What is the Origin of the Phrase “Caught Red Handed”?

Carl F. states: During WWII, I saw my father go to get a physical for the Navy, when he returned home for a week before shipping out he had red ink on the back of his hand that took 2 or 3 days to wash off. He said after the physical if you passed they would brush red ink on to show you passed but gave no reason why. So when traveling people he met would say, “I see you got caught red handed.”   Where did the phrase “caught red handed” come from?

Now You KnowThis expression, “caught red handed”, has its origins in Scotland around the 15th century.  Given the context it was often used in the earliest references, the phrase “red hand” or “redhand” probably came about referring to people caught with blood on their hands.

The first known documented instance of “red hand” is in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, written in 1432:

That the offender be taken reid hand, may be persewed, and put to the knawledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender be his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not…  And uthers not taken reid hand, to be alwaies persewed befoir the…

It subsequently popped up numerous times in various legal proceedings in Scotland, nearly always referring to someone caught in the act of committing some crime, such as “apprehended redhand”, “taken with redhand”, etc.

The first documented instance of the expression morphing from “red hand” to “red handed” was in the early 19th century work Ivanhoe, written by Sir Walter Scott:

I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.

Its use in Ivanhoe subsequently helped popularized it throughout the English speaking world.

It further morphed to the full “caught red handed” phrase about a half a century after Ivanhoe was published, first appearing in Guy Livingstone written by George Alfred Lawrence and published in 1857:

My companion picked up the object; and we had just time to make out that it was a bell-handle and name-plate, when the pursuers came up – six or seven “peelers” and specials, with a ruck of men and boys. We were collared on the instant. The fact of the property being found in our possession constituted a ‘flagrans delictum’ – we were caught red-handed.

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