crime, folk magic, folklore, Hand of Glory, thieves, Yorkshire
“Why, my goot Master Oldenbuck, you will only laugh at me. But de hand of glory is vary well known in de countriess where your worthy progenitors did live, – and it is hand cut off from a dead man, as has been hanged for murther, and dried very nice in de shmoke of juniper wood; and if you put a little of what you call yew wid your juniper it will not be any better, – that is, it will not be no worse; then you do take something of de fatsh of de bear, and of de badger, and of de great eber, as you call de grand boar, and of de little suckling child as has not been christened (for dat is very essentials), and you do make a candle, and put it into de hand of glory at de proper hour and minute, with de proper ceremonish, and he who seeksh for treasuresh shall never find none at all”
So, what is the truth behind the mummified hand held in Whitby, why does the Hand of Glory occupy such a precarious position between fact and fiction and why did the myth around the dried and pickled hands of hanged criminals take such a strong hold on the imagination of so many people?
Hand of Glory Recipe
Step 1: Preparation of the Hand
There are quite a few pamphlets that describe how to make Hands of Glory. Certain minor details vary from account to account but overall, the instructions are strikingly similar in detail. The following instructions are taken from the Petit Albert (an eighteenth-century grimoire of natural and cabalistic magic) which cites Émile-Jules Grillot de Givry, a French occultist as its source and from the Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunter’s manual written by Francesco Maria Guazzo in 1608.
- Sever the hand from the body of a still hanging criminal. Choose the left hand, except in the case when the man is a murderer, then cut off the hand that committed the murder. If this is not known, remove his right hand as this is the hand most likely to have been used.
- Remove the hand in the dead of the night or during an eclipse.
- Wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well.
- Then put it into an earthenware vessel along with zimat (an unknown substance, possibly verdigris), nitre (the mineral form of potassium nitrate also known as saltpeter), salt and long peppers. The contents should be well powdered.
- Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days (the hottest days of July and August) until it becomes quite dry (if the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain)
A different method of making a Hand of Glory can be found in the text which accompanied the Whitby Museum’s Hand and which was published in a book in 1823.
“It must be cut from the body of a criminal on the gibbet; pickled in salt, and the urine of man, woman, dog, horse and mare; smoked with herbs and hay for a month; hung on an oak tree for three nights running, then laid at a crossroads, then hung on a church door for one night while the maker keeps watch in the porch”
Step 2: Create the Candle
There are two ways to make a Hand Glory.
The first is to bleed the hand, dry it and then dip it in wax, turning each finger into a candle.
The second is to use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold a candle. The candle must be made from human fat taken from the corpse of the same hanged man and then combined with virgin wax, sesame and ponie. De Givry proposed that ponie was another name for horse dung, which due to its combustible nature when dry would make it a logical choice. An alternative suggestion also put forward is that ponie is a contraction of ‘sisame de Laponie’, in English, Lapland Sesame.
In some descriptions, the hair of the deceased man is used for the wick.
The Perfect Thieves’ Tool
Hands of Glory were most commonly associated with thieves who would harness its power to steal from households.
It was believed that all the fingers and the thumb should be lit. If one finger refused to ignite it was due to there either being less than five people in the house or to one person still being awake. Dousing the hand in milk was the only way to extinguish the flames and render the power of the hand dormant, releasing anyone under its control.
The hand could:
- Induce a coma-like state for anyone already asleep in the household.
- Open any door, however securely it had been locked and bolted.
- Cause the holder to become invisible to others.
- Make any person to whom the candle was presented, motionless.
- Burn forever.
How to Protect Your Home and Property
A household could protect itself from the Hand by rubbing a rather unpleasant and pungent concoction on their thresholds or other parts of the house. The mixture should be composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen and the blood of a screech-owl. As with the creation of the hand, the potion has to be made during the hottest days of July and August.
