Written and Illustrated by Inspector Maurice Moser,
Late of the Criminal Investigation Department, Great Scotland
The Strand Magazine, Vol. VII. 1894, pp 94-98
The ordinary connection of ideas between handcuffs and policemen
does not need very acute mental posers to grasp, but there is a further
connections, a philological one, which is only evident at first sight to those
who have made a small acquaintance with the science of words.
The word "handcuff" is a popular corruption of the Anglo-Saxon
"handcop," i.e., that which "cops" or catches" the hands.
Now, one of the most common of the many slag expressions used by
their special enemies towards the police is "Copper"- i.e., he who cops the
offending member. Strange as it may seem, handcuffs are by no means the
invention of these times, which insist on making the life of a prisoner so
devoid of the picturesque and romantic.
We must go back, past the dark ages, past the stirring times of
Greek and Roman antiquity, till we come to those blissful mythological ages
when every tree and every stream was the home of some kindly god.
In those olden days there dwelt in the Carpathian Sea a wily old
deity, known by the name of Proteus, possessing the gift of prophecy, the
fruits of which he selfishly denied to mankind.
Even if those who wished to consult him were so fortunate as
to find him, all their effort to force him to exert his gifts of prophecy were
useless, for he was endowed with the power of changing himself into all things,
and he eluded their grasp by becoming a flame of fire or a drop of water. There
was one thing, however, against which all the miracles of Proteus were of no
avail, and of this Arstaeus was aware.
So Arstaeus came, as Virgil tells us, from a distant land to
consult the famous prophet. He found him on the sea-shore among his seals,
basking in the afternoon sun Quick as thought he fitted handcuffs on him, and
all struggles and devices were now of no avail. Such was then the efficacy of
handcuffs even on the persons of the immortal gods.
Having established this remote and honorable antiquity, we are not
surprised at the appearance of handcuffs in the fourth century B.C., when the
soldiers of a conquering Greek army found among the baggage of the routed
Carthaginians several chariots full of handcuffs, which had been held ready in
confident anticipation of a great victory and a multitude of
The nearest approach to a mention that we find after that is in
the Book of Psalms: "To bind their kings in chains and their nobles in fetters
of iron." But in the Greek, the Latin, Wickliffe's and Anglo-Saxon Bible we
invariably find a word of which handcuffs is the only real translation. It is
also interesting to note that in the Anglo-Saxon version the kings are bound in
"footcops" and the nobles in "handcops."
In the early Saxon times, therefore, we find our instrument is
familiar to all an in general use, as it has continued to be to this day, But
during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there is no instance of the use of
the word "handcop"; is place is taken by "swivel manacle" and "shackbold," the
latter word being often used by Elizabethan authors.
Handcuffs, like other things, have improved with time, Up to 1850
there were two kinds in general use in England. One of the forms, most common
in the earlier part of this century, went under the name of the "Figure 8."
This instrument does not allow the prisoner even that small amount of liberty
which is granted by its modern counterpart. It was chiefly used for refractory
prisoners who resorted to violence, for it had the advantage of keeping the
hands in a fixed position, either before or on the back of the body. The pain
it inflicted made it partake of the nature of a punishment rather than merely a
preventive against resistance or attack. It was a punishment, too, which was
universally dreaded by prisoners of all kinds, for there is no more unbearable
pain than that of having a limb immovably confined.
The other kind of form known as the "Flexible" (No. 1) resembled
in general the handcuffs used every day by detectives.
Contrivances, chiefly the result of American ingenuity for the
rapid and effectual securing of prisoners have not been wanting, and among them
the "Snap," the "Nippers" (No.3) and the "Twister" must be mentioned.
The "Snap" (No. 2) is the one which used to be the most approved
of. It consists of two loops, of which the small is slipped on the wrists of
the person to be arrested, the bars are then closed with a snap, and the larger
loop is held by the officer. The manner in which the "Twister" (No. 4) was used
favors very much of the brutal, and, indeed, the injuries it inflicted on
those who were misguided enough to struggle when in its grasp caused its
abolition in Great Britain.
Its simplicity and its efficacy, together with the cruelty, have
recommended it for use in the wild parts of South America where the upholder of
the laws literally travels with his life in his hands. It consists of a chain
with handles at each end; the chain is put around the wrists, the handles
brought together and twisted round until the chain grips firmly. The torture
inflicted by inhuman or inconsiderate officers can easily be imagined. When we
see the comparative facility with which the detective slips the handcuffs of
the villain in the last act of Adelphi dramas, we are apt to be misled as to
the difficulty which police officers meet with in the execution of one of the
most arduous parts of their duty.
The English handcuffs (No. 1) are heavy unwieldy, awkward
machines, which at the best of times, and under the most favorable
circumstances are extremely difficult for application. They weigh over a pound,
and have to be unlocked with a key in a manner not greatly differing from the
operation of winding up the average eight-day clock, and fastened on to the
prisoner's wrists, how, the fates and good luck only know. This lengthy,
difficult, and particularly disagreeable operation, with a prisoner struggling
and fighting, is to a degree almost incredible. The prisoner practically has to
be overpowered or to submit before he can be finally and certainly secured.
