Hand of Glory: 1,500 days and counting

7 comments December 8th, 2011 Headsman

(cc) image from Chris Chan.

Today’s post marks the 1,500th consecutive day of death-blogging for Executed Today.

False modesty aside, we consider it a rather glorious achievement of the pen-hand to have hit this milestone. (Previous end zone celebrations: 500 | 1000 (and 1))

And in the spirit of marking the digital feat denoted by this sort-of round number, we thought a bonus post was in order on capital punishment’s own glorious hand — the legendary Hand of Glory.

Like that dread artifact itself, today’s entry comes from someone else’s hand. Thanks to Carroll University historian Scott Hendrix (co-editor of Rational Magic) for lighting the way to some forbidden gallows-lore…


In J.K. Rowling’s The Half Blood Prince, Draco Malfoy employs a particularly grisly tool to escape from the Room of Requirement under the cover provided by a Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder: a Hand of Glory.

In the Harry Potter mythos this device provides light that is only visible to the holder, making it the perfect instrument of young Malfoy’s escape. That is, assuming that he doesn’t mind carrying a mummified hand equipped with fingers that burn with a gruesome light. Many people might balk at going to such lengths, and the reader could be forgiven for assuming that Ms. Rowling was exercising a bit of literary license in order to titillate and provoke her young (and sometimes not so young!) readers’ imaginations.

However, should one wish to take a trip to the charming Whitby Museum* in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England, a Hand of Glory is prominently displayed — perhaps (this is a perhaps to which I shall return later). According to the accompanying placard — though I admit I had to investigate the museum’s website to refresh my memory, as I’d not seen it in almost a decade — Joseph Ford, a local stonemason and art historian found the hand hidden in the wall of a thatched cottage in nearby Castleton in 1935.


(cc) image from twiggles.

He “immediately identified it as a ‘Hand of Glory.'” In a way, it makes sense that he would do so, as it seems that stories of such hands had become quite popular in England beginning in the nineteenth century. Several books, such as Thomas and Katharine Macquoid’s 1883 About Yorkshire and Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1873 Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, described such hands.

According to the authors these were instruments of the blackest magic, wrought by witches working in the darkest night. Through invocation of demons and the enactment of foul rituals, these witches created a magical burglar’s tool from the severed hand of an executed thief.

It seems that such tales found the Victorian imagination of English readers to be fertile ground, as the tales were told and retold. No doubt readers found themselves deliciously chilled at the idea of burglars employing such a device of black magic, guaranteed not only to open locked doors but also to keep sleepers asleep and off their guard as those with dark designs crept into their homes.

But as the title of Baring-Gould’s book would indicate, the story of the Hand of Glory had real legs. It persisted over the course of centuries and made its way across the European continent.

It was not, though, quite as old as Baring-Gould would have his readers believe.

The earliest known description of the Hand of Glory can be found in the work of the Jesuit canon lawyer and theologian, Martin del Rio. His Six Books of Magical Essays, published between 1599 and 1600, is a veritable smorgasbord of lore relating to black magic and witchcraft. One should not get the idea that del Rio approved of the things he wrote about, however. Rather, he wrote in order to educate Inquisitors about the tools employed by their foes, the witches he assumed to prowl the continent preying on the good Christians who relied on the priesthood for protection. Announcing his intent in the introduction his Six Books, del Rio wrote that

magic follows heresy, as plague follows famine. We have seen heresy flourishing in Belgium and we see swarms of witches laying waste the whole of the North, like locusts. The heretics are strongly opposed by the Jesuits. This book is a weapon in that war.

Therefore, descriptions of the tools used by practitioners of black magic were intended to combat the “swarms of witches” that so concerned him. These witches found instruments such as the Hand of Glory, which he describes in book two of his study, to be ideal for carrying out their plots.

Del Rio’s Six Books of Magical Essays proved to be a runaway best seller, going through twenty editions between 1599 and 1755. Among the many stories it spread were those of the Hand of Glory, and soon we see stories arising of thieves making use of these devices in order to rob and plunder the inhabitants of Germany, France, and eventually, England.

Sometimes there were local variations relating to their manufacture, as in German tales in which witches made the Hand from the fingers of unborn children. Nevertheless, in all the stories the Hand of Glory is demonic and its use damns to hell those unfortunates desperate or foolish enough to manufacture it.

But what was the source of these tales? Isn’t it reasonable to assume that del Rio was relating stories of actual practices and that many of these practices had an ancient pedigree?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so fast to leap to such conclusions, for del Rio was an enthusiastic purveyor of many tales that had no objective basis in fact, such as his stories of the Witches’ Sabbat. He described these events as dark versions of the Catholic mass, when Satan came forth in the form of a goat or a dog and “witches came forward to worship him … [offering] candles made of pitch or a child’s umbilical cord, and kiss him on the anal orifice in a sign of homage.”

