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  • "To Invest a Cripple with Peculiar Interest"Artificial Legs and Upper-Class Amputees at Mid-Century
  • Vanessa Warne (bio)

In an 1865 essay on amputation, the influential American doctor Stephen Smith denounced a well-established surgical practice: the creation of different stumps for different classes of patients. Noting that "the poor man's and the rich man's leg have long decided the point of amputation in the lower extremity," he criticized surgeons who acted on "the belief that the poor man will either have no artificial appliance to his stump, or one of the rudest character, while the rich man will avail himself of the highest degree of art to compensate his loss" (490-1). Smith warned colleagues that a poor patient might one day find himself able to afford a sophisticated prosthesis but barred from its use by a "poor man's stump." Recognizing the experiences of disability of the rich and poor as markedly and, in his view, unjustifiably different, Smith advocated new ways of thinking about patients' post-operative lives.

Smith's campaign against a two-tier approach to amputation revealed his awareness that the disabling effects of limb loss are determined by injury and ideology. The lower-class Victorian amputee, treated differently than a similarly injured upper-class patient, was doubly disabled by limb loss and by surgeons' assumptions about the static nature of class identity.1 Mindful of the relationship between class and disability, scholars interested in the nineteenth-century history of limb loss and limb replacement have paid close attention to the experiences of working-class male amputees. In an insightful analysis of injury and industry in Civil War America, David Yuan argues that war "conflated the prosthesis and the soldier, as the industrial revolution conflated the prosthesis and the worker" (78). In a chapter on limb replacement, economic productivity, and the male body, Erin O'Connor proposes that "prosthetics mobilized a new framework for masculinity" (105). In a discussion of prosthesis use in the nineteenth-century workplace, Tamara Ketabgian identifies amputee machine operators as representing "the ideal industrial subject," a worker "compulsively augmented by mechanical attachments"(23).

This essay adds to the history of nineteenth-century prosthesis use by shifting the critical focus away from working-class men. Analyzing the relationship between wealth and disability, it examines the depiction of a wealthy female amputee and her prosthesis in Thomas Hood's 1841 long poem, Miss Kilmansegg [End Page 83] and Her Precious Leg. Tracing an artificial leg's use as a marker of economic privilege, as well as the movement of money and a mobility aid from a disabled woman to an able-bodied man, I argue that the poem uses its amputee protagonist's limited mobility to comment on the management and mismanagement of wealth. I also analyze ways in which this text mobilizes wealth to make sense of the desirability of disabled women. I propose, moreover, that Hood's engagement with disability shaped and limited his poem's participation in contemporary debates about the relationship between wealth and its newest material manifestation, the paper currency of nineteenth-century Britain. I conclude with a discussion of Sarah Smith's 1859 Household Words short story, "The Lucky Leg," a story that also traces the movement of artificial legs and financial legacies from women to men but moderates Hood's caustic characterization of the wealthy female amputee.

Artificial Legs a Luxury

When, in 1842, reports began to circulate of a painless amputation performed under the influence of mesmerism, Punch responded with predictable sarcasm, titling its account of the operation Amputation a Luxury. While it was obviously preposterous to link limb loss with luxury, identifying artificial legs with luxury was not. The term "artificial leg" was reserved for prostheses that imitated both the appearance and movement of a natural leg; it did not apply to simple wooden pegs or to rudimentary leg-shaped prostheses. Marketed as more attractive, comfortable, and safe than crutches or pegs, artificial legs had patented features such as rubberized feet and articulated joints. They were usually made to order and were consequently costly. In 1854, a contributor to Tait's Edinburgh Magazine gave a sense of the prices an amputee...


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pp. 83-100
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