A traditional form of punishment, under Sharia, Islamic law, and in Medieval Europe, involved publicly 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 the 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 — e.g., 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.
"He who does not keep peace shall lose his hand." (photo by Andreas Praefcke)
In Europe, the severed hands of criminals were displayed like relics to prevent future grievances (a thief's arm still dangles in a Prague church). In most cases the owner of the hand was not known, but the provenance was usually irrelevant because the setting of the hand’s exhibition determined the story that was told about its origin.
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.
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 from 1907 was stored in a wooden box at St Brigida’s Catholic church. 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.
Sometimes the amputated hands of felons were used to commit crimes rather than prevent them. According to an old European belief, a candle made out of the dried, severed hand of a criminal who had been hanged — known as the Hand of Glory — had supernatural powers. Traditionally, a Hand of Glory was the “pickled” right hand of a felon, 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.