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The Hand of Glory: The Felon's Friend



This story is a little unusual in that no specific person is involved, only the mummified remains of a human hand.

An unusual keepsake? Certainly, but in times long past, people were gullible.

Suppose you were told that some specially prepared remnant of a human being has magic powers. Would you

believe it? Probably not but here, we are talking about the stuff of legend.

What is a Hand of Glory?

Legend says it is the hand of a hanged criminal, cut off while the offender was still hanging. Legend further points

out that such a relic, pickled for preservation, should be used as a candleholder. Not that any old candle would do.

gallows   However, using a candle made with fat rendered from the hanged corpse made all

  the difference. When placed in the Hand of Glory and lit, the candle was said to put

  anyone sleeping in the vicinity into impenetrable trance. As long as the candle flame

  burned, the sleepers would remain asleep – and nothing would awaken them.

  As was the case with many of the charms, rituals, spells and talismans believed to

  have special powers, the Hand of Glory had to be prepared in a very special way. In  

  his 1816 gothic novel The Antiquary, Sir Walter Scott describes how a Hand of Glory  

  is made…

  The hand has to be wrapped in a cloth – part of the winding sheet – and squeezed   

  of any blood in the veins then put into an earthenware pot with pickling spices and

  saltpetre until the hand is mummified. A candle has next to be made with pitch wax,

  the fat of a hanged man, virgin wax and mustard oil. The dried shrivelled hand has

  to have this candle fixed in its fingers, and lighted.

  Now the charm will work.


Using the Hand

Having discovered how to make a dismembered human hand into a Hand of Glory, we must consider how it 

should be used. Again according to legend, it could be used in one of three ways…


* With the hand laying flat on a table or other surface, place the candle between two of the fingers.

* Having prepared the hand in a clenched position, place the candle between the fingers and thumb.

* Place the hand vertically, wrist down. Light its fingers. Should the thumb refuse to ignite, someone

   within the household is still awake. The Hand's powers will not affect this person.


Given the nature of the Hand of Glory and the manner of its preparation, it will come as no surprise to learn that

the user had to recite an incantation while lighting the candle or fingers.

Here's a simple rhyming couplet that may have been spoken, perhaps when lighting just the candle…

Flash out thy blaze, O skeleton hand,
And guide the feet of my trusty band.

Very poetic but maybe a little short to allow for when the fingers and thumb were to be lit. This one covers the


Let those who rest more deeply sleep,
Let those awake their vigils keep,
O Hand of Glory, shed thy light,
Direct us to our spoil tonight.

Hands in Action

Was a Hand of Glory ever used for its intended purpose? Nobody really knows, but there is more than one

account concerning one's being used at The Spital Inn, Stainmore, Cumbria.

The wayside Spital Inn was in a wild, lonely spot. It was built around 1773, on the site of a 12th Century hospital,

the Hospital of Rerecross, or 'Spital of Stainmore'. This was given to Marrick Priory by Ralph son of Ralph de

Moulton, in 1171. It remained in the priory's possession for 369 years, until Henry the Eight had to prioress and

nuns evicted during his dissolution of the monasteries.

One night at the end of the 18th Century George Alderson, the landlord of the Spital Inn, was about to go to bed.

As George began to climb the stairs to his bedroom, there was a knock at the door. An old woman was there as he

opened the door; she wanted to sleep by the fire. Kindly George Alderson said yes, also asking the maid, Bella, to

sleep downstairs too.

Bella's suspicions were aroused when she spotted that beneath her dress, the 'old woman' was wearing men's

riding gaiters. Pretending to be asleep, Bella saw the man withdraw a Hand of Glory from his sack and light it.

He intoned…

'Oh, Hand of Glory, shed thy light
Direct us to our spoils tonight'.


…before crossing the room to the inn door and steeped out, calling out to his companions.

Bella was on her feet in seconds, bolting the door firmly behind the villain. But no-one awoke to her shouts.

Remembering she'd once been told that a Hand of Glory could be extinguished with milk, Bella empted the kitchen

milk jug over the burning hand. George Alderson woke up and picked up his blunderbuss. As he directed a shot

against them, the men realised they'd been spotted. They called out, saying that if George were to return the hand

to them, they would leave quietly. The answer came from George's blunderbuss and the thieves ran away. The

Aldersons kept the Hand of Glory for many years, as a curio.

cat Other stories have been related concerning a Hand of Glory. One,

from 1824, involves the Oak Tree Inn, in Leeming, North Yorkshire

while other, undated accounts come from the North York Moors and


The tale from the North York Moors tells of an amorous young man

and his ill-fated use of a Hand of Glory in the attempted seduction of

his unenthusiastic girlfriend. Duly lighting the hand's candle,

presumably with an appropriate incantation, our hero tried to steal 

into the disinclined maiden's bed. During his furtive approach to

the girl's bed and the charms within, the unfortunate young man

disturbed the household cat. As a disturbed cat will, the feline made a bid for freedom, putting out both the candle

– and the man's eye!

