Shell-shock / Amnesia / Kleptomania

During the past week or so I’ve come across three fictional shell-shock victims whose symptoms include kleptomania.

First there was Spoofy, the comically deranged victim of shell-shock in the play Three Live Ghosts; then there was a character in a Galsworthy story. Now today I have been reading a very odd story in the Strand Magazine for November 1919. It is called MacKurd: A Tale of the Aftermath, by Bertram Atkey.

Glende, the director of a bank, interviews an ex-officer called MacKurd for the post of cashier. MacKurd is 26 years old, has won the V.C., the M.C., and the Croix de Guerre. He wears an eye-patch, has a wooden foot, and suffers from “the Buzz” (“It’s nothing much, though. It’s a soft thick cobwebby sort of a buzz in my head.”)

He warns that if he is appointed as cashier he might sometimes feel tempted to take some of the lovely rustling notes home with him, so Glende wisely decides not to give him the job, but because he deduces (on smallish evidence) that MacKurd saved his son’s life in France, he appoints him to a sinecure as his own personal secretary. We are told that:

One watching him would never have dreamed that MacKurd V.C. was a nervous wreck, flying at a fearful speed upon a swift golden stream of champagne to the rapids of insanity and the deep falls of death.

MacKurd drinks brandy laced with champagne, gambles at “evil dens in the West-end”, steals things and signs cheques with Glende’s name – behaviour entirely explicable by shell-shock apparently. When he’s crashed Glende’s car, young David Glende returns from the war, utterly amnesic,and unable to recognise his father or sister. When he meets his old comrade MacKurd, though, the shock of meeting renders both of them sane. David suddenly remembers everything again, while MacKurd loses his kleptomania and, we are told as an epilogue, eventually marries Glende’s daughter.

Was kleptomania medically recognised as a symptom of shell-shock? Or was this just part of folklore? Maybe based on light-fingered ex-soldiers who blamed war experience for their lapses in honesty?

The story is remarkably silly, but possibly appealed at a time when people were fascinated and horrified by the things that war could do to people. Nor should we feel too superior to the readers of 1919. If MacKurd were alive today, he would probably be used to provide an episode of one of the documentary series about loonies that seem to be common on TV today. Even as I write this, my wife is watching a BBC3 programme about a woman who is terrified of buttons. The other day we watched five minutes of a programme about a man who could eat nothing but spaghetti hoops, and vomited if offered anything else. How the producers would have loved MacKurd!

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