Such tales were lurid and memorable … and absolutely lacking any basis in fact. (We think -ed.) Historians have given different rationales for why writers such as del Rio told and retold such stories and a full consideration of that topic would take us very far afield from our subject.

Let’s just say for now that exhaustive research by the best minds in the field have shown that there is no evidence that anything like a Witches’ Sabbat ever happened, anywhere.

Similarly, many of the stories del Rio told are likely the result of his willingness to pass along hearsay accounts. In fact, pretty much any tell he relates should be taken with many grains of salt — including stories of the Hand of Glory. There’s no doubt that it was a good story, but a story was all it was. Therefore, efforts such as those undertaken by the early twentieth-century philologist W.W. Skeats to explain the name as coming from the French, main de gloire, which he assumed to be a corruption of mandrake, are unnecessary exercises in verbal gymnastics. The entire reason he even made the effort was so that he could provide a “scientific” explanation for the powers of the Hand by explaining away the stories as nothing more than descriptions of hallucinations induced by ingestion of the mandrake root. But since stories of the Hand of Glory were nothing more than stories, rather than descriptions of something that black magicians had once manufactured, there’s little need for “scientific” explanations of the Hand’s powers.

This brings us back to the Hand of Glory displayed so prominently in the Whitby Museum.

According to the museum this is the only example of a Hand of Glory in existence** … yet it is singularly missing any sign of having been subjected to flames, used as a candle, or otherwise employed as a magical burglary tool.

Why is that? Did someone make it, then hide it, then never use it? Perhaps (there’s that “perhaps” again!). Or perhaps Joseph Ford was a little too quick in his identification of the hand he found in the wall of the thatched cottage as a Hand of Glory. Perhaps instead it’s nothing more than what it appears to be: a withered hand that could have been severed in some sort of accident, coming to be mummified in the many untold years before it was discovered. However, that would hardly make a good story for the charming museum in Whitby. After all, del Rio’s tale of a mummified hand taken from an executed thief and given magical powers through demonic invocation — that certainly makes for a better story both for the Whitby Museum, as well as for J. K. Rowling.†

On the lone bleak moor,
At the midnight hour,
Beneath the Gallows Tree,
Hand in hand
The Murderers stand
By one, by two, by three!
And the Moon that night
With a grey, cold light
Each baleful object tips;
One half of her form
Is seen through the storm,
The other half ‘s hid in Eclipse!
And the cold Wind howls,
And the Thunder growls,
And the Lightning is broad and bright;
And altogether
It ‘s very bad weather,
And an unpleasant sort of a night!
‘Now mount who list,
And close by the wrist
Sever me quickly the Dead Man’s fist!—
Now climb who dare
Where he swings in air,
And pluck me five locks of the Dead Man’s hair!’

And now, with care,
The five locks of hair
From the skull of the Gentleman dangling up there,
With the grease and the fat
Of a black Tom Cat
She hastens to mix,
And to twist into wicks,
And one on the thumb, and each finger to fix.—
(For another receipt the same charm to prepare,
Consult Mr Ainsworth and Petit Albert.)

‘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!!’

The Hand of Glory: The Nurse’s Story, Richard Harris Barham

* The Whitby Museum is full of necrophernalia.

** The Walsall Museum claims to have an entire arm of glory.

† As well as for bloggers.

Scott E. Hendrix is an historian of medieval and early-modern intellectual history. He’s written a number of books and articles on subjects ranging from astrology to witchcraft, from riots to the history of science. He is an assistant professor of history at Carroll University and the co-editor of Rational Magic.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Myths,Other Voices

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1492: Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, Nearly Headless Nick

5 comments October 31st, 2010 Elizabeth M. Hull

(Thanks to Elizabeth M. Hull for the guest post. -ed.)

Post-mortem resident of Gryffindor House, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hogsmeade, U.K.

A minor character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, Nearly Headless Nick remains one of the most memorable. Executed — badly — on Halloween of 1492, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington became the ghost of Gryffindor House. The school has about 20 resident ghosts: the Grey Lady (Helena Ravenclaw) and the Bloody Baron of Slytherin House died violently as well, in a murder-suicide.

Rowling says that her editor suggested that she cut a ballad Mimsy-Porpington wrote about himself from The Chamber of Secrets. In the song, the ghost claimed to have been executed for “a mistake any wizard could make,” a “piffling error,” a case of wizardry gone wrong. Asked by Lady Grieve (otherwise unknown) to straighten her teeth, Mimsy-Porpington seems to have given her a tusk. “They” imprisoned the piffler immediately, though he cried all night that he could fix his mistake, and his beheading followed the next morning.

