Whitby’s Macabre Hand of Glory
Whitby Museum in Pannett Park is one of my favourite little museums, not just for the stunning collection of Jurassic fossils, but displays on the towns whaling heritage, vintage toys, Whitby jet, ships in bottles, narwhal tusks and of course tributes to the local lad Captain Cook. I’m sure it hasn’t changed much since the building opened in 1931 and this is definitely part of its charm with so much packed in to a relatively small space.
But perhaps the weirdest and probably most famous exhibit is a “Hand of Glory”.
What is a Hand of Glory?
Well it is a mummified severed hand which was found in the early 1900’s hidden behind a wall in a small thatched cottage in Castleton in the North York Moors. The find was made by Joseph Ford a stonemason and local historian.
He was familiar as to what he had found, having seen these before and he donated it to Whitby Museum in 1935. Whilst other hands of glory have been identified and written about before in England, this is the only alleged Hand known to survive.
The story behind the Hand of Glory is macabre, as it is the carefully prepared and preserved (pickled!) right hand of a felon – usually cut off from the corpse whilst the body still hung from the gallows.
Once the hand was pickled, myth had it that it became a valuable tool for criminals, particularly burglars. Folklore existed that the use of one of the preserved hands was able to send sleepers in a house into a coma from which they were unable to awake until the hand had left the building – hence making burglary risk free!
An image of a hand of glory holding a candle, from the 18th century grimoire Petit Albert
Some hands were pickled into clenched fists which held a candle made of human fat which was actually held in the fist, but the Whitby Hand of Glory was preserved with outstretched fingers which were actually lit. (The remaining body fat from the corpse being flammable). Apparently if one of the fingers wouldn’t light it meant that one of the residents remained awake. Just to add it was believed in tales about the hand that water could not put out the candle, only blood.
Use of the hands was not just an English thing, stories of hands of Glory stretched across Europe with hands mentioned in Finnish, Irish, Russian and Italian folklore.
Interestingly, Thomas Ingoldsby in his book of Legends in 1837, mentions a Hand of Glory in a poem…
Now open, lock! To the Dead Man's knock! Fly, bolt, and bar, and band! Nor move, nor swerve, Joint, muscle, or nerve, At the spell of the Dead Man's hand! Sleep, all who sleep! -- Wake, all who wake! But be as the dead for the Dead Man's sake!
A friend of mine, the The Whitby Folk artist David Owen
( http://www.theinkcorporation.co.uk) also produced this great artwork of the Hand of Glory...
It is well worth a visit to the Whitby Museum to see this strange artefact. There is also a book which details how to go about creating a hand of glory just in case you fancy making one yourself!
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"