What's wrong with Tom Robinson's arm in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Tom Robinson's arm was caught in a cotton gin as a child. As a result, his left arm is twelve inches shorter than his right arm, he cannot use his left arm, and his left arm ends in a small, shriveled hand.

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Thanks to an accident earlier in life, Tom Robinson’s left arm is twelve inches shorter than his right arm. It is immediately apparent that the arm and “small shrivelled hand” are useless, which creates a strong contrast with Tom’s muscular shoulders.

Reverend Sykes explains to Jem that Tom’s injury had been the result of getting his arm stuck in a cotton gin years earlier. A cotton gin is a machine that makes it possible to speedily extricate seeds from cotton fiber. Sykes creates a graphic image of the injury, detailing the profuse bleeding and separation of muscle from bone.

The fact that Tom is convicted by the jury of attacking and raping Mayella Ewell is preposterous in light of this injury. The wounds inflicted on Mayella’s face were clearly the work of the perpetrator’s left hand. Since Tom’s left hand is useless, it is physically impossible for him to be guilty of the crime that he has been accused of. The fact that he even stands accused of this crime speaks volumes about the deeply entrenched racism that exists in Maycomb at the time.

Atticus Finch, who is defending Tom, makes the point that Mayella’s injuries were inflicted by somebody left-handed. Despite this, and the obvious impossibility of Tom Robinson using his left hand to attack anybody, he is found guilty.

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Tom Robinson's left arm is significantly shorter than his right one. This is due to a near-fatal accident he had when he was a child and got his left arm caught in a cotton gin. As a result, his left arm and withered left hand are useless.

Even so, Mayella Ewell still insists that Tom assaulted and raped her. But this assertion flatly contradicts the evidence that Mayella's facial injuries were inflicted by someone leading with their left. As Tom's left hand is useless, then it could not have been him. However, Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, is indeed left-handed, suggesting that he was the one who inflicted the injury.

Despite Tom's handicap, and despite the fact that it was physically impossible for him to have committed the crimes for which he has been charged, he is convicted by the jury.

This grotesque miscarriage of justice demonstrates that Tom's trial wasn't so much concerned with securing justice as with reinforcing white supremacy. In the Deep South at that time, the mere accusation of rape or assault by a Black man against a white woman was tantamount to a conviction. That being so, Tom was regarded as guilty before he even set foot in the court.

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Mayella Ewell takes the witness stand in chapter 18 and testifies that Tom Robinson assaulted and raped her. Mayella is clearly fabricating her story to avoid the guilt of tempting a Black man, and Atticus exposes her lie during his cross-examination. Atticus asks Mayella to identify the man that raped her, and she points towards Tom Robinson without hesitation.

Atticus then instructs his client to stand up, and Jem and Scout see Tom Robinson's handicap for the first time. Although Tom Robinson has a strong, muscular build, his left arm is twelve inches shorter than his right and lifelessly hangs from his body. From Scout's balcony seat, she can see Tom's shriveled hand and knows that it is completely useless.

Jem is surprised by Tom's handicap and comments that he is crippled. Reverend Sykes responds to Jem's comment by saying that Tom got his hand caught in Dolphus Raymond's cotton gin when he was a boy and almost bled to death. Tom's handicap is significant to the trial because it is evidence that he could not have inflicted the wounds on Mayella's face without the use of his left hand.

Atticus argues that Mayella was beaten by a person leading primarily with their left hand. Atticus also proves the Bob Ewell is left-handed and suggests that he assaulted his daughter and blamed Tom. Despite Tom's handicap and Atticus's moving argument, Tom Robinson is wrongfully convicted of assaulting and raping Mayella Ewell.

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During the trial, the sheriff, Heck Tate, testified that Mayella was beaten basically on her right side.  This indicated, even to Scout, a girl of nine, that someone who was left-handed would have done that kind of damage.  When Atticus proves that Bob Ewell is left-handed, Scout says,

"Atticus was trying to show, it seemed to me, that Mr. Ewell could have beaten up Mayella.....If her right eye was blacked and she was beaten mostly on the right side of the face, it would tend to show that a left-handed person did it."  (pg 178)

However, at that point in time, she thought that maybe Tom Robinson was left-handed.  That is until Atticus asked Tom to stand up.  Scout noticed that something was definitely different about Tom Robinson physically, he seemed off balance. 

"His left arm was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side.  It ended in a small shriveled hand and from as far away as the balcony I could see that it was no use to him." (pg 186)

Tom Robinson has no use of his left hand. Atticus was tryingto show that Tom could not have done the damage to Mayella's face.  Jem also noted the crippled condition of Tom's arm.  Reverend Sykes, who had snuck the children into the balcony to watch the proceedings, explained that

"He got it caught in a cotton gin, caught it in Mr. Dolphin Raymond's cotton gin when he was a boy....like to bled to death....tore all the muscles loose from his bones." (pg 186)

The point is emphasized again when Tom is called to testify and tries to take the oath on the Bible.  He has to lift his left hand with his right one, and then it won't stay in place.  Finally the judge tells him to just take the oath and not worry about placing his hand on the Bible.

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