The History Behind: Hands of Glory

One of the Vilest Objects in All of Folklore, These Severed Hands Were Allegedly Utilised in Black Magic

Michael East
Oct 29, 2020 · 11 min read

Folklore has long told of the great powers held by the hand of a corpse, with the severed left hands of convicts hanged at the gallows being particularly utilised as a so-called Hand of Glory. Traditionally dried and pickled, these dismembered limbs would often be used to hold candles made from the fat of the dead man, allegedly having an occult power to render those within range motionless or even open doors. With their creation claimed to be verified by surviving relics, the Hand of Glory is one of the most macabre objects of all time. Warning: This one is not for the faint of heart!

An alleged Hand of Glory kept at Whitby Museum | www.badobadop.co.uk, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Legends tell of how these hands could magically provide light only for the holder while in darkness, leaving anybody else present stranded in the dark. They speak of how the candle can burn forever, so long as it is made from the fat of the same corpse. Other myths include opening locks, burning brighter near treasure and putting the entire occupants of a house into a deep sleep. When each member of the household had been successfully rendered unconscious, one of the fingers of the hand would light into flame, acting as a candle itself. This power, alongside its famous ability to render victims motionless, made the magical object a prize for any would-be criminal.

Scholars believe that the origins of the Hand of Glory come from the herb mandrake which has various uses in folklore, including inciting madness, expelling demons and, importantly, inducing deep sleep. The French for “hand of glory” is main de gloire and Walter William Skeat, the pre-eminent British philologist of his age, believed this to be a corruption of mandragore. Mandrake.

False Mandrake Root. Note the similarity to a skeletal hand | Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pinkpasty), Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the most notable descriptions of the Hand of Glory comes from the French book Petit Albert, published c. 1706. The book is a grimoire, a textbook of magic, and describes natural and cabalistic enchantments. Possibly inspired by the writings of the German philosopher Albertus Parvus Lucius, the book was a huge success despite its subject matter and the age. The book is a companion piece to Le Grand Albert, and the church long considered their possession to be black magic in itself.

In the book, the author asserts that he has never personally witnessed the Hand of Glory in action, but had been present three times at executions where the condemned man was alleged to have used one in a theft. Recanting the confessions of the men, the book tells of how they utilised its arcane powers to render their victims immobile and that it was always the hand of a hanged man.

“We take the right hand or the left of a hanged man exposed on the highways; it is wrapped in a piece of funeral sheet, in which it is pressed well to make it return the little blood which may have remained; then we put it in an earthen vase with zimat, saltpetre, salt & long pepper, all well pulverised: we leave it for fifteen days in this jar; then having pulled it out we expose it to the great sun of the heatwave until it has become quite dry; and if the sun is not enough, we put it in an oven which is heated with fern and verbena; then we compose a kind of candle with hangman’s fat, virgin wax, sesame and ponie.”

Petit Albert

There is some debate over the translation of the recipe. The 1722 Petit Albert translates as the Hand of Glory requiring both sesame and “ponie”. Later editions, however, believed this line was a singular ingredient of “sesame of Lapland”. The American scholar John Livingston Lowes thought ponie to be horse dung.

The Hand of Glory as depicted in Petit Albert | Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The book goes on to describe how the hand must then be used as a candlestick and lighted. The creation then has the power to render anyone in the vicinity immobile. However, there are solutions to the power of the hand, with Petit Albert suggesting that those who wish to guard against it rub “the threshold of the door of the house or the other places through which they can enter, with an ointment composed of black cat gall, white hen fat & screech-owl blood”. Once again, this concoction had to be created during a heatwave. Equally, the candle could only be extinguished by using blue milk. Others said by blood. Milk and blood are both symbols of life, bodily fluids that only flow while the producer remains alive.

In 1797, a Hand of Glory was allegedly used in an attempted robbery at the Spital Inn, North Stainmore, a remote area of the hilly Pennine region on the borders of Cumbria, County Durham and North Yorkshire, England. As the story goes, the innkeeper, George Alderson, was getting ready to turn in for the night when there came a knocking at the door. Opening it, an old lady stood at the threshold, cowled and with her features obscured. The old woman asked if she could warm herself by the fire and perhaps, upon his kindness, sleep there this evening. A kindly soul, Anderson agreed but asked his maid Bella to sleep downstairs too. You couldn’t be too careful.

As she settled to bed, the observant Bella noticed riding boots underneath the old woman’s dress. Noting the peculiarity, Bella only feigned sleep and watched as the mysterious old woman took a Hand of Glory from her knapsack. She threw back her hood to reveal that she wasn’t an old woman at all but a man and a thief!

