A very Happy New Year to you and welcome to the new decade of 2020! Who’d have thought we’d make it this far?
Some of you may still be feeling the after-effects of the Christmas and New Year celebrations, but I hope the excesses of the season are not taking too much of a toll on you.
It’s now that I have the exciting task of closing away last year’s folder of Dad’s columns, and opening up a new one. Each folder is stuffed full of columns, reader letters and my dad’s replies, as well as copies of the original hand-typed version that he would have posted to the editor. It’s a real treasure trove of memories, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!
So now we are into the 1980s where we leave behind the glitter and funk of 1970s disco, the safety pins and pogo-ing of punk, and move towards the less scary soft, pastel-coloured fashions and synthesisers of the New Romantics. I would turn into a teenager in this year, so who knows what dreadful recollections will be dredged up through reading my dad’s columns over the next decade!
True to form, his first column of the year, dated 5th January 1980, is full of interesting topics including Twelfth Night & the Epiphany, Wassailing, and a revisit to Yew trees following a reader letter he’d received.
But I’m not choosing any of those lovely topics. Oh no. My eye was caught by something far more gruesome, known as the Hand of Glory (if you’re eating while reading this, I suggest you finish your food before carrying on).
Criminals believed that this ‘lucky charm’ would bring them success in their nefarious activities. The ghastly object could be obtained from only one source – the body of a hanged man – and it had to be cut from the corpse as soon as possible after death. So criminals would hang about public executions in the hope of stealing one.
Once the hand was severed, it was wrapped in a shroud which was tightened to squeeze out every last drop of blood. Sometimes it would then be moulded into a loosely closed fist, although not always, and be put through a curing process involving a salt and pepper mixture spread upon the hand and left for about two weeks, just like curing a ham or a side of bacon.
After curing, the hand was then hardened by placing it in the sun or popping it into a clay pot over a gentle heat.
The closed fist was formed to hold a candle, but not just any candle. The Hand of Glory candle had to be made from the fat of a hanged man, virgin wax and Lapland sesame, the latter being a plant from which oil was extracted. The wick was usually made from the hanged man’s hair, although hair from a dead child was also deemed acceptable.
Some hands had the fingers outstretched, and in this case, the five fingers themselves would be lit. If one finger went out or refused to light, it meant that one of the householders was still awake.
When the hand or candle was alight, the ne’er-do-wells believed it had magical properties which included rendering the user invisible, paralysing anyone who set eyes upon the flame (except the owner of the hand), and keeping nighttime burglars awake while making sleeping householders stay asleep. And so it was an indispensable tool to any self-respecting burglar, and its power was broken only once the flames were extinguished.
To complete this ritual, a special verse had to be quoted immediately after lighting the candle or fingers. It went:
Let those who rest more deeply sleep, let those awake their vigils keep.
Oh, Hand of Glory, shed thy light, and guide us to our spoils tonight.
The Hand of Glory is recorded to have been used in North Yorkshire on at least three occasions. The earliest was in 1797 when a felon raided the Spital Inn at Stainmore between Bowes and Brough. Another report came from 1820 in Danby, Eskdale and that Hand is now on display in Whitby Museum. The last recorded use was in 1824 during a burglary at the Oak Tree Inn, Leeming Bar, on the old A1 or Great North Road.
Well Glory Be!
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd Jan and the Gazette & Herald on 1st Jan 2020