To the Editor of the Sun:
SIR: There have been so many comments in the papers, and I receive so many letters which it is impossible for me to answer, in reference to the curious case of petrification which recently came under my notice, that I am constrained to write an account of the whole affair, giving at the same time my hypothesis as explanatory of the rationale.
Mr. Frederick Haller is by profession a lawyer. He early acquired, however, quite a fondness for the natural sciences, especially geology. He has perhaps the largest and most complete geological cabinet in Louisiana. Whenever he wishes to relieve himself from the dry details of law he withdraws himself into his “Rock Study,” as he calls the apartment where he keeps his cabinet and books relating to science, and there passes many hours in experiment, in reading, and in manipulating the geological and paleontological collections which, through a period of nearly thirty years, he has drawn together.
The Beautiful Bride
Having married early in life, some five years ago he lost his wife and gave up his household affairs to an elderly maiden sister. Something over a month ago he married again, taking as his bride a beautiful and charming young girl of sixteen. As a physician to her father’s family and an intimate friend, I was an honoured guest at the marriage ceremony. I am sure I never saw a more beautiful and happy bride. No one could have dreamed of the strange fate which awaited her.
On the morrow after the wedding, Mr. Haller took his young bride to his residence, a splendid mansion in the suburbs of the village. She was accompanied by a number of her female friends who were to spend the day with her, while he, having business of importance at his office in town, promised to return as speedily as he could dispose of the business. The bride, being installed in her new home, cared to take little notice of the household matters for this day of matrimonial life, preferring to amuse herself with the friends who had come over with her, knowing that the domestic affairs were in good hands.
In the Geologist’s Cabinet
At about one o’clock, she and some three or four of her most intimate friends went into Mr. Haller’s “Rock Study,” already mentioned, to look over the cabinet of curiosities, where they amused themselves in frivolous gaiety, such as young and thoughtless girls would indulge in, harmless and innocent to all appearance. Among the curiosities which Mr. Haller had gathered were several round boulders brought from Arkansas. These boulders on being broken present in the central space a crystalline formation, and are usually not much larger than the double fists. One of these, however, was unusually large, measuring twenty-one inches in circumference. Frequently the internal surface, always hollow, contains water, or rather a concentrated solution of silica in water. This fact was known to one of the young ladies who mentioned it. At once they they began to wonder whether there was water in the large boulder. Two of the smaller ones had been broken, showing in the centre large crystals, and had contained water, according to the assertion of the young lady who had gained her information at some other time in the previous visit.
The Fatal Draught
At once it was proposed to break the large one, and several ineffectual attempts were made by them with a geological hammer always present. They called to their aid a coloured man, a servant on the place, who was requested to break open the rock, as they called it. He readily consented, being willing to thus render his first service to the new mistress. A pitcher being placed underneath the boulder as the man held it, one sturdy blow of his stalwart arm cracked it, and the fluid within ran out and was collected in the pitcher, scarcely losing a drop, there being half a pint of it. A few additional blows opened the boulder, presenting large, fine, transparent crystals of quartz. These were much admired, and other friends were called from the parlour to look at the novelty.
The bride, without ever giving it a thought, conceived the notion of drinking the water from the boulder. She poured most of it into a glass tumbler, nearly filling it, and lifting it to her lips she drank first to the health of her husband, then to that of the unmarried friends in the room, wishing them shortly to be happy brides like herself, and drained the glass, all being done so quickly that no one had time to interfere or think that any consequence might follow.
Rigid in Death
At first it was thought that no harm was done, and it was considered a fine joke and much merriment was made. But in a few minutes the youthful bride complained of excessive pain in the stomach, and she began to realize the rashness of her action. A messenger was sent in haste for her husband and myself. Mr. Haller’s office being near my own, we received the message almost simultaneously, and we rapidly drove together in my buggy to his house. When we arrived she was dead, a period of fifteen minutes having elapsed from the time of taking the fatal draught to the time of extinction of life. They were just laying her out on our arrival. To my surprise I found that she had grown in that short period so rigid as to render it difficult to straighten her limbs. In the course of three quarters of an hour her entire body became as hard and inflexible as bone.
I pass over the grief and consternation of the husband and the family as something too sacred for remark, confining myself exclusively to the scientific facts. It was plain that something akin to the ossification had taken place. On more minute examination and inquiry, I found that the dissolved silica she had taken into her stomach had been absorbed and transmitted by the chylopoietic apparatus and blood vessels throughout the system, and that her whole body was a petrification!
