There’s a word for this — when you encounter an unfamiliar word or concept someplace, then suddenly see it again, as if it’s quite common. The case in point concerns the word felon.
A couple weeks ago, on the occasion of the anniversary of George Armstrong Custer taking his command into eternity, I opened “Son of the Morning Star,” Evan Connell’s free-form history of the general and his most famous battle. In the book’s early pages is a discussion of Lonesome Charley Reynolds, reputed to be “Custer’s favorite white scout” and one of those who died at the Little Big Horn. At one point (p. 20 of my 1984 edition) Connell says:
“Charley had a seriously infected, suppurating thumb — described in contemporary journals as a ‘felon’ — which troubled him so much that one of the regimental surgeons, Dr. Henry Porter, advised him to stay behind. Nevertheless, he was determined to go, and because Dr. Porter could not cure his thumb Charley approached Custer’s orderly, John Burkman, who concocted a poultice of wet hardtack. On the morning of June 25 he still wore this bulky poultice, but when Burkman saw his body it was gone, which meant that he probably peeled it off when the shooting started.”
I read the book long ago and read this passage, but the unusual term for Lonesome Charley’s infected thumb didn’t stick with me. At some point — my guess: the late 19th century, the time of the most recent citations in the Oxford English Dictionary and earlier — this use of felon was common; a Google search demonstrates it’s still current medical parlance (and if you’re really interested in the subject of pus-producing fingertip infections, check out whitlows and paronychia).
In mid-June, I took a daylong drive in Central Illinois with my brother Chris and my dad, during which we visited the site of the now mostly forgotten Chatsworth train wreck of 1887. Even earlier, I had come across an online mention of a locally produced history of the wreck, which involved an excursion train headed from Peoria to Niagara Falls. After coming back to California, I found a
single copy of the 1970 book — “The Train That Never Arrived,” by Helen Louise Plaster Stoutemyer, former Chatsworth schoolteacher and part-time newspaper columnist. I ordered the book and got it a week or so ago. As books go, it’s slight: 68 pages that occasionally read like someone transcribing a shoebox full of notes. But it’s a labor of love meant to convey a small town’s experience in the only moment that ever brought it any attention.
Ms. Stoutemyer relates the account of Chatsworth businessman L.J. Haberkorn. Reading between the lines, you get the feeling Haberkorn never let the town forget what an important role he played in responding to the wreck. Fifty years after the fact, he was still spinning disaster yarns and arguing about whether he was the one who first rang the village fire bell to summon rescuers. In any case, “The Train That Never Arrived” says, the hero was not supposed to be home in bed when the wreck occurred:
“Mr. Haberkorn operated a restaurant and hotel in 1887 on thhe corner where Culkin’s Hardware Store is located today. The Haberkorns had planned to take the excursion, but were prevented from doing so because Mrs. Haberkorn had a felon on her finger which was giving her considerable pain and caused them to cancel the trip at the last moment.”
I like the parallel: Lonesome Charley went with Custer despite his felon and died. The Haberkorns stayed home to nurse the missus and her felon and lived.