Friday, June 19, 2015

The Fibula Fib

A few days ago, Dave Grohl, the singer and guitar player for the mega-band Foo Fighters, took a spill off the stage during a concert.  Falling into the security zone that separates the crowd from the band, his leg broke. Specifically, it was his fibula.  He later had the EMT hold his temporarily bandaged leg so he could finish the show.  A cast and six screws were added later.  The image below is the x-ray of Grohl's leg that he released on Twitter.

Interestingly, he knew right away he broke his leg. In fact, with his image projected on the concert's jumbo screen, he admitted to a stadium packed with thousands of fans that he "...really broke..." his leg.  

He knew immediately.  

So, lets go back in time. Specifically, the evening of April 15, 1865.  There was a show.  A shot.  A slump.  A jump.  An actor limping across the stage to his get away horse.

But did it really happen that way?

No one can dispute the fact that John Wilkes Booth, in a most cowardly fashion, plowed a lead ball into the back of Abraham Lincoln's noggin.  After all, Booth admitted it and thought it was the coolest thing he had ever done.  As we have all heard since childhood, he  broke his leg jumping from the Presidential Suite to the stage below in the middle of Our American Cousin.  We all know he broke his leg. After all, Dr. Sam Mudd tended to it a few days later.  

But did he break it jumping onto the stage after the fatal shot?  Are we sure?

In a word, no.

When all else fails, consult two things: witnesses and science.

Booth is not necessarily a reliable witness. As an actor, he had a flair for stories.  Yes, he was there but he apparently lied about the event.  His own journal entries have him yelling "Sic Semper Tyrannus!" before he shot Lincoln.  That's odd. In a packed theater, no one heard him scream that before he pulled the trigger.  Maybe he was like Brian Williams and blurred the line between confused facts and flat-out bull-puckies.

Booth went on to claim that he broke his leg jumping to the stage, but this is where it gets interesting....

In the grand tradition of murder investigations, there are witnesses that have to be interviewed.  As fate would have it, we still have the testimonies of folks who where there that night.  13 of them make references to Booth "running", "rushing" or "rapidly running" across the stage.  No one makes a reference to pain or a hobbled gait.  No one.

Just for a moment, go back to Grohl.  A scary drop and snap goes the fibula. He immediately knew what occurred. Oh sure, you can talk about Booth's adrenaline or whatnot, but once that fibula goes, the vast majority of people are going to know it. 

If I still don't have your attention, now get this....

Booth's path from the Ford's Theatre to his bullet-through-the-neck death in Maryland is not a mystery.  There were several stops and he met and spoke with several people along the way (not just the aforementioned Dr. Mudd).  There is a distinct lineage of witnesses that state he was in no distress only to be followed by a line of witnesses who say he was an achy son-of-a-bitch.  

John Wilkes Booth

Silas Cobb might be the fulcrum, if you will.  He was the guard on the bridge  to Maryland who conversed with Booth after the assassination.   (Cut the guy some slack here - he did not know Booth had just killed Lincoln as the info had not yet reached him but he knew Booth was the famous actor.) There is NO reference to Booth being in pain. Cobb, however, makes a reference in his testimony that Booth's horse was "restive". That is fancy horse speak for "crotchety pain in the ass."

All witnesses AFTER the bridge report that when they saw Booth he was in pain.  It was noted by John Lloyd at the Surratt Tavern (where he did not dismount - hard to do with a broken leg, huh?) and it was noted by David Herrold, one of Booth's co-conspirators.  

In fact, according to Lloyd, Herrold, and Mudd, Booth told them that he busted his ankle when his finicky horse dumped him.


There you have it.  Booth told at least THREE people that the horse threw him.

Plus, the barn attendants on the Mudd farm stated that Booth's horse had injuries consistent with a fall.  

So where does the science get into this?  The break itself.

After Booth's fatal shooting in the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, an autopsy was done.  The break in his leg was examined.  It is what pathologists call a transverse break.  It snapped like pencil cleanly across the shaft of the bone.

When a individual falls from a height and lands on their feet only to have a long bone break, the break is what is called oblique.  The force downward on the bone snaps it on the diagonal.  The two broken ends are pointed as opposed to the two blunt ends one would find on a transverse break.  

As science has shown repeatedly over the years, the transverse break in John Wilkes Booth's leg is not consistent with a fall from a height and landing on one's feet - it is consistent with a horse falling and rolling on top of the leg as the foot is trapped in the stirrup.  The forces are lateral across the bone, not vertical.  

This brings us back to Dave Grohl. His break is from lateral pressure. It's a transverse fracture.  I know this because I spent three years in Harvard Medical School read alot.  Does this mean he did not fall off a stage? No. 52,000 people saw it happen.   It simply means that I believe he did not land on his feet.  Somehow, someway, in the acrobatics of his fall, there was a lateral force on his leg strong enough to break it.  Had he landed straight down on his feet and broken his leg, the fracture should have been oblique.  Given the force and pointed nature of such a break, a compound fracture of the tibia and/or the fibula was easily possible.  (I recall a story growing up of a fellow falling from a ladder.  The broken leg came out of his knee.  You would expect that, I suspect, with an oblique fracture caused fall from a height.)  

Any way you cut it, transverse or oblique or whatever, Grohl is a very lucky man. Realistically, he could have died had he struck his head.

Booth? Well, he wasn't so lucky.  I'm not sure how much luck one should expect when they assassinate a President. 

I am, however, pretty damned sure of this - Booth's broken fibula following his erratic stage jump is more than likely a fib....

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