The Handless Brigade

Have you ever thought what it would be like to have no arms, and be

obliged to use your toes for everything? If not, try it on a wet day,

and see how much you can manage to do. Yet, there are plenty of true

stories of people born without hands, who have contrived by practice to

teach their toes not only to supply the place of ordinary fingers, but

of very clever fingers, which is quite another matter! I myself once saw

a young man in a Belgian gallery busily engaged in copying a picture,

and as he had no arms he painted with his toes, seated on a high stool,

to place him on the level he wanted. It was near the hour of closing

when I happened to notice him, and after a few minutes during which I

had watched him spellbound, he got down from his stool, kicked off one

shoe, disclosing a stocking neatly cut across the toes, leaving them

free. He then shut up his paint box, and picking up his brushes one by

one dabbled them in a glass of water that stood near, and wiped them on

a cloth, after which he put them carefully in their case, lying on a


At the sight of this, I forgot my manners and uttered a cry of

amazement, which I think rather pleased the painter, for everyone likes

to feel that he can do something better than his fellows. At all events

he knew I did not mean to be rude, for he went to his box on the floor,

opened it, took up the top card printed with his name, Charles le Felu,

from a packet, and presented it to me. Then he put on his hat which was

hanging on a peg, bowed and walked away, the sleeves of his coat being

so fastened that he looked like a man with his hands in his pockets.

I kept that card till I was married, and obliged to throw away many of

my treasures.

James Caulfield, about the beginning of the last century, collected many

stories of handless people--who were 'handless' in a very different

sense from what we mean, when we use the word. He tells us of a German

called Valerius, who was born when Charles II. was on the throne of

England, and like my friend the painter, had no arms. This would have

seemed a terrible calamity if it had come alone, but before he was out

of his boyhood both his parents died, and left him penniless. Happily

for Valerius, his mother had been a sensible woman, and insisted that

her son should learn to make his toes as useful as fingers. Perched on

his high stool, he did his copies like another child, and in later life,

when he became famous, often wrote lines round his portraits. But much

better than writing copies, he loved to beat a drum. Now beating a drum

does not sound nearly so difficult as writing copies, and perhaps he was

allowed to do it as a treat when he had said his lessons without a

mistake, but with practice he was able to play cards and throw dice as

well as any of his friends. He certainly always shaved himself when he

grew to be a man, but it is rather hard to believe that in fencing he

used his rapier, which he held between his big toe and the next, 'with

as much skill as his adversary,' standing on his left leg the while.

* * * * *

The admiration of his playfellows at his cleverness filled him with

pride, and Valerius was always trying fresh feats to show off to his


When it became necessary for him to earn his own living, he was able to

support himself in comfort, travelling from one country to another, and

always drawing crowds who came to see this Eighth Wonder of the

world--for so they thought him. In his leisure hours he practised some

of his old tricks, or learnt new ones, and in 1698 he came to England

where he stayed for seven years. Many are the tales told of him during

this time. Sometimes he would raise a chair with his toes, and put it in

a different place; sometimes with the help of his teeth he would build

towers made of dice, or he would lie on his back and, taking a glass of

water in his toes, would carry it to his mouth. He could fire a pistol

with his toes when seated on a stool, and using both feet he could

discharge a musket. This must have been the hardest thing of any, for

the musket of those times was a clumsy, heavy weapon, and it was not

easy to keep your balance when it went off.

* * * * *

Then we have all of us heard of the famous Miss Biffin, who lived at the

time when James Caulfield wrote his book. She went to the big fairs

round London, and had a little booth all to herself. There, on payment

of a small sum, visitors were admitted to see her sewing with a needle

held by her toes, and sewing much more neatly than many of those who

came to look at her would have been capable of doing with their fingers.

And if they paid a little extra she would draw them, roughly, anything

they wanted; or cut them out houses or dogs, or even likenesses of

themselves on paper.

Miss Biffin, it is pleasant to think, thoroughly enjoyed her life, and,

far from feeling that she was to be pitied because she had no hands, was

quite convinced that she was much superior to anybody with two.

Perhaps the most wonderful of all the 'Handless Brigade' was a man

called William Kingston, who was living in a village near Bristol in

1788. In that year a Mr. Walton happened to be staying in Bristol and

was taken to see this marvel, of whom he writes an account to his friend

John Wesley.

On the entrance of the two gentlemen into his house Kingston did not

lose a moment in giving them their money's worth. He was having

breakfast, and after inviting them to sit down, took up his cup between

his big toe and the next, and drank off his tea without spilling a drop.

After waiting till he had buttered his toast and eaten as much as he

wanted, Mr. Walton then 'put half a sheet of paper upon the floor, with

a pen and an ink-horn. Kingston threw off his shoes as he sat, took the

ink-horn in the toes of his left foot, and held the pen in those of his

right. He then wrote three lines as well as most ordinary writers, and

as swiftly. He writes out,' continues Walton, 'his bills and other

accounts. He then showed how he shaves with a razor in his toes, and how

he combs his own hair. He can dress and undress himself, except

buttoning his clothes,' which really does not sound half as difficult as

many of his other performances. 'He feeds himself and can bring both his

meat and his broth to his mouth, by holding the fork or spoon in his

toes. He cleans his own shoes; can clean the knives, light the fire, and

do almost every domestic business as well as any other man. He can make

his hen-coops. He is a farmer by occupation; he can milk his cows with

his toes, and cut his own hay, bind it up in bundles, and carry it about

the field for his cattle. Last winter he had eight heifers constantly to

fodder. The last summer he made all his own hay-ricks. He can do all the

business of the hay-field (except mowing) as fast and as well with only

his feet, as others can with rakes and forks; he goes to the field and

catches his horse; he saddles and bridles him with his feet and toes. If

he has a sheep among his flock that ails anything, he can separate it

from the rest, drive it into a corner, and catch it when nobody else

can; he then examines it, and applies a remedy to it. He is so strong in

his teeth that he can lift ten pecks of beans with them; he can throw a

great sledge-hammer with his feet as other men can with their hands. In

a word, he can do nearly as much without, as other men can with, their


'He began the world with a hen and chicken; with the profit of these he

purchased an ewe. The sale of these procured him a ragged colt and then

a better; after this he raised a few sheep, and now occupies a small


It would be interesting to know how many of these astonishing feats Mr.

Walton actually saw Kingston perform. But at any rate we put down his

letter with the impression that to be born with fingers is a distinct


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