Meet Forthman Murff, the man who nearly cut his own head off with a chainsaw and lived to talk about it.
The most popular clip at my web site is “Strange Cases: The Worst of Current Research,” a piece I wrote for the 10th Anniversary issue of JEMS: The Journal of Emergency Medical Services. This article gets far more hits than any other in my portfolio.
For eight years, I did a monthly column reviewing clinical research papers of interest to EMTs and paramedics. The gig didn’t pay a lot, but it forced me to keep up with a wide swath of the medical literature and was a great experience.
A couple of years into the Current Research column, I decided to liven things up by including a “Strange Case of the Month” based on offbeat but scientifically legitimate papers I encountered, such as a case series of deaths by tipping vending machines and a study of fatalities due to falling coconuts.
To my surprise, reader surveys showed that my column was the most popular regular feature in the magazine. Many people told me that the Strange Case was the first thing they turned to each month.
In 1990, when JEMS celebrated its 10th anniversary, the editors asked contributors to come up with something special. So I put together a collection of items too bizarre and extreme to ever include as a Strange Case. Honestly, I thought the editors would want to cut parts of it, but it ran word-for-word as written.
My favorite anecdote of the bunch is the case of Murff. It’s the most amazing tale of survival I ever heard.
Last June, a comment was left at the end of Strange Cases: “Forthman Murff was my Granddad’s first cousin, and I have the original newspaper article that my Granny cut out of the newspaper. My sister has gone to Gattman, MS to visit Forthman’s daughter.”
Thus began an email exchange with Lyne Murff Perdue, who was kind enough to provide newspaper clips that fill in a lot of details about Forthman and what happened to him. Thanks again, Lyne.
The story is even more amazing and extraordinary than I knew. I’m warning you now, read no further if you are the least bit queasy with this stuff. It’s bloody, grisly and disturbingly graphic. All of the quotes herein are from accounts Murff gave reporters over the years.
In May of 1984, Forthman Murff was a 74-year-old lumberjack cutting wood in an isolated area not far from his home in Gattman, Mississippi, a small town on the Alabama border.
Murff had worked with chainsaws his whole life, taking credit for personally cutting 1,900 acres of timber for Kerr-McGee over the years. His age hadn’t slowed Murff down much, and he was out working alone as usual that day. He cut a big tree and stepped back to watch it fall to the North.
From 80 feet up, a large tree limb fell and struck Murff on the shoulder, knocking him 10 feet into a ditch. Then another limb fell, breaking his left leg and crushing his left foot. Murff was briefly knocked unconscious and pinned beneath the branches. When he regained consciousness, Murff felt the roaring chainsaw tearing into his neck.
The chainsaw had ripped through Murff’s windpipe, esophagus, a lot of muscle, both external jugular veins and one internal jugular vein. The only structures keeping his head attached to his body were the spine, carotid arteries, and the meat of the back of his neck.
This is a lethal injury by any measure. Had the chainsaw dug a few millimeters deeper and nicked a carotid artery, it would have been fatal for sure. If asked how long somebody could survive with this devastating trauma to the neck, I’d have guessed a few minutes at the most. The victim is going to bleed out, choke, have difficulty breathing, lose consciousness or develop air embolism, and it’s going to happen quickly. Within minutes. It just isn’t survivable.
But Murff didn’t die. Oh heck no. He was mad. Murff threw the chainsaw as far as he could. Blood was burbling into his airway, making it hard for him to breathe. He knew he had to stand up and struggled to his feet. “I saw a stream of blood about the size of my little finger,” Murff said. “It wasn’t coming in spurts, so I thought I might have a chance.”
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going somewhere else,’ and I hopped off on one foot.”
Blood poured into his airway. “I knew I had to get that blood out of my lungs, so I could breathe,” Murff said. “So I held my head way over and let the blood run out of my lungs.”
Murff was in tremendous pain. “My foot was really hurting, but you can’t let something like that stop you,” he said. “I made that thing walk whether it wanted to our not.”
He cleared his airway again while struggling the 150 feet to his truck, and a third time before getting inside the truck because, he said, “I knew I would have to be sitting up and would have to breathe.”
Although unable to speak, Murff never lost consciousness and never panicked. Despite profuse bleeding, a severed airway and numerous broken bones, Murff drove himself a half-mile to a neighbor’s house.
“When I got to my neighbor’s house, he was standing right there, so I jumped into his truck and held my head down so the blood could run out,” Murff said.
The neighbor drove him to Gilmore Memorial Hospital, 17 miles away in Amory. Facing trauma far beyond their capabilities, doctors transferred Murff by ambulance to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, another 30 miles further, where surgeons rushed to save his life and repair the injuries to his neck.
Murff survived, although that was the end of his lumberjack career. He recovered well and lived to a ripe old age, giving him plenty of time for reading, hunting, and playing guitar and harmonica for his family.
In 1994, ten years after the accident, Murff was profiled in the Tupelo Daily Journal. He told reporter Jason Cother that music was his third love, after Jesus Christ and chainsaws.
I told Lyne that I always considered Forthman Murff as the epitome of cool. He showed fortitude, presence of mind, and incredible physical strength. The story figures prominently in Murff family lore. For years, a newspaper clip was kept on the refrigerator as inspiration for Lyne’s three now-grown sons. It’s an astounding story, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn more about this remarkable person.