Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Mystery Saw

      This mystery artifact is different from the ones in previous posts because it is a mystery to me as well!  The saw in the photo was donated to the museum a few years ago.  The donor said it was a “cranium saw” and that the unusual blade was designed to cut through the skull.  None of us at the museum had ever seen anything quite like it though! 

Here’s my mystery saw. It has a steel blade and wooden “fishtail” handle. There are no markings on it to indicate a maker.   And look at that large, thick back!

     The saw does appear to be from the Civil War period.  The handle and blade shape are consistent with the capital saws of the time.  The thick back and the extremely short depth of the cutting surface are unusual though.  So, I set out to do some research.

Here you can see the handle of the mystery saw more closely.

This capital saw with a somewhat similar handle and blade shape belonged to Jeremiah E. Holmes, Acting Assistant Surgeon U.S.A (1864-1865).  The thinner reinforced back on this blade is more typical of a Civil War capital saw.

Here’s a pre-war capital saw with a very similar fishtail design handle.

     I looked through quite a few books and catalogs.  I checked some online sources.  I even checked out woodworking saws, as it is somewhat similar to a dovetail saw.  It does appear to be some sort of medical saw at least, but that’s as far as I got.  It didn’t match anything I found.  So, I started making inquiries at other museums.  It stumped everyone!  So far, the most reasonable conclusion has come from the folks at the Mutter Museum, who said it looked like some sort of autopsy saw.

A close-up of the blade. This saw is designed to cut only 3/8” deep. The very thick back also makes the blade very rigid.

     It is possible that this saw was made to order for someone, and that it doesn’t really have a name.  I don’t like unsolved puzzles though, so I keep looking and asking.  Maybe someday I’ll get my answer.  Or maybe it will always be the mystery saw.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

1 comment:

  1. Bearing in mind that I know nothing of surgical instruments, modern or historic, it does seem like the saw is designed for cutting through something very hard, ie bone, while preventing the surgeon from blundering through to soft tissue. A sternum saw? Seems awkward, though.