- Historic Sites
“Gentlemen, This Is No Humbug”
The single greatest medical discovery of the last century began as a parlor game, and brought tragedy to nearly everyone who had a hand in it
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
Late in 1847 Dr. James Y. Simpson of Edinburgh, Scotland, discovered that chloroform, too, was an effective anesthetic, and this new agent led indirectly to the undoing of Horace Wells. Early in 1848, Dr. Wells opened a practice in New York, offering painless dentistry through the use of all three anesthetics: nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform. During the week beginning January 16 he became involved in a bizarre incident. All that week Manhattan was alarmed by reports of a cloaked “monster in human form” who was throwing acid on women walking on Broadway. On Friday evening the supposed monster was arrested. He gave his name as Jonathan Smith, was held to bail in the sum of $2,000, and, not being able to meet it, was confined in the Tombs. Jonathan Smith turned out to be Horace Wells.
On Saturday, accompanied by an escort, Wells was allowed to go to his rooms on Chambers Street, where he obtained his razor and other necessities and—unknown to his guard—a bottle of chloroform.
On Sunday evening, in his cell, Wells tied a handkerchief over his nose and mouth and soaked it with chloroform; then, presumably while in an early stage of anesthesia, he slashed his left thigh to the bone with a razor, severing the femoral artery. An inquest was held, and the jury returned a verdict that Horace Wells “came to his death … by inflicting a wound in his left thigh with a razor, while laboring under an aberration of mind.” A letter written by Wells just before the suicide and found in the cell revealed that during the past week he had been “in the constant practice of inhaling chloroform for the exhilarating effect produced by it.” Considering that information, and with all regard for the jury’s opinion, the letter can hardly be thought of as a product of mental derangement. The language is clear and coherent. Rather than the rambling of a disordered mind, it is an expression of shame and remorse—and what disgrace, real or imagined, could do to Horace Wells must be remembered. But if not insanity, what was it that caused him to throw acid—the act that precipitated the disaster?
It is an entirely plausible theory that—in addition to an act performed under the influence of chloroform—this was something akin to posthypnotic behavior, that phenomenon in which a person, while in a hypnotic trance, receives a suggestion that he executes at some later time without really understanding why he acts. It is also to be noted that this posthypnotic action often takes place when the subject receives an aural or visual signal that is included in the instruction or suggestion given to him while he is in the trance. It is known today that certain stages of anesthesia or even analgesia can produce a very suggestible mental state.
With that in mind, one may read the last letters of Horace Wells and discern in them an influence that may have been similar. One of them reads in part: “The facts so far as I am concerned are briefly «= these:—On Tuesday evening last a young man with whom I had recently formed an acquaintance, went with me to my office in Chambers St., and while there, he said a woman of bad character had spoiled a garment for him while walking in the street by throwing something like vitriol upon him; that he knew who it was, and would pay her back in the same coin. As I had some sulphuric acid in my office which I was using in some chemical experiments, he requested the liberty of taking some of it, for this purpose. He accordingly cut a groove in the cork of a phial, so that a small quantity only might escape when it was suddenly thrust forward.”
The story told by the letter continues. Accompanied by Wells, the young man went out on Broadway and sprinkled acid on a girl’s shawl. He then proposed sprinkling other girls, but Wells, coming to his senses in the cold January air, took the phial away from him and went home. Also mentioned in the letter were two other friends of the young man whom Wells had recently met, and who “had resolved to drive all the bad girls out of Broadway by sprinkling them with acid.” Since Wells had been inhaling chloroform “for [its] exhilarating effect,” it may be reasonably supposed that his new friends were doing the same. On Friday evening, while sniffing the vapor, Wells lost consciousness, and on coming out of his stupor was “exhilarated beyond measure, exceeding anything which I had ever before experienced.” In a delirious state, he saw the phial of acid on the mantel, seized it, and rushed out into the street, where he threw acid at two women and may have thrown it at others—he could not be sure. The effect of the chloroform did not pass off until some time after his arrest.
Much of the letter is harrowing in the extreme. It dwells upon the disgrace in which Wells had placed himself, upon the misery he had brought his relatives (“all of whom are among the most respectable members of society”), including his wife and child, whom his death would leave destitute of support—and yet if he were to live and try to work for them he would become a maniac (“I could not live and be called a villain”). His anguish was all the more severe because his name was “familiar to the whole scientific world as being connected with an important discovery….”