Pirate Prosthetics

Sycamore Shadows’ peg-legged postman, Andrew Bollman, recently gave a short talk on the history of pirate prosthetics and has graciously allowed me to print this excerpt:

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, though written as a novel, was the most influential pirate manual ever published, and a great influence on pirate marketing.

Before publication of Stevenson’s immortal story, pirates had plied the seas with an imperfect idea of how a proper pirate should act. Accustomed to simply sail, drink, and plunder, most buccaneers remained unaware of the rich potential of pirate life. Had Stevenson done nothing but give pirates their parrots, his name would be immortalized in the pirate hall of fame, but he also introduced the now ubiquitous peg-legged pirate, which soon became so popular that it was not uncommon for ships to sail the Main without a single two-legged seafarer. Indeed, one pirate captain reported that the constant thumping sound on the decks drove him to distraction.

Within 10 years of Treasure Island’s publication, limb-removal shops could be found in nearly every Caribbean port, and as competition flourished, prices plummeted. In 1880, just three years before the book’s appearance, a man wishing to enter the trade could expect to pay the price of a well-stocked sea chest or a sailing dinghy to have a leg removed. By 1900 a man could “give a leg” for the cost of a dirk and saber.

According to ethnobuccanologist William B. Stanhauser, professor of saltwater history at Castoreum College, whose “Peg Leg for a Pound: The Emergence of the Wooden Limb Industry in the Late Pirate Era” is the standard study of the subject, the last decade of the nineteenth century was the “golden age of pirate prosthetics.” Stanhauser credits the shrinking customer base—after all, few customers returned—for the demise of the industry in the first decades of the 20th century.

I disagree with Professor Stanhauser. No doubt about it, World War I was the death knell of the leg takers and stump makers. After the carnage of the trenches in France and Belgium, losing a limb lost its glamour and amputation engineers found themselves out of work.

Remarkably, a small group of craftsman on the gulf coast of Central America still ply the trade, removing legs in the traditional way. Offering no anesthesia but rum, using only crude hand tools, these dedicated artisans provide an exciting amputation experience that hospitals and medical clinics cannot. I once interviewed a Honduran craftsman who called himself Ben Gunn and kept a copy of Treasure Island in his pocket. “It’s a way of showing my appreciation,” Gunn told me, a bleeding leg tucked beneath his arm. “Without it, I wouldn’t be here.”

In 2009, after receiving the coveted “Pirate of the Year” award, Captain Herman “Blacksoul” McFadden, tears in his eyes, gave what is perhaps the most poignant reminder of Stevenson’s influence:

“If it w’arnt for the long arm of Bob Stevenson, I’d be afore you t’day with two legs. Two legs, a respectable job—and half a soul.”

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