Left-Handers of the 1700s and 1800s: The Famous and Infamous

There are many famous and infamous left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries being left-handed was often viewed as a defect. For example, in The Maternal Physician published in 1818 by American Mary Palmer Tyler, a thirty-five-year-old matron who published one of the first childcare manuals, talked about the “anxiety” parents experienced when they learned that their child was left-handed:

“It is my decided ‘opinion,’ that if a child is left-handed, it is a natural defect which it will be impossible ever entirely to overcome; and although the infant might, as it advanced in life, be taught to use the right hand so well as greatly to obviate the inconvenience and awkward appearance arising from it, yet the propensity would always predominate, while a child which has not this natural defect, will never acquire it after birth, and therefore all anxiety upon the subject is superfluous.”[1]

The left hand of the Empress Josephine according to palmistry. Public domain.

Later in the nineteenth century attempts were taken to train children away from left-handedness. This happened in schools when children were taught to write. According to psychologist Chris McManus, part of the desire to change children from left-handed to right-handed people was caused by the industrial revolution because mills and factories had machinery designed for right-handed use.

Left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s also had to deal with unfavorable connotations and definitions attached to being “left-handed.” For instance, the Ebony magazine reported in 1967:

“A left-handed compliment is actually an insult in disguise, and a left-handed sort of a guy is a fellow of doubtful honesty. Webster in defining ‘left-handed,’ includes the following terms ‘clumsy, awkward, insincere’ and ‘dubious.’ Not to be outdone in the verbal left-baiting game, Gypsies used the word bongo interchangeably for ‘left-handed’ and ‘crooked,’ while the French say gauche when they mean either ‘awkward’ or ‘left.’ Similarly, the innocuous Latin word sinister, meaning ‘left,’ has firmly established itself in the English language as a synonym for ‘evil, wicked, and ominous.’”[2]

Despite the preference for right-handedness and the unfavorable connotations there were many left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s. For instance, one famous left-hander was King George II of Great Britain. He was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1683 and in 1705 married Caroline of Ansbach because of her good character. At the age of 43 he succeeded his father, who died in 1727. George II served as king until his death on 25 October 1760 at the age of 77. By that time, he was blind in one eye and hard of hearing. Of his death it was reported that he rose at his usual time of 6am, drank a cup of chocolate, and went to his “close stool” alone. A few minutes later his valet heard a loud crash and discovered him lying on the floor. He was lifted onto the bed and his daughter Amelia was sent for, but by the time she reached him he was dead, having died from a thoracic aortic dissection.

George II. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

French King Louis XVI was another of the famous left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s. He was born at the Palace of Versailles on 23 August 1754, but unlike George II, Louis never expected to be king. That was because he had an older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne, who was expected to rule, but unfortunately, he died of extra pulmonary tuberculosis of the bone, a disease referred to today as Pott’s disease. That left the position open for the future Louis XVI to rule. He was described frequently as being awkward and clumsy child and was also perhaps considered more inelegant because he was left-handed.

Left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s

Louis XVI. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Frenchmen had great hopes when Louis XVI became king in 1774, his indecisiveness and conservatism caused many Frenchmen to view him as a symbol of tyranny associated with the Ancien Régime. Thus, his popularity gradually deteriorated, exacerbated by  and his family’s failed escape attempt that ended in Varennes. He was guillotined on 21 January 1793 and ten months later his wife, Marie Antoinette, was executed on 6 October 1793.

Like George II and Louis XVI, George IV is another member of royalty cited as being among the left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s. He was the eldest son of George III and Queen Charlotte. Before being crowned he was usually known as the Prince of Wales or the Prince Regent. He was often cited by his ministers as being selfish, unreliable, and irresponsible. He was also known to embrace an extravagant lifestyle and the birth of his only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte, did not seem to change any of his bad habits.

The Prince Regent before he became George IV. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Prince Regent was also obese by 1797 weighing 245 lbs. and by 1824, his corset was made for a waist of 50 inches. By the late 1820s his heavy drinking and indulgent lifestyle had taken their toll on his health. He was suffering from gout, arteriosclerosis, peripheral edema (“dropsy”), and possibly porphyria. Four years later, he was almost completely blind from cataracts, and his gout was severe. Things were worse for him by mid-1829 as Historian Earnest Anthony Smith wrote that painter David Wilkie related the following about George IV to a friend:

“[I]t was ‘the most difficult and melancholy business for the man was wasting away frightfully day after day’ and though he looked well enough across a room when ‘dressed up in robes and hung about with orders and ribbons,’ at close quarters it was ‘parfaitly frightful’ … [because]  he looked ‘like a great sausage stuffed into the covering.’”[3]

It wasn’t just George IV’s unpleasant appearance that was problematic. To counteract severe bladder pain, he began taking laudanum. That meant he was in a drugged induced state for days on end, which made it impossible for him to conduct business. Moreover, although he finally underwent surgery to remove a cataract in September 1829, he was by that time regularly taking over 100 drops of laudanum. Unsurprisingly he died about nine months later, on 26 June 1830.

