Skip to main content

The man who sawed off his own leg

Montrose in 1890

In the late 19th century there lived a man in Susquehanna County named Jerdon Blair, who was perhaps the toughest sonuvabitch the Keystone State has ever seen. A few years after surviving a cave-in that left him buried alive for more than a day, Jerdon developed gangrene in one of his legs. He took matters into his own hands (literally), by attempting to saw off the infected limb. But, as you will see from the following story, that was the easy part. It gets worse-- much worse-- as Jerdon discovers that amputation is best left in the hands of trained professionals.

From the April 17, 1895 edition of the Scranton Tribune:

Jerdon a Man of Nerve

Montrose, Pa., April 16-- In this little village clustered on the bosom of the grandest hills in Susquehanna county dwells a negro, Jerdon Blair by name, whose career has been interesting. He has for some time been a charge of the town and does not enjoy an enviable reputation, notwithstanding the fact he was a regular preacher at the church attended by people of his own race.

In a recent interview Jerdon gave a Tribune correspondent an interesting account of his life. Jerdon Blair came into this sinful world fifty-two years ago. He certainly looks it: the wool on top of his head has grown so long that hairpins are necessary articles, and judging from the shiny appearance of his coiffure, vaseline had played a prominent part in his morning's toilet. His appearance at once suggested the typical old negro one sees on the variety stage and as he poured forth in mellifluent manner the story of his life, his large glassy eyes showed a certain viciousness characteristic of the profligate black.

(Amazing what the press could get away with in the days before the Civil Rights movement.- Ed.)

Twenty-eight years ago, while digging a well, it caved in while he was at its bottom, the top of his head being twenty-six feet below the surface. Immediately steps were taken for his recovery, but for twenty-six hours he was entombed in the bowels of the earth. When taken out for dead and while being carried to his home he evidenced signs of life in various ways, the principal one being uttering Spanish oaths.

While in the well and undoubtedly in a state of coma, he avers that he entered the place of departed spirits; was weighed upon a pair of scales over which a herald Angel presided and found wanting. He departed to the place of torture and while there saw many of the old and familiar daces in Montrose. He was from this purgatorial state rudely awakened by the point of a pick, which struck him with no light force on the apex of his cranium.

From that day up until a short time ago he has vigorously pursued the vocation of a well digger, with an occasional term in the county jail, and once sank so low as to dig graves. The crowning event of his life happened recently and his name will be handed down to posterity as the man who cut his own leg off.
The effects of his well escapade did not soon wear off, but small hard bunches appeared on his right foot shortly after his terrible experience. They caused him no trouble for years until in 1889, when they began to discharge a yellowish fluid and rapidly grew worse. He consulted regular physicians and surgeons and medicines of an external and internal nature failed to arrest the progress of these now unsightly ulcers. The prominent veins of his legs were corded and absolutely purple, so that he was finally advised by the men of medicine that gangrene was slowly, yet surely, making its ravages and in time his entire leg would be a festered member.

He shrank from their knife and scalpel and would not allow the amputation of his leg at the thigh. Soon, however, he saw that something was necessary, the pain constantly increasing and torture was his only companion. So after hunting about his small cabin he found an old rip saw, a small file and from his person he took the long and treacherous knife which played such a prominent part in his recent arrest, when he attempted to assault an officer.

The knife he sharpened carefully, and after removing the necessary clothing began by cutting a large gash in his leg, midway between the kneepan and ankle, his foot was in the way so without further ceremony he cut and slashed about the ankle until he struck the joint and severed it from his body. He then cut slices of flesh from the leg, shaving then off close to the bone, scraping the latter so that not a vestige of tissue remained adhering to it. He was so unnerved at this point that his operations ceased and he cleaned up the floor, which was literally flooded with clotted blood. After a while, however, his nerve returned and he then proceeded to give his undivided attention to the removal of the bones.

The rip saw was too dull, so he gave that up, and seeing a small kinky headed neighbor passing, asked the child to go to Roger's butcher shop and get a meat saw. The child returned without one, having said that Blair wanted it to saw his leg off. So the file was then brought into play. He carefully filed a ridge around the bones and then again tried the rip saw, but without avail. The file was not practical, the saw too dull for bone. What was to be done?

