Fragments missing from skull of Kansas abolitionist Artifacts said to have been sent to medical museum in Washington

November 16, 1997

KANSAS CITY STAR WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Shards from the skull of Abraham "Bullet Hole" Ellis, a Kansas abolitionist during the Civil War, are missing.

Ellis was shot in the head in 1862. He lived, and to the end of his days, walked around with a hole in his forehead.

In fact, he had been a successful politician, but there is a lingering puzzle as far as Ellis is concerned: What happened to the shards of his skull that were removed when he was treated for his wound?

Records at the Kansas State Historical Society show that a surgeon removed the bullet, which had tucked itself in the lining of Ellis' brain. Ellis, who would outlive his assailant by 20 years, later sent the bullet and his skull fragments to the Army and Navy Medical Museum in Washington.

But like mists rising off an old burial ground, things get murky: The Army and Navy Museum doesn't exist and never did.

Rubbish, said Randy Thies, a historical society archaeologist. Of course there was a museum.

"Things get lost in museums," Thies said, not the other way around.

The most likely explanation is that Ellis' bullet and bones went to the Army Medical Museum, which, coincidentally, opened the same year he was shot. The names are close enough. The museum now has the title of National Museum of Health and Medicine of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

It's on the campus of Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a favorite haunt of bus tours and elementary school field trips. And for good reason. The collection includes some of the ickiest stuff this side of a Hollywood special effects lab - a real smoker's lung, for instance, and all manner of amputated limbs.

"Some people will willingly come to see what seems to be strange and weird," said Carole Mahoney, a museum spokeswoman. "Let's face it. We do have on display a giant hairball."

A more appropriate setting for shards of skull of the man who walked and talked and legislated after being shot in the head would be hard to find.

But wait. The mystery deepens.

"We never had these materials," Mahoney said. "That leaves us kind of at a dead end because we would have been the logical place for such artifacts."

Two other possibilities might be the Civil War Medical Museum in Frederick and the Army Medical Department Museum at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. But the bones of Bullet Hole didn't surface there, either.

The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, which has been around since 1863, also seemed a good lead. Any place macabre enough to have Teddy Roosevelt's bladder stones and Grover Cleveland's jaw would have to be considered a suspect.

"We don't have it," said Gretchen Worden, the curator. "'But we've got a piece of John Wilkes Booth [a fragment of his neck bone]. We got him right after the autopsy. Stuff was moving around pretty fast."

Unlike Ellis' bullet. It apparently had slowed enough by the time it reached his forehead that he lived to enter the lore of the strange but true.

The mystery surrounding Ellis is a curious footnote to the violent clashes on the Kansas and Missouri border.

Ellis was a teacher from Ohio who fell under the spell of John Brown, the Kansas abolitionist. As a local superintendent of schools, he awarded a teaching certificate to William Quantrill, soon to blaze a bloody legend as a pro-slavery guerrilla leader.

In a bizarre twist of history, it was Quantrill who shot Ellis during a raid on tiny Aubry, Kan. As Ellis watched from a rooming house, the bullet struck his skull after passing through the window sash and then his fur cap.

Legend has it that Quantrill apologized. From there, into a surgeon's bag and then into void.

In her best Sherlock Holmesian manner, Mahoney deduced, "We surmise this is really an urban legend. We've not been able to come up with anything, and we've got excellent records."

The National Museum of Health and Medicine is well acquainted with such stories. For years, the myth has circulated that hidden away in its collection are John Dillinger's private parts. Tourists come looking for them. "There are actually tour bus drivers who believe it and say it, and the legend continues," Mahoney said.

Then again, the museum does have bone from Civil War Gen. Daniel E. Sickles' leg that had to be amputated at Gettysburg when he was hit by a cannon ball. He packaged it then and there and shipped it off to the museum with a card, saying compliments of the general.

"He used to come and visit his amputated leg in the museum, and distant relatives from time to time pop in," Mahoney said. "A year ago a great-great-niece showed up."

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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