The Spirit of Giving

Here in the United States we’re deep in the holiday season—and that means relentless advertising. Shopping malls ring with the sounds of Christmas carols, and “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward men” is conflated with the strident message that the best way to express this goodwill is to buy lots of stuff. 

Bah humbug?

It’s easy to become cynical about the commercialization of our best impulses  to imagine that no shred of altruism motivates the arch-capitalists who’ve made life so frantic for so many. But just because it’s easy to understand things that way doesn’t make it so.

In 1912, in an Appalachian mining camp, a gas-fired kitchen stove exploded without warning. The accident horribly burned the hapless chef, an off-duty nurse who worked in the company hospital caring for sick or injured miners. Gangrene set in and it seemed almost inevitable that Pearl Gossett would die. Her only hope was that enough volunteers would agree to provide a square inch or two of their own skin to temporarily replace part of hers. Pearl’s injuries were extensive enough to require a total of forty or fifty square inches.

Neither miners nor hospital workers would volunteer to help play even a small part to save Pearl’s life. Finally, as she lay near death, an unlikely hero appeared. A part-time nurse chanced to hear about the accident from the doctor who’d been working desperately, but fruitlessly, to round up donors. The part-time nurse didn’t know Pearl, had never met her, but volunteered to undergo the painful operation and even more agonizing recuperation—and to provide the entire graft all by himself!

The doctor was shocked. Forty or fifty square inches—all from one donor?

Yes, the part-time nurse said, and asked how soon the graft was needed. As soon as possible, replied the doctor. The part-time nurse said he was ready. The doctor hesitated: just one donor? Was he sure? This was going to be painful and risky; was there any next-of-kin to notify? Never mind that, said the donor, just do it. Now.

The operation took place later that day and was worse than the doctor had feared; that night a total of seventy-two square inches of skin was harvested from the part-time nurse’s thighs. The donor spent weeks in the hospital recovering from his wounds. But to survive, Pearl Gossett needed yet more skin. Not yet fully healed from the first operation, the part-time nurse immediately agreed to start the entire ordeal all over again.  

Another fifty square inches of skin were harvested, this time from his back. He spent three more painful months in the hospital—all to save the life of a woman he’d never met.

He finally emerged from the hospital, penniless and out of work, just in time to celebrate Christmas, 1912.  He wore the scars for the rest of his life, but because they were normally hidden under his clothes, none were the wiser; the part-time nurse never talked about his selfless act. 

After a series of misadventures he later moved to Boston and opened, of all things, an investment firm trading in postal International Reply Coupons. Traded in bulk, these coupons could be exchanged at a profit in much the way currency traders make money today by following the vagaries of fluctuating exchange rates. The former nurse quickly made a fortune for himself and many fortunes for his clients.

A competitor not only entered the market but even opened offices on the same floor of the same building as the nurse-turned-trader’s office. The new entrant advertised guaranteed high returns, forcing the former nurse to make the same claim. All went well for a while, then the market tightened and investors became more skittish.  Some of them demanded their money back, with earnings, and within weeks the nurse’s business failed. In an effort to keep the business going as it passed through what he’d taken for a brief rough path, the nurse turned wheeler-dealer had resorted to paying off those investors who’d demanded their money back with funds deposited by subsequent investors. For this expedient he was tried, convicted, imprisoned, stripped of his assets, and disgraced. The final ignominy: never a US citizen, after finally managing to pay off his creditors and completing his prison term, onetime nurse Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi was deported to Italy.

As we wade through throngs of frantic holiday shoppers, our “goodwill toward men” perhaps wearing a bit thin in spots, let us remember there are some gifts that truly are precious, and that they’re rarely available in shopping malls.  Let’s reflect that there may be everyday heroes in our midst.  And remember that we’re never going to be able to predict just  who may be one of these everyday heroes. Therefore each of the human beings around us deserves to be treated as potentially harboring that selfless spark.

Let’s reflect that the infamous  Charles Ponzi, namesake and and perpetrator one hundred years ago this Christmas of  the original “Ponzi” scheme, of the goodness of his heart once spent four agonizing months to save the life of a woman he’d never met.

Peace on Earth to people of good will. 

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