Brain Injury, Mental Disorder and Suicide Among Football Players, 1899-1909: A News Sampling

Edited by Matt Chaney,

Posted Saturday, January 28, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

The following cases were retrieved from innumerable news reports of traumatic brain injury among American football players more than a century ago, and details remain uninvestigated for medico-scientific data; the news timeline presents remarks of select medical literature, JAMA primarily; dates below denote publication of texts

1899 Dec 24  “Jeremiah Miller, a son of Councilman Edward R. Miller of Chatham, has been adjudged insane, and is now in the State asylum at Morris Plains [N.J.] … During a [football] game on Thanksgiving Day he received a severe blow on the head. His actions became peculiar and a commission was appointed to inquire into this sanity. The doctors decided that his mind had been unbalanced by the blow on the head” New York Times

1900 Mar 15  “Word was received here [New York City] that Stanley Huntington Riggs, noted as a football player, conspicuous in the Naval Reserves, and well known in this city, despondent over illness, had committed suicide in a lonely camp in the heart of Mexico” Tyrone Daily Herald PA

1900 Nov 13  “Young Richardson, of the Athens College [Ohio] football team, who was injured while playing with Washington and Jefferson team at Washington, Pa., last Saturday, was here yesterday in charge of friends. He seemed to be totally deranged, and was unable to remember occurrences of the past year. It is believed that he is suffering from concussion of the brain” Pittsburgh Daily Post

1901 Oct 10  “Leon Ayers, one of the brightest and most popular students in high school [at Janesville, Wis.], committed suicide at his room in the Y.M.C.A. building last night with chloroform. It is thought that he was mentally unbalanced, the result of a fall from scaffolding last summer and subsequent injuries in a football game a week ago. He was 19 years old” Topeka Daily Capital KS

1901 Nov 15  “Orville Prescott was very badly hurt yesterday afternoon in a practice game of football between the team of the city schools and the second team of the county high school… he came into collision with Charles James of his own team, when running at full speed. James’ head struck Prescott on the left side of the face with such force that very serious concussion of the brain resulted. … Doctors Demott and Tanquary were with him constantly until midnight last night and have been in close attendance upon him today. Up to this afternoon he had not been conscious, except for a minute or two, since being hurt, and most of the time has been so wild that a half dozen men are required to hold him in bed… Charles James was staggered and dazed for a time by the collision but not much hurt” Independence Daily Reporter KS

1901 Nov 25  “John L. DeSaulles, the plucky little [Yale] quarterback… was completely knocked out in Saturday’s [Harvard] battle on Soldiers’ Field. DeSaulles remained behind at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The doctors say he has a slight attack of cerebral concussion, but will be all right within a week. He was sent for today by the Yale football association, who wanted to take him home with them, but the hospital authorities refused them permission” Chicago Tribune

1901 Nov 26  “Johnny DeSaulles, Yale’s quarterback, returned to his college home in the cloister tonight with his roommate, Arthur Barnwell, the Yale centerfielder, who took him from the Massachusetts General Hospital today and brought him here [New Haven, Conn.]. DeSaulles is still weak, but danger of permanent injury from cerebral concussion is over. Trainer Murphy says that is was a solar plexus [chest] blow received when DeSaulles tackled Marshall which threw him into convulsions on the side lines after the game. Head Coach Stillman shares that opinion” Chicago Tribune

1902 Oct 21  “Charles Boyle, a pupil at the Hitchcock School, was injured about the head in a football game played at San Rafael on October 11th. A few days later he showed signs of mental derangement and was put under the care of trained nurses. His case developed to such an extent, however, that today his mother had him removed to a sanitarium in San Francisco. The boy’s malady is not deemed serious and an early recovery is anticipated” San Francisco Chronicle