Unfortunately for Mimsy-Porpington, his was not the only incompetence: “they’d mislaid the rock/Where they usually sharpened the axe”! The “cack-handed twit” of a headsman said “this may sting a bit” to the gibbering wizard, and swung the axe in the air. Alas, unable to sharpen the blade, the executioner was reduced to bestowing numerous blows: “But oh the blunt blade! No difference it made,” the ghost sang,

My head was still definitely there.
The axeman he hacked and he whacked and he thwacked,
“Won’t be too long,” he assured me,
But quick it was not, and the bone-headed clot
Took forty-five goes ’til he floored me.

(The full ballad is here and here; the original handwritten version can be seen here.)

After repeated strokes of the edgeless axe, Mimsy-Porpington finally expired. On festival occasions, he re-enacts his near-beheading, a show quite popular with the Hogwarts student body (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 159).

However, the bone-headed, cloddish headsman was unable to completely behead the wizard. As Ron Weasly notes, the ghost is merely nearly headless.


Nick, as played in the Harry Potter films by John Cleese. Rowling’s own original sketch of Nearly Headless Nick is here.

While he gets a great deal of pleasure from entertaining Hogwarts residents by swinging “his whole head . . . off his neck and . . . onto his shoulder as if it was on a hinge” (Sorceror’s Stone, p. 124), his condition limits his access to the dizziest heights of post-mortem society. Beheading was an aristocratic execution, meant to bring a swift death to the privileged, those able to hunt legally in their lifetime. In the afterlife, the beheaded aristocrats have established a “Headless Hunt” Club, and have blackballed Mimsy-Porpington, who misses their entrance requirements by that much: “‘half an inch of skin and sinew holding my neck on.'” Unable to participate in Club sports like “Horseback Head-Juggling and Head Polo,” Mimsy-Porpington is denied admission into the elite society (Chamber of Secrets, p. 124).

Sadly, their scorn for his crippling condition is not limited to exclusion from their company.

Mimsy-Porpington’s five hundredth Deathday anniversary party, held on Halloween 1992, welcomes hundreds of ghosts from as far away as Kent to a feast of rotten fish, putrid, “maggoty haggis,” and a tombstone cake with grey icing, while an orchestra of 30 musical saws plays waltzes. The Deathday Boy’s speech is interrupted by the members of the Headless Hunt: “Sir Properly Decapitated-Podmore” begins a game of Head Hockey, sending his own head sailing past the humiliated Mimsy-Porpington as he tries to address his guests (Chamber of Secrets, p. 132-7).

Somehow the courageous Gryffindor ghost overcomes this diabolical heads-up-manship and several months as a petrified cloud to live a useful afterlife, helping Harry many times. Most significantly, in the final pages of The Order of the Phoenix, a traumatized and grieving Harry turns to Mimsy-Porpington, hoping to discover a way to keep his dead friend and guardian Sirius Black alive. “‘You’re dead,'” Harry says, “‘But you’re still here, aren’t you? … People can come back, right? As ghosts. They don’t have to disappear completely.'” Mimsy-Porpington gently tells Harry that he can only “‘walk palely'” where his living self once trod, “‘neither here nor there,'” hovering between life and death for fear of the unknown. However, Black risked his life joyously and died laughing; he will not linger between death and life. Harry must live on without him.

There may be historical precedent for Mimsy-Porpington’s death in the botched execution of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1685), when the notorious Jack Ketch took five blows to kill the rebel, and finally had to use a knife to sever the last “skin and sinew” connecting the head to the corpse. Monmouth’s hairstyle in portraits from the late 1600s resembles that drawn by Rowling in her sketch of Nearly Headless Nick, although that sketch shows a beard style from the early 1600s, nearly 70 years earlier. Moreover, the ghost enters Harry Potter’s life wearing an Elizabethan neck ruff and says that he has not eaten in nearly 400 years, implying a death in the late 1500s.

In spite of this wibbly-wobbly timeline, Mimsy-Porpington’s deathdate establishes the firm chronology of Rowling’s series: the five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1492 would fall in 1992; therefore the events of Chamber of Secrets (published in 1997) must occur in 1992. The dating of the series is confirmed five books later by the tombstones of Harry’s parents, who died on Halloween Day, 1981 (Deathly Hallows, p. 328). For J.K. Rowling, death, the last enemy — not life — marks the measure of this world’s time.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Fictional,Guest Writers,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Other Voices,Summary Executions,The Supernatural

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