J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

“The ram ran his horns into the bowels of the boy”

On 18 Feb 1808, the United States Gazette for the Country, a Federalist-leaning newspaper published out of Philadelphia, shared this news from Washington, D.C.:
The only incident within the last ten days, to excite conversation, is an unhappy affair, of which the hero is the president’s ram.

About a week since, as a lad, nine years old, was returning from school, he was attacked by this ram in the plain beyond the [Presidential] palace on the Georgetown road. The boy, knowing that the ram was wont to push, avoided the first attack, but the second time he was not so fortunate. The ram ran his horns into the bowels of the boy. It was some time before they were disengaged.
The ram must have gored the boy on 6 February because the next day President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the lad’s father, Alexander Kerr, sending thoughts and prayers:

The unfortunate accident of yesterday has given me inexpressible concern. had the orders I had given some days before for securing the instrument of it against doing injury, been timely executed, this great calamity would have been prevented. that they were not will be to me a source of unceasing regret.

I am but too sensible that the participation of others in this scene of distress cannot alleviate the sufferings of tender parents: yet I cannot refuse to myself the expressing to them the deep affliction I feel as well for them as the unfortunate victim. not knowing his situation I can but offer my devout prayers for his safety, and to yourselves my sincere sympathies and respect.

Th: Jefferson
Kerr wrote back the same day:

Mrs. Kerr & myself are much gratified & our affliction somewhat alleviated by your sympathetick & friendly Letter of this Morning, which you have done me the honor to write respecting my Child.

The Wound is of a very dangerous nature, however the fever has not yet risen to an alarming height & the Doctors, ([John] Weems, [Arnold] Elzey & [Charles] Worthington, who have been here this morning) think appearances not unfavorable. I trust Sir, that in a few Days, I shall have it in my Power to inform you that he is out of danger.

I am perfectly satisfied that you feel as a Parent on the present melancholy occasion & I sincerely hope that your prayers, with those of his Parents, & the rest of his friends, may be heard by him who has the Power to save my darling Boy.—

With the utmost respect, I am Sir Your Obt. Servant
Alexr. Kerr
Five days later came another report:

I feel great satisfaction in being able to inform you, that my Son, in whose recovery you have taken so much interest, has the appearance of mending. He is now nearly at the expiration of the sixth day & the inflammation & tenseness of the Body have abated, without any appearance of mortification. The Intestine still discharges a little of its contents through its wound, although we are in hopes it has commenced to unite.

The Child has generally been very much composed, his only nourishment until yesterday has been Sleep. The Physicians have not pronounced him to be out of danger, but they give some reason for us to hope for a favorable issue; & that, principally from the Child having held up so long.

With the utmost respect.
Alexr. Kerr
Unfortunately, that prognosis was too optimistic. An infection set in. The U.S. Gazette reported, “The boy languished and died. He was buried yesterday,” or 17 February.

TOMORROW: The results of this “unhappy affair.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your clear medical report. It's not surprising that the boy developed an infection, in that I'm pretty sure that the team's horns were not sterile -- and, as you report, at that (pre-antibiotic) point, it was all over.

J. L. Bell said...

To be honest, I deduced an infection from the fact that the boy died ten days after the injury. So far as I know, there are no statements about his turn for the worse.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who immediately thought of Black Phillip from the film THE WITCH? “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? . . . Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/black-phillip-real-story-behind-871974

J. L. Bell said...

Not the only one (unless I also saw your comment on Twitter). But the Puritans put a lot of emphasis on separating the sheep from the goats.

Anonymous said...

I immediately thought of the song The Darby Ram, as sung by Pete Seeger...

J. L. Bell said...

I actually have a posting about “The Darby Ram” in the works, but it involves another early President.