Why This Severed Hand Is So Glorious - Atlas Obscura

Why This Severed Hand Is So Glorious

According to legend, thieves could use it to render a whole household unconscious.

The Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum.
The Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum. Wendy Pratt

You would be forgiven for not knowing anything about the Hand of Glory—after all, there is supposedly only one in the world, and it resides in the Whitby Museum, an eclectic Victorian place on the Yorkshire coast of England. Grayish-brown and displayed palm down, with the fingernails clearly visible and the wrist bones protruding, the hand has dulled with age and the preservation process. According to myth, it was used to induce household inhabitants into an enduring sleep so their home could be robbed.

The use of body parts as charms to cure illness and ward off evil can be traced back to antiquity, with Pliny the Elder writing circa 77 that:

Scrofula, imposthumes of the parotid glands, and throat diseases, they say, may be cured by the contact of the hand of a person who has been carried off by an early death: indeed there are some who assert that any dead body will produce the same effect, provided it is of the same sex as the patient, and that the part affected is touched with the back of the left hand.

Myths around body parts used for evil started to appear more frequently in the 1600s, as witch trials began in earnest in Britain. The first English reference to a hand that had the power to induce sleep appeared in 1686 in the reminiscences of John Aubrey, who recounted a story told to him as a child in which thieves were able to use a dead man’s hand with a candle in it to keep a household asleep. This popular myth claims that the hand of a convicted felon, cut from the body while still on the gallows or gibbet, then preserved following a special recipe and adorned with a special candle could, when lit, put the members of a household into a coma. This made it much easier for the home to be looted.

Rigg Mill, near Whitby, Yorkshire, England, c. 1890.
Rigg Mill, near Whitby, Yorkshire, England, c. 1890. Library of Congress/ LC-DIG-ppmsc-09077

In the 16th and 17th century, hangings were a common practice in Britain. The death penalty could be imposed as a sentence for any theft of property worth more than five shillings—the price of a pocket handkerchief. Although most hangings were not public and tended to take place in town halls, many hanged bodies were displayed in gibbets at cross roads or, in the case of Whitby, on the moor top, clearly visible as a warning to would-be thieves. Brushing against the dead body to cure skin diseases and other ailments was common practice and an executioner could make a good side-line by charging for the pleasure. So rife was the practice of not only removing body parts, but the hanged man’s hair, and thread from the noose for use in charms, that many gibbeted bodies were covered in tar and preserved.

There are various accounts from the 17th century of how to prepare a Hand of Glory, including the suggestion, documented in the Dictionary of English Folklore, that it be

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.”

Once severed, the hand would be wrapped tightly and squeezed thoroughly until the blood was drained from it. There followed a curing method with salt, saltpeter and long peppers and a drying time in strong sunlight, after which incantations and spells were cast to give the hand its power. The candles were made from virgin wax and the wicks from the hair of the same hanged man.

An oil painting of a witch creating a potion.
An oil painting of a witch creating a potion. Wellcome Images, London/ CC BY 4.0

After this process was completed, the gruesome thing could be lit. After the incantation below, first published in 1866 in William Henderson’s Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, was spoken, the hand was then said to have the power to charm a household.

Let those who rest more deeply sleep;
Let those who wake their vigils keep.
Oh, Hand of Glory, shed thy light
Direct us to our spoil to-night.
Flash out thy light, O skeleton hand
And guide the feet of our trusty band.

The Whitby Hand has been at the museum since 1935, shortly after it was discovered. It doesn’t appear to be a standard Hand of Glory, which were generally bent into a fist shape during the curing process in order to place the candle in the middle of the fist. The Whitby Museum hand is, instead, laid flat. In photographs taken some years ago when the hand was taken from its display case, the tendons on the palm side can be clearly seen. There are other examples in 17th-century illustrations of witch hovels that show the Hand of Glory as the Whitby hand is, with the fingers themselves anointed and lit, and the hand placed into a candle holder at the wrist bone.

Whitby Abbey.
Whitby Abbey. Matthew Hartley/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Based on its size, the Whitby Hand is likely to be male, though no forensic or DNA tests have ever been carried out on it. It was found by a local stonemason, Joseph Ford, hidden in the roof of a thatched cottage in the nearby village of Castleton. The previous owner of the house was well known as a person of bad character, someone perhaps not averse to a little petty criminality, so when the hand was discovered nobody was surprised. It was Ford himself who identified the hand as a Hand of Glory, based on his own knowledge of local folklore.

In the time it has been in the museum, the hand has been taken from its case only once, to remove the cotton wadding it was originally wrapped in. Roger Pickles, who has been a curator at Whitby Museum since 1996, has never seen the hand out of its case and has never had the pleasure of touching it. One oddity that Pickles points out is the lack of any fire damage to the fingers. Could this be because the preservation process wasn’t finished? Pickles has a slightly different theory.

“It’s possible that this hand was actually used as a bad luck charm,” he says. “We know that body parts were used in this manner, and because the single-story cottages had thatch that was quite low to the ground, it would have been easy for someone to lift the thatch and slip it into the roof space, casting bad luck on the occupant.”

<em>A Gathering of Witches</em>, believed to have been painted by Isabella Francken. Note the hand nailed to the mantlepiece.
A Gathering of Witches, believed to have been painted by Isabella Francken. Note the hand nailed to the mantlepiece. Public Doman

Whatever the true nature of the Whitby Hand, it is a fascinating and gruesome museum artifact. In an age where horror stories are so readily available and magic can be summoned with a sprinkle of special effects, as Pickles says, “people still like to have their toes curled.” Sometimes, all it takes is five shriveled fingers and a centuries-old legend.