Although not among royalty, another of the famous left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s was Horatio Nelson. He was born in 1758 and might not have become left handed if he had not lost his right arm in battle in 1797. It happened when he suffered an embarrassing defeat at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. He was badly wounded and ended up losing his right arm. One of the first letters he wrote with his left hand happened while he was recovering in Bath. Despite the scrawled handwriting, it showed his commitment to winning because even as he was recuperating, he was plotting and planning strategies that he would later use at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s - Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson as Vice Admiral by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1799. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Josephine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, is also declared to be one of the famous left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s. She was born in 1763 in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique, to a wealthy French family that owned a sugarcane plantation but was struggling at time because of hurricane damage to their estate. She was then married off to a wealthy French aristocrat, Alexandre de Beauharnais and after he was executed in 1794, she was introduced to Napoleon. He fell for her and despite her being six years his senior, they married in March of 1796.

Left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s - Empress Josephine

Empress Josephine in 1804. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Josephine’s husband Napoleon was supposedly also left-handed, although that is highly debatable. If he was that makes him and Josephine one of greatest left-handed power couples to grace the earth. The reason some people believe he was lefthanded is because he ordered his armies to march on the right, which allowed him to keep his dominant sword arm between himself and the advancing armies. His order also overturned an historic and protective custom from Ancient times as it was claimed that because most Greeks and Romans were right-handed it made sense for them to have their weapon between themselves and any approaching strangers. It also meant they walked on the left and carried their weapons in their right hand.

Napoleon Bonaparte published in 1814. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Napoleon’s orders to march on the right also allegedly plays a part in the left-handed versus right-handed argument when it comes to which side of the road you drive on. His orders resulted in it becoming traditional to travel on the right side of the road, which was why some people switched to driving on the right side of the road and why the British still drive on the left today. However, there is also another explanation (one among many*) about why people drive on the right. Some people claim that driving on the right began before the revolution when the French peasantry wanted to protect themselves against reckless aristocrats who drove on the left side of the road and that once they began driving on the right the practice continued after the French Revolution.*

Another person among the left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s is Queen Victoria. She was born in 1819 and people have said she was a natural left-hander. People claim that her left-handedness is indicated by the fact that although she wrote with her right hand, she painted with her left. They claim that shows that she was retrained to be right-handed during her childhood. Nonetheless there are also those who claim she was ambidextrous and state, “Queen Victoria was as clever with her right hand as with her left.”[4]

Left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s

Queen Victoria in 1843. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Not all of the leaders that were left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s were royalty nor were they from England or France. For instance, James A. Garfield was a known left-hander and served as the 20th president of the United States from March 4, 1881 until his death six months later at the hands of assassin Charles J. Guiteau. Furthermore, despite being an obvious left-handed person, when Garfield was young, he was forced by teachers to write with his right hand and thus when he went into the army, he carried his sword in his right hand.

James A. Garfield. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During Garfield’s lifetime there are plenty of people who mentioned him being left handed. For instance, several people reported that when he spoke, he had a habit of using his left hand to gesture. A former pupil (J.L. Darsie) from Garfield’s days as schoolteacher in Hiram Ohio also reported on Garfield’s left-handedness:

“He was full of animal spirits, and he used to run out on the green almost every day and play cricket with us. He was a tall, strong man, but dreadfully awkward. Every now and then he would get a hit on the nose, and he muffed his ball and lost his hat as a regular thing. He was left-handed too, and that made him seem all the clumsier. But he was most powerful and very quick, and it was easy for us to understand how it was that he acquired the reputation of whipping all the other mule-drivers on the canal, and of making himself the hero of that thoroughfare … ten years earlier.”[5]

Some people like to claim that Billy the Kid was left-handed but that appears to be highly debatable.** Nonetheless, there is one infamous outlaw, gunslinger, and controversial folk icon from America’s Old West who was left-handed. He was John Wesley Hardin. He was born to a Methodist preacher in 1853 and was troublesome practically from the start. Hardin claimed that he killed his first man in self-defense at the age of 15 and over the course of his lifetime he had numerous brushes with the law. He killed Texas State Policeman Jim Smalley, wounded Texas State Policeman Sonny Speights, and killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche, Texas. Hardin was eventually captured and incarcerated. However, he received an early release and was then pardoned, and, despite his criminal past, Hardin decided to become a lawyer and obtained his license to practice law.

John Wesley Hardin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1895, an El Paso lawman, John Selman, Jr., arrested a part-time prostitute who was one of Hardin’s acquaintances. Hardin confronted Selman and the two men argued. Later, Selman’s 56-year-old father, Constable John Selman, Sr., who was a notorious gunman and former outlaw, approached Hardin and they exchanged heated words. The confrontation continued to eat at Selman, Sr. and so later that evening he decided to do something about it.

Hardin had gone to the Acme Saloon to play dice and shortly before midnight Selman Sr. entered, walked up behind Hardin, and shot him in the head killing him instantly. Then to be certain he was dead Selman fired three more shots. At trial, Selman Sr. claimed that Hardin attempted to draw when he entered the saloon. Despite it being blatantly untrue, it resulted in a hung jury. Selman was released, pending a retrial, but before the retrial could be scheduled, Selman was killed in a shootout with US Marshal George Scarborough on 6 April 1896, after an argument the two had following a card game.