1902 Dec 6  “The football season is now over and leaves behind it a very respectable record of casualties… There is something in most of us that makes danger a sort of relish to our pastimes, and it is perhaps to this barbaric element in our natures that some of the world’s progress is due. Professionally, however, we cannot approve of anything so unsanitary even in a purely traumatic way… Among the serious casualties of the game this year we have fractured skulls, injured spines, brain injuries resulting in insanity, as well as broken legs, ribs, collarbones, etc. To be a cripple or lunatic for life is paying high for athletic emulation” Journal of the American Medical Association

1903 Mar 18  “Herbert M. Peck, of Beaver Dam, leader of the Lawrence [debate] team was yesterday, at the request of the faculty of Lawrence University, examined by physicians… and ordered to discontinue all study or mental work of any kind for one year, on account of injury to the brain received last fall in a football game…  Peck left yesterday for his home in Beaver Dam” Oshkosh Daily Northwestern WI

1903 Jul 15  “Clinical reports of competent observers, coupled with everyday experiences, have clearly demonstrated that blows or falls on the head may cause serious trouble, both present and prospective, without producing fracture to the skull wall… Every case of recent head injury, however trivial it may appear, should, we believe, be treated with the greatest consideration, lest damage to hidden and important structures escape our attention, thus leaving a foundation for future trouble which too often is irreparable” Dr. W.H. Earles, for Journal of the American Medical Association

1903 Oct 21  “Charles Ewart, aged 18, son of C. C. Ewart, a wealthy farmer living near Akron [Ohio], committed suicide by hanging himself by a rope in the barn. An injury sustained while playing football, it is thought, affected his mind” Janesville Daily Gazette WI

1903 Nov 16  “Earl Neff, aged 16, was brought to the state hospital for the insane [in Columbus] Saturday from Kingston, Ohio. He is incurably crazed from injuries received in a game of football. He sustained concussion of the brain” Minneapolis Journal

1904 Jan 26  “Edward T. Reynolds [of Kearney, Neb.], well-known as a football player, committed suicide today by shooting himself. The only known cause is that he was greatly troubled with his hip, which was dislocated in a game” Salt Lake Tribune

1904 Jan 30  “While we do not wish to be considered as opposing legitimate athletic sports, we believe that in this particular game [football] the human wreckage far outweighs the good resulting from three or four months of athletic exercise and training. Our statistics show that there occurred 35 deaths during last year, and over 500 severe accidents to players” Journal of the American Medical Association

1904 Feb 6   “It has long been recognized that injures to the head, generally with but sometimes without fracture, may be responsible for brain abscesses appearing weeks, months or even years after the injury. The role of such injuries in the production of neuroses and psychoses has been universally recognized and in some quarters greatly exaggerated. The physician who is not in touch with modern psychiatry is often too willing to assure the relatives of the insane patient of the absence of inherited predisposition and to place the blame on some injury that no one had thought of for years. It is still unsettled whether injuries to the head can cause brain tumors, but a history of trauma is obtained in a small percentage of cases… Another post-traumatic affection has created considerable controversy for some years. In 1891 Bollinger first called attention to the occurrence of cerebral hemorrhage weeks or months after a head injury… The subject is worthy of attention, particularly on account of its obvious medico-legal importance. It is highly desirable that all such cases should come to autopsy, and a careful and critical comparison be made between the clinical and postmortem findings” Journal of the American Medical Association

1904 Jun 6   “During the [AMA] section of nervous and mental diseases, Dr. W.J. Herdman, of Ann Arbor, Mich., read an interesting paper on the present campaign against insanity. He said in part: ‘The attempt is being made in every enlightened community to study the problem of insanity in the light of the revelations of modern medical science. There is a general awakening to the necessity of a vigorous campaign against the causes leading to such diseases’ ” Detroit Free Press

1904 Oct 10  “Laboring under the hallucination that he was yet in the football game between Colorado and Nebraska, Charles Richardson startled the guests at the hotel Adams [in Denver] by making a mad rush through the corridors, frightening all the occupants of the fashionable hotel. The police were called and soon had Richardson subdued, removing him to the Emergency Hospital. It is said by physicians in charges of his case that his insanity is temporary, brought on by the effects of the high altitude. Players of the Nebraska eleven express ignorance as to Richardson’s home, although he played as a freshman. Richardson is a giant in stature, standing six feet two inches in height and weighing 210 pounds” Cincinnati Enquirer

