Disturbing and Informative: The Mütter Museum’s Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits Exhibit on Civil War Medicine

By Alex Andrioli ’18

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Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits is the perfect place to get your Mercy Street fix while awaiting a possible second season. Left to right in the glass jars: A wax model of an arm with smallpox made around 1850, a wet specimen of ileum (final section of small intestine) with typhoid fever, and a wet specimen of a colon with a dysentery ulcer. Courtesy of the Mütter Museum.

“In my dreams, I always have the use of both my hands,” Lt. Col. Henry S. Huidekoper confided in a letter to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia surgeon, on February 10th, 1906. Such a statement seems very odd because to have two hands doesn’t feel like a big deal, especially in a dream, but it’s easy to take for granted. For Huidekoper, having two hands, even if it was only in his dreams, was something worth writing about to a doctor.

Lt. Col. Huidekoper was just twenty-four years old when he served in the 150th Pennsylvania on the first day of combat at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. On that day, his regiment was in battle near McPherson’s Farm when he was shot through the joint of his right elbow. He walked over a mile under enemy fire to St. Francis Xavier, a Roman Catholic Church, where he had his right arm amputated while “never quite losing consciousness.” Forty-three years later, at the age of 67, Huidekoper had long since learned to cope with life as a “one-handed being,” as he described himself in the letter to Mitchell.

However, in his dreams, no matter what he was doing, he had two hands. He would be “holding a paper up with [his] two hands,” writing with a pen, or even clinging to the limbs of a tree, and no matter how much time passed, he would have two arms and two hands. Sometimes, the feeling of having his right arm back would be so real that he would be awakened from the pain in his “lost hand.” Despite the fact that there was no hand to see, Huidekoper still felt his long-lost hand. There was no explanation for this phenomenon in the medical community at the time, at least not yet, because the very man that Huidekoper wrote to, Dr. Mitchell, was one of the first doctors to recognize and understand what Huidekoper was describing: phantom-limb syndrome.

However, even without an official diagnosis, this Civil War veteran relived his pre-war arm, amputation, and post-war phantom-limb on a regular basis. His wound was an uncivil souvenir from an uncivil war. Due to his injury, Huidekoper had to rearrange his life in order to function with just a left hand. He had to develop a new relationship with his own body; one of the most intimate relationships a human can ever have, a relationship that so many soldiers had to reevaluate after their time at war.

This theme of healing, coping, and reestablishing a relationship with one’s body is the highlight of the exhibit Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The exhibit opened in 2013 and is the current home of Lt. Col. Huidekoper’s letter, which inspired the idea for the exhibit, explained Dr. Robert Hicks, director of the Mütter Museum.

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A simulation in the exhibit that allows you to visualize the experience of getting shot in the arm and having it amputated. It is conveniently located around the corner from the letter written by the “one-handed being” Lt. Col. Huidekoper. Courtesy of the Mütter Museum.
The exhibit is home to many other objects, some that Dr. Hicks maintains have never been displayed in Civil War exhibits as far as the Mütter Museum knows. Objects include saws, knives, and chisels for amputations, “ball forceps” for extracting bullets, letters, manuscripts, and actual bones with bullets embedded into them. Many of these items have been in the Mütter Museum’s archives for decades because they were given to the museum by fellows of the College of Physicians who were eye-witnesses to the Civil War as surgeons, civilian doctors, and soldiers.  

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A humerus (upper arm bone) with a minié ball embedded in it. In the background, a skull of a soldier with fatal bullet wounds from the Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia on May 5-7, 1864. Courtesy of the Mütter Museum.
The exhibit was designed not to tell the big stories of the Civil War, but to recreate the intimate relationship the soldiers experienced with their bodies during and after the war. It also highlights the relationships the doctors and nurses experienced as healers in a war with suffering on an unimaginable scale. Staying true to the exhibit’s small scale and simplicity, Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits looks into only five people: a doctor, a nurse, a white soldier, a black soldier, and Walt Whitman.

The exhibit should not just provoke deep thought on how the war influenced these five individuals differently based on gender and race or how they were similarly affected because they were all fragile human beings. Visitors should be able to feel a human connection while having a profound, yet disturbing, meditation on how they would personally endure what so many brave individuals endured for the rest of their lives.

I would like to personally thank Dr. Robert Hicks for taking the time to have a fantastically morbid and thought-provoking conversation with me. There was so much interesting information that could have gone into this article, but could not for the sake of space. I thank you, sir.


Sources:

Dr. Robert Hicks, interview by author, Philadelphia, March 10, 2016.

Grady, Denise. “Stark Reminders of How Uncivil a War It Was.” New York Times, January 21, 2014.

Hicks, Robert. Letter. “From the Museum Director.” Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death. And Healing in Civil War Philadelphia. Mütter Museum.

Saint Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, “Lt. Col. Henry S. Huidekoper.” July 1863: For God and Country. Accessed March 25, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Disturbing and Informative: The Mütter Museum’s Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits Exhibit on Civil War Medicine”

  1. Very informative and thought provoking article. Makes one think of what so many brave individuals had to endure. And the trip to the museum was very educational.

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