Hand of Glory: The Macabre Magic of Severed Hands

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.

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.

For the full, sordid history of severed hands, keep reading on Atlas Obscura!