To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

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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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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 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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