1904 Nov 16  “Bucking, punching and dodging through the crowded [Chicago] streets Thomas H. Fountain, young athlete and football player, just committed to the insane asylum at Elgin, ran amuck from the Courthouse to the Title and Trust Building today and fought like a demon before he was captured. When Deputy Sheriff Lahey and a dozen citizens had subdued him, young Fountain made a speech: ‘I am sane as any man on earth,’ he shouted. ‘I have been committed through false and perjured evidence. They are pursuing and persecuting me to get my property’ ” Cincinnati Enquirer

1904 Nov 20  “Football players, according to Jere Delaney, trainer of the Northwestern University eleven, are subject to an ailment similar to softening of the brain, which leads not only to the making of peculiar statements, but causes strange actions which sometimes are amusing. The exact cause of the trouble, Trainer Delaney said, he is unable to fathom. He declared, however, that it results more from the long-continued physical and nervous strain to which the men are subjected during the three months of rigid training which they are forced to undergo than from the blows, kicks, and bumps they receive on their skulls during games” New York Times

1905 Feb 3   “In a well-managed college, where men physically unfit for football are prevented from playing the game, the risk of death on the football field within four years is not so great as the risk of riding horseback, driving an automobile or boating and yachting… Nevertheless, many serious injuries [of football] are likely to prove a handicap to the victim in later life. Sprains, concussions of the brain and injuries to bones are apt to leave behind them permanent weaknesses” Charles W. Eliot, Harvard U. president’s report, Saint Paul Globe

1905 Oct 23  “[The] center of the Broaddus College football team, brooding over a bad defeat recently sustained by the team, attempted suicide by jumping from a railroad bridge. He is in critical condition, suffering from internal injuries” Washington Times

1905 Dec 1   “Denny Clark, whose blunder made possible [the football defeat for U. Michigan], refused to join his fellows at dinner. He sobbed and remained in his room. Later in the evening he is said to have been in a state of mental collapse and threatened to take his life. So strange were his actions, it is said, that two of the squad remained at his side for fear that he would do himself harm” Anaconda Standard MT

1906 Jan 4   “The number, severity and permanence of the injuries which are received in playing football are very much greater than generally is credited or believed… The number of injuries is inherent to the game itself… The percentage of injuries is incomparably greater in football than in any other of the major sports… Constant medical supervision of the game where large numbers of men are engaged is a necessity and not a luxury… The percentage of injury is much too great for any mere sport… the conditions under which the game is played should be so modified as to diminish to a very great degree the number of injuries” Drs. Edward H. Nichols and Homer B. Smith, Harvard U. team physicians, for Boston Medical and Surgical Journal

1906 Jan 4   “Cases of concussion were frequent, both during practice and games. In fact, but two games were played during the entire season in which a case of concussion did not occur… The mental state of the players who had concussion was variable, some being highly excitable and hysterical, others merely confused, and in a few cases, knocked completely unconscious… The real seriousness of the injury is not certain… from conversation with various neurologists, we have obtained very various opinions in regard to the possibility of serious after effects” Drs. Edward H. Nichols and Homer B. Smith, Harvard U. team physicians, for Boston Medical and Surgical Journal

1906 Jan 4   “No one seems to be in a position to settle with certainty the question as to whether there is any possibility of later effects from concussion. Many of the joint injuries are of such a character as to be likely to be progressively worse and many injuries to the shoulder are certain to cause some disability in later years” Drs. Edward H. Nichols and Homer B. Smith, Harvard U. team physicians, for Boston Medical and Surgical Journal

1906 Jan 13  “Dr. Edward H. Nichols and Dr. Homer B. Smith, who had the medical and surgical care of the football squad of Harvard during the past season, have given their observations and conclusions in an article on ‘The Physical Aspect of American Football.’ We may say at once that their conclusions are entirely against the game as judged from its medical standpoint” Journal of the American Medical Association

