July 23, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Given the ungodly humidity, today seems as good a day as any to peruse an 1858 volume whose full title is The Swamp Doctor’s Adventures in the South-West; Containing the Whole of The Louisiana Swamp Doctor; Streaks Of Squatter Life; and Far-Western Scenes; in a Series Of Forty-Two Humorous Southern And Western Sketches, Descriptive Of Incidents And Character, by John Robb (“Madison Tensas, M.D.” and “Solitaire”) author of “Swallowing Oysters Alive, etc.”
Oh, the glories of the public domain! Here’s a sordid bit from a chapter called “The Mississippi Patent Plan for Pulling Teeth”:
I had just finished the last volume of Wistar’s Anatomy, well nigh coming to a period myself with weariness at the same time, and with feet well braced up on the mantel-piece, was lazily surveying the closed volume which lay on my lap, when a hurried step in the front gallery aroused me from the revery into which I was fast sinking.
Turning my head as the office door opened, my eyes fell on the well-developed proportions of a huge flatboatsman who entered the room wearing a countenance, the expression of which would seem to indicate that he had just gone into the vinegar manufacture with a fine promise of success.
“Do you pull teeth, young one?” said he to me.
“Yes, and noses too,” replied I, fingering my slender moustache, highly indignant at the juvenile appellation, and bristling up by the side of the huge Kentuckian, till I looked as large as a thumb-lancet by the side of an amputating knife.
“You needn’t get riled, young doc, I meant no insult, sarten, for my teeth are too sore to ‘low your boots to jar’ them as I swallered you down. I want a tooth pulled, can you manage the job? Ouch! criminy, but it hurts!”
“Yes, sir, I can pull your tooth. Is it an incisor, or a dens sapientiæ? one of the decidua, or a permanent grinder?”
“It’s a sizer, I reckon. It’s the largest tooth in my jaw, anyhow, you can see for yourself,” and the Kentuckian opening the lower half of his face, disclosed a set of teeth that clearly showed that his half of the alligator lay above …
Everything being ready, we invited the subject to take his seat in the operating chair, telling him it was necessary, agreeably to our mode of pulling teeth, that the body and arms should be perfectly quiet; that other doctors, who hadn’t bought the right to use the ‘patent plan,’ used the pullikins, whilst I operated with the pulleys. I soon had him immoveably strapped to the chair, hand and foot. Introducing the hand-vice in his mouth, which, fortunately for me, was a large one, I screwed it fast to the offending tooth, then connecting it with the first cord of the pulleys and intrusting it to the hands of two experienced assistants, I was ready to commence the extraction. Giving the word, and singing, “Lord, receive this sinner’s soul,” we pulled slowly, so as to let the full strain come on the neck bones gradually.
Though I live till every hair on my head is as hollow as a dry skull, I shall never forget the scene.
Clothed in homespun of the copperas hue, impotent to help himself, his body immoveably fixed to the chair, his neck gradually extending itself, like a terrapin’s emerging from its shell, his eyes twice their natural size, and projected nearly out of their sockets, his mouth widely distended, with the vice hidden in its cavity, and the connexion of the rope being behind his cheeks, giving the appearance as if we had cast anchor in his stomach, and were heaving it slowly home, sat the Kentuckian, screaming and cursing that we were pulling his head off without moving the tooth, and that the torment was awful. But I coolly told him ‘twas the usual way the ‘Mississippi patent plan’ worked, and directed my assistants to keep up their steady pull.
I have not yet fully determined, as it was the first and last experiment, which would have come first, his head or the tooth, for all at once the rope gave way, precipitating, without much order or arrangement, the assistants into the opposite corner of the room.
The operating chair not being as securely screwed down as usual, was uptorn by the shock of the retrograde motion acquired, when the rope broke, and landed the Kentuckian on his back in the most distant side of the room; as he fell, he struck the side of his face against the wall, and out came the vice, with a large tooth in its fangs. He raged like one of his indigenous thunderstorms, and demanded to be released. Fearing some hostile demonstration when the straps were unfastened, we took occasion to cut them with a long bowie knife. He rose up, spitting blood and shaking himself, as if he was anxious to get rid of his clothes. “H—l, Doc, but she’s a buster! I never seed such a tooth. I recon no common fixments would have fotch it; but I tell you, sirree, it hurt awful; I think it’s the last time the ‘Mississippi Patent Plan’ gets me in its holt. Here’s a five-dollar Kaintuck bill, take your pay and gin us the change.”
Seeing he was in such good humour, I should have spared him, but his meanness disgusted me, and I thought I would carry the joke a little further. On examining his mouth, I suddenly discovered, as was the case, that I had pulled the wrong tooth, but I never told him, and he had too much blood in his mouth to discover it.
“Curse the luck,” I exclaimed, “by Jupiter I have lost my bet. I didn’t break the infernal thing.”
“Lost what?” inquired the patient, alternately spitting out blood, and cramming in my tobacco.
“Why, a fine hat. I bet the old boss that the first tooth I pulled on my ‘Mississippi Patent Plan,’ I either broke the neck of the patient or his jaw-bone, and I have done neither.”
“Did you never pull a tooth that way before? why, you told me you’d pulled a hundred.”
“Yes, but they all belonged to dead men.”
“And if the rope hadn’t guv way, I reckon there’d bin another dead man’s pulled. Cuss you, you’d never pulled my tooth if I hadn’t thought you had plenty of ‘sperience; but gin me my change, I wants to be gwine to the boat.”
I gave the fellow his change for the five-dollar bill, deducting the quarter, and the next day, when endeavouring to pass it, I found we had both made a mistake. I had pulled the wrong tooth, and he had given me a counterfeit bill.
Should the spirit move you—and why wouldn’t it?—you can read more of the good doctor’s dubiously hygienic exploits here.