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Have you heard of the minie ball pregnancy?

It occurred during the civil war at a battle in Raymond, Mississippi. Apparently, a minie ball (a conical-shaped bullet commonly used in the era) passed through a Confederate soldier’s testicles and then lodged itself in a young woman’s own private parts. Though, still a virgin, she later gave birth to a baby boy, apparently impregnated by the minie ball carrying the young man’s seed along with it.

Okay, but by “apparently,” I of course mean “not at all.”

This did not happen.

Not really!

Photo of Legrand G. Capers found in Wikipedia

The fact that this didn’t happen didn’t stop an army surgeon by the name of L.G. Capers from reporting on the incident as though it really did. He describes in detail coming upon a soldier staggering toward him before collapsing as a woman began screaming from the house in which he planned to conduct field operations. He treated both parties, or so he says. Later, Capers writes that he returned six months later to find the young woman pregnant though her hymen remained intact. A month or so later, he also delivered the baby, still confused about her story. After piecing the events together later, Capers says he found the soldier and explained the child to him. Of course the young man did the honorable thing, and the doctor reported visiting the lovely couple many years later to find them living happily together with 3 children.

All of this was published in a journal known as the American Medical Weekly in 1874. It was later republished in a British Medical Journal, the Lancet, and a few subsequent publications (whose editors should probably have known better) have presented the story as medical facts. Author Tony Horowitz tells us that at least one museum in Vicksburg Virginia related the story without comment as of his research for book, Confederates in the Attic, published in 1999. (The story appears on pages 199-200). Though the American Medical Journal later published a clarification explaining that the whole account had all been a joke, it seems there are always a few folks determined to take it seriously.

Also, aside from the source being a known spoof, apparently, this is a medical impossibility.

This time, by “apparently,” I mean “absolutely.”

What has me thinking about this today is Horowitz’s account. As he put it, the original account was intended as a spoof of other wildly exaggerated stories circulated by medical doctors in the wake of the civil war. If nothing else could have tipped a reader off as to nature of this tall-tale, the fact that Capers reported later removing a mini-ball from the child’s own testicles should probably have been the final “gotcha” moment of the story. Tall tales often have this, a final twist so improbable as to effectively communicate to anyone who might still be wondering that the whole thing was just an elaborate joke. This, if nothing else, ought to have tipped readers off then and now as to the nature of the Capers’ clever little yarn. Note to mention, the correction published published by the same journal.

Apparently, some people would rather believe the story anyway.

And by “apparently,” this time I just mean “apparently.”

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All of which brings to mind a principle coined by an old net-friend of mine, Nathan Poe. Frustrated with debating young-earth creationists on Christian forums, Poe once quipped; “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” In other words, you can’t make a satirical statement sufficiently outrageous to out-absurd the very people he was arguing with. But of course Christian fundamentalists are not the only bunch with a few loose canons in their midst, as others have pointed out. So, the principle has been generalized since its original formulation to apply to a broad range of topics about which satire might be mistaken for the real thing, not the least of reasons being that someone is usually just as extreme as any parody their critics might make-up to poke fun at them.

Apparently, that was also true in 1874.

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This story was only a couple pages out of Confederates in the Attic, but I highly recommend the book as a whole. Great read! There are some other good sources on the internet. Wiki has a decent page on Capers, and of course that contains many good links in itself. Mark Powell’s write-up is useful and fun to read. Of course, Snopes has a good page on it as well, complete with many of the relevant primary documents.