People begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics

Thursday, September 2nd, 2021

I was aware that a gutta percha walking stick was used in the famous caning of Charles Sumner, but I had assumed that gutta percha was simply a hard wood, ideal for walking sticks, but gutta percha in much more interesting than that:

The stick is made of gutta percha, the hardened latex of the Palaquium gutta tree, originally native to Malaysia. This is a natural “thermoplastic” substance, meaning it can be softened with heat and shaped into a form that is retained on cooling. Gutta percha was introduced to Europe in 1842 by Dr. William Montgomerie, a surgeon serving with the British army in the East Indies who had come across the substance in Singapore, where it was being used to make handles for machetes. He thought the substance would be useful to produce handles for medical devices as well as splints for fractures.

Victorian society quickly took to gutta percha. Chess pieces, mirror cases and jewelry were fabricated with it, and dentists found it useful for filling cavities. But perhaps the biggest impact was on the game of golf. At the time, golf balls were made of feather-stuffed leather, were expensive, and not exactly aerodynamic. Balls fashioned out of gutta percha were cheaper and flew further. When they were dinged up, these “gutties” could be repaired by softening in boiled water, and then reshaping in a hand press. The ball’s popularity increased when it was discovered that grooves cut into the surface allowed for a longer flight. Gutties were the ball of choice until about 1900, when they were replaced by the Haskell ball, made of a solid core of rubber wrapped tightly with rubber threads.

Interestingly, rubber, which is also an exudate of a tree, and gutta percha have almost identical molecular structures. They are both polymers of a simple molecule, isoprene, so can be termed as polyisoprenes, but different “kinks” in the long molecules, referred to as “cis” or “trans,” allow for different properties. While gutta percha is thermoplastic, rubber is thermosetting, meaning that once formed into a shape it cannot be reshaped with heat. The rubber used in the Haskell ball was “vulcanized,” a process introduced by Charles Goodyear, who discovered that treating natural rubber with sulphur allowed it to be made into a very hard material. It turns out that the sulphur atoms cross-link the cis polyisoprene units to form a tough latex.

Michael Faraday, the brilliant English scientist who carried out numerous experiments with electricity, found that gutta percha was an excellent insulator — a property that allowed it to be put to use as a coating for the newfangled telegraph cables. In a monumental engineering undertaking between 1854 and 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, insulated with gutta percha, was laid down. Unfortunately, it quickly failed. But by 1865, improvements in technology resulted in a properly functioning gutta percha-insulated telegraph cable that allowed messages to be sent between the continents in a few minutes. Prior to this, communication was via ships and could take weeks. Gutta percha proved to be a huge triumph and served well until it was eventually replaced by polyethylene insulation.


In 1856, Democrat Preston Brooks brutally attacked Republican Sumner with his walking stick on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sumner, a dedicated abolitionist, had made a strong speech against slavery, a practice that Brooks favoured. The attack was so violent that Brooks’s gutta percha cane broke into pieces, some of which were recovered from the Senate floor and cut into rings that southern lawmakers wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks, who boasted that people begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics.

(Hat tip to Hans Schantz.)


  1. VXXC says:

    Nice click bait. I’ll bite. After the beating….

    “American Party Congressman Anson Burlingame publicly humiliated Brooks in retaliation by goading Brooks into challenging him to a duel, accepting, then watching Brooks back out.”

    The True Democrat.

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