Did a Woman Become Pregnant from a Civil War Bullet?

This legend has a long and tortuous history stretching back nearly 150 years.

  • Published 7 March 2000

Claim

A woman became pregnant from being struck by a bullet that had passed through the scrotum of a Civil War soldier.

Rating

Origin

Sometimes touted as the origin of the phrase “son of a gun,” the apocryphal tale of “the bullet through the balls” is a well-traveled legend, often reported by such infamous urban legend vectors as “Dear Abby,” as in this example from her 6 November 1982 column:

It seems that during the Civil War (May 12, 1863, to be exact), a young Virginia farm girl was standing on her front porch while a battle was raging nearby. A stray bullet first passed through the scrotum of a young Union cavalryman, then lodged in the reproductive tract of the young woman, who thus became pregnant by a man she had not been within 100 feet of! And nine months later she gave birth to a healthy baby!

The story, in fact, is completely false. The claim for the miraculous “bullet pregnancy” originated with an article that was printed as a joke in the journal The American Medical Weekly on 7 November 1874.

Subsequent journals and books cited the article as fact without checking the original source or realizing that it was a put-on, and the story has been passed down through the years as an “actual case that appeared in a real medical journal many years ago.”

The long and tortuous history of this legend begins with an article entitled “ATTENTION GYNAECOLOGISTS! — NOTES FROM THE DIARY OF A FIELD AND HOSPITAL SURGEON, C.S.A.” appearing under the name of an “L.G. Capers, M.D., Vicksburg, Miss.” in the 7 November 1874 issue of The American Medical Weekly. It recounts the now-familiar story of a Confederate field surgeon who dressed the wound of a soldier injured by a bullet that had entered the soldier’s leg, ricocheted off the bone, and carried away his left testicle. Coincidentally, the same surgeon was then called upon a few moments later to administer aid to a young lady who had received a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Exactly 278 days later, the surgeon returned to the village and delivered a baby boy of the wounded women, although she steadfastly maintained that she was still a virgin.

The general tone and style of the article should have indicated to the astute reader that the whole thing was a gag. Even if they didn’t, at least a few more obvious clues gave away the joke: The baby was said to have been born “with something wrong about the genitals,” and upon examination the surgeon discovered that the ball which had wounded the soldier and impregnated the woman was lodged in the newborn infant’s scrotum! Even more implausibly, the soldier, when told of his astonishingly-achieved fatherhood, quickly wed the child’s mother! For those who still didn’t catch on to the article’s facetiousness, a note from the editor explaining that the whole thing was a bit of “fun” (complete with a pun on the putative author’s name) was printed in the same journal two weeks later.

(Note: The details of battle given in the original article do correspond to actual events. In May of 1863, Union troops under the command of Major General James B. McPherson set out for Raymond, Mississippi, a town about fifteen miles from Jackson, the state capital. On May 12 a unit led by Major General John A. Logan ran into a Confederate brigade under the command of General John Gregg, and the battle of Raymond ensued, with Gregg eventually withdrawing his outnumbered forces from Raymond and heading down the road to Jackson.)

Several months later, the British medical journal The Lancet reprinted (portions of) the 1874 article. Then, in 1896, George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle cited (and quoted from) The Lancet as a footnote to a section about artificial impregnation in their book Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. Even Gould and Pyle seem to have recognized the original article’s drollery, however, as they mention that it is included “not because it bears any semblance of possibility, but as a curious example from the realms of imagination in medicine.” F. Donald Napolitani, M.D., evidently didn’t catch the article’s whimsicality, though, as he presented all the same details as an “authenticated case report” in his 1959 article about “Two Unusual Cases of Gunshot Wounds of the Uterus” for the New York State Journal of Medicine.

From then on, one or more of these sources has been cited as proof of an actual occurrence “carefully recorded for the annals of medicine” in everything from American Heritage magazine to “Dear Abby,” with each source accepting the previous ones’ references as accurate citations of a “real” medical journal article.

The documents transcribed below include the original 1874 article from The American Medical Weekly that started it all, an editor’s note from a subsequent issue of the same publication explaining the whole thing as a gag, an oft misinterpreted summation from the 1896 book Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, and a 1959 article from the New York State Journal of Medicine by a doctor who didn’t quite get the joke (or do his homework):

ATTENTION GYNAECOLOGISTS!–NOTES FROM THE DIARY OF A FIELD AND
HOSPITAL SURGEON, C.S.A.

by L.G. Capers, M.D., Vicksburg, Miss.

