On a recent trip to Whitby (full details here) I encountered one of the most fascinating and gruesome artefacts I’ve ever seen in a museum. There is a clue to what lurks in this eclectic collection on the signpost, which draws you in to its sinister attraction: Whitby Museum has the only known surviving Hand of Glory.
A Hand of Glory was a charm made from the hand of a hanged man (not sure about women too). If the executed man was a murderer then his hand could be used, when combined with fat from the same corpse, as a magical tool. The instructions were published in a French grimoire, Petit Albert, in 1722.
It was vital to use the hand that committed the crime, which was then dried and preserved in an earthenware pot, with nitre, salt and long peppers. Next you had to make a candle out of the felon’s body fat, using virgin wax and sesame. When the candle was placed in the hand it cast a sleeping spell over other people in the vicinity, with the exception of the carrier, which meant that burglars could use it to enter a property to steal household goods, while the occupants were ‘sleeping’. The only antidote was to extinguish the candle with bloodied milk.
The name ‘Hand of Glory’, or ‘Main de Gloire’, in French is probably a corruption of ‘mandragore’, also known as ‘mandrake’, which is a deadly poisonous plant associated with magic. A relative of Deadly Nightshade, it was used in tiny quantities to induce sleep or relieve pain, but too much would be fatal. As Harry Potter fans will know, mandrakes feature on the curriculum of the second year at Hogwarts.
The Whitby Hand of Glory was discovered in the village of Danby on the North Yorkshire Moors, and was donated to the museum in 1935. It really is quite spooky!