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The Life-Saving Techniques of Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery

March 7, 2016

“You need never despair of saving life till you have tried faithfully for at least an hour and a half…”


Above: Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery.


The following interesting article, which details methods for resuscitation and “the saving of life,” originally appeared in the New York Spirit of the Times, in May of 1878.


The author was the noted swordsman, soldier, and adventurer, Colonel Thomas H. Monstery, who reportedly fought more than fifty duels and served under twelve flags. Monstery also taught a system of self-defense that included punching, kicking, grappling, head-butting, and other techniques of unarmed and armed self-defense, as detailed in his martial arts treatise, recently republished as Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies.

Monstery, who had trained at both the the Central Institute of Physical Culture (Kungliga Gymnastiska Centralinstitutet) in Stockholm and the Royal Military Gymnastic Institute (Kongelige Militaire Gymnastiske Institut) at Copenhagen, later settled in the United States, where he opened a number of academies that provided instruction in the arts of fencing, boxing, self-defense, and swimming.

Regarding the following life-saving techniques, Monstery stated that such instruction was neccessary, because “hardly ten men in any State of the Union know how to save the life of another without danger to their own safety.” Notably, Monstery’s techniques utilize such unusual tools as string, rubber-bands, bricks, driftwood, hot bottles, and “a glass of the best spirits procurable.”

This additional article, not included in the republication of Monstery’s martial arts treatise, gives additional insight into the life, mind, and techniques of this remarkable character.

By Colonel Thomas H. Monstery.

Graduate of the Royal Military Institute of Gymnastics and Arms
in Denmark, and Professor Ling’s Central Gymnastic Institute of
Stockholm; Professor of Arms in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Russia;
in the Service of Spain, Central and South America, and the Mexican
Republic; formerly of Baltimore, and late Eight Years Instructor
in the San Francisco Olympic Club.

Life saving motions are taught in scientific swimming-schools by a regular drill, so as to give confidence to the swimmer and accustom him to go to work in the right way, with the least danger to himself and with the best chance of saving his comrade. They are compounded of backswimming and tread-water motions, and best performed on the back, with both feet and one hand, the other hand being used to support the drowning person. The position of the body is oblique in the water, the motion of the legs and arm the same as in tread-water, but owing to the oblique position of the body, progress is made by the motions. To become familiar with the saving motions, assume the oblique tread-water position, keeping one arm hugged close to the breast, and swim in all directions till you have mastered the secret, after which, change hands, and practice swimming with the other arm hugged to the breast. Observe that the feet move alternately, as in tread-water. Simultaneous motions, as in the common breast and back swimming, cause too much rising and falling in the water from the oblique position, to be practiced in life-saving.


When these motions are thoroughly learned, you will come to the real practice of saving, beginning by the carrying of weights. Procure, if convenient, a straw sack, with enough weights—stones or similar articles—in the bottom, to make the lower part heaviest, and the whole sack a little heavier than the water. This “dummy” is to represent the drowning person, and you must remember that you cannot safely tow a drowning person to shore unless he or she be as quiet and unresisting as the dummy. Practice with the dummy in the same manner as without it, hugging it to the breast with the arm that was before idle, letting the lower part of the sack fall between your feet, and practicing swimming to and fro with it till you can carry it without any distress a hundred yards or so.

What can be done by a swimmer carrying a burden in this way is shown by an instance which I heard of at Copenhagen, where a certain brewer swam in this manner, carrying another man a full Danish mile, that is more than three of oar miles. It is true that this swimmer was very muscular and fleshy, and floated easily, but under any circumstances it was a tremendous feat, which in the end caused the swimmer to lose his health for life from the effects of his exertions. By no other way of swimming could he possibly have accomplished the task.


