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The Curious Case of Alexis St. Martin

We once posted a short version of the story of Alexis St. Martin, who suffered a gunshot wound in his stomach that never healed, and thus became the subject of experiments in which his doctor observed the process of human digestion. However, the full story of St. Martin's life is quite harrowing. As an indentured servant in 1822, he had no money and no power. Unable to pay his hospital bill, he was at the mercy of Dr. William Beaumont.

As such, Beaumont offered to sign St Martin as an indentured servant to himself, primarily working as a laborer for Beaumont but also with the agreement that Beaumont would be able to experiment on St Martin in pretty much any way he wanted. And, given the terms of the agreement and St Martin’s extreme lower class status, this really was very much “any way he wanted” with seemingly little regard for St Martin’s feelings about things once the contract was signed.

While the terms of this initial contract are not known today, a later contract he signed with Beaumont has survived and in that one, in return for St Martin being a servant to Beaumont and his guinea pig, Beaumont would cover St Martin’s room and board and would also pay him $150 per year (about $2,800 today).

After a few years of this, St Martin broke his contract and left without permission, heading up to Canada where he started a family. Perturbed, but nonetheless still wanting to study St Martin, Beaumont spent a considerably sum of money tracking St Martin down and then convincing the fur company St Martin was then working for to allow him to return. He then offered St Martin things like a huge increase in pay, land granted by the government, and money to relocate his family (or better yet even more money to abandon his wife and kids). However, privately, he darkly wrote, “When I get him alone again into my keeping, I will take good care to control him as I please.” He also variously referred to St Martin’s children in a letter as “live stock” and in a letter to the U.S. surgeon general lamented St Martin’s “villainous obstinacy and ugliness”. Beyond all this, when writing about St Martin, he generally referred to him as “boy” rather than calling him by his name.

The medical procedures and experiments St. Martin endured were not only invasive, they were often painful and downright creepy. Read about St. Martin and the hole in his stomach at Today I Found Out.   

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