Thursday, May 29, 2014

Some Key Facts

     Last Thursday it was once again time for the annual “History Days” at the Harry Grove Stadium here in Frederick. For those of you not familiar with Frederick, this is the home stadium for the Frederick Keys, a minor league baseball team for the Baltimore Orioles.  Groups of local school children come here to learn more about history at the various booths set up inside the stadium.  They also get to watch the baseball game.    

     As you may suspect, the staff here at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is always happy to participate in this event!  You can see why in some posts about previous History Days here and here. 

The musket firing demonstration is always popular with the crowd!  This year, Tom got to do the honors.

Kyle got to throw out the first pitch, and to keep the ball!  If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know that baseball was a popular game with Civil War soldiers.

     If you are wondering why Frederick’s baseball team is called the Keys, you might remember that the author of our National Anthem is Francis Scott Key.  He just happened to be born in Frederick County, and to practice law in the city of Frederick.  Maryland is full of tributes to him, including a Francis Scott Key Highway, two Francis Scott Key bridges, a Francis Scott Key shopping mall, and a Francis Scott Key High School! 

The Mount Olivet Cemetery, which is just across the street from the stadium, is the final resting place of Francis Scott Key.

     Key has somewhat of a Civil War connection as well.  His son, Philip Barton Key II, was shot and killed by Daniel Sickles, after it was learned that Key (the son) was having an affair with Sickles’ wife.  Though at the time Sickles was a U.S. Congressman, he later became a general in the Civil War.  In another interesting bit of trivia, Daniel Sickles was acquitted of this murder in the first use of the temporary insanity defense in the United States! 

Getting back to baseball…. Though we didn’t win this time, it was still a good game, AND we got to teach the fans a little more about baseball and the Civil War.  I’m sure everyone is looking forward to next year’s History Days!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The History of a Surgical Kit

     Since I work at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, I’m sure you’d naturally expect that the artifacts in the museum’s collection relate to Civil War medicine.  That is generally true, but there are a few items which may not appear to relate at first glance.  Today let’s take a look at a surgical kit which fits this category.

This kit is a four-tiered general operating set, ca. 1875, manufactured by J. H. Gemrig of Philadelphia.  Though the kit and surgical instruments are similar to those used during the Civil War, the date places it as a post-war kit.  So why would it be included in our collection?

     The kit belonged to Gerard F. Mason, M.D., of Charles Town, Virginia (later to become West Virginia).  By all accounts, he was a respected and prosperous physician in the town.  His oldest son, William L. Mason, was a member of Baylor’s Company, 12th Cavalry, C.S.A.  However, Gerard Mason did not serve in the military.  His story is linked to someone whose name might be familiar to you though.  

Portrait of John Brown in 1859.  On October 16, 1859, John Brown led a raid on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  His goal was to abolish slavery through armed insurrections.  He was captured though, then put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to death.  Image from
     During his trial, the wounded Brown declared that he was too ill to attend court.  His claim was suspected by some to be a ruse to delay his trial.  Millard K. Bushong wrote in A History of Jefferson County, West Virginia, that “Brown was examined by Dr. Gerard F. Mason, a reputable Charles Town physician, who pronounced him perfectly able to stand trial.”  The trial was not postponed, but Brown requested to be carried from jail into court on a cot and to give his testimony while lying on a couch.  However, it is interesting to note that when court was adjourned that day, he walked back to his jail cell!  

     So, Dr. Mason’s distinction comes from being the physician who examined John Brown and declared him fit to stand trial.  Records also show that Dr. Mason was one of the physicians who examined John Brown’s body after his execution.  His surgical kit, though manufactured after the Civil War, still has a connection to Civil War medicine, as well as a story to be told.   

You can see that the kit has the name “Holliday” engraved on the lid.  It originally belonged to a Dr. Samuel Holliday in Winchester, Virginia who died without children.  His sister, Margaret, ended up with kit.  She also ended up becoming Mrs. Gerard Mason, which is how he came to own this kit!  It continued to be handed down to family members until it was donated to the NMCWM by a descendant of Dr. Mason’s.

     And that’s one of the best parts of my job - you never know what sorts of stories you will discover!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Slow to Heal

     Part of my job as the curator at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine involves handling the loans of artifacts to other institutions.  I always request photos of the artifacts on exhibit, because I like to see how other museums handle displaying these artifacts.  Sometimes though, I get to actually visit in person.  Recently I had the opportunity to see the new exhibit at the Musselman Library at Gettysburg College.  The curator of the exhibit, Natalie Sherif, had contacted me several months ago about borrowing some artifacts from the NMCWM to display.  I was eager to see how she had used them in her exhibit, “Slow to Heal:  The Evolution of Medicine from the Civil War Era to WWI.”  