“If you can catch him by both arms, between the shoulder and elbow, from behind, you will have the best chance to escape his clutch…”

Having practiced with the dummy, the saving of life becomes comparatively easy, and only requires a little advice and a knowledge of the usual behavior of drowning persons. In saving you must be careful not to approach the drowning person in front, as he is sure to clutch at you and try to mount to the surface on your shoulders in the wild instinct of despair, being moreover in a stupefied condition. Approach him, therefore, from the rear, and if he tries to seize your limbs, keep away. If you can catch him by both arms, between the shoulder and elbow, from behind, you will have the best chance to escape his clutch. Let him sink twice, if he is strong, and do not attempt to save him till he comes up the third time, when he is nearly senseless and quits quiet. If you are caught by him, endeavor to duck his head under the water till he lets go. Try to get your knees up between him and you, and then push him away with knees and feet, and you will surely break from his hold. In fact, a desperate drowning person must be more than half drowned before it is safe to approach him. An exhausted swimmer sinking is not so dangerous, as he generally keeps his presence of mind when he feels a friendly hand seizing him, and allows himself to be supported. As soon as the person to be saved is quiet, take him round the body, under the arms, lying with his back on your breast, which will tend to restore confidence if he has any sense left. Do this in the same manner as that in which you carried the dummy. Then take him to shore, keeping his mouth above water. What to do with him when ashore will be shown next.

“As long as the limbs are flexible and the body is not cold and stiff, a prospect remains of restoring life…”

It has often happened that persons have lost their lives from having been under water less than five minutes, owing to the ignorance of the people who tried to restore consciousness by improper methods. On the other hand, instances have been known in which drowned persons have been restored to life after being under water for fifteen or twenty minutes, in a few cases even longer. The fact is that science has been unable to determine exactly at what moment life becomes entirely extinct in a body, and the process of recalling animation to an apparently lifeless body is not entirely hopeless until every method has been tried for several hoars. As long as the limbs are flexible and the body is not cold and stiff, a prospect remains of restoring life. Every person who learns to swim should therefore never be satisfied unless he knows how to save the life of a drowning person, first by bringing bim ashore, second by reviving him.

“If you have a rubber band in your pocket, pull out the tongue of the drowned person and pass the band round tongue and chin…”

As soon as the body is brought to shore it should be rubbed dry with a coarse towel and vigorous friction. Lay it on the ground immediately, while this is being done or before it, face downward, the pit of the stomach resting on a hard pillow, six or eight inches high, made up of anything you can find in a moment. A folded coat, on a stone or piece of driftwood, will answer the purpose. Press, with quick jerks, on the back of the body with the palms of the hands, forcing the stomach and diaphragm against the pillow. This discharges the water that has been swallowed almost instantly.

In the directions which follow I have detailed the method used by Dr. Silvester, of England, and published by the Royal Humane Society. It’s great merit is that it can be employed by a single person in case of no help being near. If obedient assistants are available they make the work easier.

Turn the body on its back on the same pillow, chest arched upwards. Clean out and dry the mouth with a dry handkerchief, and draw forward the tongue, which must be kept projecting beyond the lips, so that it not fall back and cover the windpipe. There are several ways to effect this. If you have a rubber band in your pocket, pull out the tongue of the drowned person and pass the band round tongue and chin. If no band is forthcoming, a string will do the business. If nothing else is at hand, close the lower jaw on the tongue, so as to keep it from falling back. The upper part of the body must be stripped of everything tight, if not already naked. Now you are ready to imitate the movements of breathing.

“This is the whole secret of artificial breathing…”

Kneel down by the head of the drowned person, and take the arms just above the elbow. Draw them up above the head, and keep them there for two seconds. Then turn them down, and press them firmly, and as hard as you can, against the sides for the same period.


This is the whole secret of artificial breathing: The arms are to be worked up and down slowly and regularly, ending each stroke with a strong pressure on the sides. The pressure forces out the air from the lungs, while working the arms up draws it in. There are several ways of inducing this artificial breathing, such as slowly turning the body on the face, working one arm up, then over on the side again. I have chosen the method above detailed as the simplest of all, and because it requires only one person. If there are more helpers, one can take each arm and work it, while the rest irritate the nerves. All the rubbing should be done toward the heart, to stimulate the return of the blood in the veins. Hot bottles and bricks can be placed to the body to restore warmth.