Lighting the candle, the would-be thief turned to the door and exited to the outside, planning to let in a raiding party. Bella acted quickly, leaping to her feet and bolted the door. She screamed the alarm, attempting to wake the house… but it was no good, the hand had already started its work. As the door was broken down, Bella remembered what she knew of defeating such powers, grabbing a nearby milk churn and throwing it at the thief. The milk quickly dowsed the flame, and George Alderson awoke, thundering downstairs with a blunderbuss in hand. Opening fire, the men realised their magic had failed and made off into the night.

A very similar tale came from Northumberland and was retold by Sabine Baring-Gould in Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1873).

“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 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 everyone 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.”

Whitby Museum

While these tales may seem like mere myth and legend, the belief in the powers of these talisman’s was all too real, with their possession leading to accusations of witchcraft and theft.

In 1588, two German women, Nichel and Bessers were accused of witchcraft and grave robbing. Under questioning they admitted they had exhumed corpses to create Hands of Glory and had committed murder via poisoning, having first immobilised their victims using said hands. Like all such “confessions”, they should be taken with a grain of salt.

It is here, however, in Germany, that we find the grimmest tales of the hand. Nicknamed “thieves lights”, these versions of the legend tell of how the magical object would be constructed from “the fingers of unborn, innocent children” as the hands of those who have been baptised cannot be used. To add another layer of darkness, these unborn children must be cut from the womb of a hanged pregnant woman. The evil soul carrying out this deed must not walk on any of God’s roads in their midnight task.

Fian “showing pentinence for his wicked life“ |Daemonologie; Newes from Scotland (1697), Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

John Fian, also known as John Cunningham, was central to Scotland’s most infamous witch trials, being accused of being a warlock and leading a coven of witches in North Berwick. Arrested, he was charged with plotting to assassinate the king and, under torture, admitted to using a Hand of Glory to break into a church to perform a black mass. Taken to Edinburgh, he was strangled and thrown into a bonfire.

“His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England wee called a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads; at all which tormentes, notwithstanding, the Doctor never shronke anie wit, neither woulde he then confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him.

Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied againe to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, and the bones and flesh so bruised, that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever.”

Excerpt from a pamphlet entitled Newes from Scotland (1591)

Examples have allegedly survived even into the modern era, with the most famous perhaps being the Hand of Glory that was until recently exhibited at Whitby Museum in North Yorkshire. Whitby, of course, being one of the centres of the occult and folklore in the United Kingdom.

The Hand of Glory at Whitby | Andy Bullock, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Whitby Hand was discovered in the early 20th century in a thatched cottage in Castleton, a village in the High Peak district of Derbyshire. Discovered by local historian and stonemason Joseph Ford, the hand was gifted to the museum in 1935, and the museum claims it represents the only surviving example of a Hand of Glory, although that is disputed. Some experts believe the relic may have been in use in the dark arts as late as 1820, while others, however, believe the object might not have been a Hand of Glory at all, preferring it to have been a ward or charm. There is no evidence that the hand ever held a candle, nor that it was pickled or utilised for witchcraft.

A second claimed hand exists at the museum on Walsall, a large market town in the West Midlands. Like the Whitby hand, it has a dubious provenance. Found up the chimney at The White Hart inn in the village of Caldmore Green, the remains do not fit the widely traditional description of a Hand of Glory, nor does any evidence exist it was ever utilised in witchcraft. The museum itself denied any link with the dark arts.

“In the latter part of the nineteenth century The White Hart was renovated, and, during the work, a child’s arm was found hidden in an attic chimney. The arm has become known as the ‘Hand of Glory’, traditionally a hand cut from a hanged felon and dried in the prescribed manner…This grisly object, now on display in Walsall Museum, seems to be a medical specimen, dissected by a surgeon and injected with formalin to preserve it. It certainly does not date from the time when the house was first built. However, popular legend refuses to accept such a dull solution.”

As one of the classic elements of folklore, the Hand of Glory has featured in many mediums that focus on magic and witchcraft, these appearances covering film, TV, video games and literature. Readers are likely to be familiar with with the item appearing at Borgin and Burkes in Harry Potter, later utilised by Draco Malfoy in The Half-Blood Prince. The object is mentioned in Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and has appeared in TV shows such as Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, alongside many others.

While these examples may have dubious histories, the fact remains that belief in the power of the Hand of Glory has existed throughout Europe for centuries, leading to the existence of the hands to become rife throughout modern popular culture. While they inspire many a tall tale and have been utilised in fraudulent accusations, it seems likely that someone, somewhere, will have attempted to create the macabre object, being fully in the belief that their dark magic might just work. However, like with much folklore and myth, while there might be a basis in truth, it seems likely that the “established fact” was often perceived wisdom rather than actual practice, lending extra credence to the legend. Still, as the nights draw cold and Halloween approaches, with all manner of strangers at the door… it might be wise to remember the quick thinking of Bella and keep a bottle of milk alongside the treats and the candy.

I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.

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Michael East

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Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

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