The hand of glory is an old charm that was used by thieves throughout history, and as late as 1820. Whitby Museum is the holder of one such artefact, with a fascinating story behind it.
Dr J.E Chalmers, an antiquarian who lived in Castleton, bought an old cottage in Danby. The cottage had previously been owned by a man who was thought to have had a bad reputation, though there was no evidence ever brought upon the man to arrest him. Dr Chalmers made a fascinating discovery one day in his new home, it was the right hand of a dead man hanging over the door lintel. Chalmers decided to keep the hand in his possession until his old age, he considered burying it in Danby churchyard before he died but reconsidered and passed it on to a historian named Joseph Ford.
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The name ‘Hand of Glory’ most likely comes from the French Maine De Glorie, which is the scientific name of a species of plant (mandrake plant, the famous ‘screaming’ plant from Harry Potter) whose roots were also used by thieves.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the hand of glory was a popular piece of equipment for thieves as they committed their crimes. The hand would be taken from a still hanging corpse (it was vital that the corpse had been sentenced to hanging), usually a murderer’s hand it was the right that was taken as it was assumed the dead man’s dead would have been done with the right hand (given that many people were trained to be right handed). The hand would most often be used as a candle itself, though would sometimes be used as a candle holder.
In stories where the fingertips acted as the candle each finger would represent each person in the home that was asleep, if a finger wouldn’t catch fire it would indicate that either someone in the home was awake or that there were less than five people in the house, though this usually was the shortcoming of most thieves who misjudged the number of people in the house.
At a time where burglary was punishable by death, thieves would do anything to lower the risk of being caught. The stories differ from source to source on what the hand’s magic powers were but there are four main theories that come up when discussing the hand;
- The hand would put to sleep anyone that was awake in the house, and render them in a coma-like state until the flames were extinguished.
- It would give light to only the holder, and all others would see would be darkness.
- Any lock could be opened in and around the vicinity where the hand was lit.
- The hand would be able to burn forever.
To take the hand was no easy fate either. It came with rituals and rules that had to be followed, or else it wouldn’t work. The hand had to be taken from a hung corpse at the dead of night (though this may be due to it being illegal to dismember bodies), and during a lunar eclipse. It would then be taken somewhere where it could be drained of all blood, after the fingers were positioned and then the whole hand would be wrapped in a cloth specially prepared for the use. For two weeks the hand would be pickled in Saltpere, long peppers, and salt, then afterward it would be left to dry for months, meanwhile ritualistic poems would be chanted throughout the process. The hand would then be covered in wax, ready to be used.