroad market.

Image of William George (W. G.) Crush
William George Crush was the General Passenger Agent for the Katy in 1896. Image if from the Find-A-Grave website.

On August 6, 1896, a formal announcement was made in the press that the Katy would be purposely colliding two trains together. Once again, this was all to be done in the name of science. Each train would consist of a locomotive, a tender, and six cars. As the trains smashed into each other at high speed, the data collected could be used to build safer locomotives and cars.

I’ll say it once again: Yeah. Right. Scientific experiment my foot…

Scheduled for 4:00 in the afternoon on September 15th, the railroad chose the perfect spot in West, Texas, which is approximately 18 miles (29 km) north of Waco. The track in this location was perfectly straight and flat, while a small valley formed by three hills created a natural amphitheater.

In an August 13, 1896 interview with the Dallas News, Crush stated, “There will be no harm done save the smashing to pieces of two 40 ton passenger engines, a dozen cars and the tearing up of several hundred yards of track and road bed. The engines will be used for scrap iron if they are damaged beyond repair, and the track will be cleared and mended in a jiffy.”

He continued, “The day before the collision the track over which the engines will run will be timed so that the point of contact maybe definitely ascertained. In this way we will know almost within 10 yards where the meeting will take place. By means of a telegraph wire put up for the occasion the engineers will be given the signal to start, and each throttle will be pulled simultaneously. The engineers will remain on the engines until each has attained the speed of 10 miles an hour, at which point they will pull the throttle wide open and step off.”

Crush went on to further state, “Railroad men from all over the West will be on hand to see and photographic observations will be taken every second for ten seconds before the collision. Engine builders are now deeply interested in furnishing engines with appliance which will lessen the shock of collisions, and consequently make them less dangerous to human life.”

When questioned about the cost of the head-on collision, Crush said “All told, about $20,000. Of course there will be some salvage.”

$20,000. That’s nearly $600,000 adjusted for inflation. That’s a monsterous price to pay for one single collision. How could the railroad cover such an enormous expense?

That’s very simple. The only way for most people to get to the show was via the Katy railroad. Tickets ranged in price from a low of $2.00 from Austin to $3.50 from Houston. That sounds like a bargain, but translate that into modern values and round trip tickets to the venue were going to cost you somewhere between $60 and $105. Add to that all of the money spent on site for food, drinks, and sideshow entertainment and it becomes very clear that if the predicted number of people attended the event, the Katy stood to earn a lot of money.

Crash at Crush advertisement.
Advertisement for the Great Collision at Crush, Texas from the September 8, 1896 publication of the Houston Post, page 7.

Crush said, “Ever since we decided to give the exhibition public interest in the matter has increased, and in order to let all see it will run excursions from all along our lines at rates, say less than one fare for the round trip. In fact, from all indications, there will be 15,000 or 20,000 people present to see it. The place selected for the exhibition is a natural amphitheater, and nobody will have any trouble in viewing the entire exhibition. We will make it a regular picnic day.”

Preparation of the crash site began immediately. Crews laid down four miles of track, built a grandstand for honored guests, two telegraph offices, three stands for noted speakers, and an observation stand for photographers and members of the press. A large tent was borrowed from the Ringling Brothers Circus to use as a restaurant. For water, two wells were dug on site while arrangements were made to transport 16,000 gallons of artesian water cooled with ice from Waco. Lastly, a large carnival midway, complete with hucksters, drink stands, and game booths, was set up.

A.D. Arbegast, general foreman of the Katy’s Texas bridge and building department, stated, “… we are now at work on 30 privilege stands, to be arraigned in Midway Plaisance Style, like the Chicago plaisance. In these places will be located all the amusement on the ground. There will be freaks there from all over the world, and a better plaisance show has never been seen in Texas. This feature alone will be worth going to Crush to see.”

As of September 3rd, Crush was still confident that an enormous number of people would attend the event: “My estimate of the crowd remains undiminished. We will have at least 25,000, and probably as many as 40,000 people on the ground to witness the collision. We are making arrangements to handle 40,000 comfortably. Nobody will be discommoded. So far as experience can provide for the peace and safety of the passengers it will be done.”

The Katy repair shop crew set to work rebuilding two of the line’s outdated locomotives. Chosen for total destruction were engines 123 and 124, which were now renumbered 999 and 1001, respectively. The 999 was painted bright green with yellow stripes, with other colors of the rainbow highlighting its cowcatcher, gears, and trimmings. The 1001 was painted a contrasting red color. Both had the Katy logo emblazoned on either side of the cab. To further promote the collision, the two locomotives were placed on tour and displayed in towns throughout the state.

