Hidden Histories

'Hanging by a Thread' or 'Between a Rock & a Hard Place!'

Monday, 12/14/09

There are many sayings still current in modern English, in reference to being in an unwanted position or predicament, such as the following: 'stuck between a rock & a hard place; hanging by a thread; between the Devil and the deep blue sea; or 'the wolf is at the door,' the latter usually mentioned in reference to someone's dire economic conditions.

However, from frontier times to the modern era, there have been individuals who have found themselves in actual 'life-threatening' situations, yet through sheer courage, fortitude, and will-power, have failed to surrender themselves to depression, fear or hopelessness. Their perseverance through trials & tribulations are a testimony to us all, of the strength of the human spirit and the existence of an awe-inspiring 'will-to-survive.'

A recent example of the above is the true story of Aron Ralston, who in April of 2003, was forced to sever his own right arm with a pocket knife, in order to save his life, after being pinned down by a boulder, having little water, for some five days in a canyon in southern Utah. His courageous autobiography is aptly entitled, Between a Rock & a Hard Place, published just a few years ago.

Aron Ralston is by no means the only individual to find himself in such a life-threatening situation. In 1911, Daniel Snyder, revealed his possession of 'true grit,' when "he was caught beneath a fallen tree" in New York. A woodsmen by profession, Snyder's leg was being "crushed by the weight of tons of wood" and was literally hanging "by shreds" while "rapidly bleeding to death." He "crawled to his ax, severed the limb with it, ripped off his shirt, and checked the flow of blood by binding it tightly about the stump," and lay back awaiting the arrival of help which eventually came, requiring surgeons to 'per-fect' his "crude amputation by removing another portion of the crushed limb." (see, "Ax Surgery Saves Life," The Philadelphia Record, March 3rd, 1911, p.1, col.2).

An earlier and fantastic account of self-survival, also occurred in New York state in May of 1817, as recorded in many publications of the day. Mr. Artemus Shattuck (1795-1878), a native of Colchester, Connecticut (but living at the time in the small village of Wrights Corners, in Wyoming County), would endure an ordeal near Middlebury (same county) that few would wish to replicate.

While cutting wood in the forest, Mr. Shattuck's foot became entangled within the crack of a log "that had been partially split open," after a tree fell where he stood. He was consequently "raised several feet from the ground and suspended with his head downwards; and in such a position that he could not touch the ground..." His axe was out of reach and he was thus unable "to extricate himself." As one would assume, he immediately called for aid repeatedly, but no one could hear his repeated pleas for assistance.

Put yourself in Artemus Shattuck's position: He was hanging upside down; his foot "remained clenched in the cleft of the tree," while his voice was now gone from his constant yelling for help. To add 'insult to injury,' his head was aching from being suspended in such a precarious position; while the weather was very cold and he was also far removed "from any human being." What could he do under such circumstances? Death seemed to be the only 'escape route' left to him.

However, Mr. Shattuck came upon an idea, one that might save his life, or be responsible for his demise. He took from his pocket, "an old Barlow knife, and first cut off the leg of his boot and stocking," then tied a piece of fabric around his ankle as tightly as he could, in order to stop "the current of blood." Then, "with his knife, he unjointed his own ankle, and left his foot cut and separated from his leg in the cleft of the tree."

Falling to the ground, he next bound up his 'stump' with a napkin found in his dinner-basket,"made a crutch of a crooked stick," and started for home, for the most part crawling upon his hands and knees through the snow covered forest. Surprisingly, he made it to the house, fainted from loss of blood and exertion, but was found by family members and resuscitated, only to have a surgeon, Dr. John Cotes of Batavia, amputate his limb completely.

Remarkably, Artemus Shattuck survived his ordeal, an experience which truly affected his demeanor and outlook on life in general, and so turned his mind towards the ministry, rather than farming & forestry as had been his former occupation. He soon emigrated to North Carolina where he joined the Baptist Church, where by 1835 he was the minister of the 'Frienship & Mechanic's Hill Church' in Moore County of that Southern state. Later he would migrate to Mississippi, where trajedy would strike once again, with the death of his wife and youngest child, causing him to remove back to North Carolina.

By 1852 Artemus Shattuck would become the pastor of the 'Eight Mile Creek' church in Mobile, Alabama, and later a minister at Villanow, in Walker County, Georgia, where he would die at Lafayette, on August 23, 1878.

An interesting side-note to this story, concerns the reports of his dismembered 'foot,' and his repeated feeling of a 'ghost-limb,' something now documented within the medical field in regard to amputee victims. A story contained in the 'Presbyterian,' a Philadelphia publication of 1850-51,' carried an article entitled, "A Curious Fact," wherein witnesses claimed Shattuck asked for his foot to be retrieved. after which he was said to have felt the "coldness of the foot, and ...heat of the water" in which it was placed.

As has been stated repeatedly within this blog, there are numerous subjects, topics, human interest stories, etc., of every kind, certainly enough to 'whet the appetite' of both scholar & lay person, to be found in the vast & diverse collections, of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

(For a few sources on Artemus Shattuck & his experience, see: J. H. French, Gazetteer of the State of New York, 7th Edition (1860): 714; Lemuel Shattuck, Memorials of The Descendants of William Shattuck (Boston: Dutton & Wentworth., 1855): 286-288; Andrew W. Young, History of the Town of Warsaw, New York (Buffalo, NY: Sage, Sons & Co., 1869): 53-55)