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The Man Who Lost His Arms

by Ronald R Johnson (

I mentioned last time that Lloyd Douglas published a weekly column in the Ann Arbor Times-News starting in the Fall of 1915. In his December 18th article, he told his readers about Bill McKinnon (or MacKinnon – both spellings appeared in the column and in related articles in the days ahead). “Big Bill” worked at a farm in Manchester, Michigan, and was sent to Ann Arbor for medical attention when he lost both of his arms in a corn husking machine. Douglas met him in the hospital while doing visitations, and he wrote about Bill’s plight in his weekly column.

Douglas asked him what he thought about the prospect of living without arms. “And he replied, smilingly, without a quaver in his voice, ‘I really don’t know. It’s an awkward situation. I never heard of anybody being in just this fix and I don’t know what I could do. But,’ he reflected, ‘this is a mighty good world and the people wouldn’t let me starve to death, would they?’ I felt sure they would not. ‘And perhaps,’ he continued, ‘perhaps somebody will suggest something for me to do.'”

A few days later, Douglas wrote that he had commended Bill for his positive attitude. “He just grinned and replied, ‘I don’t see how it would help things any for me to complain.  I’m here; and they’re off [his arms, in other words]; and the people [in the hospital] are being very kind to me.  I guess I might as well make the best of it.’”

In his December 18th article, Douglas proposed that the members of the community raise some funds to help Bill with expenses. With only seven days left before Christmas! Even at such short notice, though, the effort was successful. Over the next week, the paper ran a number of articles about the fund drive, listing the names of people who contributed and the amount they gave. There was even a story about an 80-year-0ld woman who shoveled snow to earn money for Bill. The community responded in a big way, and by the time it was over they had collected $968.32. That doesn’t sound like much, but according to one website, it’s equivalent to $27,200.00 in US dollars today (2022). It must’ve seemed like a lot to them, because Douglas made it the headline of his next column.

But raising money was only a small part of Douglas’s plan. What he really wanted the people of Ann Arbor to do – and what he kept writing about in subsequent articles – was to help Bill think of some way he could contribute to society, even with his disability.

“It’s a clear case that Bill doesn’t propose to be a public charge if he can help it.  He has always been independent and he rebels at the idea of having the state look after him.  I think this is the only real worry he has.  His pain and discomfort seem not to count much.”

This was a new idea in 1915. Typically, someone in Bill’s situation would be institutionalized. He’d have to be. An article in the Tmes-News (probably written anonymously by Douglas) explained why. “Did it ever occur to you just how helpless Big Bill is? Here are a lot of good people with big hearts preparing to establish for him a bank account, but having no arms it will not be possible for him to sign a check when he wants to draw on that fund. If instead of a bank account the checks and currency which have been sent to the Times-News office were turned into nice crisp $10 notes and handed to Big Bill, he couldn’t even put them in his pockets, and if somebody were to place them in his pockets he couldn’t take them out. Though he has the frame of a giant and the strength of an ox, he is as helpless as a baby in arms. But money can do a lot of things. It can secure him somebody to wait upon him until such a time as he can learn to wait upon himself. Because in time Big Bill will learn to use his toes and his teeth to supply the need of arms. A human being is ingenious, and when one is deprived of a limb he learns to get along without it. Doubtless there are mechanical arms which may be secured, and which will help Big Bill to help himself. Anyhow, Big Bill does not propose to become a charge upon the community if he can help it, and the contributions of the good people of Ann Arbor will go a long way toward helping him to independence.”

In another article Douglas wrote, “When [Bill] saw me coming to his bedside he greeted me with a cheery ‘Hello!’ and asked, ‘Well, have you thought of anything yet?’  Bill always asks me that when I see him now.  He means, ‘Have you thought of anything a man without arms can do to provide for his living?’”

As I said earlier, this was a new idea in 1915. Normally, he’d have been put in an institution so that nurses or local volunteers could feed him, bathe him, dress him, and so on, but Bill wanted to remain in the world as a productive member of society. Douglas used his weekly column to excite the imaginations of his highly-educated community. If they put their heads together, could they think of a way for Bill to live a somewhat normal life, even with his disability? For us in 2022, this seems like a possibility; but for “Big Bill” in 1915, it wasn’t.

There is only one more mention of Bill in Douglas’s scrapbooks. It’s an undated newspaper article about Bill McKinnon suing Frank Turner (his former employer) for damages. It’s on p. 10 of Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook, along with other articles dated Spring 1918. The article just tells us that the trial is going before Judge George W. Sample and a jury “today” in the circuit court in Ann Arbor. We aren’t told the outcome.

This is one of the topics I have on my “Wish List” at this website. I have an open-ended request for readers to tell me if anyone knows what became of Bill. Back in 2007, I put the question in an online bulletin board for Washtenaw County history buffs, but didn’t get an answer. I had hoped to search the county court records, available in Lansing, but court records for that period of time were destroyed in a flood.

Unless I eventually hear from someone, we’ll never know what happened to “Big Bill.” From what I know about Lloyd Douglas, he was probably disappointed that Bill sued his employer, although only litigation and legislation could ever have made our society more open to people like Bill. I think about him sometimes and wonder if he was ever able to do anything with his life. If anyone out there knows the answer, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

At any rate, this shows you the kinds of projects Douglas devoted himself to, over and above being a minister and writer. He was quite idealistic but also somewhat unrealistic. I think he honestly believed that someone in the community would buddy-up with Bill and help him carve out his niche. Maybe they did. If so, I hope we find out someday.

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