Armless German was a Violin Virtuoso

An admiring American newspaper described German Carl Herrmann Unthan as “a very handy man with his feet.”

He had to be. Unthan was born without arms in 1848. Before he died in 1929, he learned to play the violin with his feet and toured Europe and the Americas as a popular vaudeville performer. He also starred in a silent movie.

Message of hope

During World War I, “the armless virtuoso” volunteered to help boost the morale of German amputee veterans. He visited hospitals to show the disabled soldiers what an armless man could do.

While doctors removed shattered limbs, Unthan helped rebuild shattered spirits.

His message: Lost arms and legs were not the equivalent of lost lives.

Though most Americans sympathized with the Allies during World War I, newspaper articles complimenting the Germans were not unheard of early in the war. Typical of their customary “system and forethought,” Germans had “already addressed themselves to” the problem of disabled soldiers, according to a New York Post story reprinted in the Raleigh, N.C., Farmer and Mechanic on Oct. 12, 1915.

Carl Herrmann Unthan is shown with the violin he played using his feet.
Carl Herrmann Unthan is shown with the violin he played using his feet.

Source: Drimmer F. Very Special People. Citadel Press, 1991. Via Wikipedia.

The Post article cited stories written by Unthan and by Count Géza Zichy, the renowned one-armed Hungarian pianist and composer. The paper excerpted the articles from the Berliner Tagblatt, published in Germany’s capital city.

The Post story was not bylined. But the author wrote that “back from the battlefields of Europe will come the maimed, the halt, and the blind, men still having the spark of life, but facing declining years and the struggle for existence under the handicap of disability.”

The wounded soldiers would “come thronging in thousands and tens of thousands, the fruit of war’s harvest. Soldiers who have been blinded by shot and shell, who have lost leg or arm, others who have lost all moral, mental, and physical grip on themselves, must turn from fighting to industry; and the able bodied and strong, so many millions fewer, must carry the burden of the maimed ones while they toil at the rebuilding.

“It will be a problem for the family, the community, the State [sic], the nation, and in the end for the whole brotherhood of man.”

The Post article amounted to a tribute to Unthan and Zichy. But the paper would abruptly change its tune in 1917 after American soldiers went to Europe.

The Post and the rest of the American press and public denounced the Germans and anything connected with the hated “Huns.” Overflowing with patriotism, Americans even renamed dachshund dogs “liberty pups,” German measles “liberty measles” and hamburgers “liberty steaks.”

Independence, self-sufficiency

At any rate, the stories by the “two famous crippled men” focused on “training one-armed men to care for themselves and even to become productive members of society again.”

The Tagblatt headlined Unthan’s article “A Triumph of Will Power — Feet as Substitutes for Hands.”

Both stories stressed “the important psychological effect of work. The importance of these articles for men wounded in battle is however, subject to qualification as one of them was born a cripple and the other lost his [right] arm [in a hunting accident] in his teens.”

Unthan was a native of Königsberg, East Prussia, which is now Kaliningrad. The man so handy with his feet could “shoot, drive, play cards and musical instruments, and today can shave himself, wash his face, comb his hair, with as much ease as the average man does with his hands,” according to an April 8, 1894, San Francisco Morning Call story about Unthan’s upcoming appearance in a local vaudeville show. “That Unthan will create a sensation in this city and repeat the success and wonder he created abroad is a certainty, and there will be no little interest manifested over his coming,” the piece continued.


Unthan, who graduated from a conservatory at 18 years old, played the violin with his right foot by seating himself in a chair and strapping the instrument to a stool. By age 20, he was performing before packed concert halls in Vienna, the capital of Austria, and other European cities.

During his first show, he supposedly snapped a string. He quickly replaced and tuned it with his toes. Afterwards, it was claimed, he deliberately broke and fixed strings to the amazement of audiences.

“A person who sees me perform on the violin, the flute, play cards, shoot, swim, who observes how I wash myself, file my nails, sharpen a pencil or regulate the clock, faces a series of results which seem inexplicable to him,” he wrote. “I myself who can review my whole life and know the path upon which I succeeded in developing my faculties, by unremitting labor, naturally no longer find my achievements wonderful.”

He said his activities “appear perfectly natural to me, and I feel convinced that every one [sic] who, with my physical constitution, is earnestly desirous to advance, will very soon accomplish what I have done. I am not referring here to athletic skill, but in the needs of practical life. There is but one road: A never-ending impulse to depend upon one’s self — that is, to become independent of others. Every outside aid, therefore, should be firmly refused if there is but a shadow of possibility of being able to help one’s self.”

Unthan recalled that before he was 1 year old, his parents knew he would substitute his legs and feet for his missing arms and hands.

“They noticed, namely, how I reached for a candle held out to me in the dark with my toes. After that, my feet were left bare whenever possible. As I grew somewhat older, I shoved everything within my reach in my mouth to test whether it was edible.”

He said “an uncontrollable curiosity” spurred him on. “At 2 [years], I tried to wash myself; I succeeded. Thenceforth it was a matter of: you must!”

He polished the family shoes. After he fell into some water at age 4 years, he learned to swim. At 6 years, he could undress himself; by 12 years he was dressing himself. “The first requirements of independence were thus attained — I had become a human being.”

Patience and pride

Unthan said he never worried himself “with efforts to replace my arms and hands with my feet…. Patience and again patience was my guiding star.”

He said learning to play the violin was his most difficult accomplishment. “When, after endless attempts, a road seemed to have been found” in caring teachers. He named them: Wilhelm Schumer in Königsberg and “[Ferdinand] David in Leipzig.” They “took pains to teach me for 3 years, until I could venture to make my first public appearance at the Leipzig Gewandhaus.”

Ultimately, Unthan decided to write his autobiography. Published in 1925, it was titled The Armless Fiddler: A Pediscript Being the Life Story of a Vaudeville Man. He called the book a “pediscript” because he wrote it with his foot.

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