Just what (or who) really killed Gen. Herkimer?

Illustrator Frederick Yohn (1875-1933) specialized in depicting Revolutionary War battle scenes.  His most famous painting is of Washington at Valley Forge. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

Delving into the history of early American medical practice, one observes that few advances were made throughout the 18th century and those that were, seldom reached frontier doctors. People became “doctors” in one of three ways: by graduating from a recognized European medical school, by apprenticing under a practicing physician, or by simply hanging out a sign with the word “Doctor” on it.

The first method was preferable but rare: in 1720, only one of Boston’s 10 physicians held a medical degree from a European college.

Apprenticing was the most common pathway, but how well this worked depended on how bright the student and how skilled the teacher. The third method, hanging out a shingle and peddling a few homemade cure-alls, was far too common, and such practitioners were usually the quacks of the business.

Even Sir William Johnson trusted a highly controversial doctor named Raymond Magra.

Former Johnson Hall Superintendent Wanda Burch notes, “He was described as an annoying quack by some and as brilliant by others.”

General Gage, in an April 23, 1768 letter to Johnson wrote, “Magra is gone to Canada and I wish he had left this continent entirely.”

Benjamin Roberts wrote Johnson from New York about Magra on Feb. 7, 1770, advising him that all their New York friends wished Johnson would seek another doctor because they found Magra “stupid and doting.” Yet earlier, during spring 1766, Johnson wrote of some success with Magra’s “potions” for treating a violent “disorder of the bowels.”

While we can’t assess the skills of Revolutionary War-era Mohawk Valley doctors, we do know who some of them were. Doctors Moses Younglove and John Jost Petrie are best documented, but mainly for their roles as Tryon County committeemen, not physicians, and when young Jacob Snell took a musket ball in the right shoulder at the Battle of Stone Arabia, it was a German doctor named Vaugh or Faugh who practiced among the Palatine Germans that removed the ball, and according to testimony in Snell’s Pension Papers, did so “with great difficulty.” Yet Vaugh succeeded, and Snell enjoyed a long life of public service, dying in 1838. Early 19th century doctor Samuel Voorhees of Glen and later Amsterdam studied under his father-in-law, Dr. Stephen Reynolds, and when some early 19th century doctors formed the Montgomery County Medical Society circa 1808, Voorhees was the first doctor they examined and licensed to practice medicine.

Today, accurate examples of what common 18th century medical treatments did either for or to the luckless patient, is scarce. Only when someone of importance became its victim has history taken note, and unfortunately, General Nicholas Herkimer wasn’t as lucky as Jacob Snell.

The story of Herkimer’s demise is generally known: that he was wounded in the leg at the battle of Oriskany, that the leg was amputated several days later at his home, and that he died later that day. No one even recorded which leg it was.

Durant’s 19th century “History of Oneida County” includes a letter written to Dr. Jonathan Potts, director of American Army Hospitals, Northern Dept. by a Robert Johnson, presumably a doctor/surgeon, dated Aug. 17, 1777.

Extracted, it states, “Yesterday morning I amputated General Harcomer’s leg, there not being left the prospect of recovery without it. But alas! The patriot hero died in the evening, the cause of his death God only knows. About three hours before his departure, he complained of pain. I gave him thirty drops of laudanum liquid and went to dress Mr. Pettery. I left him in as good a way as I could with Dr. Hastings to take care of him.”

No doubt Doctors Petrie and Younglove, who both knew Herkimer well, would have attended him if they could, but Petrie, as noted above, was laid up with his own Oriskany wound and Younglove was temporary a British prisoner.

Other versions of Gen. Herkimer’s amputation story exist.

Nineteenth century historian, William L. Stone, quoted a statement by Col. John Roof “in possession of the author.” Roof related Herkimer’s leg was “shattered five or six inches below the knee” and was “amputated by a young French surgeon in the army of General Arnold, contrary to the advice of the general’s own medical adviser, Dr. Petrie, but the operation was unskillfully performed and it was found impossible to staunch the blood. The blood continued to flow as there was no physician in attendance, etc.”

Trader Roof stated he was present and probably was, as he and Herkimer were well acquainted and his buildings at Fort Stanwix had just been burned.

There are also questions regarding which day Herkimer died.

Arnold informed Col. Gansevort in a letter dated Aug. 21, stating, “General Herkimer died yesterday,” while Dr. Robert Johnson’s letter to Potts was dated the 16th, and besides, ‘Johnson’ could hardly be the name of a “young French surgeon.”

And who was Dr. Hastings?

One also wonders whether Dr. Petrie, from his own sick bed, was in any position to oppose Herkimer’s surgery. Finally, how was the amputation bungled, and what does it matter, since most colonial amputations brought on death anyway?

The often conflicting accounts regarding Herkimer’s surgery simply don’t provide enough facts to determine whether any 18th century surgeon could have saved him. Due the era’s primitive surgery, it appears poor Gen. Herkimer just didn’t have a leg to stand on.


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