Friday, March 30, 2007

Figure It Out Friday #8


Myths About Hands

Well, we’re in the mist of student tour season and there are several myths that abound in the Washington, DC/Virginia area.

The most prevalent myths have to do with the hands of President Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial and the hands of the five Marines and the Navy Corpsman (Pharmacists Mate) at the United States Marine Memorial (Iwo Jima) in Arlington, Virginia.

This is where you can really tell if your tour guide is competent:

The myths concerning the Lincoln Memorial that range from the significance of the number of steps leading to it as well as the two ‘faces’ that are supposedly on the back of the statue and one on top of his head. I hear these bogus explanations every time I’m there with a group.

The myth of the seated Lincoln’s hands at the memorial is this: The hands represent ‘A’ and ‘L’ in sign language.

But one can understand where this myth emanated; it’s just a result of historic fact extended into an incorrect assumption.

Daniel Chester French did indeed know about American Sign Language as he had sculpted Thomas Hopkins Galludet and a young girl, Alice Cogswell . Galludet was, the first school for the deaf and currently the only university in the world to primarily accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing. It is located in Washington, DC.

But French did not sculpt the hands of President Lincoln, who was instrumental in getting the formerly named Columbia School for the Deaf established into an ‘A’ and ‘L’. (Since this is a federally chartered private university, the sitting President serves as a patron.)

The best source of this would be the papers and recollections of both Daniel Chester French and his daughter which can be found at Chesterwood, the home of the French family..

On the official website of Chesterwood one can find this :

By the end of October his first model was finished. He modeled the head on photographs and on the death mask made after Lincoln's assassination. Worried about the hands on the arms of the chair, he studied photographs to see how Lincoln usually placed his hands. French even made casts of his own hands for reference.

French also studied the life casts of Lincoln’s hands which can be seen in the museum dedicated to Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

The idea of the seated Lincoln is to show him as a great leader and judge; a Soloman-like figure. He is indeed in the seat of judgment which depicts faces, the Roman symbol of law and authority as well as unity. French wanted to convey the duality of his nature: stern and merciful; that necessary qualities for fair judgment and leadership. If one looks at the seated Lincoln and then walks to one’s right and looks at his profile, the expression is stern. The hand on the right (as we see it) is clenched; tension. Walk to the middle at look right up at him, the smile seems a bit crooked, and the bow tie definitely is; this is the transition between stern and merciful. Notice that the right leg is also pulled in, again tension. But take a look to the left, and the hand and leg are relaxed. And then if one goes to the side of the statue and looks at Lincoln’s other profile, he seems benign, with a hint of a smile; this is the merciful side. (By the way, these profiles are the only other 'faces' besides the front view, intended by French; the one in the back, which looks like either Robert E. Lee or Beethoven, and the one on top of the head are illusions, with urban legends to match.)

So again, consult primary documents rather than rely on hearsay and most internet sites.

There is an interesting email exchange here between concerning this question and the answer is a bit up in the air.

(By the way, just in case you were wondering, the number of steps at the memorial (from which ever one you start your count, is significant; they’re the exact number needed to get to the top! Any other explanation: lies, lies, and more lies!)

Now we get to the United States Marine Memorial, which is also known as, Iwo Jima.

No doubt you’ve seen or read,
Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima and have some idea of the intent and carnage there.

The idea for the memorial came from AP photographer’s Joe Rosenthal’s photo, which is perhaps the best known photo of all of WWII. The massive sculpture by Felix de Weldon depicts five US Marines and one Pharmacists Mate (Navy Corpsman). It is perhaps one of the most exciting and moving pieces of sculpture in the world.

Counting the hands and legs seems to be a preoccupation for most groups and many faith-based groups have been telling that there are actually thirteen hands; the extra one is the, ‘Hand of G-d’.

Now that’s a nice story, but it just isn’t true.

Anyone who has a replica of this famous memorial and can look at it from a bird’s-eye view can tell that there are twelve hands. A pamphlet, The Myth of the 13th Hand proving this, was written by Thomas W. Miller, Jr., who participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The pamphlet can be bought at the Arlington Cemetery gift shop for about $2.50.

My favorite story involving a fellow DC tour guide*, who was known to embellish and make up stories for effect is as follows:

It was right before the Marine Corps birthday, (November 10th) and I had spoken with my student group about WWII, the history of the United States Marine Corps, Battle of Iwo Jima, and the story and statistics of the memorial. I stressed that there were only twelve hands.

As we got off the bus, my colleague, dressed as Uncle Sam, delivered one of the most poignant stories of the heroes of that battle and described the memorial. His last bit of theatricality was to remove his hat, bow his head, and with tears in his eyes, he looked towards the statue, raising his hand and said, “And the thirteenth hand is the hand of G-d”!

Naturally, my students looked at me smugly, until a voice shot out from behind the statute which surprised everybody! The voice belonged to a Maine who was actually in the sculpture! (Seeing the Marine juxtaposed against figures six times his size, gave some perspective as to how large it was!)

“I am Private (whatever his name) USMC, and I have been up here three days cleaning this memorial. I have been all over it! There are six individuals: five Marines and one Navy Corpsman. They each have two feet, two legs, two arms, and two hands. Twelve hands and twelve legs. That’s the way G-d makes them, and that’s the only way the Marine Corps takes ‘em!"

The hand of God was there, alright!


And I think you know me well enough to know that this story is NOT an ‘Urban Legend’!

(Any group I conducted that had had him as a guide in the past, was a difficult group. I spent most of my time proving my points and therebydiscrediting him (which I didn't enjoy.). Some teachers still don’t believe me!)


Sandy said...

It's the hands from the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial and Lincoln's hands from the Lincoln Memorial... is there another connection?

The Tour Marm said...

Hi Sandy!

You're correct about the hands!

Now, the post will be about the myths associated with them.