Image licensed from i.stockphoto.com 04/03/2018
In keeping with yesterday’s material, taken from Seeing the Elephant, I thought I might delve into that book for a while. so people could see the various themes in it. The conversation Eli was having with the other men does lead to an interview with a man who had murdered his wife.
But before you read the excerpt, a little information about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the American Civil War. During and after the conflict, people noticed that some soldiers returned home with various ailments ranging from depression to violent behavior and everything in between.
Today we look at the symptoms and probably will see them as PTSD. But over one hundred years ago, the medical profession – which was barely a profession at that point – did not have an understanding how stress might have a profoundly negative impact on a person’s life.
Part of the inability to recognize PTSD came from the way soldiers were perceived in the 1860s. It did not differ greatly from the way soldiers had been perceived over the preceding centuries. Briefly put, soldiers were classified as either “brave” or “cowardly” in battle. If a soldier happened to desert, officers, soldiers, and citizens believed that it was because the man was a coward, rather than the victim of stress. In addition, if a man returned home and was not the cheerful fellow who had left, but rather had become surly or moody, family members would know that something was wrong. “He’s not the same man who left,” the might say. The family might even have a doctor come to look their veteran over, but the doctor wouldn’t know what to do about it anymore than the family would. Sometimes a veteran even might be committed to a hospital for the insane but – again – the superintendent and stewards had no idea how to treat him. Psychiatry and psychology also were in their early years. And understanding of how the human mind and emotions was embryonic at best.
Even though my character Eli Smith was not a soldier, given his experiences on the battlefield he does develop a form of PTSD. In Seeing the Elephant, Eli’s symptoms take the form of nightmares and panic attacks. He realizes he has a problem, and notices some veterans appear to have symptoms that may or may be the same as his.
In this excerpt from Seeing the Elephant, Eli and Carson interview a man who is condemned to death for killing his wife. They learn that he had been a soldier. During and after the interview, Eli and Carson recognize that they might have something in common with the murderer.
The guard let them into the second cell on the right, where Arthur Belling – pasty, short and thin, with lank, mousy brown hair – sat on his cot with arms resting on his legs. Head down, he appeared to be contemplating his hands, or more correctly his right hand, as it covered the hook where his left one had been.
“Mr. Belling?” Eli wondered how this tiny man could have perpetrated such a bloody and horrific murder.
Belling looked up. His eyes were a watery gray.
“I’m Elijah Smith of the Blaineton Register. This is my reporter, Chester Carson. We’d like to speak with you about your wife’s murder.”
“Fine.” The man’s voice had a distant quality. “I want to speak.”
The two men perched on the other cot. Carson took out his notebook and pencil. “I understand you were in the army, Mr. Belling.”
“First New Jersey Volunteer Infantry.” He sighed. “Saw action at Antietam, Bull Run, Crampton’s Gap, Chancellorsville…”
“We were at Antietam and Chancellorsville, too,” Eli said quietly.
Belling looked up. “Soldiers?”
Carson shook his head. “Reporters.”
“A shell exploded near me while we were trying to ford the Rappahannock,” Eli said. “Knocked me cold and catawamptiously chewed me up.[i] Any closer and I would have been dead meat.”
Belling lifted his hook. “I got this in that mess. Artillery shell.” He shifted his gaze to the opposite wall. “Laid me up in the hospital a while. When I healed they gave me this hook and sent me home.” He laughed bitterly. “Tell me, what good’s a farmer with one hand? Would ‘a been better if I’d flat out died.”
Eli and Carson maintained a respectful silence.
“I thought once I got home things’d be fine. And they were. Molly, my wife, she was good to me. She didn’t care if I only had one hand.” His expression darkened. “But I kept having these dreams, some of ‘em even happened in broad daylight. Scared the life out of me. They felt real, you know? Like a real battle. Damn scary. I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.”
“What happened the day your Molly died?” Carson asked softly.
Belling’s face sagged. “I was pitching hay in the barn. Got so I could do it fair enough if I used my hook to balance the shaft of the pitchfork and controlled it with my right hand. But then… I dunno… My pitchfork going into the hay felt just like I was running a bayonet through a man’s belly and I got swallowed up by the feeling. And all of a sudden I got scared for my life. It was like I was in a battle or something.” He wiped tears from his eyes. “Next thing I knew I was looking down on Molly. She was on the floor, blood all over her dress…” He choked on a sob. “Her eyes were just staring up. And there was nothing left in her. No life at all. Nothing.”
“Why did you do it?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. At first, I thought someone else did it, until I looked at the knife in my hand, and saw the blood on it and the blood on me.” Belling shuddered. “I don’t even know when I put the pitchfork down and picked up the knife. I was so scared and confused I ran away and hid in a neighbor’s barn.”
“That’s where they found you,” Carson said.
Belling nodded. After a long silence, he added, “I think maybe it was the war done it to me. I never had nightmares before. Never.” He looked imploringly at the other men. “Do you think wars can do that? Can they make men crazy?”
“Maybe,” Eli said, fear of his own nightmares clawing at his gut. Unlike Belling, his dreams never happened during the day. But sometimes… something he saw or something someone said or some noise would cause memories to flood his mind. And then it was almost like waking up in Salem Church in the dark amidst soldiers’ moans and cries and the smell of blood and…
Eli pulled himself out of it. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Belling.”
“All I’ve got is time,” the man murmured. “For now.”
Glad to leave the eerie dimness of the jail, Eli blew out a relieved breath the second they hit the cold, bright air outside. He turned to Carson. “You know, Dr. Stanley told me the hospital for the insane has some soldiers in it.”
“Curious,” Carson said.
“One of them is in the violent ward.”
“More curious yet.”
“Do you have nightmares, Carson?”
They began to walk down the street. The snow had melted, revealing the cobbled road beneath. It made for treacherous walking as the cobbles hid patches of ice. With the help of his walking stick, Eli carefully stepped around a suspicious spot.
“Do I have nightmares?” Carson’s voice was soft. “Yes, my dear chap, sometimes I do.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
[i] Eli’s way of saying “I was badly beaten” or more colloquially, “I had the crap beaten out of me.”