Prosthetic Limbs Make Great Weapons: A History

When artificial arms become armaments in the eyes of the law.


On March 25, 1899, a curious article in the Neihart Herald declared that "it has recently been decided by an English court that artificial limbs are weapons when used advantageously in a fight." It wasn't the first time the press had noted that prosthetic limbs could be wielded during altercations.

The Belfast Telegraph of April 17, 1873, mentions that a prisoner "used his wooden leg as a weapon. " A vivid article in an 1893 edition of the Illustrated Police News describes how one Patrick Murphy attacked a constable with his wooden leg, "in the use of which he was most proficient." In the August 22, 1895, Pierre Weekly Free Press, we learn that one Harry Crawford "accidentally ran into…a cripple" while driving. In revenge, the victim attacked Crawford "using his wooden leg as a weapon and inflicting injuries that the doctors say will cost Crawford his life."

If they weren't used as weapons themselves, hollow appendages could contain lethal contraband. In 1904, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette discussed the case of a man shot to death in Spain. When police apprehended a nearby beggar, "no weapon could be found upon him." But it eventually emerged that the killer had stashed a firearm within one of his wooden legs.

Legs were not the only artificial limbs used as weapons. On October 28, 1871, The Kentish Independent reported that one William Benson, whose hand had been replaced with an iron hook, attacked someone with such force that his victim's face had been "bound up" as a result. An 1885 edition of the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser announced a "Savage Attack with a Wooden Arm." And in Charleston, West Virginia, a 1914 report describes a fight involving both a prosthetic leg and a glass eye. A prankster had used horsehair and glue to give the impression that a man's wooden leg had grown hair. His target, named Alexander James, did not see the humor and attacked the culprit with the leg. The joker responded by throwing his glass eye at the assailant.

A theme runs through such accounts: the idea that by transforming an artificial limb from a tool of medicine to a tool of violence, the attackers have shown themselves to be evil. "Tis well under certain circumstances to have a wooden leg," the Cardiff Times declared in 1893, "but tis tyrannous to use it as a cudgel."

Limb attacks also appear in several notable works of 19th century fiction, where again they are often associated with villainy. In Prosthetic Body Parts in Literature and Culture, 1832 to 1908, University of Leeds research fellow Ryan Sweet notes that Moby Dick's Captain Boomer "is adorned with a prosthetic device that is specially designed to act as a weapon." Sweet also highlights a Sherlock Holmes story in which a character beats a "prison guard to death using his wooden leg" before the limb bogs him down in the mud. (This is another familiar narrative, in which a villain's artificial limb gives him a temporary combat advantage but ultimately defeats him.)

Wooden legs do appear to have been brutally effective weapons. More sophisticated replacements were being developed, but as the University of Georgia historian Stephen Mihm notes, these initially "failed to respond reliably and predictably to the movement and weight of the body." It seems that the simple wooden leg's uncomplicated nature made it suitable both for movement and as a weapon.

World War I, which disabled thousands of soldiers, would transform artificial limbs, however. On November 17, 1922, The Lichfield Mercury declared the "End of Wooden Legs," reporting that every soldier who had lost a leg in the war could have his wooden limb replaced for free with a lightweight metal prosthetic.

This change in technology didn't stop artificial limbs from being used as weapons, nor did it end the tendency in popular culture to associate such tools with knaves. Several James Bond antagonists attempt to kill the hero with artificial limbs. In the film Dr. No, the title character attacks Bond with using bionic hands but—repeating the trope of the prosthetic weapon that carries the seeds of its own destruction—later meets his end because the hands lack dexterity, leading him to slip to his death inside a nuclear cooling facility. In the film version of Live and Let Die, a henchman attacks Bond using pincers. Like Dr. No, he is defeated by his own device. As Lisa Funnell and Klaus Dodds note in Geographies, Genders and Geopolitics of James Bond, the Bond books and movies often contrast their able-bodied hero "with a villain who has a physical impairment that limits him physically and/or socially."