Historical Evidence for the Hand of Glory
Body parts have always had the reputation of being imbued with special qualities, you have only to look at the reverence that remains of Christian saints are held in. Even today in Africa, body parts are used in witchcraft practices, for instance, male genitalia is the most sought-after human body parts used in traditional witchcraft ceremonies. So, it is easy to understand that in the past, remains were thought by many to have magical qualities and how in their minds, crime, especially terrible crimes would increase the dark power of those remains.
So, what actual historical evidence do we have? The answer is very little. Most of it is either hearsay, second-hand accounts or very obviously fanciful. Hand of Glory stories are most common in Northern England. Robert Southey in his memoirs at one-point talks of assisting in the “definitive judgement” of certain criminals. Before he begins to demonstrate his knowledge, he makes it very clear to his audience that he himself had never attempted to create such an abominable object. He then states that men who had undergone torture confessed to him their use of a Hand of Glory. He says that its purpose was to render people motionless “insomuch that they could not stir, anymore than if they were dead“. He then goes on to describe how to create a Hand of Glory. Unfortunately, the lack of actual details such as where the trials took place and who the men were does call its veracity into question and besides under torture people will admit to anything!
There are also many stories that have been passed down, recounting incidents of the Hand being used. A famous account concerns the Inn of Spital on Stanmore (possibly Stainmore) in Yorkshire. It was said that on a cold October night in 1797, an old female beggar come to the door asking for lodgings. The owner of the inn, George Alderson agreed but stated that the beggar would have to be content with sleeping by the fire in the kitchen. The family then went to bed. Only the maid, Bella remained awake. Something about the beggar’s appearance unsettled her. Pretending to be asleep, she watched the beggar and was shocked to discover that the raggedy old woman was actually a man in disguise. She saw him remove a withered hand from his pocket, as well as a candle. Taking her chance, she rushed to her master’s bedroom but was unable to wake him or his son. On her return to the kitchen, she saw the man open the door and go outside leaving the Hand on the table. Realising that the household was under a spell, she grabbed a cup of milk and poured it on the Hand’s flames. Immediately the household woke and grabbing their guns, they shot at the thief and his accomplice. Knowing their luck had run out, the thief asked for the Hand of Glory to be returned. In answer, the son shot at them again. The Hand remained in the family’s possession for sixteen years. This account was supposedly given to the author by someone who had themselves heard it from the daughter of Bella. Two other Hand of Glory stories from Yorkshire are known; one is from Oak Tree Inn, Leeming (the incident reported to have taken place in 1824) and another earlier tale retold by Sabine Baring-Gould. The heroes of these stories are again female servants who save the families (and their valuables) through their bravery and intelligence.
Whitby’s Hand of Glory
The only surviving Hand of Glory can be found in Whitby Museum. Given to the museum in 1935, it was discovered in a cottage in Castleton by stonemason and local historian, Joseph Ford. Hidden in the wall, Ford identified it based on depictions found in numerous stories.
Often the Whitby example is cited as being proof of the existence of the Hand of Glory but is it really what it is purported to be? As shown above, stories about its existence were widespread and widely believed but could it have just been one of many items such as witches’ bottles and shoes that were hidden in walls to protect against witchcraft, demons and the fey or could it have been the property of cunning folk or ‘witches’? Unfortunately, we will never know.
Witches, Fairies and a Dead Hand
It was not only thieves that were associated with dead hands or Hands of Glory but also witches and fairies. These stories show the power of such objects as well as the fear that they could stir in people’s hearts and minds.
In Ireland ill luck, diseases and ‘curses’ were more commonly attributed to fairies rather than witches. It was generally believed that butter witches used the hand of a corpse to help them produce large quantities of butter and milk. In one tale an old woman asks a fairy how to get more butter and the fairy in response digs up a corpse’s hand and gives it to her to use for collecting it. In another, locals of the parish of Eyrecourt suspect a neighbour of having a dead hand in her possession due to the large amount of milk and butter she managed to produce from only a few cows. Despite the possible benefits of owning a dead hand such as taking a neighbour’s “crops and stock, and maybe breaking them out of house and home”, it was strongly believed that in the end, the hand would become a curse for whoever was in possession of it.
