Reading into History: Our October Book!

Reading into History Family Book Club was terrific this past Sunday at our book wrap for 90 Miles to Havana. Thank you to everyone who came to discuss Operation Pedro Pan and this marvelous book.  Now it’s time to start reading Cooper and the Enchanted Metal Detector by Adam Osterweil. We’ll have the author present for our next book wrap on Sunday, October 27th.


This book has a surreal, almost magical edge to it but still packs a serious historical punch. The main character, 11-year-old Cooper, helps his mother’s antique business stay afloat with his keen eye for authentic artifacts. His knack for finding great stuff improves when he becomes the owner of Decto, a talking (does it really talk? You decide!) metal detector that helps him unearth artifacts from the Battle of Newtown, an important battle of the American Revolution.

At our book wrap on the 27th, we’ll look at artifacts in the N-YHS collection that were found in former Revolutionary War camp sites in upper Manhattan. The artifacts we will look at were found by amateur archaeologists who were associated with our museum at the turn of the 20th century. One group of artifacts we will look at are musket balls, the lead bullets used in the late eighteenth century. We have quite a few musket balls in our collection, and several of them we can tell were repurposed as other things during the war. One musket ball that we think may have had another use can be seen in the picture below. It is not currently on display in the museum- you can only see it here!


Most musket balls are round, but not this one. Do you notice how flat it is? Do you also notice a couple of square-ish indentations along the top? Though we cannot say for sure without serious scientific assessments, those marks could very well be teeth marks.  Why would someone have bitten a musket ball? There is one possible answer that stands out. When a soldier was wounded in battle during the American Revolution, he may have needed surgery. Surgeries at this time were done without much in the way of a numbing agent. Officers were sometimes given rum or brandy to dull the pain, but regular soldiers were merely given something to bite down on…like a musket ball. The lead was soft enough to mold to a soldier’s bite if he bit hard enough. If you have ever heard the expression “to bite the bullet,” this is where it comes from. When a person figuratively bites the bullet, it means they go for something.

Wounded eighteenth century soldiers entering surgery were going for something necessary but very dangerous. Depending on the intensity of the surgery, survival rates were very low. There are many reasons for this, the biggest of which was that doctors did not know about germs, how people became sick, or how to cure people of sickness. In fact, leading surgeons of the Revolutionary War period thought that a wound was healing poorly if it there was no swelling and pus by the fourth day after treatment. Now we know that swelling and pus are signs of infection. Many soldiers who underwent surgery during the American Revolution died either of blood loss, shock, or infection.

If you want to talk more about life during the American Revolution, and hear the stories told by other artifacts, read Cooper and the Enchanted Metal Detector and join us on October 27th. Email familyprograms@nyhistory.org with questions.


Photo credit: New-York Historical Society


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