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A hook for a hand

Hooked hands and pirates seem to just go together. There is no doubt that pirates and other sailor lost arms and legs. You didn't have to get hit by a musket ball to lose your hand or part of an arm. A loose rigging line or slipped anchor was enough to sever limbs. Even a bad fall during a storm could be enough to cause an injury that would mean a lost hand or foot. So the question comes about: did pirates have hooks for hands?

Pirate hook hand

Historically speaking, artificial limbs date back to around 300 B.C., perhaps even earlier. The modern prosthetics however track back to the efforts of the French surgeon Ambroise Paré. During the 1550's, Paré crafted artificial limbs from wood covered with metal. They were heavy, ill-fitting and expensive. Some estimates say that about 1/3 to 1/2 of the French soldiers who lost limbs received these artificial limbs. Most scholars doubt the numbers were actually that high.

It wasn't until the 1700s that artificial limbs carved from light weight wood became the common prosthetic. These also were ill-fitting and not very good They hands were more cosmetic and did not involve hooks. Widespread use of artificial limbs did not really come about until the American Civil War.

Did pirates actually have hooks?

So the answer to the question of pirates using hooks for hands is probably not but and if they did it was a rare. A lost arm or leg was still a liability and it meant that the pirate wasn't going to be as capable a fighter as a person with two arms and legs The reason they had the insurance policy concerning lost limbs was because they assumed you'd never be able to work or serve on a ship again.

We've all seen the simple hook with the metal cap that would fit snuggly over the stump where the hand used to be. A few things should be known.

  1. The amputee often felt phantom pains from the lost hand. This is because of the severed nerves. These pains would often haunt the pirate for the rest of his life back in the 1700s due to the way the amputations were done.
  2. Depending on how well the operation was performed, the stump left after the amputation could often remain painful for the rest of the amputee's life. It wasn't something that an amputee would want to strap something to
  3. If the amputee could tolerate the pain, you couldn't just stick a hook on the stump and expect it to stay there. In reality that hook would probably have to be secured not to the forearm but all the way up the arm and then secured around the shoulder and collarbone in order not to fall off.
  4. You can't just tie it tightly to the stump because if you did, it would restrict circulation and cause gangrene to set in. It would also be quite painful.
  5. If you were to strap a hook to the forearm it could slip off when any weight were applied to it.

An actual prosthetic hook for a missing hand was an elaborate device consisting of a sleeve for the arm that slipped over the shoulder and then strapped around the body. They were expensive to make and difficult to attach properly. They would have helped a pirate fetch water and do light chores but could easily be a liability in a fight. Imagine getting the hook caught in a timber or a the body of dead foe. You wouldn't be able to easily slip out of the harness that straps around your shoulder.

The movie Cutthroat Island depicts a pirate that uses a whip like chain as his replacement hand. In the final battle he meets his doom because of this contraption. Similar problems would face any pirate using a hook hand.

Again we are just talking about a hooked hand. If the amputation occurred above the elbow joint or near the shoulder, it is doubtful any kind of hook like prosthetic could be provided. At best a carved arm resembling a real arm would be made of lightweight wood as a cosmetic prosthetic device. Such a device would be uncomfortable and useless aboard a ship.

It is possible that cargo hooks could have been worked into shoulder harness but more likely a blunt hook would be more useful to a pirate amputee than a sharpened hook. He could use it for carrying small loads, possibly to hold lines in place and even to climb the rigging without risking serious accidental injury due to the sharp point

It is doubtful such a device could be fashioned by a ship's carpenter. The device needs to be fitted for the amputee. It needs proper padding, and proper attachment. A surgeon or doctor adept at dealing with artificial limbs would probably need to be consulted in order for the device to be useful.

Peg legs were more common and we have few examples of those aboard pirate ships.

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The only author and editor of all pages on the site. Most of what I write about is based on years of book reading on the topic. My first web page was published back in 1994.

Updated: 04 September 2022