How common it is now-a-days, and how natural, too, for men to tell
wonderful stories about “the war”; their desperate charges; hair-breadth
escapes; numbers who have fallen victims to their feats of personal valor,
etc., etc. Then every surgeon has performed any number of wonderful
operations before unheard of in the annals of surgery!

Until the present moment, I have refrained from bringing before the
public, and more particularly the Profession, any of my daring exploits or
remarkable surgical procedures; and even now I feel a delicacy in offering the
remarkable case, the relation of which is prompted only by a sense of duty to
my professional brethren. Doubtless many will pronounce the facts to be
presently related as unusual or impossible; to such I need only say, if not,
why not?

Here are the proofs:

On the 12th day of May, 1863, the battle of R. was fought. Gen. G.’s
brigade met the advance of Grant’s army, under Gen. L., about one mile from
the village of R. About three hundred yards in rear of my regiment was
situated a fine residence, the occupants being a matron, her two daughters,
and servants (the host being absent in another army). About 3 o’clock P.M.,
when the battle was raging most furiously, the above-mentioned lady and her
two daughters (aged respectively fifteen and seventeen), filled with interest
and enthusiasm, stood bravely in front of their homestead, ready and eager to
minister to their wounded countrymen whould they fall in the dreadful fray.

Our men were fighting nobly, but pressed by superior numbers, had
gradually fallen back to within one hundred and fifty yards of the house. My
position being near my regiment, suddenly I beheld a noble, gallant young
friend staggering closer, and then fall to the earth. In the same moment a
piercing scream from the house reached my ear! I was soon by the side of the
young man, and, upon examination, found a compound fracture, with extensive
comminution of the left tibia; the ball having ricochetted from these parts,
and, in its onward flight, passed through the scrotum, carrying away the left
testicle. Scarcely had I finished dressing the wounds of this poor fellow,
when the estimable matron came running to me in the greatest distress, begging
me to go to one of her daughters, who, she informed me, had been badly wounded
a few minutes before. Hastening to the house, I found that the eldest of the
young ladies had indeed received a most serious wound. A minnie ball had
penetrated the left abdominal parietes, about midway between the umbilicus and
anterior spinal process of the ilium, and was lost in the abdominal cavity,
leaving a ragged wound behind. Believing there was little or no hope of her
recovery, I had only time to prescribe an anodyne, when our army fell back,
leaving both field and village in the hands of the enemy.

Having remained with my wounded at the village of R., I had the
opportunity of visiting the young lady the next day, and, interruptedly, for a
period of nearly two months, at the end of which time she had entirely
recovered, with no untoward symptoms during treatment; save a severe
peritonitis, she seemed as well as ever!

About six months after her recovery, the movements of our army brought me
again to the village of R., and I was again sent for to see the young lady.
She appeared in excellent health and spirits, but her abdomen had become
enormously enlarged, so much so as to resemble pregnancy at the seventh or
eighth month. Indeed, had I not known the family and the facts of the
abdominal wound, I should have so pronounced the case. Under the above
circumstances, I failed to give a positive diagnosis, determining to keep the
case under surveillance. This I did.

Just two hundred and seventy-eight days from the date of the receipt of
the wound by the minnie ball, I delivered this same young lady of a fine boy,
weighing eight pounds. I was not very much surprised; but imagine the
surprise and mortification of the young lady herself, her entire family. This
can be better imagined than described. Although I found the hymen intact in
my examination before delivery, I gave no credence to the earnest and
oft-repeated assertions of the young lady of her innocence and virgin purity.

About three weeks from the date of this remarkable birth, I was called to
see the child, the grandmother insisting there was “something wrong about the
genitals.” Examination revealed an enlarged, swollen, sensitive scrotum,
containing on the right side a hard, roughened substance, evidently foreign.
I decided upon operating for its removal at once, and in so doing, extracted
from the scrotum a minnie ball, mashed and battered as if it had met in its
flight some hard, unyielding substance.

To attempt to picture my astonishment would be impossible! What may
already seem very plain to my readers, as they glance over this paper, was, to
me, at the time, mysterious. It was only after several days and nights of
sleepless reflection that a solution flashed before me, and ever since has
appeared as clear as the noon-day sun!

