The Hand of Glory is a mythical artefact that was said to heal ailments, protect thieves from discovery and to act as a warning to others of the consequences of crime.
Perhaps, the best way to be sure of the veracity of these tales is to visit Whitby Museum to see for yourself the last remaining Hand of Glory!
The dark history of the Hand of Glory
A European belief has it that not all uses of the amputated hands of criminals were to act as a deterrent. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Hand of Glory was a popular piece of equipment for thieves as they committed their crimes.
To create a Hand of Glory, it required the hand of a still hanging corpse. It was vital that the corpse had been sentenced to hanging. Typically, a murderer’s right hand was taken as it was assumed the dead man would have been right-handed. For the enchantment to work the hand used must be the one that committed the crime.
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 indicated that either someone in the home was awake or that there were less than five people in the house. Many thieves misjudged the number of people in the house and often this was their downfall. It is said that the flame of a Hand of Glory can only be extinguished with milk. Any other liquid only emboldens its blaze.
Magic powers of the Hand of Glory
Thieves would do anything to reduce the risk of being caught. At this time burglary was punishable by death. Stakes were high. Accounts differ from source to source on what the Hand of Glory could do. The magic powers bestowed fall into four main theories.
- First and most common is that 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.
- Second, the hand would give light to only the holder casting all others into darkness – akin to the holder becoming invisible.
- Third, is that any lock could be opened in and around the vicinity where the hand was lit.
- Finally, it is thought that a Hand of Glory could burn forever without perishing.
How to make a Hand of Glory
Creating a Hand of Glory was no mean feat. There were rituals to observe, rules to follow and a process that made it a skilled endeavour. First off, the hand had to be severed from a hanging corpse on a lunar eclipse. Instructions state that this was to be at the dead of night, though whether this was essential to the spell or to avoid being caught is not mentioned.
In 1722, the Petit Albert, a popular magical textbook of the day captured the imagination of the public. Sinister and esoteric in equal parts the book was inspired by the writings of Saint Albertus Magnus of Cologne. The popularity of such a text illustrated the bleak interest in the dark arts and forbidden content of black magic.
Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless
If the hand were to be used as a candle they were covered in wax. If not, the hand was made ready to be used as a candleholder for a magic candle as above.
How the Hand of Glory came to reside at Whitby Museum
Once upon a time, an antiquarian from Castleton bought an old cottage in Danby. The cottage had once been owned by a man of disrepute. Though there was no evidence ever brought upon the man to arrest him. Dr J.E. Chalmers made a fascinating discovery one day in his new home. He found the right hand of a dead man hanging over a door lintel.
Chalmers, a keen historian, decided to keep the hand in his possession until old age. At one time he considered burying it in Danby churchyard. Happily, though, before he died he reconsidered and passed it on to a local mason named Joseph Ford. Mr Ford gifted the Hand of Glory to Whitby Museum in 1935.
The inscription alongside the hand at Whitby Museum reads:
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-“and if it be that no fear hath driven you forth from the porch … then the hand be true won, and it be yours”
The medicine of folklore
In the days when medicine was scare and hangings were common, it is said that the hand of a drowned or hanged man could be used to heal. Goitre, an iodine deficiency, often led to growth or swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck. A particularly common malady of antiquity due to poor diet and nutrition.
It is said that passing the hand of a dead man over the growth would cure the swelling. This led many afflicted persons to visit the recently deceased in order to use this remedy. The more enterprising of these sick individuals decided that the hand would be useful to them for the long term. Severed and preserved hands were commonplace in the amateur physician’s toolkit.
Diagnosis of illness was limited in the early ages. Without a proper understanding of the ailment, it was indeed near impossible to offer the correct treatment. Wise women were often entreated by the ill to provide a remedy, even if it were bordering on the realms of magic.
Medicinal plants were often used by these wise women to treat the sick. Homoeopathic tinctures have been the mainstay of traditional healing for millennia. However, there were many diseases beyond the wisdom of old magic, hence the use of the preserved hand.
Harry Potter and the Hand of Glory
One such remedy used in old times was the mandrake root. Known in the Harry Potter books for their magical properties, the mandrake root is a highly potent ingredient. The mandrake is used in the Harry Potter series as a restorative for those that have been transfigured or cursed.
The name ‘Hand of Glory’ is thought to come from the French term, ‘main de glorie’. This, in turn, is said to have derived from ‘mandrogore’, the French name for mandrake.
Borgin and Burkes
The magic store, Borgin and Burkes, has a Hand of Glory which catches the eye of the young Dracus Malfoy. He purchases the object and later uses it in his assassination attempt on Albus Dumbledore, among another calamitous treachery.
Mandrake plants in early growth have a root that resembles a small baby human. It is said that if a mandrake should be dug up from the earth it will shriek in such a way that the sound kills all who hear it.
Did you know that Hogsmeade Station is in Goathland?
Legend has it that mandrakes grew under the gallows from the seed of a hanged man. Lending further credibility to the mystical properties of this fabled plant. As far back as the 15th century, Saxon folklore told of mandrake plants shining a light at night similar to a lamp.
The name Hand of Glory allegedly only came into use during the 17th century.
Code of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest translated writings in the world. Dated at around 1772 BC, these ancient Babylonian laws were set out in ancient Mesopotamia by Hummurabi, the sixth king of Babylonia.
It is from these 282 laws that the principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is taken. The Code of Hammurabi states that punishment for a crime should be equal in reciprocity. A murderer must be sentenced to death, a son striking a father has his hand taken. Fear of similar punishment and shame of the lasting mark is the foundation of this drastic code.
It’s from this law that the notion of criminal punishment and amputation has its roots.
Locations of other Hand’s of Glory
The amputated hands and limbs of criminals were often displayed as a warning to others. To whom the hand belonged was of little importance, the context, however, told the story. There are but a few of these artefacts remaining – the last known Hand of Glory resides in Whitby Museum – through the stories of their legend they live on.
A preserved limb hangs in a Prague church instilling fear even now into the public at large.
Recent findings include the hand of a gambler in the Haunch of Venison public house in Wiltshire. Staff at the pub recount a tale whereby the gambler was caught cheating by the local butcher, who promptly chopped off his hand and threw it into the fireplace.
A risky game of whist indeed! The severed hand, found during renovations in 1911, was displayed in a glass case alongside a deck of cards from the 18th century. The hand was stolen in 2010.
In St Brigida’s Catholic Church, Westphalia, Germany was the site of an amputated hand preserved in limestone. The hand was alleged to have been cut off for telling lies. It was displayed to show others of the consequences. Legden’s local community had fundraised to have the hand identified at Dusseldorf University, sadly, thieves took it in 2012.
Do you dare visit the Hand of Glory at Whitby Museum? Let us know if you have in the comments.