Malingering, as we learned in a previous spotlight, was when a soldier faked or exaggerated an illness or disability in order to get out of duty. It was especially prevalent during the Civil War, and one surgeon, William Williams Keen, saw a lot of cases of it in the course of working at Turner’s Lane Hospital in Philadelphia during the war. Keen came away from his time there with valuable insight into detecting malingering, but he also came away with some amusing stories of just how the malingers were caught.
One malingerer, a private in the 61st New York, complained of, among other things, severe hearing loss and lameness. The faked hearing loss was fairly easy for the doctors to catch: while under the guise of examining the man’s leg, the doctors began asking him questions more and more quietly, until not even those around them could hear. But the malingerer, distracted by his lies about his leg, forgot to fake the hearing loss and unwittingly responded to the doctors’ quiet questions, which he shouldn’t have been able to hear. Proving the private’s lameness was also faked proved more challenging. When the doctors revoked the crutches he used to hobble around, the man simply stayed in bed. On top of that, his leg really was swollen. Eventually, the doctors discovered that the man made his leg swell by sitting with his leg pressed into the crutch, but their real proof came one night when the hospital steward heard an unusual noise. It turned out to be the malingerer with the supposed painful leg dropping from the eaves and then scaling a 14-foot pavilion to sneak out of the hospital. The next morning, the malingerer denied it ever happened. Keen and his colleagues finally gave up and sent the man to a different hospital, but three months later they saw him again, walking around without the slightest limp.
Another private, this time of the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves, claimed that he had palsy (paralysis often accompanied by shaking) on the left side of his body. One night, however, while attending a dance in the hospital mess room, the malingerer was overcome by the music and forgot himself, dancing for all to see. The man was quickly sent back to duty.
Yet another private, this one faking epilepsy (seizures) from a dog bite, was so bad at it that everyone suspected him, and he finally felt guilty and confessed. Another soldier pretended that his arm was paralyzed, but this charade only lasted until he was anesthetized and he came out of it yawning and stretching his supposed paralyzed arm. Anesthesia also proved the downfall of a malingerer faking muteness in a neighboring Philadelphia hospital. Although he supposedly couldn’t speak, as the anesthesia wore off, the man unintentionally began talking. Realizing his mistake, the quick-thinking man fell on his knees in front of the doctor and exclaimed, “Thank God, doctor! You have restored my voice.”
These are just a few of the many stories Keen had to tell about malingerers. Read many more stories about Keen’s experiences with malingering here or here. Or search Fold3 for other information on malingering, on Keen, or on life in Civil War hospitals.