The woman who got impregnated by a bullet

That is an attention-grabbing title, right? It is the kind of story that people will read and remember. And there was such a story that emerged during the American Civil War. It involved a field doctor’s published report of a man who was shot through the scrotum and the bullet subsequently got lodged in a woman and ended up impregnating her. The story grabbed the imagination of people for many years.

Rose Eveleth describes the full story but then writes:

If this sounds extremely unlikely, that’s because it is. In fact, it never happened. The article in The American Medical Weekly was satire, a joke meant to poke fun at the aggrandized Civil War stories the doctor kept hearing. Two weeks later the journal ran an editor’s note clarifying that the piece had been a gag. But somehow, along the chain, the fact that it was a joke got lost. And the story of the impregnating bullet persisted as medical fact as late as 1959.

In 1982, the story was the subject of a Dear Abby column. The writer recounted the tale and ended with, “You don’t believe it? If it hadn’t been published in the very reliable American Heritage magazine (December 1971, page 99 in a story titled “The Case of the Miraculous Bullet”), I wouldn’t have believed it either.” Abby replied: “Several years ago I ran that item in this space, which brought me a letter from a 90-year-old South Dakota Indian. He said he heard a different version of the same story. Only the girl wasn’t a Virginia farm girl, she was an Indian maiden who claimed she had been impregnated by a bow and arrow.”

Eveleth recounts many stories like this that grab the imagination of people and enter the folklore, never to die. This is especially true when the subject matter is science-related. There are many apocryphal stories about science and scientists that are passed on by scientists to their students because they humanize scientists and make the science memorable. Unfortunately, they are often wrong.


  1. Jockaira says

    Arrow impregnation sounds plausible, bullet not even. The speed of the bullet would probably “wipe off” any usuable sperm, the heat of the bulllet would kill any residual sperm, and it’s not likely that a bullet-traumatized vagina or bullet-perforated uterus-fallopian tube-ovary would fulfill their proper function. On the other hand, the Indian maiden could have seen the freshly-landed arrow, marvelled at its shape and length, and used it to self-administer a few moments of joy.

  2. prn says

    I recall a published case report of a young woman who became pregnant via a stabbing that occurred soon after she had performed oral sex on a male partner. This was decades ago, and my old brain can’t remember where it was published, but it was a mainstream medical journal. The woman had undergone surgery to repair her injuries, but returned to the ER months later, not suspecting pregnancy because she had an incomplete, closed vagina and had never menstruated or had PIV intercourse. IIRC, she had a healthy full term baby via CS, and later surgery that gave her a functional vagina. Not quite as fantastical as conception via bullet, but still an interesting tale.

  3. grasshopper says

    An impossible scenario, no matter how ‘gently’ a sperm is transferred from its source of origin. A sperm from the testes is quite immature. It takes approx two months to fully develop after it leaves the testis. Seminal stuff in high school biology.

    btw, was it Urethra Franklin who sang “Every Sperm Is Sacred”?

  4. prn says

    Yes, that’s the one! I was trying to think of the search terms needed to look it up, but you beat me to it.

  5. says

    Heh, I just typed in “pregnancy by stabbing snopes”, which led me to the Snopes message boards (first link, even!), where someone had posted a link to that pdf in the conversation.

    Perusing weird medical shit is kind of a hobby of mine, so…

  6. lorn says

    While it would seem to be highly improbable, impregnation by bullet doesn’t seem impossible.

    As pointed out you would want the bullet to to hit the vas deferens, where the sperm are fully formed and waiting to go into action, not a testicle. To maximize the number of sperm the bullet should be a large caliber, say a .45, and a hollow point. More pain for the male but also more cargo capacity. Ideally the bullet should be traveling just fast enough to penetrate, gather up a maximum load, and make it into the female. A spent .45, starting at a relatively low velocity but with enough mass to carry might be just the ticket. I wouldn’t think you wouldn’t want the slug to land in the womb. Rather you want the slug, a hollow point with a punch biopsy of vas deferens and carrying a couple thousand viable sperm, to end up in the vagina, near the cervix, where it would be a short swim to the ovum.

    Okay, I’ve got to change this up. A .45 , a large diameter bullet, is going to cause a whole lot of trauma going through a vaginal wall. Too much damage to make it. What you gain in cargo of sperm, you lose in trauma to the female. Better make it a small bore hollow point, like a .22. This would also mean that, having less mass, cools more quickly. So more sperm survive. Stories abound of people penetrated by a spent .22 who didn’t know it.

    Of course getting the sperm to the womb is only half the job. The woman would have to have an ovum waiting at the time.

    As highly unlikely as all that might be it doesn’t read like an absolute impossibility. Given enough chances it could work.

    Has it ever happened? Likely not.

    Could it happen? Given a huge number of tries, maybe.

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