A criminal’s relic: The macabre history of severed hands

An example of a Hand of Glory.  Image credit: Badobadop via Wikipedia

An example of a Hand of Glory. Image credit: Badobadop via Wikipedia

A traditional form of punishment, under Sharia, Islamic law, and in Medieval Europe involved publically amputating a criminal’s body part, often the one used to commit a crime. The pain of the amputation and the shame of the permanent mark served as punishment for the criminal, while display of the severed limb functioned as a sinister warning to all onlookers-follow in this guy’s footsteps and you will suffer a similar fate. This macabre tradition likely has its roots in the  Code of Hammurabi.

The Code of Hammurabi is a Babylonian code of laws from ancient Mesopotamia-now Iraq-enacted by Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian king. This ancient set of laws dates to about 1772 BC and is one of the oldest translated writings in the world. Today partial copies exist on stone stele and clay tablets. The Code consists of 282 laws, with scaled penalties, also known as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” “Eye for an eye” is a legal principle where exact reciprocity is used to mete out justice depending on social status, i.e. free man versus slave. For example, if a person caused the death of another person, the killer would be put to death; if a man has knocked out the eye of an aristocrat, his eye would also be knocked out; and if a son has struck his father, his hands would be cut off.

In Europe the severed hands of criminals were displayed like relics to prevent future grievances. There were a couple of examples of these amputated limbs displayed in Europe in the last couple of years. In each case the owner of the hand was not known, but the provenance was irrelevant because the setting of the hand’s exhibit determined the story that was told about its origin.

Mummified gambler's hand displayed with an 18th century pack of playing cards.  Image credit: SWNS

Mummified gambler’s hand displayed with an 18th century pack of playing cards. Image credit: SWNS

The Haunch of Venison in Wiltshire, England is a 684-year-old pub that was famous for its display of a cursed gambler’s hand. The hand was reportedly amputated from a gambler who was caught cheating during a game of whist a few hundred years ago. According to workers at the pub, a butcher chopped the gambler’s hand off and threw it into the fireplace. The grisly relic was discovered during renovation work at the pub in 1911 and was stored in a locked glass case with a pack of 18th-century playing cards. In 2010 thieves unscrewed the glass cabinet and stole the criminal’s relic.

The perjury hand displayed at St. Brigida's Catholic church in Legden

The perjury hand displayed at St. Brigida’s Catholic church in Legden. Image Credit: thelocal.de

During the demolition of an old fortified town in 1905, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, workers found an amputated hand preserved in limestone. It became known as the “perjury-hand” and was stored in a wooden box at St Brigida’s Catholic church in Legden since 1907. According to local legend, the hand was severed as punishment for breaking an oath and was displayed to serve as a warning to those who might consider telling a lie. But nobody knew who the owner of the perjury hand was or why the owner was punished. Unfortunately, the hand was stolen in 2012 about the time the people of Legden raised enough money to send it to Düsseldorf University for testing to determine the owner’s sex and age.

Drawings of two versions of the Hand of Glory.  In one version the hand is a candleholder, in the other all 5 outstretched fingers are lit as candles

Drawings of two versions of the Hand of Glory. In one version the hand is a candleholder, in the other all 5 outstretched fingers are lit as candles.  Image Credit: The Whitby Museum

Sometimes the amputated hands of felons were used to commit crimes rather than prevent them. According to an old European tradition, a candle made out of the dried, severed hand of a criminal who had been hanged had supernatural powers.  Called the Hand of Glory, the right hand of a felon was cut off while the body still hung from the gallows. It was used by burglars to send the sleeping victims in a house into a coma from which they were unable to wake.

There were a couple of versions of the Hand on Glory.  In one interpretation a clenched hand is used as a candleholder, with the candle held between the bent fingers.   In another version, such as the hand at the Whitby Museum in England, all five fingers of an outstretched hand were lit.  If one of the fingers did not light the burglars saw it as a sign that someone in the house was still awake.  The Whitby Museum has the only known surviving Hand of Glory.

References:

Mummified hand disappears from Wiltshire pub again. (2010 March 12). Retrieved on April 6, 2014 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/wiltshire/8563860.stm

Severed hand of gambler stolen from pub (2010 March 16). Retrieved on April 6, 2014 from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/7450862/Severed-hand-of-gambler-stolen-from-pub.html

Day, M. (2012 October 2). German police search for missing mummified hand. Retrieved on April 6, 2014 from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/9581566/German-police-search-for-missing-mummified-hand.html

Jarus, O. (2012 August 10). Severed Hands Discovered in Ancient Egypt Palace. Retrieved on April 6, 2014 from: http://www.livescience.com/22267-severed-hands-ancient-egypt-palace.html

Lovejoy, B. (2012 October 3). A Bone to Pick: Relic Thefts In the News. Retrieved on April 6, 2014 from: http://besslovejoy.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/a-bone-to-pick-relic-thefts-in-the-news/

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5 replies

  1. Gotta hand it to ya … (see what I did there?) … you are my daily dose of strange!

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