Two of the Katy’s finest engineers were chosen to run the engines. The 999 was to be driven by engineer Charlie Stanton with Frank Barnes as his fireman. Charlie Cain would be at the throttle of the 1001 with fireman S.M. Dickerson to assist him.

Ad for the Crash at Crush.
This advertisement for the collision appeared on page 8 of the Houston Post on September 14, 1896.

Then the big day came. On September 15th, train after train pulled alongside a newly constructed platform that measured 2,100 feet in length (0.64 km). The signs at the depot indicated that they had arrived at the town of Crush, Texas, a town that would only exist for a single day.

As anticipation grew, the planned start time of 4 PM came and went as more and more people unloaded from the trains. Estimates in the newspapers at the time placed the attendance at somewhere between a low of 24,000 and a high of 30,000 people. The bean counters for the Katy must have had big smiles on their faces. From a financial point of view, the crash that was about to occur at Crush, Texas was a smashing success. That smile would soon be wiped from their faces.

The Dallas News described the smash-up as follows: “At 5 o’clock the two trains met at the point of the collision and they were photographed. Then one of the trains backed up the hill on the north and the other one up the hill on the south. Everything was now ready. The smoke was pouring from their funnels in a great black streak, and the popping of the steam could be distinctly heard for the distance of a mile. People were standing on tip-toe, from every point of vantage, trying to see every movement of the wheels that were so soon to roll to destruction.

The two locomotives shaking hands.
The two locomotives meeting up at the point of the collision so that photographs can be taken. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18684893411/in/photolist-uqAdMJ-8bcjz6-a9ef3g-ut7XQF-usuHGJ-tvTLLq-ubk1Mj

“The officials of the road were grouped about the little telegraph office not fifty feet from the place of waiting for the whistle which would tell them that the trains are ready to start on the fatal journey. At 10 minutes after 5 Crush raised his hat and a great cheer went up from the throats of all the people.”

The article continues, “The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct with each fleeting second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone. Nearer and nearer they came, the whistles of each blowing repeatedly, and the torpedoes which had been placed on the track exploding in almost a continuous round like the rattle of musketry. Every eye was strained and every nerve on edge. They rolled down at a frightful rate of speed to within a quarter of a mile of each other. Nearer and nearer, as they approach the fatal meeting place the rumbling increased, the roaring grew louder, and hundreds who had come miles to see found their hearts growing faint within them, and were compelled to turn away from the awful spectacle.”

The two trains barreled toward each other at estimated speed of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) and then…

Wham!

The Crash at crush. The two trains just as they struck.

The two locomotives meeting up at the point of the collision so that photographs can be taken. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18677821822/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

The noise was deafening. The locomotives crumpled inward as the trailing cattle cars were reduced to splinters. There was a moment of silence and then, when it seemed like it was all over, the boiler of the 999 exploded. Flying missiles of steel and wood, both small and large in size, began to rain down on the crowd. It didn’t matter if you were young or old, male or female, rich or poor. There was simply no way to escape from the locomotive shrapnel.

Emma Frances Overstreet, the wife of a local farmer, was watching the crash from what seemed like a safe distance of 1,000-feet (305 meters) when she was suddenly hit by flying debris. Hitting behind her right ear, she was immediately knocked unconscious and died from her injuries.

Ernest Barnell of Bremond, Texas was perched up in a tree even farther from the crash site and was struck in the head by a flying chain. The chain hit with such a strong force that it became embedded in the tree. Sadly, he also succumbed to his injuries the following morning.

One man who was close to the crash was photographer Jarvis Deane of Waco. Deane was in the photographers’ stand attempting to snap a picture when he was struck in the eye, which doctors were forced to remove. In doing so, they discovered that he had been hit by a bolt that measured 2-inches in length and ⅜-inch in diameter. That would be approximately 5 cm x 9.55 mm. Luckily for Dean, if you can call it that, the nut was still attached to the bolt and it snagged on his eye socket, preventing the bolt from becoming lodged in his brain.

Louis Bergstrom of Waco, another photographer who was on the platform with J.C. Deane, also sustained slight injuries from the shrapnel.

Jarvis Deane shot this photograph just as the two trains exploded. This image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18494864220/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

Then there was 14-year-old Roy Kendrick, who was also from Waco. He was struck by a flying piece of timber which caused a severe leg wound. His father would later file a lawsuit against the railroad for $500.

