Zboray and Zboray essay: Studying disability history through 19th-century newspapers

Ronald J. Zboray
Mary Saracino Zboray

What did newspapers have to say about physical disability in Civil War-era America?  What words did they use to represent the multitudes of soldiers who had lost their limbs in combat?  Was “hero” among these words?  Or was it reserved for soldiers who escaped bodily harm?  These are the questions we asked when we began research for our essay, “Recovering Disabled Veterans in Civil War Newspapers: Creating Heroic Disability,” which appeared in the April 2019 issue of Journalism History.  Such questions have generally eluded journalism historians even though the Civil War press has remained a vibrant area of their research.

The Bullet in the Book

These research questions flowed from other ones on a different topic, as often happens at the start of a new project.  We had just completed an essay on “book shields” for a volume on Civil War material culture.  In it we investigated soldiers who placed books in their breast pockets before going into battle, hoping they would save their lives.[1]  While these volumes might have repelled deadly bullets aimed at the heart, they hardly stopped Minié balls from tearing through limbs such that their amputation was necessitated.

Among the 108 cases we uncovered was a double amputee, Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who lost his arms at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, but whose life was spared through the intervention of a travelogue lodged in his jacket.  We were able to collect a larger number of newspaper stories about him than anyone else in our data set, partly because he lived a relatively long time after his wounding and held several newsworthy positions, including messenger at the Massachusetts State House.  His story fascinated us enough to devote a chapter to him in our ongoing book project on the “The Bullet in the Book,” a case-study-based extension of the aforementioned material culture essay.

Armless (and Legless) Heroes

As we pursued our newspaper research on Plunkett for this chapter, we began to sense that he was so centrally implicated in evolving discourses of disability that the topic merited article-length treatment for a scholarly journal.  At first, we were struck by how often editors applied the sobriquet “Armless Hero” to Plunkett, especially in coverage surrounding his 1885 death.  We wondered how this honorific phrase originated, in light of the many earlier negative representations of people with congenital physical disabilities, particularly “armless wonders” such as those exhibited by P. T. Barnum.[2] Were there precedents for equating “armlessness” with heroism in the American press?

Through extensive searches in a robust newspaper database (GenealogyBank.com), we found there were scant antecedents for linking any severe disability with heroism.  Indeed, we traced the first notable use of the phrase “Armless Hero” to a March 1863 New York World article that was specifically about Plunkett.  But how were people with Plunkett’s disability treated by the press before then?  For the three decades before Plunkett’s wounding, we searched on the terms editors would most often associate with him—“lost both arms” and “armless”—and found that among the many performers, accident survivors, earthquake victims, street beggars, and war casualties (including combatants) who came up, he held a unique place not only in that the term “hero” was clearly fused with his disability, but also in the consistently positive and detailed treatment the press gave him.  After Plunkett, however, “armless” or “legless hero” was applied to many veterans and even civilians.  He thus marks a turning point in the history of the ways newspapers represented disability.

Our work on the Journalism History article helped us realize how much yet remains to be done on disability in the mid-nineteenth century that takes into greater consideration changing degrees of media visibility and the war’s transformations of life stories.  Building upon our article, we have just begun another book manuscript, “Armless in Civil War America: Disability, Visibility, and Viability.”  We selected Plunkett’s type of disability for our new project’s focus to best demonstrate just how viable the existence of people like him could be in an age of manual labor, when having no arms made employment very difficult.  During the war, and for years after, loss of both arms was considered by Federal pension authorities, along with having lost one’s vision, the severest of disabilities, entitled to the highest compensation.[3]

Still, beginning in the 1850s, people without arms could be highly visible in newspapers and other periodicals.  Our further research into public records and local histories revealed that several of them were seen as productive, healthy, independent, and agentic members of society.  Many of the men we located provided for families; some had significant public profiles as artists, auctioneers, coach drivers, officeholders, shopkeepers, restauranteurs, tavern keepers, watchmen, or newspapermen (the latter could write copy by holding a pen with their teeth).  A few embarked on careers as entertainers.  By the time of the Civil War, veterans without arms had precedents upon which to draw for leading viable and visible lives.

Newspapers Preserve Stories

Recovering the details of those lives for our Journalism History article and associated projects required us to avail ourselves of the many extensive online databases of nineteenth-century newspapers.  Because they contain so many small-town or obscure urban papers, they allowed us to look beyond metropolitan “papers of record,” not only for information about our subjects’ viable lives but also to trace their visibility through the national circulation of stories—often mere fillers—about them.  Most of the 169 articles mentioning Plunkett which appeared between his amputation in December 1862 and the end of the war were from these types of sources.

Other important figures we have unearthed, like an armless organ grinder and an armless newspaper editor, would be virtually unrecoverable unless local newspapers were consulted.  Widely known in their own times through their presence on newspaper pages, they have now become lost and forgotten.  As contemporary disability studies in its concern with social and cultural construction emphasizes the agency of people with disabilities, it has looked to the past for examples of how they forged their own histories.  By recovering disabled Americans like Plunkett through research in mid-nineteenth-century newspapers, we hope to advance the history of disability through the vehicle of journalism history.

Featured image: “Sergeant Plunkett,” Harper’s Weekly, March 28, 1885, 197, courtesy University Library System, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.

About the authors: Ronald Zboray is a professor and director of Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and Mary Zboray is a visiting scholar in Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. They are the editors of US Print Culture to 1860, the recently-published fifth volume in The Oxford History of Popular Culture. Visit their website for information on additional publications and projects.


[1]  Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, “Saved by a Testament: Books as Shields among Union and Confederate Soldiers,” in War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era, ed. Joan E. Cashin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 75-98.

[2]  Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), esp. chap 3.

[3]  John William Oliver, “History of the Civil War Military Pensions, 1861-1885,” Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin 4 (1917), 21.