(Okay, this is the part where you should stop reading if you are squeamish.- Ed.)

He solved the question, for seeing in the floor a crack wide enough to insert his saw, began operations and soon had the hole wide enough to admit of his putting the bone stump in it. This he did and with drawn breath leaned on it and fell sideways- the bones cracked and Jerdon lay prone on the floor, for the bones had broken near the knee, tearing the flesh and again causing the blood to gush forth.

How long he laid there he does not know, but when he came to and summoned up strength to arise, the disjointed member dropped from his leg and lay there in mute appeal. He did not attempt to remove the foot and bone that evening, but the next day buried them in the small yard by his house. But he had no sooner done this before a fog, belonging to a neighbor, dug them up and feasted upon them for several hours before it was discovered. He says that he now often feels as if dogs were gnawing at his leg, which is natural, as it is a scientific fact that armless and legless men feel at times as if their bodies were whole, and in case a limb is buried with the fingers or toes in an unnatural it will always feel that way to the one from whom it came.

He buried the foot and bones again, so deep that the dogs were unable to unearth them a second time, but he soon afterwards had a bad fall which broke off about six inches more of his leg, almost at the knee. Since then iodoform has failed to heal the stump, and he is today suffering from an unhealed sore

He is a persistent believer in the fact that silver ore is to be found near Montrose, and claims the loam shows mineral.

Popular posts from this blog

Mount Carmel's Mysterious Suicide Cell

Tucked away at the head of North Oak Street in Mount Carmel is a quaint shop housed in a tiny historic brick building. The Shop at Oak & Avenue is a must-see destination for visitors, offering an impressive variety of gifts and handmade jewelry. It is a gem in an otherwise drab coal town whose glory days faded away with the demise of the steam locomotive and the trolley.

While this quaint small town gift shop gives off a pleasant appearance, the history of the building-- one of the oldest in the borough-- is tinged with horror and death. For this tiny building, erected in the 1880s, served as Mount Carmel's first city hall and jail, and this jail had a rather dark distinction of being the site of the cursed and mysterious "suicide cell".

History records six suicides taking place in the basement cell, along with scores of other attempted suicides. For a reason that has defied explanation, this tiny jail in this tiny town seems to bring out the darkest demons lurking wi…

The True Story of Shamokin's Famous "Mystery Head"

Hardly a week goes by that I don't receive an email from a Pennsylvania Oddities reader asking me to write about the Shamokin "mystery head"-- yes, the very same human head, complete with curly hair and mustache, that was put on display in the window of the Farrow Funeral Home (presumably to show off the establishment's embalming abilities) and later displayed at a local mining museum. The head belonged to an unidentified murder victim whose headless body was found in the woods near the Hickory Ridge colliery in 1904, and the head has been a source of local pride and urban legend ever since.

I've resisted the urge to write about the "mystery head" for a few reasons. Having grown up in the area, I heard about it so many times that the story has worn thin. Secondly, the erroneous local legends and false claims are probably a lot more entertaining than the actual truth about the "mystery head". These local legends run the gamut from plausible to …

Mount Carmel's Night of Terror: The Strantz & Yorkavage Crime Spree of 1937

On the evening of April 9, 1937, two bandits with their guns blazing left a trail of carnage through the sooty streets of Mount Carmel and Shamokin. For one of the gunmen, the trail came to a bloody end in Diamondtown after a shootout with police. For the other gunman, the trail led to the electric chair at Rockview State Penitentiary, with 2,000 volts of electricity coursing through his body.

The Ballad of Joe Cabbage and Wild Wally

A reunion of sorts took place in January of 1937, after Joseph Yorkavage was paroled from the Northumberland County Prison in Sunbury. Known to his friends as "Joe Cabbage", the notorious ruffian was released on the 25th and, oddly enough, this was the very same day Yorkavage's best friend, Walter Strantz, was paroled from the infamous Eastern State penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Back in 1919, "Joe Cabbage" was one of three men who staged a failed train robbery in Centralia. The three men dynamited the tracks and then hid in the bus…