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  • Writer's pictureForeign Field

A Handy Hand to Have to Hand

Hello. Every so often we like to address one of history’s more bonkers legends. You may have seen our earlier video where Kyle talked about Witch Bottles as a means of defence against witchcraft. Well I’m here today to talk to you about using Black Magic to commit a burglary. Black Magic in the form of a Hand of Glory.

It’s the must have criminal gadget of the 17th Century.

So what is it? Well a Hand of Glory is a embalmed, nay even mummified, hand of another criminal that is said to bestow magical assistance from beyond the grave. Although if I was looking for assistance I’d probably not be looking for assistance from someone previously caught and executed for their crimes. But ANYWAY….

Once you’ve got your pickled hand it can be used as a candle or a candle holder and was said to have magical properties including, depending on which books you read, the following:

  • Giving light only to the holder whilst others are left in darkness or, alternatively, making the owner invisible

  • Being able to burn forever, once alight, without being consumed

  • Having the power to open any lock in the vicinity

As you can see these are properties that would assist a thief to enter a house without opposition. However it does not stop there and there are further powers that crop up in pretty much all the legends. Using it as a candle, you light each of the fingers and each burning finger will keep one sleeping person in the dwelling asleep, no matter what you do to wake them… make as much noise as you like.

If a finger will not light then each one that doesn’t light tells you that there is a person awake in that house. Do you see a flaw in this plan here?

Well there are several.

First the hand does not differentiate between three people in a house all asleep, and five people in a house, two of whom are awake. As pre-burglary intelligence goes this is not filling me with confidence, and it’s certainly not eliminating sufficient risk for me to go to the trouble and revulsion of making one.

Secondly, a couple of rumoured witches aside, hands only have a maximum 5 digits which is going to make the Hand of Glory useless when attempting to gain entry to a reasonably wealthy family dwelling. Once you’ve got a husband, wife, three children and a manservant with a blunderbuss I start to get uncertain about who is awake.

So how does it work? And I’m going to use the word work here very lightly. It’s what’s known as sympathetic or imitative magic and it’s a cast-iron belief in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. If something shares the characteristics of something else then it has powers typical of those characteristics. You see this a lot in early folk medicine where red plants are considered good for blood, or daisies being good for poor eyesight. What better to give the superstitious criminal the edge than the powers of another criminal, the darkest of criminals – the darker the soul the more darkness will be your friend.

So how do you make one? Well there are manuals.

One of the earliest records we have for the Hand of Glory comes from the Compendium Maleficarum or Book of Witches, a ponderous tome written in 1608 by Italian Priest Francesco Guazzo. It is entirely in Latin but don’t despair there was a complete translation done by Montague Summers in 1929.

This chap is somewhat interesting as well as he did a lot of work in looking at witchcraft and the occult etc. Take a look at his list of prior works:

· History of Witchcraft and Demonology

· Geography of Witchcraft

· The Vampire in Europe

· Witchcraft and Black Magic

And then bizarrely in the middle of that he writes a biography of Jane Austen – go figure! But I digress

While the Compendium Malleficarum mentions them, that is a witch-hunter’s manual so it doesn’t tell you how to make one. For that recipe we need to turn to an occult grimoire known as the ‘Petit-Albert’ from 1706, or to give it it’s full title : “Secrets merveilleux de la magie naturelle et cabalistique du petit Albert” – CATCHY EH?

This tells us how to make a version that gives light only to the holder and keeps sleeping people asleep, it states "take the right or l;eft hand of a felon" - curious since I can't imagine many felons have hands beyond a a left and a right.

“Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gubbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well.”

This makes sure it’s dried out and there’s no blood etc

“Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat (which is a copper carobonate), nitre (saltpeter), 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 it becomes quite dry.”

The dog days are basically the days of summer from mid July to mid September

“Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie” – Ponie being horse dung – because this is the 17th century and it’s got to involve some form of bodily waste then it’s just not going to work, virgin wax is just beeswax.

“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”

This version has it holding a candle but if you’re going to use it to determine the number of people in the house then you dip the fingers in wax and light them accordingly.

Helpfully the Petit-Albert also tells us how you can defend against this sort of thing, which in typical fashion is just as grim:

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 oil 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

I’ll confess, once having done this the thieves might not be able to get in. I can’t imagine any of my friends or family are going to want to come in either. Plus, since I’m spending the summer rendering chicken fat, owl blood and catguts, I’m fairly sure they’re not wanting to come round beforehand as well.

Like many curious books of history we can look through the Petit-Albert online, there is a English version online and it contains not only this recipe but other supposedly useful cons, scams and potions etc.

It will teach you how to turn lead into gold, how to create fake money with tin and how to create imitation pearls and bears an uncanny resemblance to the sort of stuff and style you could get out the Anarchist Cookbook in the 1970s.

So did these things really exist? Well yes they did. There are people confessing to making them in the Scottish Witch Trials throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. However those confessions, given the tortures, could be somewhat unreliable. But, for good evidence of the existence of the Hand of Glory, you could – at least until lockdown came in – go and see one. They have one in the collection at Whitby Museum. It’s fairly grotesque. But it’s still in existence.

When everything opens up please go and see it. You won’t find one anywhere else.

So there you have it. If you want to become a much better burglar, or you want to go in for a more unusual method of home security you now know how…. It’s just a shame we haven’t gibbeted a criminal since 1832.

Stay safe… and don’t have nightmares.

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