Dictionary of Virginia Biography

James Edward Hanger

James Edward Hanger (25 February 1843–15 June 1919), inventor and manufacturer, was born in the town of Churchville, in Augusta County, and was the son of William Alexander Hanger and Elizabeth J. Hogshead Hanger. He entered Washington College (later Washington and Lee University), in Lexington, in 1860 but withdrew at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and enlisted in the school's Liberty Hall Volunteers. At the urging of his family, however, he returned home to join his brothers in a local cavalry regiment. Alarmed at the end of May by news that United States troops were marching into northwestern Virginia, Hanger joined Virginia volunteers and militia in the field before he actually enlisted. On 3 June 1861 at Philippi a cannonball tore Hanger's left leg off at the knee. He fell into the hands of an Ohio regiment, whose surgeon amputated Hanger's leg, likely the first amputation of the Civil War.

Exchanged in Norfolk in August, Hanger returned home to Augusta County and joined the Staunton Home Guard. He applied without success for a job with the Confederate War Department and then worked as a jeweler and a teacher before settling down full time to a career as an inventor and manufacturer of artificial limbs. Hanger set up shop in Staunton with one of his brothers and began producing limbs, for which he secured two patents from the Confederate States Patent Office in 1863. In February 1864 he sent an artificial leg to the headquarters of the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers, in Richmond. Hanger promised to produce ten to fifteen legs made of wood and covered with rawhide each month for a price of $200 for above-the-knee models and $150 for below-the-knee versions. In the beginning, however, Hanger's shop fell behind in its production schedule, and the legs required improvements in order to compete successfully with other models.

Hanger opened a branch of the business in Richmond after the war, and he and other manufacturers contracted with the state to provide artificial limbs for disabled Confederate veterans. In February 1871 he received patent number 111,741 for his artificial leg. His business thrived, and about 1890 he moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C., where he established a second branch. Hanger's reasonably priced legs were popular and won awards at the 1881 International Cotton Exposition, in Atlanta, and at the 1907 Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition. He boasted, with no small amount of sectional pride, that many men preferred his patented artificial legs to the best limbs manufactured in the northern states. Even though Hanger had retired from active management of the business before World War I, he traveled to Europe during the war to study conditions there. By then the firm had factories and offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Saint Louis, as well as in London and Paris.

In Richmond on 21 October 1873 Hanger married Nora McCarthy, a graduate of Hollins Institute (later Hollins University). They had twelve children, of whom two daughters and six sons lived to maturity. Several of their sons joined the family business and collaborated with their father on a variety of patented inventions, including artificial limbs, wheelchairs, and beds designed to assist the disabled. As Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc., the company operated into the twenty-first century. A Virginia historic highway marker that recognizes his achievements stands at the site of the Hanger residence in Churchville, and Hanger's life was the subject of a historical novel published in 2014. Hanger's wife died on 3 April 1909. James Edward Hanger died at his home in Washington, D.C., on 15 June 1919. They were both buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington.

Sources Consulted:
Self-reported birth date and birthplace in passport application, 3 June 1916, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C; (NARA); Jennifer Davis McDaid, "With Lame Legs and No Money: Virginia's Disabled Confederate Veterans," Virginia Cavalcade 47 (1998): 14–25, and McDaid, "'How A One-Legged Rebel Lives': Confederate Veterans and Artificial Limbs in Virginia," in Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics, ed. Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Stephen Mihm (2002), 119–143 (portrait on 135); brief typescript memoir written in Mar. 1914, and Hanger Substitute Limbs, Nature's Rivals, with an introduction by Hanger (n.p., n.d., ca. 1911), both in Hanger Orthopedic Group company archive, Bethesda, Md.; Confederate States Patent Office, Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1864), 12; Brief Review of the Plan and Operations of the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers (1865); letter of recommendation, N. K. Trout to Francis H. Pierpont, Jan. 1867, Francis H. Pierpont Executive Papers (1865–1868), Accession 37024, Library of Virginia (LVA); some letters in Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers Records, Record Group 109, NARA; Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1871, 42d Cong., 2d sess., House of Representatives Ex. Doc. 86, Serial 1511, p. 113; Marriage Register, Richmond City, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Record Group 36, LVA; Richmond Daily Dispatch, 5 Nov. 1873; historical novel by Bob O'Connor, The Amazing Legacy of James E. Hanger, Civil War Soldier (2014); death notice in Washington Post, 16 June 1919; obituaries in Washington Times, 16 June 1919, and Staunton Morning Leader, 17 June 1919.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, C.M. Bell Studio Collection.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Jennifer Davis McDaid.

How to cite this page:
Jennifer Davis McDaid,"James Edward Hanger (1843–1919)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Hanger_James_Edward, accessed [today's date]).

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