SPOILER WARNING: this blog reveals key plot details of the Arthur Conan Doyle novel The Sign of Four.
In the course of their investigations, Holmes and Watson discover the corpse of one Bartholomew Sholto (in The Sign of Four). He has been cruelly murdered in a classic closed room mystery. The case is, of course, academic for the master detective. He quickly surmises that the murder was the work of one Jonathan Small. Small, along with a confederate, crawled up onto the roof of the house, shimmied down through the attic on a rope, and then repeated the procedure in making their escape.
In passing, it is mentioned that Jonathan Small only has one leg. As Holmes states matter-of-factly:
“I think, if you were an active man, you might swarm up, wooden leg and all.”
This is hardly an unusual attitude in fiction of the time. Several of the most extraordinary characters in Victorian fiction were one-legged men. Take Ahab in Moby Dick (1851), whose leg was lost in a struggle with a sperm whale. His obsession with his wounding drives him onwards, in his monomaniacal desire to slay Moby Dick. He has even replaced the leg with one fashioned from a jaw bone stripped from another unfortunate member of the species.
Ahab is not alone in his suffering. There is an extraordinary scene in chapter 100 of Moby Dick where he encounters Captain Boomer of the ship Samuel Enderby. Boomer has lost his arm to the white whale and had it replaced with an attachment carved from whalebone. Like Ahab, he shows no sign of taking early retirement:
With his ivory arm frankly thrust forth in welcome, the other captain advanced, and Ahab, putting out his ivory leg, and crossing the ivory arm (like two sword-fish blades) cried out in his walrus way, “Aye, Aye, hearty! let us shake bones together! – an arm and a leg! – an arm that never can shrink, d’ye see; and a leg that never can run.”
Thirty years later, Long John Silver appeared on the scene in Treasure Island (1883) and has never been away since. Of all the things that characterises this greatest of pirates, it is not the fact that he has limited mobility. In point of fact, almost everyone is terrified of him, and with good cause.
Jonathan Small in The Sign of Four (1890) is no shrinking violet himself. An ex-soldier who lost his leg to a crocodile while swimming the Nile, he is utterly ruthless in his quest for revenge. He sails from the Andaman Islands in a stolen canoe along with Tonga, a member of a local tribe. The pair then travel across the whole of Asia and Europe. Throughout his narration, our attention is barely drawn to the fact that Small does all of this with only a single leg. Indeed, he only really mentions the leg to describe how he used it to club down a prison guard in effecting his escape from the Andamans:
“I sat down in the darkness and unstrapped my wooden leg. With three long hops, I was on him.”
From all this evidence, it is easy to see where J. M. Barrie got his inspiration for Captain Hook in Peter Pan (c.1902-04): a pirate captain missing a single limb, whose hand was lost in an encounter with a crocodile.
So what is the attraction of the one-legged man? Firstly, it is all part of the Victorian love of the Gothic. In each case, the character lost their leg though some violent incident (Silver lost his during his naval service). Secondly, it provides a physical back-story for each character. It shows us that they come from somewhere, that there are unseen vistas beyond the story. Perhaps most of all, it marks out these characters as very different from the common herd. They have surmounted challenges, and have come out at the other side physically wounded, but mentally infinitely stronger than other people. Indeed, all of these characters have almost superhuman powers of endurance. They are relentlessness personified.