The Cheerful Oncologist

The Mystery of the Moaning Man

Boston, Massachusetts, 1865 – Corporal Charles H. Williams, formerly of the 13th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, arrives from his hometown for a reunion with surviving members of his unit. For the past four years the 13th had been involved in a number of now hallowed Civil War battles including Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg. With the pounding of cannon still fresh in the soldiers’ minds, their commander, Lt. Col. Hovey, has arranged for a ceremony to honor the freshly minted veterans for their sacrifice to the Union.

In the midst of a hushed crowd, each man climbs onto a stage in Boston Common where the Colonel introduces him to the sound of cheers. Each soldier receives the Commendation for Valor (referred to by the men, sotto voce, as the “Save My Arse Medal”).

After the last man is decorated the festivities turn raucous as two musicians begin to play. The veterans join in the dance, much to the delight of their Colonel, who watches from his vantage point over the Commons. The sounds of harmonica and banjo intermix with laughter and the barking of several enthusiastic dogs.

Suddenly the crowd parts. Corporal Williams lies on the ground moaning. After a brief discussion among the elders present Williams is carried down the cobblestone streets to the office of Dr. Winthrop Hibbert, a prominent surgeon. The corporal can be heard crying “My heart! My heart!” as the litter arrives at the doctor’s door. The waiting room is packed with people sitting in quiet resignation.

Dr. Hibbert appears through the doorway to his surgery. “What’s all this?” he asks, and is met with a cacophony of replies. He walks brusquely to the patient and after performing a brief examination with his ivory monaural stethoscope, announces that he is dying, probably of angina or hydropericardium, and that nothing more can be done.

His fellow infantrymen somberly at his side, Williams is given a hero’s ride back down the hill toward the Commons. As the procession reaches the corner of Mt. Vernon and Belknap Streets a sharp voice cuts through the air.

“What’s wrong with that man?”

Emerging from a tiny office marked “J. Wheeler, Physician and Surgeon,” a sleek young man looking like a stable boy strides toward the group, wiping his hands on a long apron. He listens to the account of Corporal Williams’ trip to Dr. Hibbert, then makes a face.

“Bring him into my surgery immediately.”

Within the hour Charles H. Williams, decorated Civil War veteran, survivor of the battle of Gettysburg and future husband of one Isabella Jameson, walked out of the young doctor’s office to the hurrahs of his friends and on to his place in history.

What magic did Dr. Jacob Wheeler perform to bring a dying man back?

What he did was rather than rushing through a perfunctory exam with an annoyed look, Dr. Wheeler actually took the time to examine Corporal Williams, whereupon he found that the cause of the soldier’s chest pain was not due to a coronary occlusion after all. In fact, his heart was as strong as a Morgan horse’s, but his nerves were a wreck after fighting the Rebs for four years. Charles H. Williams, hero of the 13th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and now free from the clutches of death, had overreacted to a mistake still made today by nervous awarders.

Colonel Hovey had accidently pinned the Commendation for Valor completely through the unsuspecting corporal’s uniform and into his chest.