In England, a number of local stories appeared which linked the Hand of Glory to witches. One more light-hearted tale is set in the village of Crasswall in Herefordshire where it was said that a witch made a Hand of Glory from a hanged corpse in order to put a spell on the people who ducked her in a horsepond. The story was told by a woman from the village who remembered it as being one of her great-uncle’s “silly old tales”.
The most famous case concerns the Scottish schoolmaster and convicted ‘sorcerer’, Dr John Fian (alias Cunninghame). Tortured to breaking point and in extreme agony, he admitted to having trained several witches in North Berwick Kirk (many of whom found themselves centre stage in the now infamous North Berwick Witch Trials), bewitching townsfolk and raising a storm to sink the ship carrying King James VI of Scotland and his newlywed wife, Anne of Denmark as they returned from Copenhagen and using a Hand of Glory to help him break into a church and perform a service to the Devil.
Further afield in Germany, during their witch hunts in 1588, two women, Nichel and Bessers were accused of witchcraft and the exhumation of corpses. The women admitted to “poisoning helpless people after lighting hands of glory to immobilise them”.
The Hand’s Medicinal Properties
One other curious aspect of the belief in the power of dead hands was that people, despite the objects’ gruesome nature, also associated it with healing. Even in Ireland, dead hands were believed to cure toothache. The hand had to be rubbed against the tooth. For the treatment to be effective for men, they had to avoid shaving on a Sunday.
Hands of Glory were also thought to have healing properties. In particular, they could be used to heal goitre, an abnormal growth on the thyroid gland caused by poor diet and nutrition, by passing the Hand over the swelling. Severed and preserved hands have been found in physicians’ medical bags and collections.
It is fascinating that stories about hands used for similar purposes can also be found in other countries in Northern Europe.
In Switzerland, it was said that the bodies of deceased and unbaptised children should be buried at night so that the location of their graves remained unknown. This was done to prevent the bodies from being mutilated as it was thought that the hands of such infants could open any lock. As in England, it was believed that the number of fingers that were not burning indicated how many in a house were still awake.
Germanic folklore also contained stories of how thieves would make lights for themselves which would cast a spell over people keeping them asleep for however long the candles burned. Known as ‘Thieves’ lights’, these gruesome objects were made from the fingers of unborn children. These infants would have to have been cut from a womb of a thief or murderer who had either been hanged, beheaded or had committed suicide. Specific and strict instructions had to be followed in order to invoke the hand’s power:
- Special incantations and spells had to be recited.
- The journey must be made along the devil’s roads at midnight.
- The journey must be taken in absolute silence.
- The same axe or knife that had been used by the executioner must be used to “open up the poor sinner’s belly, take out the child, cut off its fingers, and take them with you”.
The candles fashioned from these tiny hands would ignite whenever their owner wished it and would be quenched in the same manner. The power held by these macabre objects echoes exactly the power displayed by Hands of Glory. To add to the gruesome origin of these lights, it was reported that pregnant women were often sold to or stolen by brigands of thieves.
In West Flanders in the Netherlands, a story persists of how a foot of a hanged man was found in the possession of a thief which he used for the purpose of putting people to sleep. There is also a story from Huy, which bears a remarkable similarity to the Yorkshire tales. In this version, two men request permission to sleep by their host’s fire. The maid not liking the look of the visitors, spies on them. When they believe themselves to be unobserved, one of them, to the maid’s horror, draws a thief’s hand from his pocket. Despite his best efforts, all the fingers burn except for one. Realising that someone in the house was not asleep but seemingly unperturbed they hang it by the chimney and go to the door to call their associates. Failing to wake her master, the maid runs to the kitchen and blows out the candles. In an instant, the men of the household wake up and drive off the robbers.
