Holes In the Head

In Random Recollections of a Long Life, the priceless Edwin J. Scott plainly states that Shultz took his life in his hands after a court ruling against his ownership of the bridge. “In a fit of desperation… he attempted to commit suicide by discharging a loaded pistol in his mouth, but it happened to range upwards and outwards, so that the load came out between his eyes, frightfully mutilating him for the time, and leaving indelible marks of the powder in his face, yet, strange to say, he recovered, with his eyesight unimpaired….

“[Shultz was] a tall, erect old man, wearing a heavy Waterloo coat that reached his heels, and bearing, as it were, the brand of Cain on his forehead.” That would satisfy many people, especially after Chapman repeated the story (without credit) in his History of Edgefield County, but it’s really a bit weak since such a juicy tale sometimes feeds on itself. As it turns out, contemporary newspaper articles leave no doubt about it.

Shultz fired his disconsolate shot in August, 1822, but seems to have recovered quite quickly. By November he was back at it, using the newspaper to bait his detractors. There is no other mention of physical disfigurement, although that seems pretty much inevitable. His mental capabilities seemed unaffected, although the lean of his signature changed between 1816 and 1825.

Is that really possible? Fortunately there is a case that’s a little better documented. Let’s consider Phineas P. Gage , whose work happened to be the placing of explosives for railroad construction. He famously had a tamping iron blown through his head in 1848. His perforated skull is said to rest to this day in Harvard Medical School’s Warren Anatomical Museum. Gage remained conscious at first, was mobile within a few weeks, held responsible jobs over the next few years, and even posed for a photograph with his life-threatening bar. While he did suffer physically, and ultimately died years later as a result of his injury, it’s not completely clear whether he suffered permanent psychological loss.

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage and his constant companion, the tamping iron that blew through his skull.

For the anatomically inclined, may I point out that there is nothing much of neural importance at the front of the face, just a lot of empty spongy sinus doing whatever it does, so it can be imagined that Shultz damaged his personal beauty but spared his towering mind.


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