“What is it?” The ball I took from the scrotum of the babe was the
identical one which, on the 12th of May, shattered the tibia of my young
friend, and in its mutilated condition, plunged through his testicle, carrying
with it particles of semen and spermatozoa into the abdomen of the young lady,
then through her left ovary, and into the uterus, in this manner impregnating
her! There can be no other solution of the phenomenon! These convictions I
expressed to the family, and, at their solicitations, visited my young soldier
friend, laying the case before him in its proper light. At first, most
naturally, he appeared skeptical, but concluded to visit the young mother.
Whether convinced or not, he soon married her, ere the little boy had attained
his fourth month.

As a matter of additional interest, I may mention having received a
letter during the past year, reporting a happy married state and three
children, but neither resembling, to the same marked degree, as the first — our
hero — Pater familias!


THE AMERICAN MEDICAL WEEKLY

November 21, 1874

Editor’s note

DR. L.G. CAPERS, of Vicksburg, Miss., disclaims responsibility for the
truth of that remarkable case of impregnation by a minnie ball, as reported in
No. 19 of this Journal. He tells the story as it was told to him. He does
not say it is untrue, but is disposed to appositely remember the truth of the
old adage, that “accidents may happen in the best regulated families.” The
joke is, that the Doctor reported the case without any signature, but as the
editor is indisposed to be made the victim of canards, and recognized the
writing sent, he was unwilling to deprive the author of the contemplated fun,
and allowed him to enjoy even more of this than was anticipated. The readers
have enjoyed the story much, but not enough “to cut capers” after reading it.


Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine

The following extraordinary incident of accidental impregnation, quoted from the American Medical Weekly1 by the Lancet,2 is given in brief, not because it bears any semblance of possibility, but as a curious example from the realms of imagination in medicine.

L. G. Capers of Vicksburg, Miss., relates an incident during the late Civil War, as follows: &nbsp A matron and her two daughters, aged fifteen and seventeen years, filled with the enthusiasm of patriotism, stood ready to minister to the wounds of their countrymen in their fine residence near the scene of the battle of R______, May 12, 1863, between a portion of Grant’s army and some Confederates. During the fray a gallant and noble young friend of the narrator staggered and fell to the earth; at the same time a piercing cry was heard in the house near by. Examination of the wounded soldier showed that a bullet had passed through the scrotum and carried away the left testicle. The same bullet had apparently penetrated the left side of the abdomen of the elder young lady, midway between the umbilicus and the anterior superior spinous process of the ilium, and had become lost in the abdomen. This daughter suffered an attack of peritonitis, but recovered in two months under the treatment administered.

Marvelous to relate, just two hundred and seventy-eight days after the reception of the minnie-ball, she was delivered of a fine boy, weighing 8 pounds, to the surprise of herself and the mortification of her parents and friends. The hymen was intact, and the young mother strenuously insisted on her virginity and innocence. About three weeks after this remarkable birth Dr. Capers was called to see the infant, and the grandmother insisted that there was something wrong with the child’s genitals. Examination showed a rough, swollen and sensitive scrotum, containing some hard substance. He operated, and extracted a smashed and battered minie-ball. The doctor, after some meditation, theorized in this manner: &nbsp He concluded that this was the same ball that had carried away the testicle of his young friend, that had penetrated the ovary of the young lady, and, with some spermatozoa upon it, had impregnated her. With this conviction he approached the young man and told him the circumstances; the soldier appeared skeptical at first, but consented to visit the young mother; a friendship ensued which soon ripened into a happy marriage, and the pair had three children, none resembling, in the same degree as the first, the heroic pater familias.

&nbsp &nbsp 1131, Nov. 7, 1874.       2476, 1875, i., 35.


New York State Journal of Medicine

February 1, 1959

Two Unusual Cases of Gunshot Wounds of the Uterus

F. DONALD NAPOLITANI, M.D., BRONX, NEW YORK

(From the Department of Obstetrics, Harlem Hospital, New York City)

The following two case histories show the diversity of treatment for gunshot wounds of the uterus. Although not revolutionary in treatment, these two cases are presented for their unusual results. Both cases have been authenticated.

