Punitive and Legal Amputations

Differentiation between punitive and legal grounds for amputation is not always clear. Pure and simple punishment of prisoners of war, obvious when victorious opponents attack the defeated whether injured or not, as happened in the Dark Ages, may result in severed limbs (Fig. 4.4). However, many prisoners may be subjected to a form of legalised amputation based on the whim of a king or official, or on religious grounds, yet hardly determined by a fair trial supported by a legal representative. It has proved difficult to isolate purely punitive severances, so often related to ancient unwritten customs towards enemy prisoners.

In the Book of Judges, reference is made to Judas and Simeon, successors to Joshua, having taken the king of Canaan, Adonibesek, as prisoner; they immobilised him by cutting off his two thumbs and two great toes, or according to another interpretation, the extremities of both

Guillotine Amputation

Fig. 4.4. Section 58 of the Bayeux Tapestry showing advancing Norman horseman and in the lower margin dead and mutilated English soldiers, one demonstrating 'guillotine' amputation of an arm. (From Bertrand S. La Tapisserie de Bayeux. L'Abbaye Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-Qui-Vire: Zodiaque, 1966:143. Copyright Desclee de Brouwer.)

Fig. 4.4. Section 58 of the Bayeux Tapestry showing advancing Norman horseman and in the lower margin dead and mutilated English soldiers, one demonstrating 'guillotine' amputation of an arm. (From Bertrand S. La Tapisserie de Bayeux. L'Abbaye Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-Qui-Vire: Zodiaque, 1966:143. Copyright Desclee de Brouwer.)

hands and feet. Adonibesek was familiar with such punishments, having meted out the same mutilations on his prisoners formerly taken in combat, saying:

"Three-score and ten kings, having their thumbs and their great toes cut off, gathered their meat under my table: as I have done, so God hath requited me ..

After the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, it is reported three English soldiers in the King's service suffered punitive amputations of their hands and, subsequently, the Master Brethren of three medieval hospitals (presumably in England) were directed to provide them maintenance for life.18 And in medieval France, captured English bowmen were subjected to amputation of their bowstring fingers (right index and middle) to prevent further participation in battles. Le Vay reported the following legalised punishment:

"In 1579, on a stage set up in the market-place at Westminster. John Stubbs, a religious writer, and William Page, his publisher, 'had their right hands cut off by the blow of a butcher's knife with a mallet struck through their wrists' for having produced a pamphlet criticising

Queen Elizabeth's marital ambitions. 'Stubbs, so soon as his right hand was cut off, put off his hat with the left and cried aloud, 'God save the Queen!'"19

In their study of acquired amputations before the 16th century, Padula and Friedmann based their conclusions on Peruvian practices, largely by their examination of surviving ceramic pieces from the Moche culture of the north coast of Peru, dated between 300 B.C. and 600 a.d. The examples selected show deformities and amputations with evidence, in some instances, suggesting cup-shaped prostheses were worn (Fig. 4.5). They concluded that, although leprosy, leishmaniasis, frostbite and tuberculosis were possible diseases precipitating amputation, punishment for infringing tribal laws was probably the major reason, stating:

"Theft in Peru was punished by amputation of one hand. Both arms were ablated for rebellion. One foot was taken off for laziness ... amputations of the legs were ankle disarticulations or below knee amputations, primarily ankle disarticulations ... other pots available show amputation almost invariably through, or above, the elbow. There are a number of figures showing bilateral upper limb amputation above the elbow. These figures ... have ear plugs and head-dresses indicating that the

Moche Ceramics

Fig.4.5. Ceramic bottle of the Moche culture, Peru,showing lower limb amputations and a cup-shaped "prosthesis," probably to protect an unhealed stump, circa 300 B.C.-600 A.D. (From Padula PA, Friedmann MD. Acquired amputation and prostheses before the sixteenth century. Angiology 1987;38(2):133-141.20 Copyright Westminster Publications.)

Fig.4.5. Ceramic bottle of the Moche culture, Peru,showing lower limb amputations and a cup-shaped "prosthesis," probably to protect an unhealed stump, circa 300 B.C.-600 A.D. (From Padula PA, Friedmann MD. Acquired amputation and prostheses before the sixteenth century. Angiology 1987;38(2):133-141.20 Copyright Westminster Publications.)

individual was from the upper classes. This seems to indicate that bilateral amputation was probably the punishment for rebellion in upper class individuals."20

