From The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine Paperback by Thomas Morris


In 1862, a French army deserter named Jacques Roellinger emigrated (or rather fled) to the United States, where he promptly volunteered to fight in the Civil War. He joined a New York regiment on the Union side, an irregular outfit known as the Enfants Perdus ("Lost Children") consisting largely of French soldiers, with a sprinkling of Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese. This motley gathering of nationalities proved so unruly that its commanding officer once threatened to place the entire regiment under arrest for insubordination. The ill-disciplined Enfants Perdus were treated with scorn by most of their American comrades, but they played a full part in the war. In the case of Jacques Roellinger, a very full part indeed, as an article published in the Medical Record in 1875 makes abundantly clear:

On June 29,1865, Roellinger asked to be released from military service. When he appeared before an army board to make his case for a pension, he told the officers that shortly after joining up, he had been present at the evacuation of Yorktown. His platoon had been ambushed and he had been injured. At the medical officer's request, he showed the panel his scars. The doctor noted that he had been disfigured

(1) by a sabre cut, leaving a long scar, which crossed the quadriceps extensor of the left thigh in its middle third. It appeared to have divided the tendinous and a portion of the muscular structures.

(2) by a sabre thrust, which passed between the bones in the middle third of the right forearm.

Roellinger explained that these wounds had healed fairly quickly, and he was able to resume active service at Williamsburg a few months later. Luck was not with him, however, because he was then

(3) shot in the right thigh, the ball passing through the middle third, just external to the femur.

(4) At the assault on Port Wagner, in Charleston Harbor, July 10th, 1863, he received a sword cut across the spinal muscles covering the lower dorsal vertebrae.

While convalescing from this unfortunate turn of events, he traveled to visit his brother in southwestern Missouri. This "holiday" did not go well: He was captured by guerrillas and tortured "in Indian fashion." Injuries inflicted on him included

(5) Two broad and contracted cicatrices (a scar left by the formation of new connective tissue over a healing sore or wound) he declared were the marks left by burning splinters of wood, which were held upon the surface of the right anterior portion of the thorax.

Undaunted, he managed to escape from his captors, and - clearly a glutton for punishment - was reunited with his comrades-in-arms.

On February 20,1864, he was present at the Battle of Olustee in Florida. His luck had not improved:

(6) a fragment of an exploding shell passed from without inward beneath the hamstrings of the right thigh, and remained embedded in the ligamentous tissues about the internal condyle (the round prominence at the end of a bone, most often part of a joint) of the femur.

The medical officer examined the joint and could feel the shrapnel fragment still lodged in the soft tissue. Roellinger explained that he had fallen on the battlefield but was left alone by the enemy. Expecting another assault, he managed to pull himself up into a tree using some trailing vines. A renewed attack duly came; he was spotted and shot.

(7) The ball entered between the sixth and seventh ribs on the left side, just beneath the apex of the heart, and issued on the right side, posteriorly, near the angle of the ninth rib, traversing a portion of both lungs. Profuse hemorrhage from the mouth followed, and from the wound also, and, fearing that he must soon faint and fall, he slid down from his elevated position to the ground beneath.

By happy chance, he explained, he had been a professional acrobat before entering the army, which helped him to do so without (further) injury. Seeing the enemy in retreat, he took a few potshots at them in revenge. This was most unwise, for they ran back and bayoneted him through the body. The weapon

(8) passed through the left lobe of the liver, and lacerated the posterior border of the diaphragm!

Hoping to finish him off, his assailants then shot him again. The pistol ball

(9) entered on the level of the angle of the left lower jaw, through the border of the sterno-cleido-mastoid muscle, and issued at the corresponding point on the other side of the neck. He added that during his convalescence he used to amuse the company by drinking and projecting the fluid in a stream from either side of his neck, by simple muscular effort.

The medical officer remarked in his notes that even after this terrible experience, the soldier lived "most inexcusably," and

at some time, I cannot say whether before or after, acquired the further following embellishments, viz.:

(10) The scar of a sabre thrust passing between radius and ulna, just below left elbow.

(11) A pistol shot, passing diagonally outward and upward through the pectorales major and deltoid of left side; and

(12) a deep cut dividing the commissure of the left thumb and forefinger down to the carpal bones.

Astonishingly, there were no ill effects from this long list of injuries except a stiff knee. The soldier was granted his request and given an honorable discharge. But what was he intending to do in retirement? Go fishing? Open a bar? Nope:

When the catalogue was ended this surgical museum politely apologized for his haste, saying that he was on his way to the steamer, intending to join Garibaldi's army, at that time campaigning in the Valtelline.

The brave Roellinger was duly awarded his pension. But there's one more twist to this extraordinary tale. It may seem odd that a French army deserter would want to fight for Garibaldi in the mountains of northern Italy, and indeed it soon emerged that he wasn't French, and his name wasn't Roellinger. On the day that he applied for his pension, the man calling himself Roellinger visited another claim office and filed a second application, this time in the name of Frederick Guscetti. He would have got away with this attempted fraud were it not for a chance encounter between the two agents who had dealt with him. The authorities were notified, and "Guscetti" was arrested and sentenced to seven years in the notorious Sing Sing prison.

Except that his name wasn't Guscetti either. It was common practice in some Civil War regiments to assume the identity of a dead comrade, in the hope of landing an extra pension. The real Frederick Guscetti had feigned death in a failed attempt to escape a prisoner-of-war camp but was very much alive and working as a civil engineer. The serial imposter was finally unmasked as another Italian, a man called Giusetto, whose greed apparently outweighed his intelligence.

But what of the genuine Jacques Roellinger, the original victim of this elaborate identity theft? He, too, was still alive and now living in Ohio, having deserted his New York regiment after only a few days of service. In fact, the one thing incontestably true about Roellinger/Guscetti/Giusetto's story was his improbable litany of injuries.