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March 16, 2021

Here’s the Real “Hand of Glory” Which Is Kept at the Whitby Museum

The mummified severed human hand was discovered in the early 20th century hidden on the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton by a stonemason and local historian, Joseph Ford. He immediately identified it from popular stories of such objects as a Hand of Glory. It was given to Whitby Museum in 1935 and is the only alleged Hand known to survive.

A Hand of Glory on display at Whitby Museum.

A Hand of Glory was supposedly the carefully prepared and “pickled” right hand of a felon, cut off while the body still hung from the gallows and used by burglars to send sleepers in a house into a coma from which they were unable to wake.

In one version the clenched hand is used as a candleholder for a candle incorporating human fat, but in another the outstretched hand has its own fingers lit. In this case should one of the fingers refuse to light it is a sign that someone in the household remains awake. In either case the light cannot be extinguished by water or pinching but only by blood or “blue” (skimmed) milk – the usual method in the tales.

A Hand of Glory holding a candle, from the 18th century grimoire Petit Albert.

A Hand of Glory on a mantlepiece, in a detail of the 1565 artwork The Elder Saint Jacob Visiting the Magician Hermogenes by Pieter van der Heyden.

In 1722, the Petit Albert, a popular magical textbook of the day, describes in detail how to make a Hand of Glory, as cited from him by Émile-Jules Grillot de Givry:

“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.”

The Petit Albert also provides a way to shield a house from the effects of the Hand of Glory:

“The Hand of Glory would become ineffective, and thieves would not be able to utilize it, if you were to rub the threshold or other parts of the house by which they may enter with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of the screech-owl; this substance must be compounded during the dog-days.”

A Hand of Glory on display at Whitby Museum.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. Second, the hand would give light to only the holder casting all others into darkness – akin to the holder becoming invisible.
  3. Third, is that any lock could be opened in and around the vicinity where the hand was lit.
  4. Finally, it is thought that a Hand of Glory could burn forever without perishing.
A papier-mâché Hand of Glory.

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.





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