1906 Jan 13  “Perhaps the most serious feature of [the Nichols-Smith football study] is the number of concussions of the brain reported… When a condition like this develops as the result of an injury, the central nervous system has received a very severe shaking up” Journal of the American Medical Association

1906 Jan 13  “The whole report of the two surgeons in charge of the Harvard squad should be read by every prominent educator throughout the country, and it should be the duty of the members of the medical profession to see that it is called particularly to their attention… An attempt has been made to gloss over football’s worst aspects by widely published suggestions that no game is entirely without the danger of death under accidental circumstances” Journal of the American Medical Association

1906 Jan 15  “James Blakemore, a student at the University of California… [was] found insane at Weaverville yesterday by a commission… physicians who examined him reported that he was injured two years ago in a football game, when he received a kick on the nose, which left him subject to headaches. That injury, over-study and lack of exercise are given as the cause of his insanity” San Francisco Chronicle

1906 Oct 23  “James Dodd, 17 years old, a junior of the Wilton High school, was made crazy by an injury in a football game at Winthrop [Mass.] today. His school team competed against Winthrop High school. Dodd played left tackle, and in the third scrimmage of the first half fell and was kicked in the back of the head. He finished the half, but acted peculiarly, and when time was called it was found necessary to take him to the Winthrop hospital. The attending physician pronounced it a serious case of concussion of the brain” Detroit Free Press

1906 Dec 5   “Terrence McGovern, the prize fighter, who is matched to fight Young Corbett in Baltimore late in January, was taken to the observation ward of the Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn today, for examination as to his sanity” Los Angeles Times

1907 Mar 26  “George A. Rundell, 20 years old, has become insane as the result of an injury received on the gridiron last fall and was sent to Cleveland State Hospital. He is an all-round athlete, was captain of the football team of Baldwin University at Borea last year, and won the Ohio ice skating championship here last December. The injury which caused him to become insane occurred last fall, when he was badly hurt in a scrimmage and was carried unconscious from the field. He grew violent Sunday and, bearing a fancied grievance against his mother, attacked her” Wilkes-Barre Evening News PA

1907 Dec 21  “It is only fair to withhold final judgment on the effect of the new rules until more facts are at hand… There need be no such hesitation, however, in deciding that football is no game for boys to play… It is clear that persons of delicate build or immature development should not be allowed to engage in football” Journal of the American Medical Association

1908 Jan 9   “Urban Angney, captain of the K.U. football team and member of the senior class, committed suicide at 9:25 this morning by jumping from the fifth story dome on Frazier Hall, one of the college buildings on Mount Oread. The reason of his rash act has not yet been discovered but friends have noticed an apparent spirit of melancholy for about ten days. It is also known that he talked to Dr. James Naismith, a member of the faculty, a few days ago about his health, of which he complained, but there seemed to be nothing serious the matter with him. He attended school up to today and his school work was in good shape. Some of the students think the captain may have become despondent because of a disappointment in love, but it is generally agreed that he became mentally unbalanced from some cause. He was a general favorite among the scholars and with the faculty. The news of his death came as a terrible shock to the whole city, and school work is practically destroyed for the day” Wellington Daily News KS

1908 Jan 10  “The suicide of [Kansas football star] Urban Angney remains unsolved. No reason can be assigned for the act… The coroner believes he was insane, and no other reason for his deed has appeared… Angney, as quarterback, ‘ran the team’ last season, and had been elected captain for next season… although often tackled while carrying the ball, he was not struck upon the head or injured on that member in any way. In the Washburn game at Topeka, his knee was injured so badly that he played no more games until Thanksgiving, when he went through the entire game at St. Joseph [Mo.] without a single bump. Dr. [James] Naismith, physical director at the university, and Manager Lansdon of the athletic association, say he was in the pink of condition physically… About ten days ago Angney went to Dr. Naismith and told him that he was troubled and worried, and asked for some medicine. Dr. Naismith recommended a course in gymnasium work” Salina Evening Journal KS