In professional wrestling, meanwhile, it has become something of a cliche for the heel to attack his unsuspecting opponents with weapons. The 1990s wrestler Doink the Clown would hit other wrestlers with a prosthetic arm to reinforce his character's villainous persona. Temple University Professor of Geography Bradley Gardener points out in Critical Geographies of Sport that wrestlers who sustained an injury would sometimes incorporate it into their storyline. This gave the show more "legitimacy," as "it painted the picture that wrestling was based on legitimate competition." It also allowed for villainous tactics. "Cowboy Bob Orton," Gardener notes, "often used his cast to illegally club opponents."

At other times, more heroic characters (or "faces") have worn prosthetics while competing in the ring. Zach Gowen, for instance, uses an artificial limb outside of wrestling. Onscreen, he portrayed an underdog character who was often pitted against towering opponents, and World Wrestling Entertainment emphasized his disabled status to make him likable to audiences. The prosthetic became a symbol of Gowen's never-give-up spirit—and a handy weapon, too.

Despite the growth of the disability rights movement, it remains a trope today for villainous characters to use artificial appendages as weapons. In the Harry Potter books and movies, Peter Pettigrew, who is presented as treacherous and cowardly, receives a silver hand that he uses against the protagonist. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the hand turns against Pettigrew, strangling him to death when he shows a flicker of remorse for his past actions.

Note, though, that the series also presents morally redeemable characters as having heavy disabilities. "Mad Eye" Moody, a veteran wizard who has lost many limbs (and who has been viewed by Mary Baldwin University psychologist Louise M. Freeman as an example of a "post-traumatic stress disorder" sufferer), gets a sympathetic portrayal reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe's 1839 story "The Man Who Was Used Up."

Other sympathetic depictions have made their way onto the silver screen as well. The recent films Kingsman: The Secret Service and Planet Terror feature a strong female antagonist and protagonist respectively with weaponised prosthetics. University of Exeter lecturer Luna Dolezal has noted that the stories "offset female vulnerability by weaponizing their bodies—turning them into weapons."

Although Richard Harrow of Boardwalk Empire does not have a prosthetic arm or leg, he wears a false face after losing an eye and enduring substantial damage to his jaw and cheek during the war. Harrow's implants render him a sad but also terrifying assassin, limiting his ability to show facial expressions and giving him the appearance of a blank stare as he guns down his targets.

Although much contemporary film and literature has tried to move beyond stereotypes of prosthetic users as evil, it remains an enduring and often playful trope. Nowhere, perhaps, is this better exemplified than in Lemony Snicket's tongue-in-cheek sequence of novels, A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The main antagonist, Count Olaf, has a sinister henchman—known through much of the franchise only as the "Hook Handed Man"—who enjoys threatening the heroes with his claws. Later, he is revealed to be a more complicated character than is initially believed, but the hooks remain threatening even in this satirical characterization.

Journalism also continues to link villainous actions and body prosthetics. Consider the media coverage of Abu Hamza, an Islamic fundamentalist who wears hooked prosthetics to replace the hands he allegedly lost experimenting with explosives. Nicknamed the "hook-handed hate preacher" by The Daily Express and others, Hamza's prosthetics were used to represent his generally menacing nature.

But where 19th century journalists saw weaponized prosthetics as a sign of villainy, modern media are more likely to psychologize the subject. On June 3, 2016, The Irish Times reported that a man named Kenneth Parker had been jailed for kicking a law officer with a prosthetic leg. A similar case, that of Patrick Murphy, had been reported over a century before, in 1893. In the earlier case, his use of an artificial limb as a weapon led the attacker to be branded deplorable. But The Irish Times chose instead to focus on Parker's alcoholism, heroin addiction, and the anguish he had felt since losing the limb.

Today, some transhumanists may welcome the chance to discard their fragile human body for a more durable artificial form. And it's not just the hyper-futurists: In Military Medical Ethics for the 21st Century (Routledge), professors Michael L. Gross and Don G. Carrick write that "state of the art prosthetics" can "make warfighters smarter, stronger, alert and confident."

Prosthetics have long been used as weapons. Soon it may be done on an industrial scale.