All these measures, however, are useless till the breathing is restored, and the artificial respiration must therefore be continued without ceasing. Instances have been known where persons have been restored by artificial respiration after three hours work, so that you need never despair of saving life till you have tried faithfully for at least an hour and a half.

Never allow a body to be carried with the head down, or rolled on a barrel, as is the common superstition of ignorant people living by the waterside. Either practice is nearly certain to kill the patient. The most common of all superstitions is that the drowned person has swallowed a great deal of water, which must come out. This is a grave mistake. Very little water is really swallowed, and it is only the small quantity in the windpipe that must be pressed out by squeezing the body on the pillow, as described above.

“As soon as natural breathing recurs, a glass of the best spirits procurable, half water, and hot, if possible, should be given…”

The first indication of returning life is a sound between a gasp and a groan, and indescribably painful to hear. As soon as this occurs, hurry the side pressures, and work the arms more rapidly. Let the pressures be lighter but more rapid as respiration returns. The next indication of life will be a movement of the eyelids. As soon as this takes place, give a teaspoonful of some strong spirit, and continue the artificial breathing, but with slighter pressures, till natural breathing takes place. The friction of the body must be continued, after breathing returns, with more energy. As soon as natural breathing recurs, a glass of the best spirits procurable, half water, and hot, if possible, should be given, after which the patient should be wrapped in blankets, and made warm and comfortable, and allowed to sleep. The general idea of restoring drowned persons is, it will be seen, first to restore respiration, and, when that is accomplished, to bring back sensation.

I think that I can hardly do better than to close this series of articles by some general hints on the subject of accidents.

“Never allow a sea to break over you, but always dive head first through it…”

Always bathe at flood-tide any time before the full, as the tow is then toward the shore. When the tide is ebbing, the under tow eels out, and that is the time of danger for swimmers. Therefore, during ebb-tide, if you bathe at all, never venture out of your depth, or you may be swept out to sea by the undertow. Never allow a sea to break over you, but always dive head first through it. After a moment, turn up your head and you will find yourself on the other side of the wave. Avoid confusion if you chance to be struck by a breaker, and remember that it only lasts for a moment. Risk nothing for mere pleasure, and remember that even the best swimmer may be drowned by an attack of cramp while swimming. If you are subject to cramp avoid bathing out of your depth but, if you chance to be taken with it unawares, strike out the cramped limb with violence, turn your toes up to the shin, fight hard against the contraction, and above all never lose your presence of mind. Remember always that you can swim with your hands alone, your feet alone, or on your back with hardly any motion of any limb.

“The last and best rule on the water is ‘Always keep your presence of mind…'”

If you are out boating and get capsized, knocked overboard by a swinging boom, or in any manner find yourself in the water with all your clothes on, the first thing to do is to get your boots off and, inasmuch as boots are to get off, I should recommend you always to wear low shoes when out boating, in case of such accidents. If you jump overboard to save a drowning comrade kick off your shoes and throw aside all the clothes you possibly can before you leap. If there is a coil of rope lying loose, take the end with you when you leap, as it may save two lives when you reach the drowning person. Anything loose that will float may be thrown to the drowning person before you leap, as it increases the chances for both of you. Start the cry of “man overboard” at once, so that the helmsman can luff up and stop the vessel’s way as soon as possible. If a man falls off a wharf always shout before you jump, to attract help. If a man falls overboard from the bow of a paddle steamer it is useless to leap after him from thence. Better run to the stern, stripping as you go, and jump off there, shouting “Man overboard!” If you jump off forward, there are two men under the paddle wheels, and the chances are that both will be stunned and drowned. By running to the stern you have a chance to save a senseless man. Besides this, you will probably run along the veesel’s deck a little faster than the vessel and the man pass each other, and so will gain time and distance on both, coming nearer to the man who is in danger. The last and best rule on the water is “Always keep your presence of mind.”

FURTHER READING:9781583948682

Colonel Thomas H. Monstery‘s martial wisdom survives in his treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff, which was recently published by North Atlantic Books in book form for the first time. This volume contains a new, detailed biography of Monstery, and includes additional writings by the Colonel.

Additional articles about Thomas H. Monstery can be found here as well.



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