Serious leg surgery in 1902 blacksmith shop accident

My great grandfather Joseph H. NeVille was a man of many talents, including a sense of humor with which he handled the challenges of being on the pioneering frontier. The following story is from his journal, circa 1902. Limited editing to the text preserves his manner of expression:

I have been called upon on several occasions to attend to many things, for instance mechanical, surgical, legal and many other matters. The worst case of all was when I was called on to go and attend to a man who had broken his leg. This was a case that I did not like to attend, but there being no doctor within seven miles of the place and the man with the broken leg was helpless, so something had to be done in his behalf.

Joseph Hyrum NeVille (right) stands with a family relative Jimmy Smith, in front of the outdoor flour mill he built and operated in Byron.
Joseph Hyrum NeVille (right) stands with a family relative Jimmy Smith, in front of the outdoor flour mill he built and operated in Byron.

I was called to come at once. I was not feeling well bodily, but consented to go. Upon my arrival, I found that the man had slipped and broken his leg at the blacksmith’s shop here in the town of Byron. This man was a particular friend of mine, or I should not have gone to his assistance. Upon my arrival at the shop, I found the man’s wife, children and the man waiting patiently for my arrival.

I found upon examination that the leg had sustained a very bad fracture indeed. I first thought that the fracture was beyond my skill and judgment, but after careful examination, I thought I might give the man some relief if he had the patience. He said he had the patience to bear the operation as he thought, if anyone could give him help. He preferred that I should go to work on the leg and do the best I could and he would use all the patience he could muster.

Well, I concluded that I had to return to my home and get a few surgical instruments that I would need on the case. Upon my return, I found the man’s wife had left, but the little children were still present and anxious to see their father relieved from his trouble.

I at once set to work, and on further examinations found that the calf of the leg was shattered in several places, and that the ankle joint was badly splintered. I made splints of tin and used copper wire for bandages.

Speaking of nerve, this man had nerve such as I have never seen in all my life. I had no chloroform or anything else to give as a sedative. He sat and bore it all the time I was operating. He was sitting on a bench and held his limb all the while I was working on the leg. In speaking of nerve, I must say that this man had nerves of iron. He never flinched. All that I could notice was once in a while he would grit his teeth and twist his mouth to one side while I was working on the leg. It was hard on me to order his little children out of my way, for they were crowding around, so I sent most of them out of doors. I was working in the blacksmith’s office, not finding any place more convenient than where the accident happened.

I placed two splints and three bandages of copper wire on the fracture and caught it together with a small drop of solder. Well, I got the calf of the leg, or shin, as you might call it, fixed. Upon further examination, I found the ankle joint was almost good for nothing and that the chords and tendons were destroyed. I nearly had to make a new ankle joint by taking up the chords and tendons. All this I did with satisfaction to the man and myself, and his relatives were well pleased with the job that I had done.

There seemed to be no further trouble, as there were no signs of blood poisoning or other complications that might follow in such cases. I must say that the man felt well pleased with my work, and he rejoiced that I had done such a good job on his leg.

I was not the least bit alarmed that any trouble would develop, as I had a standing with nearly all the doctors in the country and I was not afraid they would cause me trouble for practicing without a license in case of an emergency. I worked with a sense of good will and gave the poor man some relief as quickly as possible.

Oh, in speaking of nerve, it beat anything I had ever seen. I cannot stop talking of this man’s nerve. I am sure if I had more surgical instruments for a job of this nature, I should have done a neater job. My instruments consisted of a soldering iron, some solder, acid, file and a pair of tin snips. This limb that I operated upon was the artificial limb of Scott E. Sessions.


By E. Denney NeVille



  1. Very well written article and captivating reading.
    We both enjoyed this article.
    Great job, Denney!

Comments are closed.