One of the documentaries I regretted not being able to see at this year’s True/False festival is now being released theatrically. It became the must-see movie of the festival, with moviegoers willing to Q (wait) more than three hours for its final screening.
Many of you may be familiar with this bizarre story that made national news in the late naughts. This story makes me wonder if it was the inspiration for the reality series Storage Wars.
On January 17th, 2004 a North Carolina man, John Wood, was in a plane crash that killed his father. Although John survived, his injuries necessitated the amputation of his leg.
Conscious upon arrival at the hospital, he recalled speaking with two to three people, one of them the surgeon, before the operation. He was anesthetized with the reassurance that his leg would be returned to him after its disarticulation. John had his reasons for wanting to keep his leg which are expounded on by himself and his family members; the leg represents his father and wants it to be a memorial to his father. Of course.
Yes, it’s gross and weird. Do hospitals grant these requests? My doctor friend informed me that’s it’s clearly against the law to return them. Body tissues are sent to the pathology department and then are incinerated. The hospital may honor a request for hardware such as metal screws and plates after the hospital has sterilized them.
However, my research has revealed that the answer is not so straightforward, not unlike the story of John Wood’s leg. Most corporal requests are granted for religious reasons.
According to Jewish law, body parts must be buried just as a body would be buried. Fortunately, bandages need not be removed from the appendage and its owner’s burial need not be concurrent.
Muslims, like the most religious Jews, require burial occur within twenty-four hours of death, but a Google search for “Can amputated limbs be returned to Muslims” returned pages of articles related to forced punitive amputations as directed by Sharia law, so for them, I can’t say.
Another friend informed me that hospitals neither make their own rules nor write the law, the city in which the hospital is located does.
Despite the best efforts of those in the medical field to reconcile religious tradition with medical protocol, conflict is inevitable. Moshe Lefkowitz, an Orthodox Jew in Chicago whose story begs for its own documentary, asked for and received the same assurance as did John Wood before he entered surgery to amputate his leg.
Unlike Mr. Lefkowitz, John’s leg was returned to him. A mortician retrieved the leg from the hospital, wrapped it tightly in a white trash bag, as you do, and left it on John’s doorstep- ding-dong-ditch style.
John was expecting to receive only his leg bones, not his leg in toto, a clarification he did not assume was necessary.
He couldn’t fit the leg in his freezer, so he asked a friend who worked at a Hardee’s if he could store it in theirs just for a few hours while he figured out a more suitable site. That’s a good friend.
We should all be reassured that the manager of that Hardee’s discovered the leg in the freezer not five minutes after it had been dropped off there. This reassurance should then be tempered by the fact that John’s leg was returned to him through the drive-thru window.
John took his leg home to mummify it, redneck style, basting it with embalming fluid smuggled out of the mortuary by a friend who worked there. John’s certainly got good friends.
It’s not clear how the leg traveled from the possum tree where he placed it to dry out to the inside of a disused grill, but such was its journey.
Circumstances forced John to have all his belongings placed in storage. His mother paid the bill for the first three months, and John neglected to take over the payments.
Enter Shannon Whisnant, an anomalous reincarnation of P.T. Barnum who was aware that fate intended for him to be famous from a young age.
As a boy, he looked up at the stars and “wished to be on TV a bunch, one day I might be a movie star, be one (sic). I might be rich, have plenty more money. That’d be super cool.” He also knew of John Wood when he was a child and resented not being his friend.
Shannon’s date with destiny occurred in 2007 on the day he went to a storage locker auction and opened up the grill he’d just bought. At first he was horrified by his discovery. He called 911.
His notoriety began with a local TV news report about his discovery that included the 911 call. The chyron for the story read: “Foot Fight.” Shannon told the reporter that he’d spoken with his Uncle Footlo (really?) the night before who had remarked “I’d [Shannon] always been famous. Just now everybody’s finding it.”
Shannon was going to make his name and fortune from the leg; he’s been arguably more successful with the former. He charged people to view it, had his license plate read FTSMOKER, and his friends were even calling him “Foot.” Even today, his Twitter handle is @footmannc.
It was inevitable that the publicity from the story would reach John Wood. John wanted his foot back. Understandably. At first, Shannon tried to cut John in on his money-making plans for the leg. But John did not want to go into business with Shannon, let alone share possession of his leg.
Despite not having the limb in his possession, Shannon informed John that the leg was no longer his (John was the “birth owner”). Shannon waved his receipt as proof to all who questioned his ownership. Poor John didn’t have a leg to stand on. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
What followed was a battle for the leg, the primary battlefields were local news stations. No resolution was possible until a national television court show offered a to adjudicate with no possibility of appeal. Not only did this TV judge end the years-long feud, he offered reparations that showed he has far more character off-screen.
Directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel go to great lengths to humanize these unfortunate characters; some of their efforts are more successful than others.
It’s easy to think of John as the protagonist and Shannon as the antagonist. I suggest you restrain the impulse to label the characters and divide the story into identifiable acts. If Shannon had not challenged John’s ownership, John’s life would not have changed as radically as it did.
I give them credit for permitting us to laugh at this ridiculous fracas and the characters that created it while not forgetting these characters are real people who have not led charmed lives. John lists his misfortunes in a news clip in the movie, including his having been “electrocuted.” (I’m sure he meant to say “shocked by electricity,” as “electrocution” implies death.)
I hope this movie will stay in cinémas long enough to grow legs (Again, I couldn’t resist) and become the sleeper hit it deserves to be.
As if this tale couldn’t become stranger, Entertainment Weekly‘s review of this movie revealed that Shannon Whisnant has sustained injuries to his own left leg that may necessitate it having to be amputated.