Even when handcuffed, we present to a clever and muscular ruffian
one of the most formidable weapons of offence he could possibly possess, as he
can, and frequently does, inflict the deadliest blows upon his captor. Another
great drawback is the fact that these handcuffs do not fit all wrists, and
often the officer is nonplussed by having a pair of handcuffs which are too
small or too large; and when the latter is the case, and the prisoner get the
"bracelets" in his hands instead of on his wrists, he is then in possession of
a knuckle-duster from which the bravest would not care to receive a blow.
On the occasion of my arresting one of the Russian trouble note
forgers, a ruffian who would not hesitate to stick at anything I had provided
myself with several sized pairs of handcuffs, and it was not until I had
obtained the very much needed assistance that I was able to find the suitable
"darbies" for wrists. We managed to force him into a four-wheeler to take him
to the police-station, when he again renewed his efforts and savagely attacked
me, lifting his ironed wrists and bringing them down heavily on my head,
completely crushing by bowler hat.
As the English handcuffs have only been formed for criminals who
submitted quietly to necessity, it was considered expedient to find an
instrument applicable to all cases. The perfected article comes from America
(Nos. 5 and 6), and, being lighter, less clumsy, and more easily concealed,
finds general favor among the officers of Scotland Yard. In fact, such are its
advantages that we must presume that it differs considerably from the
Anglo-Saxon "Hancop" and the somewhat primitive article used upon the unwilling
prophet of the Carpathian Sea, This and the older kin, to which some of the
more conservative of our detectives still adhere, are the only handcuffs used
The ingenious detective of France, where crime and all its
appurtenances have reached such a state of perfection, is not without his means
of securing his man (No. 7) It is called "La Ligote" or "Le Cabriolet." There
are two kinds: one is composed of several steel piano strings, and the other of
whip cords twined together, and they are used much in the same way as the
"Twister." Any attempt to escape I quickly ended by the pain to which the
officer who holds the instrument can inflict by a mere turn of his hand. One
wrist only is under control as the slightest sign of a struggle is met by an
infliction of torture, the French system is more effective than the English.
The Mexican handcuff (Nos. 8 and 9) is a cumbersome and awkward
article, quite worthy of the retrograde country of its origin.
No. 10 shows an effective method of handcuffing in emergencies.
The officer takes a piece of whipcord and makes a double running knot; he ties
one noose round the wrist of the prisoner, whose hand is then place in his
trousers pocket, the cord is lashed round the body like a belt, and brought
back and slipped through the noose again. The prisoner when thus secured
suffers no inconvenience as long as he leaves his hand in his pocket, but any
attempt to remove it would cause a deal of suffering.
No 11 is another handcuff of foreign make, and is merely used when
a raid is about to be made, as it allows to a certain extent the use of the
hands. It is useful for prisoners who are being conveyed by sea.
No 12 is mostly used in Eastern Europe.
My personal experience of handcuffs is small, because I dislike
them, for in addition to their clumsiness, I know that when I have laid my
hands upon my man, it will be difficult for him to escape.
My intimate knowledge of all kinds of criminals in all kinds of
plights justifies me in saying that when they see the game is up they do not
attempt resistance. The only trouble I have had has been with desperadoes and
old offenders, men who have once tasted prison-life and have a horror of
returning to captivity.
Expert thieves have been known to open handcuffs without a key, by
means of knocking the part containing the spring on a stone or hard substance.
It will be remembered that when the notorious criminal "Charles Peace" was
being taken to London by train, he contrived, although handcuffed, to make his
escape through the carriage window. When he was captured it was noticed that he
had freed on of his hands.
I was once bringing from Leith an Austrian sailor who was charged
with ripping open his mate, and as I considered that I had a disagreeable
character to deal with, I handcuffed him. Naturally, he found the confinement
irksome, and on our journey he repeatedly implored me to take them off,
promising that he would make no attempt to escape. The sincerity of his manner
touched be and I released him, very fortunately for myself, for I was taken ill
before reaching London, and, strange as it may appear, was nursed most tenderly
by the man who had ripped a fellow man.
In Belgium the use of handcuffs by police officers is entirely
forbidden. Prisoners are handcuffed only on being brought before the
d'Instuction or Procureur du Roi, and when crossing from court to court. Women
are never handcuffed in England, but on the Continent it is not an uncommon
Regarding handcuffs generally, in my opinion not one of the
inventions I have mentioned now in use is sufficiently easy of application.
What every officer in the detective force feels he wants is a light, portable
instrument by means of which he can unaided secure his man, however powerful he
may be. I myself suggest an application which would grip the criminal tightly
across the back, imprisoning the arms just above the elbow joint. Such an
instrument would cause him no unnecessary pain, while relieving officers from
that part of their duty which is particularly obnoxious to the, viz., having a
prolonged struggle with low and savage ruffians.
I cannot refrain from relating a piquant little anecdote told to
be by a French colleague, who had occasion to make an arrest, and came
unexpectedly on his man. Unfortunately he was unprovided with handcuffs and was
somewhat at a disadvantage, but being a quick-witted fellow, he bethought
himself of an effectual expedient. Taking out his knife he severed the
prisoner's buttons which were attached to his braces, thus giving the man
occupation for his hands and preventing a rapid flight. I am indebted to M.
Goron, Chief of the Detective Department in Paris and other colleagues for some
of the specimens here reproduced by me.