There were other injuries reported, but none were fatal. One man lost a piece of his chin, another had a scalp wound, while yet another struck in the chest with incredible force by a piece of timber. A man named John Besey had his arm lacerated by a piece of steel. He opted to take it home as a souvenir. In fact, even as people were suffering, thousands of people ran toward the wreck and grabbed a piece of it to commemorate the event.

Crash at Crush - Before the Crowd Got to the Wreck
The crowd running toward the wreck of the two trains. Image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18059912424/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

It was all over, but getting home wouldn’t be easy. The trains were slow to arrive and when they did, it was utter chaos. Information was difficult to come by, the train cars were packed nearly to the point of suffocation, and many people ended up in the wrong town. Yet, by 11 PM that evening, the last train pulled out and the town of Crush, Texas ceased to exist.

The next day it was learned that there was one more casualty to add to the list, although the locomotive smash-up could not be blamed for it. John Morris, a livery man from Ferris, was killed after he fell between the coach and caboose of one the outbound trains.

The Katy quickly settled all damage claims brought against the company. Jarvis Deane may have lost an eye, but he was able to resume his photography career. He ran a humorous ad in a Waco paper that read, “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business. Deane, Waco’s High-Priced Photographer.”

Crash at Crush - 1896 - Crowd on wreck of the two trains.
The crowd climbing on the wreck of the two trains. Image can be found on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/texascollectionbaylor/18656262236/in/photolist-ubk1Mj-uqAdMJ-tvTLLq-usuHGJ-ut7XQF

One would think that this would have been the end of intentional train collisions, but it was not. Just one week later it was announced that the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railroad planned to do a repeat performance on October 6th. 20,000 people attended that event and not a single person was injured.

Smashing up trains proved to be such a crowd pleaser that Iowa resident Joseph Connelly decided to make it his career. Between 1896 and 1932 “Head-On Joe” staged as many as seventy-three train wrecks at various fairgrounds across the midwestern United States. Amazingly, not a single person was injured during any of these shows.

Only Mr. Crush had the misfortune of having it all go so very wrong. A number of recent articles state that the Katy immediately fired Crush, but quickly rehired him after learning that the Crash at Crush was good for the company’s bottom line. I was unable to find any mention of that in the newspaper articles published in the days after the crash took place. William George Crush retired from the Katy in 1940, having worked for the company for 46 years. He passed away three years later on April 12, 1943 at the age of 77 years.

Today, the Crash at Crush is basically forgotten, excluding a couple of historic markers that serve as reminders for those that visit the area.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Man Sucked into Jet Engine

On May 14, 1956 Airman Third Class Fred E. Higinbotham was working with his fellow Air Force crew to refuel an F-86F Sabre jet on the island of Okinawa in Japan. Their goal was to move quickly and get the jet back in the air as soon as possible.

Higinbotham’s job was to secure a static line cable onto the nose gear of the plane as soon as it stopped. This line prevented the buildup of static electricity which could produce sparks and potentially ignite the fumes produced during the refueling process.

The Air Force had strict rules in place that prohibited anyone from getting too close to the intake duct of the fighter’s jet engine. Since this was their last servicing job for the day, the crew was anxious to get the job done.

As part of the post-flight procedure, the pilot advanced the throttle to 65% power, which he was supposed to do for a period of two minutes before shutting the engine down. Just as this was happening, Higinbotham felt the tug of the jet’s intake on his back, but continued to hold on to the static cable. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had gotten too close to the engine’s intake.

Suddenly, his hat was pulled off of his head and Higginbotham instinctively turned around to grab it. The next thing you know, he was flying through the air and was sucked right into the jet engine. One would have expected Higginbotham to have been torn to shreds by the blades of the engine, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, he was stopped by the engine’s power take-off case cover, which projected outward from the blades in a cone shape. He used all his might to keep away from the whirling blades, which were just 6” (15 cm) from his head.

About thirty seconds after the pilot advanced the throttle, he felt a bump in the engine’s operation. He also spotted a mechanic frantically waving a rag in the air to get his attention. That worked. The pilot immediately cut power to the engine and the rotors began to slow down.

Just as Higginbotham started to back out of the engine, someone grabbed his legs and pulled him out of the engine completely. Amazingly, he still had the static cable in his hands, although it was wrapped twice around both his waist and legs. Later investigation determined that the cable had become fully extended when Higginbotham was sucked into the engine and that most likely saved his life.

Higginbotham’s injuries were minor: he had some cable burns and minor abrasions, but that’s it. He was released from the hospital and was back on the job the very next day.

Fred Higinbotham was sucked into a jet engine and survived.
Image of Fred Higinbotham from the February 3, 1957 publication of the Sunday magazine American Weekly on page 15.
 

