Leg of Santa Anna
General (and 11 times Mexico president) Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the "Napoleon of the West," became a villain in America when he ordered his troops to kill Davy Crockett and everyone else inside the Alamo. But that was in 1836 and several wars ago, and until recent times Santa Anna's name recognition had fallen considerably.
For example, the average person probably didn't know that the general had a fake leg. That changed when a writer for the cartoon King of the Hill read online about the leg and penned an episode (1998) where it was kidnapped by one of the zany characters in Texas.
DVDs and streaming video have kept Santa Anna's leg in the popular mind. People want to see Santa Anna's leg. But most people don't realize that they have to drive to central Illinois to see it.
Santa Anna's real leg was amputated after he was hit by cannon fire during a melee with the French in 1838 (the leg was interred with full military honors). In 1847, his artificial leg was captured by soldiers of the 4th Illinois Infantry, which is why it's in the Illinois State Military Museum. Santa Anna was eating lunch during a battle with the United States when the Americans surprised him, and he galloped off without his leg. The sergeant who grabbed the wooden leg exhibited it at county fairs for a dime a peek, but since 1922 it's been in the care of Illinois National Guard. According to Bill Hatcher, a guide at the museum, no one from Texas (or Mexico) has ever tried to kidnap it.
"They hate him," he told us, meaning that the people of Mexico hate Santa Anna. "They don't even want him back. He died in exile. He's buried in a pauper's grave in Los Angeles."* According to Bill, Santa Anna's generalship eventually led to Mexico losing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and southern California to the U.S. "Everybody thinks we went to war in World War I because the Germans sunk the Lusitania. No we didn't. We went to war because the Germans offered the Mexicans all of that territory back if Mexico would side against us."
Bill added that two Santa Anna legs were captured by the 4th Illinois Infantry. The second limb, a humble peg leg, was reportedly later used by Lieutenant Abner Doubleday as a baseball bat. It's on display at the (former Governor) Oglesby Mansion in Decatur, and no one has tried to kidnap it, either.
"That kidnapping story was just something the King of the Hill people came up with," Bill said. Nevertheless it has raised the leg high above the stature of any other Mexican leader appendage, and in 2006 the museum took it out of its dusty case and built an impressive diorama for it, recreating the moment of its capture. The leg is propped in an elegant carriage surrounded by soldier mannequins. A cache of gold nabbed at the time is displayed as a couple of strong boxes cracked open. There's even a plate with a roasted chicken on it to illustrate Santa Anna's hastily abandoned meal.
Bill told us that an Illinois National Guard member stayed with the leg the entire time that the display was being built, even though the the Mexican government has never requested the return of the unpopular general's leg. "Mexico doesn't want it," Bill repeated, "but we ain't giving it back anyhow."
*[Santa Anna is in fact buried in Mexico, but we didn't know that when we spoke with Bill. Even if we had, it's more fun to believe everything that you read and hear at an attraction.]