Case Reports

CASE 2. — This case of a seventeen-year-old girl was reported by Captain L. G. Capers after the Civil War. It is remarkable in its unusualness and in the treatment of the gunshot wounds of the uterus which resulted.

While stationed with a regiment on May 12 during the battle of R, his regiment met the advance of the enemy. One mile from the village of R about 100 yards in the rear of the regiment was a fine mansion where a matron and her two daughters and servants were standing about 3:00 P.M. in the afternoon. The battle was raging furiously, and the woman and her two daughters were filled with extreme interest, standing bravely in front of the house, hoping to give some degree of aid to any of the wounded soldiers. Our men were fighting bravely, but pressed by superior forces, they had gradually fallen back to about 100 yards of the house.

Since Captain Capers was stationed with the brigade, he suddenly beheld a gallant young lad stagger and fall to the earth. At the same moment a piercing scream came from the vicinity of the house. The young man was examined and found to have a compound fracture with extensive involvement of the left tibia. The bullet evidently had ricocheted from the left portion of the abdomen and in its upward flight passed through the scrotum, carrying away the left testicle. The matron came running in the greatest distress, begging Captain Capers to go to the assistance of one of her daughters, who had been badly wounded. A few moments later, after examining the young lady, who was sitting on the steps and groaning severely, the seriousness of the wound was apparent.

The bullet evidently had perforated the girl’s abdomen in the left abdominal parietes about midway between the umbilicus and the interior spinal process of the ilium. Evidently the bullet was still in the spinal canal, and the wound itself was very ragged and irregular. Dressings were applied and medication given, and since the Army had first call on Captain Capers’ services, he left after prescribing a sedative. The town was soon left in the hands of the enemy, but several days later the rest of the brigade settle in the village of R, and Captain Capers had the opportunity of treating the young lady for the next few months. It was apparent that she seemed to have recovered from the severe peritonitis which resulted from the injury.

About six months after her recovery, the movement of our Army again brought Captain Capers to the village of R, and again he was sent for by the young lady’s mother. The young lady herself appeared to be in excellent health, but her abdomen had become enormously enlarged, resembling pregnancy of the seventh or eighth month. Captain Capers stated that if it were not for the fact that he knew the injury and had known the family, he should have diagnosed the case as a definite pregnancy. Therefore, under the circumstances, he failed to give a positive diagnosis, determining to keep the young lady under surveillance.

Two hundred and seventy-eight days from the receipt of the wound by the young lady, a fine boy weighing 8 pounds was delivered by Captain Capers, since there were very few doctors available at this time in the vicinity of the town. The mortification and mystification of the young lady and her entire family was apparent! In fact, before the examination Captain Capers stated that he gave no credence to the young girl’s assertion of her innocence and virgin purity!

About three weeks after this remarkable birth, the Captain was called to see the baby by the grandmother, who stated that there was something wrong about the infant’s genitals. Examination revealed an enlarged, swollen, sensitive scrotum containing in the right side a hard and roughened substance, evidently foreign. The doctor decided to operate for the removal of this object at once. In doing so, he extracted from the scrotum a mass which was mashed and battered as if it had met in its flight some hard, unyielding substance. Captain Capers stated that he was astonished and that he finally decided, after several days of seriously considering the matter, just how the incident had occurred. He surmised and stated that no other way was possible — that the mass taken from the scrotum of the baby was the identical one which on the twelfth of May had shattered the tibia of the young soldier and then had plunged through the air into the abdomen of the young lady, carrying particles of semen and spermatozoa through her left ovary and into the uterus, in this manner impregnating her! No other solution to this birth was apparent. Captain Capers explained this to the family, and at their solicitation visited the same young soldier, who at first was most skeptical but then appeared very interested in the young lady. Before four months had passed, he had married the young girl. Several years later Captain Capers received a letter from the young man stating that they were happily married and that they now had three children but the last two not resembling to the same marked degree as the first, the young hero, or the young soldier.

This case occurred on May 12, 1863, and was reported November 7, 1874, in the medical annals.1

              1381 BRONX RIVER AVENUE, BRONX 59

Reference

    1. Med. Ann. 1:62 (Nov. 7) 1874.

Sightings:   This legend was told during an episode of the television series House (“Joy to the World,” original air date 9 December 2008) in response to a patient asking how a virgin could become pregnant.

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