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In the footstep of Santa Anna

8 October 2018

That wasn’t a typo.  A year and a half ago, I hit a pothole riding a bicycle, got flipped in the air and came down on my right leg at about 40 Km per hour, shattering my tibia and fibula just above the ankle, as well as a second break in my tibia further up.  Between the two surgeries to install a metal plate, I picked up a antibiotic resistant infection that has gotten into the bone.  I am going back in the hospital this coming week to have the leg amputated before the infection spreads, which means posting will be even lighter than usual, at least for the next few weeks.

From the apparently non-existent medical records available, and from what historians have written about it, my own leg seemed to be in the same shape as General Santa Anna’s after he was hit by a cannonball during the attempted French siege of Veracruz in 1938:  shattering both the tibia and fibula just above the ankle.  Of course, that cannonball also killed Santa Anna’s horse, leaving chucks of horseflesh mixed in with shattered leg.  And medical practice was… shall we say… rather primitive at the time.  So… while I discussed Santa Anna with my orthopedist, it was more of a philosophical discussion than of a model for my own recovery.

The General was, in one way, more fortunate than I am.  His unnamed field surgeon performed a transtibial amputation… that is, below the knee.  Had a transfemoral ampuation been required the prosthesis available at the time would have been even more uncomfortable than what the General would have to use the rest of his life.  He at least still had his own knees.  Although artificial knee joints dated back to the 1500s, and a prosthetic knee had been invented by an Englishman, James Potts, in 1800, Pott’s knee was nothing more than an iron hinge with a cat-gut string fastened to the heel of the artificial foot… but provided very little stability when standing or trying to walk.  However, one had to be in London to take advantage of Pott’s knee, the first artificial knee joint not appearing n the Americas until 1839 (too late for Santa Anna) introduced in the United States by WIlliam Selpho.

Selpho’s knee was made of steel, in short supply and almost non-existent in pre-industrial Mexico.  However, with prosthesis for transtibial amputees having been around since at least 300 BCE, Santa Anna’s prosthesis (and we have no idea who fitted it, or who made it) was made of local materials… wood and leather.  He had at least three artificial legs he wore at different times.  Two ended up in Illinois, as “trophies of war” taken during the US Intervention of 1846-48, the other now in the Banamex museum.  All are rather simple affairs.  Unlike modern prosthesis which are molded plastic that will fit the user’s “stump” and eliminate the very real problem of the artificial limb separating from the residual one, the leather socket that fitted over his stump had to be laced to his thigh… in other words, his leg would be wrapped in a leather corset, packed with cotton or even rags to keep it tight, but not cutting off his circulation.

Or, as appears to be the case with the Illinois leg (in the photo), it was simply strapped to Santa Anna’s stump, and likely come loose and make him lose his balance.  The socket itself held the artificial leg in place, but … with fittings being hit or miss… it would have put additional pressure on the stump (which, with the battlefield amputation, never healed correctly, leaving a piece of bone exposed.

We know that Santa Anna was carried to the front during the U.S. Intervention in a litter, or by carriage.  One leg in Illinois was pulled out of a carriage after the battle of Cerro Gordo, indicating either Santa Anna was wearing a different leg (and would transfer the off during the day), or … as I think likely… only wore one when absolutely necessary.  That leg, incidentally, was cork, probably the lightest weight material that could be found but was strong enough to hold the general’s weight.  He still would have walked with a pronounced limp, and rather awkwardly, with no way to articulate the foot (try walking without rolling your ankle, and you’ll get the idea).  The prosthesis now owned by Banamex, probably worn when the General had to walk in public, would have given him a slightly more normal gait, having a ball bearing in the heel to act as an artificial ankle.

He still would have had that uncomfortable leather girdle around his leg, and the pressure on that exposed bone.  Santa Anna’s use of laudanum… opium syrup… has always been brought up as “evidence” of his supposed decadence, but was he an “addict” or simply dependent on what was the most common pain reliever of the time (and probably the most effective available) to get through the day?  Did he use laudanum all the time, or only when he had to wear his prosthesis… and how long did he wear any prosthesis at any one time:  all day?  a few hours?

And what effect did the laudanum .. or his pain… have on his decision making?  Did his prosthesis impact history, or is it simply an odd artifact of his past?  History with a capital H usually assumes major event X was a result of, or reaction to,  major event N.  But the frustrating part about understanding history is that major event N might need to be understood in light of minor events a, b, c, and d.  None of which anyone considered worth a mention, or would have noticed.  Perhaps if Santa Anna’s leg had fit better, or if he was pain-free a certain day… perhaps the United States would have been defeated at Cerro Gordo and the whole history of the world different.  Or maybe not?



3 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura Grevel permalink
    8 October 2018 2:37 am

    A very interesting post. I am very sorry to hear about your leg. I wish you all the best and good health! Laura

  2. 8 October 2018 6:48 pm

    I’m saddened to hear that Rich… hope all goes well. I guess on a positive note you could carry cotraband in it.
    A footnote about the Illinis leg:
    A few years ago , I think it was ’96., I was working the Sesquitennial of the battle of the Alamo at Houston Astrodome. Some Politicos were discussing a visit one of them had made to chapultepec castle in Mexico city and he said, he had been allowed in the basement and he spotted a glass case in a corner that contained the flag that had flown over the alamo. after an excited talk they penned a letter to the Mexican Govt. and said they could get the leg of Santa Ana from Illinois and would like to swap it for the flag.
    A few days later a letter arrived from the secretary of State that said;
    (more or less)…. Sirs: we cannot consider returning a war trophy that Mexican boys died in battle to obtain. As for the leg, we have no interest in the leg of a man who lost half of our country.

    • 9 October 2018 1:59 am

      Contraband… hmmmm… a whole new career path opens up 🙂

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