1908 Jan 12  “Monday night at Ogden, Utah, [boxer] Battling Nelson is to show whether his sun still shines in the heavens or has already set… Rumors that Nelson has ‘fighter’s dance’ [symptoms of brain disorder to become known as ‘punch drunk’ by World War I and chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 1940] and that he is as much a wreck with it as poor George Gardner, continue to circulate” Detroit Free Press

1908 Jan 13  “Among the many theories which are being advanced concerning the reason for Urban Angney’s mind being unhinged, is one told last evening by members of the [Kansas quarterback’s] family. Urban had been reading Plato’s ‘Phaedo,’ for work in an educational class, and the trend of the work is much that it might affect a person with a gloomy mind. The evening before he committed suicide Urban Angney was reading the ‘Phaedo’ and seemed to be brooding about it. The family think that this might have had some influence on his mind” Chanute Sun KS

1908 Sep 13  “Henry Clay Marshall, representing a New York banking firm, committed suicide yesterday morning in a field near Stanton and Heberton avenues by shooting himself in the breast… Marshall had been suffering for years from an injury received in a football game while attending a preparatory school in the East. It had affected his sight and he lost the use of one eye” Pittsburgh Post

1908 Oct 31  “Herbert Broughton, a student in the Kansas state normal school at Emporia was taken to the hospital, violently insane. Broughton was first noticed acting peculiarly and later it took three men to hold him. Physicians say overwork caused the derangement, and that with rest he will recover. Broughton was a brilliant student. Besides carrying five studies he was steward of a boarding club and practiced football two hours a day with a squad. He was not a member of the regular team and was never hurt” Humboldt Union KS

1908 Nov 22  “This year also has a larger list of those injuries which may cause permanent bodily defects. Twenty-two youths, the majority of them college players, suffered concussion of the brain, one being rendered temporarily insane. There were fourteen injuries in the same manner last season. This part of the season’s harvest seems a direct argument against the open game, as practically all of the brain injuries reported were received in running tackles, made prominent by the open game, in contrast to the close struggles in the mass plays of the past” Chicago Tribune

1908 Dec 8   “An accident in a recent football game made a highwayman of Ashton B. Collart, aged 20, according to his father, Martin C. Collart, who filed an insanity complaint against his son [in Cleveland]. Young Collart was arrested on Saturday charged with holding up George Lau… ‘My son’s mind was affected by an injury sustained when he was five years old,’ the father said. ‘This fall he played football and suffered a concussion of the brain. Since then he has been unbalanced’ ” Chicago Tribune

1908 Dec 19  “Reformed football, judging from the results of the late season, seems to be about as fruitful in serious accidents as it was before the change of rules… There is evidently need for more improvement” Journal of the American Medical Association

1909 Jan 24  “Jay Lundy, college student [in Wisconsin], lay Methodist minister and head of a college fraternity clubhouse restaurant, will defend a charge of arson brought against him by pleading insanity. It will be asserted that he was rendered insane by injuries received in a football games, particularly the game last fall between Lawrence and Marquette universities. Lundy was quarterback for the Lawrence eleven, but early in the game was badly injured. He went back into the game, however, and it was not realized until the half was over that the team had been under the generalship of a man who could not tell friend from foe. He was delirious for hours, and was not able to enter his classes for two weeks” New York Tribune

1909 Jun 22  “Robert L. Drake, son of Isaac A. Drake, a retired stockman, committed suicide by swallowing carbolic acid, while standing on the sidewalk at Thirty-ninth street and State line last night [in Kansas City]. Drake was injured in a football game four years ago between Westport High School and Manual High School. When he was graduated from Westport, he went to the Rolla School of Mines, which he attended three years. Two years ago he was injured a second time while playing football with the Rolla team against the Arkansas University team at Fayetteville, Ark. Both injuries affected his head. His father, who saw him last night the first time in two weeks, believes the football injuries were responsible for his deed” St. Louis Post-Dispatch

