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A Victim of ‘Retrocephalitis’

November 15, 2010 |  3:24 am

  Nov. 15, 1910, Benjamin Sheppard  

Nov. 15-17, 1910: Benjamin Sheppard was a large, powerful garbage worker, a victim of “retrocephalitis” that turned him into a “animal-man.” At least that’s what The Times reported. And yes, he was African American.

"That Sheppard is a victim of this peculiar ailment is further proved, according to the Receiving Hospital attendants, by his gorilla-like features and poise. He has the sunken neck, long sinewy arms, oval-shaped head, beady eyes, distended lips and slouchy ambling gait of the man-beast," The Times said.

Sheppard (or Shepherd in the Herald stories)  was discussing religion with fellow African Americans in an alley on 5th Street between Spring and Main when there was evidently a disagreement and he drew a .41-caliber revolver.

Traffic Officer A. Arguello, assigned to Fifth and Main, chased Sheppard toward Spring, and Sheppard jumped into a parked automobile and told the chauffeur drive away. As Sheppard and the chauffeur argued, Arguello punched Sheppard, knocking him into the street, where he began firing at the officer. As Arguello sought cover behind the auto, one of Sheppard’s shots hit a pedestrian, Giovanni Simoni,  penetrating his lung.

Although the original stories said Simoni was badly injured and expected to die, later coverage said that his condition had improved.

Sheppard, meanwhile, was examined at the Receiving Hospital, where he was deemed a victim of “retrocephalitis” that had turned him into an “animal-man” of stunning strength. Further investigation showed that he was the son of a Baptist preacher and had been confined to an insane asylum in his native Alabama.

Officials decided to send him to the county hospital’s mental ward for evaluation and he put up a struggle before being taken from the jail.  "You are going to hang me," he cried. "I know all about it. You are going to string me up like they do niggers in the South," The Times said. 

There’s no further information on the case in The Times or the Herald, so we don’t know the ultimate outcome.

  Nov. 15, 1910, Benjamin Sheppard  
  Nov. 15, 1910, Benjamin Sheppard  
  Nov. 15, 1910, Benjamin Sheppard  
  Nov. 15, 1910, Benjamin Sheppard  

  Nov. 16, 1910, Benjamin Sheppard