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What Do You Think Thursday: Magnetism by Hand, Discharged Catfish, and Poor Willie Thompson


This week, on “What Do You Think Thursday”, we present to you one of the greatest untold mysteries of Washington, DC.  What do you get when you put together a young boy, Foggy Bottom, hand magnetism, and a bunch of stomach-dwelling catfish? We honestly have no clue, and our heads are starting to hurt from all our scratching.

The mystery first came to our attention when we read the following article published in the Evening Star on January 18, 1863:

A SINGULAR CASE – Animals like Catfish Existing in the Human Stomach! – The remarkable case of Willie Thompson, the little son of poor parents living on Twenty-Third street, near G, excites a good deal of interest and compassion.  After a long and severe sickness, during which the best medical advice of the First Ward declared his case to be hopeless, he has just begun to receive a little relief after passing a number of living creatures resembling catfish, which moved and acted in all respects like fish of that kind.  Several of the specimens have been sent by the family to Prof. Henry for examination, to ascertain the true character of the creatures.  The boy continues to discharge fragments of like appearance.  During his whole sickness he has had a voracious appetite, while at the same time he was becoming emaciated, and he is now only a living skeleton.  A friend suggests to us that if means could be got to employ a skillful physician the boy’s health might perhaps be restored.  Those who know him represent him to be a boy of bright parts and of good promise.  The attention of the scientific and benevolent is directed to this remarkable case.

We were intrigued by the story, and were thrilled to come across this article published the next day:

It should be known that Mrs. Wren, by hand magnetism, has caused eight living reptiles to be expelled from a boy named Williams, living on 23rd street, between G and H, where the boy may be seen.  He had been treated by the faculty without success for four months previous.  At the request of Prof. Henry the reptiles have been presented to the Smithsonian Institute by Mrs. Wren.  Her residence is No. 445 K street, between 6th and 7th streets.

We concluded that this was either a follow-up article regarding the same case, or something very odd was happening on 23rd and G streets…

The best thing about the second article was that it gave us a solid clue.  The specimens had supposedly been handed over to the Smithsonian Institution, one of the nation’s best record-keepers.  So being the curious (and yes, totally nerdy) tour guides that we are, we contacted their archives department with our, um… unique inquiry.  It turns out the SI Archivists are quite prompt, and we received the following response the next day:

I checked the Smithsonian’s 1863 accession files, but didn’t find any record of Mrs. Wren’s eight expelled reptiles. I fear that she was indulging in the sleight of hand tricks common to Brazilian psychic surgeons (  the more disreputable fortune tellers, and Penn & Teller.

For what it’s worth, 19th century flim-flam artists loved to give their “discoveries” credence by stating that someone from the Smithsonian had shown interest.

Thanks for the reference question of the week!

So, much to our relief, it’s very possible that the story was mostly hype, and we can continue to live our lives without worrying about discharging any catfish-reptiles.  Unless, of course, this is all a government conspiracy covering up stomach-dwelling aliens. Either way, we were thrilled to be the reference question of the week!

Have you heard any similar stories from the 19th century? Or can you think of a solid medical explanation to explain poor Willie’s unfortunate condition?  We can’t wait to hear what you have to say about this one!