Podcast:  Mississippi’s Saint Denis – Surviving Near-Decapitation by Chainsaw

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In the dirt of Sulligent Alabama there lies a badass.  In May 1984 a 74-year-old man named Forthman Rexdale Murff was alone in Gattman Mississippi cutting down trees for a nearby timber company.  He’d been a lumberjack for decades and he knew his trade well.  On this particular day though, he cut down one large tree which struck several others on its way to the ground.  Large branches from the trees cracked and snapped, and a shower of heavy limbs and tree trunks crashed down on Forthman Murff.  He was thrown to the ground and he either briefly lost consciousness, or a rush of adrenaline prevented the moment from adhering to his memory.  Forthman’s recollection of the event picked back up with the realization that his left leg was broken, and his left foot was crushed.  He could also hear the roaring of his chainsaw.  His chainsaw had preceded him to the ground, and Forthman had landed on top of it.  The jagged metal teeth had chewed through the front of his neck, through his esophagus, through all four jugular veins, and almost everything else connecting his head to the rest of his body.  The blades didn’t stop until they reached his spine.  By then his head was affixed to his shoulders by only his spinal column, some skin on the back of his neck, and a bit of tissue near his spine which included his carotid arteries.

“People tell me that the Lord left you here for a reason, and I ask them what that reason is but they can’t tell me. I can tell you I
know it wasn’t for chasing women or he wouldn’t have broke my leg.”

The awareness of his dire circumstances pushed its way to the front of his mind, but Forthman did not panic.  Instead, he got angry.  He irately threw his chainsaw aside and struggled to his feet.  Because the muscles in his neck had been bisected, he had to use his hands to hold his own head upright atop his shoulders.  He began hopping on his unbroken leg back to his pickup truck.  On the way to his truck he was forced to stop several times, lean over, pull his head back, and drain the blood from his windpipe so that he could continue to breathe.

Forthman was able to survive in this condition until eventually reaching the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.  After six surgeries and after fighting off several infections, Forthman recovered almost fully from his ordeal.  Dr. Roger Lowery, one of the surgeons who tended to Murff said, “You shouldn’t be able to cut your head halfway off and drive out of the woods.  You aught to bleed to death in two or three minutes.  It could have happened to someone out here in the parking lot (of the hospital) and they could have died.”

Forthman lived for another 18 years after his accident, eventually passing away at the age of 92.  Those years that were returned to him were filled with hardships though.  His wife of 52 years passed away during his recovery.  Because his medical bills had torn through their savings, he was unable to buy a headstone to mark her grave.  Later, he’d be unable even to afford the glasses that he needed for reading.  In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, he said that he wasn’t terribly interested in money but that he did hope to accumulate just enough to buy a joint grave marker for his wife and eventually for himself.

In this episode, Jamie and I interview Forthman’s nephew who told us stories of growing up next door to his favorite uncle.  We also embarked on our first ever Where is the Line? road trip in which we visited Sulligent Alabama to find out whether or not Forthman managed to get that joint headstone for his wife and for himself.


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