Other Anti-Hand of Glory Measures

Folklore said that a Hand of Glory could not be extinguished with water or beer. However, blood or 'blue milk'

(skimmed milk) would put the fire out instantly. Could anything be done to guard against a Hand's soporific

influence? Folklore affirmed that the only preventative measure was to make up a special mixture, using a recipe

something like this…

Begin assembling your ingredients and make the balm in the sultry Dog Days of July or August.

Take the fat of a white hen.

Add the blood of a screech owl.

Stir thoroughly until the hen fat is fully mixed into the owl blood.

Add the gall of a black cat.

Take the mixture and smear it on the threshold of all the house's doors.

The Whitby Hand


The Hand of Glory pictured here is in the Whitby Museum, in Pannet Park, Whitby, North Yorkshire. But how did

it come to be there? Who found it? And is it genuine?

This Hand is believed to be the only known Hand of Glory in existence. In the 1920s, Whitby mason Joseph Ford

had a hobby – he was keen on local history and particularly curious about local legends.

As a child, Joseph had been regaled with tales of hands of glory. The raconteur involved was especially

knowledgeable – and vocal – about the Hand of Glory used in the unsuccessful robbery at the Spital Inn in 1797.

The adult Joseph was hard at work one day, on the doorway of a cottage in Castleton, North Yorkshire, in the

same parish where the Spital Inn used to stand. On the lintel above the doorway, Joseph found the Hand of Glory


Did the cottage belong to the Alderson family? Was it associated with the Spital Inn? Joseph Ford believed it was

the self-same Hand.

In fact, the Hand in question, like the cottage where Joseph was working, belonged to a student of antiquities, a Dr

Chalmers. The good doctor had considered burying the Hand in Danby churchyard but instead passed it on to


In 1922, Joseph took the Hand home. He found or made a box for it and kept it for eight years, until 1930, when

he passed it on to his friend, a Mr. Buckton. This individual assured Joseph that the Hand would not be lost to

posterity. True to his word, Mr. Buckton loaned the Hand to Whitby Museum, where it has been since 1935.

                                                    hand box

Recently, the Hand was taken from its cotton wool nest in the box Joseph Ford provided for it. It is now resting on

a special foam pad, which is stable and acid free.

Not long ago, a mock hand of glory appeared twice in the Harry Potter films. In 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of

Secrets' (2002), this hand was on sale in Borgin and Burke's shop. The prop hand, or another like it, appears in

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009). Draco Malfoy bought the hand, against his father's advice, as it

gives light only to its holder.

Legendary Truth

It is, of course, fascinating to theorise about how the hand of glory legend came about and where it came from.

Tales of such hands being used originated in Europe and they spread. In the last four hundred years, they became

commonplace, from the West of Ireland to Italy, and from Finland to Russia.

That said, the most tempting origin lies in old Europe and concerns Mandragora officinarum, the Mandrake


mandrake   We now have to go back a very long way in time, where we see that the

  Mandrake plant has been inundated with mythical tales and properties.

  The Mandrake root is often bifurcated and so resembles a human being.

  Legend has it that when a Mandrake root is dug up, it will scream. The

  scream will instantly kill all who hear it.


titusTitus Flavius Josephus, a scholar, historian and writer on saints and

church  leaders, lived from AD37 to around AD100. He had the

following solution to  this alleged danger…

'A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is

exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog

must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily

pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this

the root can be handled without fear.'

Perhaps a little harsh on the dog but only if the power of the

mandrake root was to be real. More scientifically, mandrake

contains deliriant hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids such as atropine,

scopolamine, apoatropine and hyoscyamine.


What has this to do with the mummified hand of a hanged man? Quite a lot, when we look at the origin of the word

'mandrake'. In fact, the Latin prefix 'Mandragora' bears a remarkable resemblance to the French phrase 'Main de

la Gloire' which means…yes, it means 'Hand of Glory'.

Mandrake roots have been used in magic rituals, for centuries. Even now, they are used in contemporary pagan

traditions. The root can cause delirium, extreme confusion and an inability to control one's actions, a hypnotic

state, hallucinations and dilated pupils. We are dealing with a powerful drug often used medicinally. This is not to

mention a whole raft of adverse effects.

Yet the bottom line is that like its namesake, the 'Main de la Gloire' exerts irresistible powers, according to

legend, that is…




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