1909 Sep 9   “Harry Coughanour, a student in the Uniontown High school, sustained a slight concussion of the brain yesterday afternoon in a practice game of football at Hustead’s field. In a scrimmage the boy, who is 16 years of age, was thrown violently to the ground and while his companions knew that he had been hurt, did not think it serious until sometime later. Coughanour resumed play but acted queerly and on advice of friends finally gave up. He came downtown and after bathing his head with ice water at the Gallatin hotel, said that he felt first rate. His companion left him and an hour or so later the lad was found listlessly wandering about in the alley in the rear of Judge Umbel’s home. He was taken home and told the members of the family that he had been at a fire in the East End, an indication of delirium, which caused some alarm. Dr. Frank H. Taylor was summoned and dressed the injury at the lad’s home in Lenox street. No serious consequences are feared” Uniontown Morning Herald PA

1909 Oct 11  “It is to be hoped that if football retains its hold upon the American heart that ‘butting’ may be so modified as to preserve the college young man’s skull for future and perhaps more laudable uses. In any event ‘tackle’ with heads up should be substituted for ‘tackle’ with heads down in the football contest. Athletes may get along with broken noses and gradual elimination of front teeth but the skull is valuable and rules should be made to hold it intact if possible” Asbury Park Press NJ

1909 Nov 18  “Milton Moeser… was injured in a football game [and] has been forced to retired from school for a time. Physicians decided that he had undoubtedly suffered a slight concussion of the brain, with had caused him to become absent-minded and unable to concentrate his thoughts. The doctors are of the opinion that the boy will recover from the effects of the injury after a few weeks’ rest” Newport Miner WA

1909 Nov 19  “It is probable that the tragic death of Cadet Byrne at West Point and the severe accident at Annapolis will result in a Congress discussion of the game at the next session of that body. Why would it not be a first-rate method of getting some scientific information, asks The Medical Record, to institute a careful inquiry into the post-graduate histories of the West Point and Annapolis cadets? The ordinary college football player is lost to the statistician when he leaves college, but the military and naval graduates remain in the same body of men, and close records of their lives are easily available for study. It might be that such an inquiry would throw light upon the question of how football players ultimately compare with others” Washington Post

1909 Nov 21  “Football has claimed its annual toll. Twenty-nine dead and 209 crippled, many for life… Many of the injured players later succumbed to their hurts. Many were borne away to insane asylums. Last year the college folk defended the open style of football, claiming that the injuries and deaths were due to the inexperience of participants in the game. With another year in which to become familiarized with the new ethics the toll has increased rather than fallen away” Louisville Courier-Journal

1909 Nov 27  “Backing up the theory of temporary insanity, the relatives of W.Y. Ellis, on trial for the killing of N.P. Willis, took the stand today [in Little Rock] and unfolded a painful story of family afflictions… Character witnesses swore to the previous good reputation of the defendant. An accident to Ellis in a football game in Little Rock in 1901, when he was a member of the University of Arkansas eleven, broke into the trial today… [during the game] Ellis was knocked unconscious by a blow behind the ear. He was carried from the field to the Gleason Hotel and did not regain consciousness until after midnight. In the next game, shortly afterward, with the Kansas Medics at Fayetteville, he was again knocked unconscious by a blow on the head and put out of the game” Indianapolis Star

1909 Dec 9   “The defense in the trial of James M. Harmon, Jr., charged with the murder of Maud Hartley of Somerville, Dec. 18, 1903, was rested shortly before noon yesterday… Dr. Edward B. Lane, formerly at the McLean hospital and later superintendent of the Boston insane hospital, was the principal witness of the day as to the mental capacity of Harmon… Dr. Lane said he thought Harmon’s brain might have been injured when he was hurt at a football game, but he would not say there was a lesion of the brain. The lump over Harmon’s eye, from a medical standpoint, was such as to raise suspicion” Boston Globe

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, researcher and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football for three decades. Chaney, an MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Footballfrom his Four Walls Publishing in 2009Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999. Email or visit the website for more information.