In the late 18th century, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the staunchly anti-British prince, ordered amputations of the right hands and noses of captured Indian civilians serving the East India Company, for presumed treachery.21 Packard noted that the North American Seneca Indians immobilised their war prisoners by performing a very neat amputation of the forefeet so that, although still able to stand and walk awkwardly on their hind-feet, they had no power of positive push-off due to absent toes and were unable to achieve a full running posture and, hence, easy escape was diminished; additionally, they left characteristic footprints making them easy to track, if indeed they did escape.22

More recently, an Afghan who became a prisoner of the Taleban described in graphic detail his punishment of simultaneous right hand and left foot amputations, actually witnessing the procedures himself. This took place in 1999 in the middle of a football stadium packed with people and supervised by mullahs; the victim suspects he was chosen in place of a rich Pashtun who having committed a crime, paid a sum of money to the mullahs so that a prisoner of war received punishment instead. He said:

"Seven doctors approached me. They wore grey uniforms, surgical masks and gloves. I could see one was crying. They injected me. After five minutes my body was numb though I was still conscious. Then they put clamps on my hand and foot and began to cut them off with special saws. There was no pain but I could see what they were doing... I was transfixed by the sight of my foot being removed. There was a sigh and murmur from the crowd when they finished. It had taken about five minutes."23

It is written in the Koran:

"Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides."24

However, moderate Muslim scholars today conclude such edicts can no longer be taken literally and should be interpreted within the context of the times when originally written. Moreover,

Islamic societies are not alone in practising punitive hand and foot amputations, as noted earlier in this section and, as recently revealed in the Congo during the Belgian colonial regime. A newspaper report in 2005 does not state any precise reason for hand amputations, although punishment for theft seems likely; it commented:

"... 45 years after the central African country gained its independence the Belgians are finally, and painfully, confronting a very different version of their colonial past: forced labour, mass murder and the routine severing of hands in what was probably the most bloody of all colonial regimes."25

Perhaps the most ancient reference to judiciary or legal amputations of the hand concerns this drastic penalty for medical practitioners whose treatment contributed to the death of a patient. This reference forms part of the Code of Laws established by Hammurabi, Amorite king of Babylon about 2000 B.C. In addition to specifying precise fees for the treatment of wounds, fractures or eye disabilities, it was stated that if an operation ended fatally or if an eye operation resulted in the loss of an eye, the physician's hands were cut off. However, if the patient was a slave, lesser penalties prevailed so that the physician had to replace the slave, or if an eye was lost the physician had to pay half the slave's value.26 Sigerist considered these laws would have inhibited surgeons from taking any risks and suggests they were a warning for untrained practitioners to be very circumspect and, hence, were not applicable to reputable practitioners. It is unlikely we shall ever know for sure. A supposed edict of a related nature, in this instance for faultless workmanship, determined the cruel fate of the artisans and craftsmen responsible for building and decorating the magnificent Taj Mahal in India who underwent hand amputations to prevent them creating a rival construction in the future; Kunzru however recalls another version.26a

In 1639, Woodall remarked that it had been reported to him by "sundry credible Surgeons" who had spent time in the East Indies that they had seen men who had their feet chopped off at the ankles, by censure of the laws of their countries for committing trespass; Woodall then elaborates on their subsequent use of bamboo prostheses.27 Daniell reported legal hand amputa tion for female infidelity on the Island of Fernando Po, West Africa in 1849, as follows:

"In amputation of the hands, a cruel penal sentence summarily inflicted on all women guilty of conjugal infidelity, the bleeding is restrained by the application of a piece of iron, or dipping the stumps in boiling oil, the resulting eschar, when separating, not being followed by any ill effects or further haemorrhage. Females thus mutilated may be seen daily wandering about the streets of Clarence."2'

Similar amputations, especially of the hands for theft, have been legally conducted under Sharia law and indeed, in the 21st century, this remains a routine legal penalty in some Moslem countries.

When discussing traditional Ethiopian medicine, Pankhurst stated that in former days amputation was undertaken as a punishment for severe crimes including robbery.29 He referred to a report of Courbon in 1861 who said the operation might be effected with a knife some 18 cm long and 3 cm wide and carried out with dexterity, almost according to the rules of European surgery, presumably an amputation of the hand at the wrist joint. First the skin was cut, then the tendons and finally the ligaments. The wound would then be cauterised with hot irons, or covered with leaves or cinders, or other powder.30 Boyes, one of the few eye-witnesses to leave an account of such a legally sanctioned operation, recalls:

"I was fascinated. I was rooted to the spot. I could not move until the job was finished. There was no excitement, they were all chatting as if nothing untoward was happening. I must admit that he was making a good job of the operation ... As soon as the operation was over the stump was dipped in the pot of boiling fat to stop the bleeding."31

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  • mehari
    What is punitive amputation?
    7 years ago

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