By Dr. Michael Echols
A Civil War set with provenance associated with a Civil War surgeon is a rarity. The trick is to figure out which sets and owners are real and which ones are fakes.
Following is the story of a set which was sold on eBay July of 2001. The set is of questionable heritage and origin. There are many lessons to be learned from this one 'mistake'.
(Note: as of March, 2010, I am also aware of another individual who has sold a surgical set on eBay, which he knew was 'altered' using period instruments from multiple makers, adding pieces of velvet from old sets, and styro-foam to reform the interior of an English wood case, thus fitting a number of parts which were put in the set he sold on eBay. This individual insists he did nothing wrong. ??? Makes one wonder about this seller's total lack of morals.)
"The first test of a set which is sold as having provenance is that it should have been owned by the stated doctor."
Sets with provenance should not have substitutions. If the instruments are to be associated with a given doctor, then the instruments should not be substitutions.
Surgical sets routinely surface on eBay and are purported to belong to a Civil War surgeon, used in the Civil War, and on and on. The trick is to figure out if they are legitimate.
The set shown was listed on eBay as being owned by a Civil War surgeon whose name was inscribed, lightly, on the brass plate on top of the case. The top of the case appeared to have been sanded to the extent that the name is almost unreadable.
The set appeared to be correct on first glance, there were obviously several instruments which were not correct or missing from the set, but otherwise it appeared normal.
The makers, Tolle and Degenhardt, was given and various information quoted which said the set was made during the war based on an address at LaSalle Street, Chicago.
The photos which were sent by the owner in response to questions were different than those shown on eBay. Instruments were changed in the photos and the explanations were varied. You had to know the right questions to ask and the answers varied in response to how and who asked.
Turns out the address at Lasalle street of the maker of the set, Tolle and Degenhardt, existed after the close of the war from 1865 to 1868. The maker was in existence during the War, but at Clark Street, Chicago. The location and date information was found in the text book American Surgical Instruments by Edmonson. It is possible the owner used the wrong address on eBay and thus the confusion. It is not known if the set is marked internally for either address. Let's assume the owner just made a mistake on the address and it could have been produced during the War.
The set is not a military issue. It is strictly a civilian version. The lock in the center of the set with a key is the tip off on the civilian origins. If J. J. Johnson used it during the War, then he had to have supplied the set himself. Since he was out of the War during the middle of the first year, it is not likely a later set like the one shown here could have been used in the War. The seller himself admits the instruments are a mix of plated and unplated. A sure sign of mistaken substitutions and replacements.
After searching for the surgeon J. J. Johnson via Google search engine, it was discovered that the surgeon was injured in the middle of 1861 and left service. So, it is possible the set belonged to J. J. Johnson, M. D. and he was a Civil War surgeon.
Next, information comes to light via a concerned person that this particular set was offered before on eBay. The first set didn't meet reserve and was subsequently sold to the seller of this second set. By comparing defects in the box, the second set is deemed to be the same one as the previous set, with all the flaws and marks seen in this second set. But... the first set did not have the inscription on the brass plate.
Seems the inscription with the name J. J. Johnson, M.D. sprung to life between the first and next time the set was offered. You'll have to draw your own conclusions. I don't know where the truth is on this point, but obviously there are concerns. The seller of this set claims he has owned the set since the 1980's and is correct. But he did finally admit that he had replaced instruments from the first set he purchased. That fact in and of itself wouldn't be a problem, but he replace the missing instruments with the wrong period and size instruments and admitted that fact in subsequent communications.
Listing text for the set presented on eBay as being owned by J. J. Johnson the the words of the seller:
"This is a civil war surgical amputation set with provenance. The set was made by a rare company only in operation from 1862 to 1865 which was the Tolle and Degenhardt company of LaSalle Street in Chicago. It was the surgical set of Dr. Jarvis J. Johnson. He was born 1829 in Bedford, Indiana and at the age of sixteen he entered Asbury University at Greencastle, Indiana. He studied medicine under Dr. W. Foot and graduated in the spring of 1855 and practiced in Morgantown. At the outbreak of war in 1861 he raised a company of volunteers known as Company G of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He was chosen Captain but was commissioned surgeon of the regiment with the rank of Major of cavalry. He served eighteen months and was taken prisoner. After the war he returned to practice in Martinsville, Indiana. He died in 1899. The set was acquired from the estate by a family friend in the teens and was sold to me in 1982 by his daughter. Two letters from her describing the history are included. She was delivered by Dr. Johnson in 1889. The rosewood box with brass corners and name plate is 16" by 5 1/2" and 2 3/4" deep. Dr. Johnson's name is barely readable on the brass plate. His initials JJJ are carved into the bottom of the box. It is lined with red velour and has a center locking mechanism and original key. It is two tiered with the following instruments: One Tenon Capital saw with checkered ebony handle, one tournequet, two curved needles, one plated rongeur, one large plated amputation knife with ebony handle, one large double edged plated knife with ebony handle, one medium finger saw blade with ebony handle, one small metacarpel saw blade with ebony handle, one unplated forceps, one unplated scapel, one unplated aneurysm needle, and one unplated tenaculem. not all the instruments are marked but those that are read "Tolle & Degenhardt". The ebony handles and unplated instruments reinforce that this is a pre 1870 set before the discovery of bacteria and the use of sterilization. Before then the instruments were lucky to be wiped clean between amputations. Don't miss out on this great guarenteed civil war set "oozing with history".
Again, it turns out that the seller admits he put together this set from two sets. He didn't know enough to identify the various instruments correctly and later admitted he wasn't sure if the various instruments were correct or not. On closer inspection, it is suspected that only a few of the instruments are original and correct. The owner himself admitted in subsequent communications with various people that even he wasn't sure what was and was not correct with the set, but maintained his insistence that the set was owned by J.J. Johnson, M.D.
Who knows for sure were the truth lies on this set, but the story is telling and extensive. I have intentionally left out much of the communications from various individuals to protect their identity. Many questions remain totally unanswered.
The lesson: you need a vast amount of knowledge to buy a true Civil War set and very few people possess that knowledge. Even some of the so called museum people are not without fault in their identification of this set as their desire to own a true Civil War set overwhelms their judgment.
Contact Dr. Arbittier or Dr. Echols
Last update: Monday, December 12, 2016