The case being so singular and so sudden the husband and the bride’s family consented to a partial post-morgen examination, other medical men coming to my assistance. We found it impossible to cut through any portion with our scalpels. Dr. Ferguson broke his scalpel in the first attempt. We were able only to break through the chest with a hatchet, finding extreme difficulty in entering the thoracic cavity, the contents being all solidified. The heart we found as firm and as solid as stone, resembling a piece of cornelian as to both colour and consistency. Entering the abdominal cavity only by means of repeated blows of the hatchet, we found the contents of the stomach, the food, the bile, the liver and other neighbouring organs solidified. It is needless to say we found it impossible to remove anything except in fractures pieces. The arteries and veins were perfectly rigid, the blood itself being changed to stone.
Changed to Stone
Having satisfied ourselves of the stony character of the entire body and its contents, it was delivered to the family and interred. Some suspicions having been aroused that there might have been poison in the pitcher which held the silica solution, all the witnesses have been sworn and have testified under oath.
My first object was to secure the remains of the solution of silica left in pitcher, there being about an ounce, which I carefully put into a vial, corking closely. Portions of this have been variously tested, the result each time showing simply a very strong solution of silica in pure water. The few drops which had been left in the tumbler, exposed to evaporation, became in a short time, a hard, clear concrete, resembling flint, or rather transparent quartz, yielding sparks on being struck against steel.
The Cause of the Petrification
The pathology in this case, while it is very striking, is very plain, although I differ with my confreres in regard to the final or ultimate cause. It is well known as a geological fact that petrification are due to the infiltration of siliceous earth or lime into the interstitial space of the substance undergoing the process. It is well known also, as a physiological fact that various substances, usually medicinal agents, when taken into the stomach are rapidly conveyed to every portion of the human body, in some instances in the space of two minutes. In this instance the flint of quartz (calcareous earth) was held in solution and being swallowed was rapidly conveyed everywhere throughout the body, filling the interstitial spaces, and the necessary result was almost instantaneous petrification, solidifying the tissues and ending in death, the process being that of infiltration.
This is the geological view, and while it is in the main correct, it wholly fails to explain why so small an amount of the solution should petrify so large a body and should do so in such a brief time. I do not believe that on the hypothesis of infiltration alone petrification would take place so rapidly. There is no doubt of the absorption of the dissolved silica and of its rapid conveyance to every part of the body, but that the petrification is owing to the infiltration I cannot admit. It must be explained upon a different hypothesis.
A Different Hypothesis
It is well known by physiologists that those proteine compounds—albumen, fribrin, casein and gluten—are the proximate organic elements which constitute the compounds of the human body. The proteine compounds are formed by carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen in definite proportions, according to my distinguished countryman Prof. Kolliker thus: C 40 H 31 N 5 O 12, each having a different amount of phosphorus and sulphur; this combination forming so many molecules.
Now silica is a compound of oxygen and silicon. In a very small amount of silica the number of atoms of silicon is immense.The very moment the silica enters the circulation and is distributed throughout the capillaries it parts with its oxygen, and each atom of silicon being set free, combines with a proteine molecule. These proteine molecules which form respectively the albumen, the fribrin, the casein, and the gluten, at once change these organic elements into what might be termed petrifactive elements, destroying, as it were, the vital germs, and substituting inorganic proteinacous principles. I submit this as the most philosophical rationale.
To All Inquiries
In conclusion, I would say that I invariably answered all correspondents who have sought information from me in regard to this case, who have written in a candid manner searching after truth and who did not seem to be writing out of mere idle curiosities. One correspondent went so far as to ask whether the body could be obtained for exhibition, offering a large sum of money. Such unfeeling wretches are not worthy of being replied to. I may add that I may be addressed at Marksville, La., but that after the first of March I shall be for the greater part of next year at Parchim, in the province of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
S. GHYWR JORSCHL, M. D.
P.S.— That this case is not altogether anomalous, I will cite a passage from Dr. Austin Flint’s recent “Treatise upon the Practice of Medicine,” page 52:
A change in composition, due to the deposit of earthy salts, in more or less abundance, constitutes what is called calcareous degeneration, calcification, or cretefaction. As just stated, this is apt to supervene upon the altheromatous deposit in the large arteries and within the heart, leading in the latter situation to various deformations of the valves.— The term ossification is in general incorrectly applied to this change. Virchow prefers the name petrification.
Further down on the same page he adds:
I have met with a case of old pleuritis in which the pleura had become hardened by calcareous deposit to such an extent that it was removed entirely with several quarts of liquid which it contained, and when opened and the liquid removed it did not collapse, but retained the form of a solid box.
This was evidently a case of partial petrification, not extending throughout the entire system, and now to any vital part so as to produce immediately death.
S. G. J.
Republished from the Goldsboro Messenger, Goldsboro, North Carolina, January 26, 1874, Page 1.