Robert Baden-Powell was not royalty like George II or George IV and was not infamous like Hardin, but he is among those counted as one of the important left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s. He was a British Army officer, who honed and enhanced his military skills with the Zulu in the early 1880s. He later made a name for himself because he became the founder and first Chief Scout of the worldwide Boy Scout movement, and with his sister, Agnes, also helped to establish the worldwide Girl Guide or Girl Scout movement. The trigger for the scouting movement happened in 1908 with Baden-Powell’s publication of Scouting for Boys. Two years later, in 1910, he retired from the army and formed The Boy Scouts Association.

Robert Baden-Powell in 1896. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Baden-Powell may have been lefthanded, author Rik Smiths reported in 2011 that he was ambidextrous just like Queen Victoria:

“Baden-Powell was a man with far-reaching ideas about many things. He had a strong faith in the optimal training of the human body, which for a military man was of course only sensible. … As far as Baden-Powell was concerned the importance of two-handed training from an early age was almost impossible to overstate. He claimed he could keep on top of his office work only by regularly switching his writing hand and he regretted that as child he had not practiced writing about two different subjects at once. … Baden-Powell’s beliefs about ambidextrousness left their mark in at least once scouting custom: scouts greet each other with the left hand. This habit is only tangentially connected with hand preference … The idea occurred to the child loving warhorse in 1896, when a defeated Ashanti chief reverentially offered him his left hand, simply because that was the way his tribe greeted the bravest of the brave.”[6]

The last of the famous left-handers of the 1700s and 1800s is King George VI. He was born in 1895, the same year that Consuelo Vanderbilt married the 9th Duke of Marlborough. When the future George VI was born, he was decidedly left-handed, but like Queen Victoria and President Garfield, when he was old enough to write, he was forced to write with his right hand. In George VI’s case it apparently produced a stammer partly because he had a piece of string tied to his left hand that was yanked whenever he tried to use it.

KIng George VI. Circa 195-1946. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This conclusion was reached after a man named J.P. Ballard published a study in 1911 using thousands of London school children and reported that there were no advantages to turning left-handed children right-handed and that a stammer might be the result. His study was then used in 1814 by a Stanford University psychologist named Lewis M. Terman, who further concluded:

“[N]ot far from one third to one half of the stuttering among London school children is produced in the effort to make right-handed children out of those who are normally left-handed. … [Thus] the fact that the relationship exists is sufficient for practical purposes. Left-handed children should remain left-handed … The slight advantages which would accrue from a change are entirely outweighed by the dangers to speech.[7]  

Today, although left-handedness continues to be less common than right-handedness (10% versus 90% respectively), we no longer retrain or force people who are left-handed to use their right hands. Scientists also now know that being left-handed is a result of a genetic difference due to brain structure. Studies also indicated that there may be advantages to being left-handed. For instance, left-handed people may tend to have better verbal skills. In addition, just like in the 1700s and 1800s, there are numerous well known left-handed individuals who today include U.S. President Barack Obama, American actress Goldie Hawn, and Britain’s Prince William.


*Supposedly, another story is that when farm products were being hauled by teamsters in France in the late 1700s the wagons had no driver’s seat and so the driver sat on the left rear horse. This also allowed him to keep his right arm free to lash his team as needed. Moreover, because he was sitting on the left, he wanted everyone to pass him on the left so that he could ensure there was enough clearance of wagon wheels and therefore he also stayed on the right side of the road.

**One frequent image that circulated of Billy the Kid (born Henry McCarthy but who also used the pseudonym William H. Bonney) encouraged some historians to think that he was left-handed. However, they did not account for the fact that the ferrotype process produces reversed images. Thus, in 1954, western historians James D. Horan and Paul Sann wrote that Bonney was right-handed and carried his pistol on his right hip. That same conclusion was reached by Clyde Jeavons, a former curator of the National Film and Television Archive. However, several historians have also written that Billy the Kid was ambidextrous.

References:

  • [1] M. P. Tyler, The Maternal Physician: A Treatise on the Nurture and Management of Infants, from the Birth Until Two Years Old : Being the Result of Sixteen Years’ Experience in the Nursery (Philadelphia: Lewis Adams, 1818), p. 124–25.
  • [2] “Ebony,” XXII, no. 7 (1967): p. 63–64.
  • [3] E. A. Smith, George IV (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 269.
  • [4] W. Jordan, The Search-light: A Condensed Weekly of the News and Progress of the World v. 18 (New York: W.B. Harrison, 1901), p. 313.
  • [5] The Jackson Standard, “Garfield as a Teacher,” July 1, 1880, p. 1.
  • [6] R. Smits and L. Waters, The Puzzle of Left-handedness (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), p. 81.
  • [7] L. M. Terman, The Hygiene of the School Child (Houghton Mifflin company, 1914), p. 346.

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