October 25, 2010

Hoffman: in a dreadful manner

According to the October 25, 1817 issue of the New York Evening Post, a boy was sitting on the "Courtlandt-street Dock, with his legs hanging over the wharf." A steamboat was coming in and he tried to jump down on it. Instead, he was caught by the boat and his right leg was crushed "in a dreadful manner." His right leg had to be amputated above the knee.

The boy, future writer Charles Fenno Hoffman, replaced his missing limb with "a cork substitute," according to the Cyclopedia of American Literature, compiled by Evert Augustus Duyckinck. According to all reports, the lack of a right leg never impeded Hoffman in any way. He continued "the out-door life and athletic exercises" which he enjoyed. At age 15, he enrolled at Columbia College, where he particularly excelled on the debate team. He dropped out in his junior year but was apparently given an honorary degree years later.

Perhaps his most interesting accomplishment to emphasize Hoffman's "out-door" and "athletic" life was his trip in 1833. That year, he traveled on horseback from his home in New York as far west as the Mississippi River, through Kentucky and Virginia, in the dead of winter. The trip was the basis for his book A Winter in the West.

Hoffman and his friends never seem to mention much about the leg situation. But, looking at one particular scene in A Winter in the West, you can't help but picture his situation:

I rode thus for miles without seeing a living thing except a raven, which... I at once took it for granted was hovering near one of the savage beasts to which he so faithfully plays the jackal. Wheeling my horse suddenly from the trail towards a thicket of dwarf oaks... he shied from the bush, and I was thrown upon the spot. After extricating the foot, by which I was dragged a yard or two, from the stirrup, I sprang up but little hurt, and moved as quickly as possible to catch my horse... "This is very ridiculous."

...I sat down at once among the long dry grass, and stripping off my leggings, and disembarassing my heels of the now useless spurs, stowed all away in my coat-pockets.

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