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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pistol and Bowie Knife Fight Between Doctors

The following article appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet on November 5, 1859. It describes an exchange of pistol shots, which almost turned into a bowie knife fight, between Dr. John D. Foster and Dr. Choppin, two house-surgeons at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans. True or false? Who knows? Nevertheless, the story was widely reprinted  as an example of the astonishing things that went on in the American South.
On Saturday morning (says an American paper), the wife of a man who was afflicted with aneurism, and was at the Charity Hospital, applied to have a dangerous operation (that of tying the subclavian artery) performed by Dr. Choppin. He agreed to do it if the man left the hospital and came to his infirmary. This the man desired to do, but on asking the deputy clerk for his discharge, he was informed that Dr. Foster had left instructions that he should not be permitted to go out of the hospital. The man waited at the gate until Dr. Choppin came, who told him he could leave if he chose, as a matter of course, for they had no right to detain him in the hospital as if he was a prisoner. The man then went out.

Then commenced a scene disgraceful to relate-a scene of mingled cowardice, bloodshed, and brutality. The medical art had not softened their ways, and had suffered the disputants to remain as savages. These two physicians met on the steps of the hospital; two angry sentences passed; then commenced the wager of battle, in the pagan fashion of those parts. While Dr. Choppin was cocking his pistol, Dr. Foster, who had a self-cocking revolver, shot him in the left side of the neck. The ball cut the external jugular vein, and paralysed his arm for a moment, causing his pistol to go off, slightly wounding his left hand, and sending him staggering back down the side walk nearly ten feet. Dr. Foster then shot him again, the ball entering the left iliac region, and passing out at his side just over the hip. Dr. Choppin then drew his other "Derringer" and fired, but the ball struck and glanced off from the iron gate post. Immediately throwing away the pistol, he drew a bowie knife, and dared Dr. Foster to fight with knives. Dr. Foster fired again, an ineffectual ball. Dr. Choppin was then advancing upon him knife in hand, and Dr. Foster slowly retiring with his revolver levelled, when the students interposed. Dr. Foster was arrested. It was not known whether the ball entering the iliac region of Dr. Choppin had wounded the membranes of the abdomen.

What a picture of society in New Orleans! Two physicians, who visit their patients revolver at hand, and make their rounds in the wards armed with loaded pistols! As the story is told, it is impossible to say which is the more blameable. It is a state of society of which we can but imperfectly realize the existence. Such outrages on morality are not possible here. It were absurd to say only that such men dishonour medicine, since they violate humanity, and offend alike the laws of justice and the dictates of religion.

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