I got the curator’s tour from Natalie!  In this exhibit, she explores some of the history of medicine, using artifacts, photographs, and letters.  You can read some of Natalie’s thoughts about this exhibit here.  

     There’s a lot I try to take in whenever I see a new exhibit.  I want to see the intended message of course.  I tend to get a little distracted by the actual artifacts, their mounts, their labels, and the type of lighting though.  I suppose that’s just an occupational hazard!

These medical school class notes on dysentery are particularly appropriate for the Civil War!  Notice though, that the page is a reproduction.  This helps to preserve the original, which could be damaged by being displayed in the light for too long.

Here’s a familiar sight – an amputation kit which came from my museum!  The lid has been propped up slightly here to help visitors see the kit, and to keep the hinges on the kit from being stressed from the weight of the lid.

One topic covered in the exhibit is women in the Civil War.  I was pleased to see this letter written by Clara Barton.  Hmm, perhaps I’ll be requesting a loan from Gettysburg College next!

I was particularly interested in seeing how this Civil War cacolet (chair stretcher) from my museum would be displayed.  It was a bit large for the display case, and the fabric needed to be supported to prevent it from becoming stretched or distorted.  You can see some of the padding which was used.  What you can’t see is how part of it is suspended from the shelf support by monofilaments attached to the wood.

What can I say – I’m always fascinated by items associated with prostheses!

     There’s much more to this exhibit than what I can show here.  If you’re in the Gettysburg area, check it out in the Special Collections room at the Musselman Library through August 1 of this year.  For more information call (717) 337-7002.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What's in the Box?

     Last week I posted about my trip to North Carolina to pick up an artifact for my museum.  This week I’ll finally tell you about the artifact! 

No, this isn’t the artifact!  It was made by the artifact’s owner to protect and store it.  You can probably guess that it belonged to a Civil War soldier named Mason Myers.  Do you have any ideas about what could be in this box?  Maybe a little more information will help…. 

     Private Mason Myers was a Union soldier from Orwell, New York.  He enlisted in September of 1861 at the age of 19 years.  His enlistment papers list him as being a farmer.  He was 5’8” tall, with a light complexion, dark eyes, and light hair.  He served with the 24th New York Infantry, and later with the 76th New York Infantry.  He was wounded in action during the Battle of Bull Run in 1862 and also during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.  He was discharged for disability in September 1864.

This undated photo shows a uniformed Mason Myers (right) with his brother-in-law Robert Armstrong.  I can say for certain that this image was taken before he was  wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg though.    Image from the “76th NY Roster” at

     By now, you probably have a good idea about what is contained in the box.  Private Myers was shot in the right leg on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and his leg subsequently had to be amputated.  Afterwards, he needed a prosthetic leg.  

This is the wooden peg leg which is said to have belonged to Mason Myers.

     The U.S. government did have a program which supplied the Union veterans with prosthetic legs.  Mason Myers received an articulated prosthetic leg, which would have looked more like a real leg, through this program in 1864.  He may have used this peg leg before he was fitted for his government leg, or he could have simply preferred using a peg leg.  There were some Civil War veterans who were not satisfied with the articulated legs and chose to use peg legs instead.

A slightly closer view of the peg leg shows the leather straps which held it in place.  These could have attached to a shoulder strap or belt to keep it in place.  You can also see a bit of the edge of the cloth padding for the interior at the very top of the leg. 
     There’s an interesting story about how Mason Myers coped with one aspect of being an amputee:

This image shows Mason Myers (left) and his brother-in-law (right) in 1910.  You can see that they are both wearing peg legs.  This isn’t the same peg leg though.  The caption with the photo reads, “Syracuse New York, June 21, 1910 – Three comrades from Orwell, Oswego County, here in the G.A.R. encampment are M.S. Myers, A.J. Potter, and Robert Armstrong, life-long friends and members of Post No. 387.  Comrades Myers and Armstrong are brothers-in-law and both were wounded in the battle of Gettysburg.  The former lost his right leg and the latter his left leg.  They are neighbors and wear shoes of the same size.  Now, when their footwear gives out, they buy one pair of shoes between them and Mr. Myers wears the right and Mr. Armstrong the left.”    Photo taken from the 1962 edition of the Oswego County Historical Society Journal.

     This peg leg is on loan to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine from Gene and Carol Carmney of Marion, North Carolina.  We are grateful to them for the opportunity to study and display it.  We are working on an arrangement to eventually purchase this peg leg, so that it will become a part of the NMCWM’s permanent collection.  Watch for it to be put out on display in the very near future! 

Thank you Gene & Carol – you’ve helped to share the story of Mason Myers and his peg leg!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.