Where There’s a Wilby, There’s a Way

Useless Information Podcast

Between 1942 and 1943 Ralph Marshall Wilby appeared to pull off what appeared to be the perfect crime. An incredible story which has many of the elements of an international thriller: deception, false identities, international kidnapping, and the drop dead gorgeous woman who brought his capture.

Continue Reading

 

A Miracle Birth in Mexico

Useless Information Podcast

Today’s podcast is really just a gift for my beautiful wife Mary Jane. She has had to put up with me through all of the researching, writing, and recording of these long-forgotten and sometimes bizarre stories. When we first met back in 2004, she asked me to research the story that I am about to tell further, but I told her that it was both too new and well known to do. Every couple of years Mary Jane would suggest the story once again, but it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I decided to take a fresh look at it.

I’m not sure if I have ever mentioned this before, but my wife Mary Jane is fluent in both French and Spanish. French is her true love, having studied in Paris for five years. As a lover of languages, Mary Jane opted to master Spanish a few years before we met and spent her summers south of the U.S. border immersing herself in Central American culture. It was while studying Spanish in Oaxaca, Mexico that she stumbled across a local story in the newspaper. It’s that story that she has been bugging me about it ever since.

The setting for this story is a one-room house high up in the mountains of Rio Talea, which is in the southwestern portion of Mexico. It was in this dirt-floored cabin on March 5, 2000 that a petite 40-year-old Zapotec native named Ines Ramirez Perez started to go into labor. Her husband, who had assisted with the birth of six of their seven children, was unavailable. Most sources claim that he was at the local cantina getting drunk, but the original story that my wife provided indicated that he was out of town with two sons selling grain. No matter what dad was doing, we can be certain that he wasn’t there to assist with the delivery.

This town was so remote that it lacked modern medical care. There were no doctors or nurses to contact for assistance. The nearest medical clinic was fifty miles (80 kilometers) away over mountainous terrain. Rio Talea did have one telephone, but it was too far away to be of any benefit.

Home of Ines Ramirez Perez
Ines Ramirez Perez standing outside the house where she gave birth.

Over the next twelve hours, the pain became more and more intense. Ines was in a panic. Her mind kept flashing back to her pregnancy of three years prior. That time, after her water broke, a midwife determined that she needed a cesarean section, but there was no practical way to get her quickly to a hospital. Sadly, Ines lost the baby. She was determined not to let that happen again.

Ines started pacing the floor. She didn’t know what to do. Ines grabbed a bottle of alcohol, downed a few to help kill the pain, and decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I couldn’t stand the pain anymore.” Ines continued, “And if my baby was going to die, then I decided I would have to die, too. But if he was to grow up, I was going to see him grow up, and I was going to be with my child. I thought that God would save both our lives.”

Shortly after midnight, Ines asked her 8-year-old son Benito to “Go and bring the new knife.” He returned with a wooden-handled kitchen knife that had a 6-inch (15-cm) long blade.

You can probably guess where this story is headed. I’ll warn you in advance: The next few paragraphs are a bit cringe-worthy, so you may want to fast forward through them.

Holding the knife by the blade instead of the handle, she applied pressure and attempted to make an incision into her belly to remove the baby. Ines was later quoted as saying, “Once wasn’t enough. I did it again. I was crying and screaming, in terrible pain.” She continued, “Then I cut open my wound and pulled the baby out by his feet. He cried straight away.” She later estimated the entire self-surgery took about an hour. The vertical incision was made just to the right of her navel and measured approximately 6-¾” (17-cm) in length.

Yes, Ines Ramirez Perez had just performed a C-section on herself. The baby appeared to be fine, but she wasn’t. “A lot of blood. It’s going up like a hose.” Ines proceeded to cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors, quickly wrapped the baby to keep it warm, put logs on the fire, and passed out. Upon regaining consciousness, Ines told Benito to run and get help.

Ines Ramirez Perez holding knife.
Ines Ramirez Perez holding the knife that she used to perform a cesarean on herself.

Around 4 AM a village health assistant named Leon Cruz arrived and found Ines awake, alert, and caring for her newborn baby Orlando. Cruz had basic first aid training and used his minimal skills to close the wound with an ordinary needle and cotton thread.

Next, Ines was placed in a rural mini-passenger bus and driven along unpaved roads to a health clinic in the village of San Lorenzo Texmelucan. It was immediately clear to the attending physician that the facility was ill-equipped to help her, so they placed Ines and the baby into the back of a pickup truck. But her pain had become too intense and she had to be transferred to an ambulance. She was taken to the state hospital at San Pedro Huixtepec.

