Following is a guest post by Evan Michelson, Morbid Anatomy Library scholar in residence and star of TV's Oddities. Here, she tells the fascinating story of "George's Arms" (seen above), her contribution to our current Collector's Cabinet exhibition, which closes March 29th.
You can see Evan speak in person about objects in her collection at our closing party on March 29th, on which more here; you can also purchase a full color, illustrated exhibition catalog with texts written by the collectors (only eight dollars!) here.
Antique and vintage prosthetics are uncanny, beautiful objects. They are almost always anonymous, whatever stories they have to tell being limited (at best) to a name inked or carved into the wood. This particular pair of prosthetic arms, however, comes not just with a name, but with an inspiring tale of survival, courage and human resilience. They belonged to Mr. George Hunlock of Danville, PA, a brakeman for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. The railroad carried both freight (primarily coal) and passengers along a busy route from Pennsylvania to upstate New York. These arms date to the turn of the 20th century, but Mr. Hunlock’s horrific accident occurred a bit earlier, sometime in the 1880s. At that time, George Hunlock’s job as railroad brakeman was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
In the early days of the railroad brakes had to be gradually, manually engaged on each individual car. This meant that the brakeman had to jump from car to car on the roof of a moving train (often braving the bitter cold and dangerous, icy conditions). On freight lines the brakeman usually rode in an open cabin on the outside of the car; sometimes he simply clung to a ladder, or even rode on the roof. In the summer the brakeman baked in the sun, in the winter he froze in snow and ice. When it rained, he was drenched. It was dirty, exhausting work. The brakes were engaged using heavy wheels or levers; it was a gradual process that involved repeated trips back-and-forth along the length of the train. It was not uncommon for brakemen to be mangled or killed on the job (one early report estimated that 10 brakemen died every day in the US in the performance of their duties). Brakemen were very poorly paid, and the job was often allotted to the illiterate and uneducated (presumably because such people were considered to be the most expendable). In the 19th century the railroad companies were shielded from lawsuits, and the costs associated with injury were often not compensated: even if a brakeman survived his accident, his family was still facing financial ruin.
There is no detailed record of the accident itself, but George Hunlock (like so many before him) apparently slipped underneath a moving railroad car, and his arms were crushed (or possibly severed altogether). Such an accident would be catastrophic today, but in the late 19th century survival itself would have seemed nearly miraculous. Antiseptics, anesthesia and the sterilization of instruments in surgical amputations were still relatively primitive procedures, and pain killers were opiate derivatives that eventually caused addiction. Mr. Hunlock undoubtedly benefitted, however, from advancements made during the recently-concluded American Civil War, which had brought about a revolution in the science of limb amputation.
It is extraordinary, then, that George Hunlock did not just survive his terrible ordeal - he thrived. He was given another job at the railroad, where he served as a watchman at crossings, using his wooden arms to wave a lantern to warn of oncoming trains. His arms (provided by J.Condell and Son) are heavy by today’s standards - stiff, wooden affairs - and the fingers (with the exception of a spring-loaded thumb) are not fully articulated. Despite this lack of prosthetic dexterity, George Hunlock mastered his new limbs: he could eat, light his pipe and (most incredibly) he developed handwriting that was “clear and distinct.” Contemporary newspaper reports say that he wrote “better with his wooden hand than most men can with their natural hands.”
George's prosthetic arms were found at a house sale many years ago, packed in a wooden box labeled “Dad’s Arms.” They were accompanied by newspaper articles detailing Mr. Hunlock’s bravery. Also in the box was all his correspondence with the limb manufacturers, and a stack of old ledgers (signed “George Hunlock”) from George’s second career as a tobacconist. The account books contain neat, precise handwriting that span several years. The dealer who bought the arms was told by a family member that the writing (incredibly enough) is George’s very own.