At the Whitby Museum in North Yorkshire is a strange artifact—a dismembered hand, dried and shriveled. It once belonged to a man who was hanged from the gallows for an unknown crime. The hand was cut off at his wrist when the lifeless body was still hanging. The hand was then dried and pickled in salt.
The “hand of glory” is thought to have magical powers. Back in the shadowy days of black magic, witchcraft and the occult, sorcerers, shamans, and witch doctors kept such bizarre and otherworldly objects to practice black magic with. The “hand of glory” had a certain attraction among thieves because of its supposed powers of putting to sleep or rendering its victims motionless.
The “hand of glory” at Whitby Museum. Photo credit: Badobadop/Wikimedia
The name “hand of glory” most likely comes from the French main de gloire, a corruption of mandragore, which is the mandrake plant. Mandrake has a long association with magic and witchcraft. The roots and leaves of the mandrake plant contains an alkaloid that induces hallucination, blurred vision, dizziness, headache, vomiting, and a variety of symptoms when consumed. In sufficient quantities, it can even send a victim to unconsciousness. Antique doctors often used mandrake as an anesthetic during surgeries.
The magical properties of the “hand of glory” varied from story to story, but they always relate to things that would enable a thief to rob a house easily. To prepare a hand, first it had to be hacked off while the body was still hanging. The hand was usually the one the crime was committed with. The hand was then packed with salt to draw out the moisture, and then dried in the sun or over a fire until it had fully desiccated. Then a candle was prepared using the fat of the gibbeted person. When this candle was lighted and made to stand on the “hand of glory”, acting as a candle holder, it put to sleep all occupants of the house. Sometimes, the fingers of the hand itself were lighted. Each lighted finger represented a sleeping person within the house. If a finger refused to light, it was a sign that somebody was awake. Either that or there were fewer people in the house than there are fingers on the hand. In many stories involving the “hand of glory”, the thieves were usually caught because they misjudged the number of people in the house and therefore the number of people asleep.
Once the fingers were lit the sleeping people were unable to wake until the flames were extinguished. But the light could not be extinguished by water, but only by blood or skimmed milk, as these tales go.
The following story comes from Northumberland:
One dark night, when all was shut up, there came a tap at the door of a lone inn in the middle of a barren moor. The door was opened, and there stood without, shivering and shaking, a poor beggar, his rags soaked with rain, and his hands white with cold. He asked piteously for a lodging, and it was cheerfully granted him; there was not a spare bed in the house, but he could lie on the mat before the kitchen fire, and welcome.
So this was settled, and every one in the house went to bed except the cook, who from the back kitchen could see into the large room through a pane of glass let into the door. She watched the beggar, and saw him, as soon as he was left alone, draw himself up from the floor, seat himself at the table, extract from his pocket a brown withered human hand, and set it upright in the candlestick. He then anointed the fingers, and applying a match to them, they began to flame. Filled with horror, the cook rushed up the back stairs, and endeavoured to arouse her master and the men of the house. But all was in vain – they slept a charmed sleep; so in despair she hastened down again, and placed herself at her post of observation.
She saw the fingers of the hand flaming, but the thumb remained unlighted, because one inmate of the house was awake. The beggar was busy collecting the valuables around him into a large sack, and having taken all he cared for in the large room, he entered another. On this the woman ran in, and, seizing the light, tried to extinguish the flames. But this was not so easy. She poured the dregs of a beer jug over them, but they blazed up the brighter. As a last resource, she caught up a jug of milk, and dashed it over the four lambent flames, and they died out at once. Uttering a loud cry, she rushed to the door of the apartment the beggar had entered, and locked it. The whole family was aroused, and the thief easily secured and hanged.
The “hand of glory” at the Whitby Museum is the only surviving specimen of such a hand. It was discovered hidden on the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton by a stonemason and local historian named Joseph Ford. It was donated to the museum in 1935.