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Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Somerset Historians -The Continuing Mystery of Whatever Happened To Phenix Adams?

"Whatever Happened To Phenix Adams?" is a question I still ask myself. If I get a whiff of a "mystery", as I write below, I stick with it until I find the solution. I don't think I have 40 years left to try to sort this one.

I did a lot of research and cannot find any evidence of "Phenis"  having been a forename used in the UK.  Phenix? Again, I cannot find that name in use so I definitely believe Phineas was the man's forename and the mistake comes about by either someone miss-hearing, miss-reading a note or even an apprentice messing up the printers block.

I will come back to this after a recounting of the case in question.
The one thing you find while trawling through newspaper archives are stories that have absolutely nothing to do with what you are looking for.  However, these stories pique your curiosity and they are little windows into the past that you would never normally get a chance to look through.

There are, of course, reports of murders, great cruelty to other humans but also -sadly- to animals simply because they are animals and what better way to have 'sport' and 'fun' than running down a badger or feeding hedgehogs poison to see whether it is true that none affect them.

Then you have cases like that of Phenix Adams.

Phenix Adams was a Private in the First Somerset Militia and, as you'll read below, sought medical aid for an ulcerated wound in the arm.  Help was denied and Phenix deserted but was caught but while in gaol another wound appeared on his leg.  All self inflicted or "occasioned by his own contrivance".  But then he fell down some stairs and blood poured from his ears.

After that, Adams slipped into a coma -at first the only conclusion the doctors could make was "fakery".  They tried all the tricks but it appears Adams was not faking. The last written about Adams was that  "The man now remains in the same state of mental insensibility."

That was it.  I can trace no more of Adams. Was he really causing problems by tampering with an old wound?  Then self-inflicting a new wound?  And the "fall" -did he pass out and you cannot really fake blood coming from your ears -a self inflicted cut in either ear wouldn't go unnoticed, especially if blood was "pouring out" and then the gradual slip into a coma -and it seems the doctors tried every trick to prove a hoax or medicate him.

First thing I thought was  hemorrhagic fever of some kind?  Without being able to find and read the notes of the doctors at the time we will never know.  Phenix Adams was declared a faker, deserter and genuine medical mystery all in one newspaper column.

The Taunton Courier for 1811 lists:

1811 18Jul Adams Phenis - private 1st Somerset Regiment wound

So, we're not even sure whether the name is "Phenis" or "Phenix" is the original item picked up and published by The  Liverpool Mercury, 16th August, 1811

Now,once I get the whiff of a puzzle or mystery I stick with it.  After all, I doubt I can afford 30-40 years to solve cases at my age!

So I dug and dug and then succeeded -don't ask how because one mention leads to nothing which get the point? Somerset and Dorset Notes & QueriesVolume 12 - Page 339:

A Somerset Militia Man - From "The Times" of Saturday, Sept 14, 1811.
"Our readers will recollect a statement respecting a soldier of the First Somersetshire Militia, who had lain in a very surprising state of insensibility from the 26th of April, in the present year, down to the 18th of July. Various means had been resorted to for the purpose of ascertaining whether the illness was real, such as thrusting snuff up his nostrils, administering nitrous oxide gas, electrical shocks, powerful medicines, etc, all of which proved utterly unavailing in the attempt to arouse him from the unaccountable torpor in which he had laid so long ; nor, indeed, did any of these expediants produce in him the slightest symptoms of animation.

We have now to add to this account a few facts, which, for there singularity, may challenge competition with the most marvellous occurrence that ever reached the public notice.

A few days after our account appeared, Phineas ADAMS, the subject of this curious narrative, and whose age was no more than 'eighteen', on the 6th of June last, was removed from the goal in which he then was, to the parish of Bickenhall, a small village seven miles from Taunton. His parents residing at that place, but being unable to recieve him in there own habitation, Adams was lodged in the poor-house - a small cottage adjoining the churchyard. In this situation he continued to be without exhibiting the least evidence of an improving condition.

In this hopeless condition, he was visited by Mr. WELSH, surgeon of Taunton, who suggested the propriety of performing the operation of 'scalping' the patient, with a view to ascertain whether the fall, to which the illness was attributed, might not have produced a depression of the brain. The proposal was communicated to the parents of Adams, who expressed there willingness that the experiment should be made. Accordingly, at the time appointed, the surgeon accompanied Adams's father to the bedside of his son, and there, in the presence of several respectable persons, described to both the young man's parents the nature and precise course of operation about to be performed. The incisions were made, the scalp drawn up, and the head examined ; during all which time the young man manifested no audible sympton of pain, or sensibility of suffering whatever, until the application of an instrument, with which the head was scraped in a particular part, and then, and once only, he uttered a groan.

No beneficial result appearing from this experiment, and as his case seemed absolutely remediless, application was made to his regiment for his discharge.

On Tuesday, August 20, the discharge arrived, and was taken over to Bickenhall by the sergeant. On the Tuesday following, old Adams brought his son downstairs in his arms ; and on the 28th he again brought him down, the son still remaining insensible. Next night (the 29th) he was seen sitting in the poor-house, with a gun in his hand, conversing with his father ; and on Friday, the 30th (our readers will participate with us in the complete astonishment excited by the fact) he was at Mr PALMER's a farmer, two miles from Bickenhall, cutting spars, carrying reed up a ladder, and assisting his father in thatching a rick!

The extraordinary rapidity of this young man's recovery, after obtaining his discharge from his regiment, having excited, in combination with the other circumstances which we formerly stated, an opinion that imposition had been practised, some of the neighbours reported that a press-gang was coming for him. This, it is supposed, having reached his ears, he absconded, and not a syllable has been heard of him since. . . . " 

Was it possible -had Phineas Adams faked it all?  Eight days after the military discharge Phineas was still being carried downstairs by his father and was, supposedly, still insensible. What of the reed cutting and carrying?  Surely what the doctors were putting him through was worse than military life?

Whatever, this is a fascinating story and shows what I can get side-tracked with during a day. Damn but I can't ignore a mystery!

I hope Phineas Adams had a good life!

Really, this case is one that needs the expertise of a local historian -possibly one who can also check the militia rosters of the time if they still exist. It might be possible to learn more but after all this time it would still be guesswork as to the cause of Phineas' problems.  However, considering that doctors at that time, particularly in the military, were not exactly sensitive and gentle (there are cases where physicians  suspecting fakery were "very free" with sticking needles in patients -and needles in those days were much bigger).

Ah, for a time machine!


Light Infantry uniform plate: British Light Infantry by Bryan Fosten from Osprey's Men-at-Arms No.119

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