Q: I found a photo online, apparently from the early 20th century, of a disabled man in a basket chair. Could this be a clue to the origin of “basket case”?
A: The man pictured in the basket chair (a three-wheeled woven rattan wheelchair) is nowhere near as disabled as the original basket case—had such a basket case ever existed.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial term “basket case” originated in the United States shortly after World War I, and meant “a person, esp. a soldier, who has lost all four limbs.”
However, the phrase, which initially referred to American soldiers supposedly left limbless by the war, was a product of the postwar rumor mill in the US. No quadruple-amputee American soldiers existed, and there’s no evidence that any head-and-torso survivors from any country were carried around in baskets.
Nevertheless, word spread that limbless soldiers were being warehoused in one place or another in the US. As a result, the Surgeon General of the Army, Maj. Gen. Merritte W. Ireland, said in 1919 that the rumor had absolutely no foundation in fact.
“I have personally examined the records and am able to say that there is not a single basket case either on this side of the water or among the soldiers of the A. E. F. [Allied Expeditionary Force],” he explained.
Furthermore, the general said in his March 28, 1919, statement, “I wish to emphasize that there has been no instance of an American soldier so wounded during the whole period of the war.”
According to newspaper accounts of the time, only one Allied combatant, a Canadian soldier, is known to have survived the war after a quadruple amputation.
He was Ethelbert (Curley) Christian, a Pennsylvania-born African American who had settled in Canada and joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After he was gravely injured in April 1917 in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, surgeons amputated both arms below the elbows and both legs below the knees.
But he was no “basket case.” He was fitted with prosthetic legs, and family photos show him standing upright. He is even said to have devised an arm prosthesis that enabled him to write. He lived a productive life, dying in 1954.
The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the phrase “basket case” dates from January 1919, two months after the war ended. It’s from Oak Leaves, a local newspaper in Oak Park, Ill.: “There were seven ‘basket cases,’ men without arms or legs.” [The account was apparently inaccurate.]
The term “basket case” isn’t used anymore in that original sense; it refers now to an emotionally disturbed person or an ineffective organization, nation, business, and so on.
The dictionary’s first citation for the phrase used in its ineffective sense is from the Feb. 16, 1948, issue of Life:
“The U.N. may become a more pathetic basket case than the old League of Nations after the Japanese nullified the decision on Manchuria.”
In the early 1950s, the phrase came to mean “a person who is emotionally or mentally unable to cope, esp. because of overwhelming stress or anxiety,” the OED says.
The dictionary’s earliest example of this usage is from Polly Adler’s 1953 autobiography, A House Is Not a Home:
“By New Year’s, 1935, after three months in the new house, I realized I’d wind up a basket case if I didn’t take a vacation.”
[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 16, 2018. We’re grateful to a descendant of the Canadian soldier Curley Christian, who wrote to us about him and supplied photos and newspaper clippings.]