The Hand of Glory: An Interesting Tale or a Grim Tool
Although it is highly improbable that Hands of Glory were powerful magical instruments, it is more than likely that people did try to make them. There are just too many stories, from too many countries, to dismiss them as complete nonsense. It is a shame that only one has survived as more physical evidence could give us a better understanding of this traditional occult practice. What happened to the others? One possible explanation is that they were buried in secret locations where they could not cause harm and another is that they were simply destroyed. Going back to the introduction and the section taken from the novel Waverley, it is apparent that the author did have knowledge of the Hands although the description given here of their creation is very different from the written accounts that have come down to us. Also, its use to protect secret treasure seems contradictory, it is more likely the Hands would be used to find it instead!
I will leave the last word to Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor (pen name of Richard Harris Barham) who wrote The Hand of Glory, the second of the Ingoldsby Legends.
Now open, lock!
To the Dead Man’s knock!
Fly, bolt, and bar, and band!
Nor move, nor swerve.
Joint, muscle, or nerve
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand!
Sleep, all who sleep! – Wake, all who wake!
But be as the dead for the Dead Man’s sake
Baring-Gould, Sabine: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, Rivingtons: London, Oxford & Cambridge, 1868
Guazzo, Francesco Maria: The Compendium Maleficarum, Dover Publications; Montague Summers edition, 1988
Guiley, Rosemary: The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, Checkmark Books, 2008
Harris Dalton Barham, Richard: The Ingoldsby Legends (Classic Reprint), Forgotten Books, 2012
Leather, Ella Mary: The Folk-lore of Herefordshire, University of Michigan Library, 1912
Southey, Robert: The Poetical Works of Robert Southey: With a Memoir of the Author, Volume 4, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1860
 Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Oxford University Press, 2015
 Edmund Kelly (ed.), The Petit Albert, English Edition, 2013, https://books.google.co.il/books?id=P-udDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&vq=hand+of+glory&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=hand%20of%20glory&f=false)
 Émile-Jules Grillot de Givry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89mile-Jules_Grillot_de_Givry
 Francesco Maria Guazzo, The Compendium Maleficarum, Dover Publications; Montague Summers edition, 1988
 Hand of Glory: The Dark Secret Of The Severed Hand At Whitby Museum, Hand of Glory In Whitby Museum, The History Behind The Hand Of Glory, Hand of Glory In Whitby Museum, The History Behind The Hand Of Glory, https://www.thewhitbyguide.co.uk/hand-of-glory/
 The Hand of Glory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_of_Glory
 Male genitalia tops witchcraft list, https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/kwazulu-natal/male-genitalia-tops-witchcraft-list-1065078#:~:text=Male%20genitalia%20are%20the%20most%20sought-after%20human%20body,with%20Childline%20South%20Africa%20in%20Durban%20on%20Thursday
 Robert Southey, The Poetical Works of Robert Southey: With a Memoir of the Author
 Edwin Sidney Hartland, English fairy and other folk tales, https://archive.org/details/englishfairyothe00hartiala/page/n5/mode/2up?view=theater
 Hand of Glory, https://whitbymuseum.org.uk/whats-here/collections/special-collections/hand-of-glory/
 Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages
 dúchas.ie, https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922363/4874420
 dúchas.ie, homehttps://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922034/4920836
 Ella Mary Leather, The Folk-lore of Herefordshire
 John Fian, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fian
 Rosemary Guiley, The Encyclopaedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca
 dúchas.ie, https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4602721/4598281/4631369.
 Hand of Glory: The Dark Secret Of The Severed Hand At Whitby Museum, Hand of Glory In Whitby Museum, The History Behind The Hand Of Glory
 The Hand of Glory and other legends about human hands, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hand.html#rothenbach
 Richard Harris Dalton Barham, The Ingoldsby Legends