Carl Herman Unthan

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Carl Unthan playing the violin with his feet

Carl Herrmann Unthan (5 April 1848 – 1929) was a Prussian-born violinist and actor who was born without arms.[1]


He was born on 5 April 1848 in Germany.

Unthan's father was a teacher who insisted he not be "coddled". Whether this was the reason or not, Carl reportedly could feed himself at two and around the age of ten is said to have taught himself to play the violin by strapping it on to a stool. He was sent to a music conservatory at 16 and graduated a couple of years later.

By the age of 20 Unthan was performing to full concert halls. He would go on to perform notably in Vienna with classical orchestras. He began with personal concerts and later added additional tricks to his repertoire. During his maiden performance he broke a string; he replaced it and tuned the new string using only his toes. After this it is said he would deliberately weaken one string before each performance so that it would snap during his recital, giving him an opportunity to repeat his dexterity. He was also a marksman who could shoot the spots out of a playing card with a rifle operated by his feet. He toured Cuba, Mexico, South America, and Europe. Later he married Antonie Neschta, whom he had toured with for a time. He moved to the United States and eventually gained citizenship.

At the age of 65, Unthan (credited as Charles Unthan) appeared in the Danish silent film Atlantis which includes a passenger liner sinking during a voyage. The author of the original story, Gerhart Hauptmann, had been impressed by Unthan during a cross-Atlantic voyage and was inspired to write the character of Arthur Stoss, an armless virtuoso, based upon him. Hauptmann's contract with the Danish filmmakers stipulated that only Unthan could play the character.[2]

He died in 1929 in Berlin, Germany.


In 1925, Unthan published his autobiography, Das Pediscript (instead of manuscript – because he had typed it with his feet, pedally, as opposed to manually) in Germany. In English translation it was published in 1935, six years after his death.

Popular culture[edit]

There is an oblique reference to Unthan in the dialogue of Charles Chaplin's film Limelight, which takes place in the early twentieth century while Unthan was still performing.

Peter Sloterdijk, in his book You Must Change Your Life, discusses Unthan's commitment to what he terms an "ethics of the Nonetheless", which places him "undoubtedly" in "the earlier defiance-existentialist movement" of Germans such as Max Stirner in order to "...demonstrate the unusual convergence of human and cripple in the discourses of the generation after Nietzsche".

Further reading[edit]

  • Unthan, Carl Herman. The armless fiddler, a pediscript;: Being the life story of a vaudeville man (G. Allen & Unwin ltd; 1935)
  • Library of Curious & Unusual Facts: Mysteries of the Human Body (1990: Time Life Inc) page 58
  • Leroi, Armand Marie. Mutants : On Genetic Variety and the Human Body In Chapter IV-"Cleppies" (On arms and legs), pages 111-112 and 114.
  • Drimmer, F. Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities (Revised Edition), Citadel Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8065-1253-9
  • Sloterdijk, P. You Must Change Your Life, in chapter 3 "Only Cripples Will Survive", pages 40–47.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "Writes With His Feet. German Urges 'Pediscript' for Persons Who Lose Arms". The New York Times. March 30, 1925. Retrieved 2015-04-26.
  2. ^ "August Blom". Stumfilm. Retrieved 2008-06-20.