This week’s exhibit is ‘more gory than glory’, by far the most visited object in Whitby Museum, and its story begins with a recipe.
Recipe for a Hand of Glory
First you need to attend the execution of a criminal on a gibbet, a type of gallows where the corpse was left to rot to deter others.
When the crowd has dispersed, remove a hand at the wrist, preferably the right but not essential.
Squeeze out the blood, then pickle the hand as you would a ham; the most common method was by using salt, pepper and saltpetre.
Dry until hard, then place a candle with a wick made of human hair (again from a hanged man, but alternatives available) between the fingers or in the palm.
Having made your ‘Hand,’ you can now make use of it.
On arrival of the house you are to burgle, light the candle, say some magic words, and allow the fumes from the candle to enter the house; this should keep sleepers asleep, and awake people alert to do their nefarious work.
Now you can burgle the house without being disturbed; when finished extinguish flame with milk or blood.
At one time it seems there were many of these Hands, but today the one in Whitby Museum is thought to be the only true example left.
Our hand, a right one, came into the care of Joseph Ford, the historian of Eskdale, early in the last century, having been in the possession of an antiquarian in Danby for many years.
Before coming to the museum in 1937 it was kept at a cottage belonging to Dr Chalmers, in Castleton.
The Hand is still in box in which Joseph Ford placed it.
Recently the museum sought advice to place the old and dirty cotton wool the Hand had sat on, palm-down, for many years, placing it with a stable, acid-free foam.
To do this, I was very privileged to be the first person in many years to see the palm, and the web of tendons that are still there.
My account is only very brief, the variations of the story of such Hands, their uses and their power, has been written about by many authors here and abroad, if you want to read more; and in popular literature a Hand appears in Harry Potter and other places.
Just a final note: one of my predecessors as keeper once said that to remove the Hand from its box was unlucky – but he didn’t specify whether to the museum (as owner) or to anyone who handles it.
I’ve now handled it twice, the second time being for Whitby Gazette photographer Ceri Oakes when she took these pictures – good thing I’m not superstitious.
Or should I be?