Doctors in San Pedro were shocked by how well both Ines and the baby were doing. The wound showed no sign of infection and there was minimal bleeding. Her uterus had returned to its normal size and there appeared to be no damage to the intestines. Surgery was performed to repair the crude incision. While they were at it, the doctors opted to tie her tubes to prevent additional pregnancies. Triple antibiotics were prescribed and it initially appeared that Ines was on the road to recovery.

But things didn’t go as smoothly as articles in the press made it sound. Three days after the surgery, Ines was showing signs of a blockage of her bowels. Attempts at relief without surgery were unsuccessful; so on the seventh postoperative day a surgeon was called in. It was determined that an adhesion had caused her descending colon to become twisted. A little snip-snip and that problem was resolved. If you do a search on the Internet, you can easily find images of the surgery and the suture. They are not fun to look at.

Ines Ramirez Perez taken four weeks after her surgery.
Image of healed scar on Ines Ramirez Perez taken four weeks after her surgery.

Ines was released from the hospital on the 10th postoperative day. She was placed aboard a bus, but its roundabout path meant a 12-hour ride to get home. At one point along the journey, she made the decision to disembark from the bus. Ines walked for 1-½ hours along rocky footpaths with Orlando strapped to her back to get home. That’s one tough woman.

The news of Ines’ self-cesarean made the local papers back in 2000, but it wasn’t until the story was published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics four years later that it became known to the rest of the world. Numerous press photos were shot of Ines, Orlando, and that infamous knife. She was quoted as saying, “I use it to cut fruit and vegetables now.”

Reflecting on that day, Dr. Ornorio Galvan, the head of obstetrics at the San Pedro hospital stated, “I couldn’t believe it. There was no sepsis in the wound, no internal bleeding. She was back on her feet in a couple of days.”

Almost every story in print and on the Internet claims this to be the only documented case of a successful self-cesarean in history. Even Wikipedia states, “Ramirez is believed to be the only person known to have performed a successful caesarean section on herself.” Of course, that got me thinking. Was this really the only case? It turns out that it was not. Not even close.

I was able to find information on a total of 24 DIY cesareans. I must admit that I cheated by reading a 2014 article titled “Auto-Caesarean section: a review of 22 cases” that appeared in the Archives of Women’s Mental Health. That added 21 more cases to the one that my wife had already brought to my attention.

The authors of this article, Szabo and Brockington, classify self-cesareans into three broad categories: mothers who wished to abort the child, women who were clearly mentally ill, and those that perform a cesarean on themselves as an act of desperation. They included Ines Ramirez Perez in this last category.  The authors added, “We think the third group would be more numerous if there were more publications from Africa and South Asia, where many women give birth without the aid of modern obstetrics.”

To avoid boring you to death by going through each of the individual stories, I will just present you with a short summary of a few of the most interesting.

The earliest documented case occurred back in 1769 on a plantation in Jamaica. A black slave, who had previously borne three children naturally, became desperate and operated upon herself. Unfortunately, she accidentally cut the baby’s right thigh and it died six days later. The mother did survive and she became pregnant again. She attempted to do the same self-surgery once again, but others intervened and stopped her from doing so. This time, her baby was delivered properly and survived.

In 1843, fourteen days after a couple was married, the husband was transferred to a different locality. His 28-year-old wife became pregnant, but was convinced that this was an impossibility because she believed his sperm to be immature. Instead, she said that her belly contained a snake. The baby was born in the usual way, but the mother would not accept it as her own. Two days later she took a knife, cut open her abdomen and attempted to remove her snake-like intestines. She did recover from both the self-surgery and the mental illness.

On August 16, 1981, police officers in Ithaca, New York noticed 29-year-old Deborah Stagg walking down the street in bloodstained pants with a baby carrier strapped around her neck. Inside the carrier was a naked 2-pound (0.9-kg) newly-born baby girl. It was determined that she performed a C-section on herself using a pocketknife and then stitched her wound closed. It was only a few minutes later that the officers discovered her, which most likely prevented her from bleeding to death.

The most recent case that I could locate was that of a 28-year-old woman from the Philippines who did the same thing using an ordinary kitchen knife, needle, and thread. The child did not survive and the mother was brought up on an abortion charge.

Personally, I can’t imagine ever cutting myself on purpose. Just the thought of doing so makes me cringe. Ouch, ouch, ouch!

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Spanish language news segment on Ines Ramirez Perez.

 

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