Little Rubie Perkins, of Bridgewater, Lived Through a Harrowing Ordeal

  • The account of Rubie Perkins’ ordeal, as described by the Bridgewater Historical Society. Bridgewater Historical Society

  • Rubie Perkins, in the center of the photograph above, lived in Bridgewater’s Dailey Hollow, with her family. Bridgewater Historical Society

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2018 9:59:51 PM
Modified: 7/23/2018 10:00:12 PM

Though the operation was uncommon, and clearly had its risks, Dr. E.M. Pond had a good feeling about it. All he had to do was make some 30-odd punctures in the patient’s scraped and exposed skull, shave some skin off a nearby thigh, attach the skin in strips over the punctures, and wait for the body’s tissues to work their grafting magic, repeating steps two through four as needed.

He came so close.

The patient was little Rubie Perkins, an 8-year-old Bridgewater girl whose braid had got caught in the workings of her father’s stretcher mill one March afternoon in 1893. According to the Vermont Standard, which reported on the accident and the subsequent surgeries, a swift-running belt had ripped her scalp clean off, plus an ear.

Her prognosis was presumed to be grim: Though the next morning “she was conscious and suffered comparatively little pain … it does not seem likely that she will recover,” the article stated.

Enter Dr. Pond, a prominent Rutland-based surgeon who would go on to be elected president of the Rutland County Medical and Surgical Society. Pond was confident that he could heal Rubie, through a series of operations over a period of months that would, if all went according to plan, knit her a new scalp.

The skull punctures and skin grafting was “something called the ‘Tierce method,’ ” said Polly Timken at the Bridgewater Historical Society last week. Timken, who sits on the historical society’s board of directors, only knows the method from what the Standard printed: It was first developed by a French surgeon during the French and Indian War.

This may be the case, but it also seems possible, even likely, that some details of the procedure and its history got lost in translation. The Tierce method is either incredibly obscure, or does not exist: In trying to learn more about the method, I couldn’t find any mention of it except in the news coverage of Rubie Perkins’ accident, and a 2012 newsletter from the Bridgewater Historical Society that cites the news coverage.

However, the more common Thiersch method of skin grafting — named for the German surgeon, Karl Thiersch, who in the 1870s improved on an earlier grafting method developed by Louis Leopold Ollier — appears in some turn-of-the-19th-century medical journals as a treatment for scalpings, usually from machinery accidents, as well as for other injuries that resulted in a significant loss of skin, such as severe burns. The first ‘h’ is silent.

Like Dr. Pond’s procedure, Thiersch grafting entails taking strips of skin from the thighs to heal the wounded areas. According to an 1896 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the method “was met with considerable favor among surgeons” due to its high success rate, and so it seems plausible that “Tierce” is actually a misspelling of “Thiersch,” which could account for Pond’s confidence in the operation.

Puncturing holes in the skull, however, was not an explicit part of the German surgeon’s procedure. This is the step of Rubie’s treatment that seems to go back to the French and Indian War, when scalpings were neither uncommon nor necessarily fatal. But it wasn’t a new idea then, either.

Augustin Belloste, a 17th-century French surgeon, posited that to heal a scalped patient, one had to roughen up the skull somehow — otherwise, it was too smooth to generate new skin on its own — and also puncture the diploe, where marrow lies sandwiched between layers of bone. This is meant to stimulate the process of granulation, during which a fleshy, pink-red substance, ripe with capillaries and connective tissues, grows at the site of the wound, according to a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Revolution that recounts the history of scalping treatments. The idea was that this would help the grafted skin take to the body and heal.

At first, surgeons used rather crude tools to induce granulation, but trial and error eventually led doctors to the awl. The Journal of the American Revolution article quotes pioneer (and founder of Nashville, Tenn.) James Robinson, who learned how to perform “skull boring” from a doctor and whose description is reminiscent of Dr. Pond’s method:“I bore, at first, about one inch apart, and, as the flesh appears to rise in those holes, I bore a number more between the first.”

A grisly ordeal, to be sure — and an expensive one that put a financial strain on the family, as well as an emotional one. Charles Perkins, Rubie’s father, said he planned to “convert all his few possessions into cash” to cover the medical costs, and the transportation costs, and the hotel room costs.

The surgeries also took a physical toll on Rubie’s siblings: Being so small, she didn’t have much skin to spare, so when doctors used up all they could, they took skin from her older brother Jamie’s thigh, and from the thighs and hips of her older sister, Mattie. Poor Mattie; the eldest sibling, she had given up her education plans to care for the little ones and for her mother, who the Standard described as an “invalid, bed-ridden most of the time.” Now she had given up swaths of her own body, too.

A number of readers of the Vermont Standard, based in Woodstock, contacted the paper to express how deeply affected they were by the plight of the Perkins family, and how they wished something could be done. It seemed the community was eager to rally around the little girl and her family.

Responding to this surge of sympathy, the Standard set up a relief fund for Rubie, and dedicated a considerable number of column inches each week to appealing for donations. Pennies and dollars started rolling in, “several of them accompanied by tender notes which we have taken the liberty to forward to the family, believing that they will be not less gratefully received than the money.”

All in all, through the Vermont Standard and other fundraising channels, contributors raised a reported $324 for the Perkins family (about $8,648 today), with many more donations that didn’t make it into the paper. The community was now invested in Rubie’s outcome. And they were rewarded for their generosity: The newspaper’s weekly updates on the young patient indicated an increasingly promising recovery.

“The Rutland physicians are very enthusiastic over the rapid progress and apparent success of the case,” the Standard reported on May 4. “Of course much of the skin failed to adhere and had to be replaced, but on the other hand strips of skin nearly six inches long which were placed about half an inch apart, took hold and spread so rapidly as to practically close up the gaps in a week.”

By the end of May, Rubie was sitting outside on the veranda on nice days, and her sister Mattie said she was regaining strength and color. By midsummer, Rubie was going on walks and riding horses. The thigh-skin on her head was knitting together nicely, and Dr. Pond felt that in just a few more minor graftings, his work would be done. “Except for her head,” states the Standard, the child was back to her regular self. According to the doctors, she was out of the woods.

But then, just when the arc of the scalping saga was about to come to a neat and happy end, a new menace appeared. After everything she’d endured, and all the well-wishers she’d garnered along the way, and all the sacrifices small and large that finally seemed to be paying off, little Rubie Perkins came down with diphtheria, and died. It was five months after her accident, almost to the day: Aug. 28, 1893.

“It’s so sad,” murmured Timken, looking down at a photograph of Rubie as a very small child, one of the few mementos of her short life that have found their way to the historical society. Another one is a pair of Rubie’s dresses someone found in their attic, one white and the other a deep blood red, hanging up as if waiting to be worn.

“They are creepy,” Timken acknowledged.

Another is a photograph of the Perkins family outside their Dailey Hollow home, dated in the early 1890s. In the photo, a cluster of five black-clad figures stand around a slight-looking girl in a polka-dot dress, her face inquisitive, one hand resting on her father’s knee. Her hair is tied back behind her.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at emmajeanholley@gmail.com.




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