What is the history of the sinister mummified hand known as the Hand of Glory that forms part of the exhibits of Whitby Museum? MJ STEEL COLLINS finds out!
Lurking in the Walls
A stonemason and historian named Joseph Ford discovered Whitby Museum’s particular Hand of Glory in the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton in the early 1900s.
The gory artefact came into the hands of the museum in 1935, and is believed to be the only surviving Hand of Glory in existence.
Main De Gloire
Walter Skeat stated that the term Hand of Glory originated in the French term Main de gloire, which was corrupted into ‘mandragore’, or Mandrake. The Mandrake is a well-known root in folklore – shaped like a human, it was said to scream when pulled from the earth.
The Hand That Dealt The Deed
The Hand of Glory was created when the right hand of an executed criminal was dismembered from the body whilst still fresh on the gallows.
However, some sources state that it was the left hand that was severed; if the executed criminal was a murderer, the hand believed to have committed the crime that was used.
Add Some Body Fat Wax
Ancient beliefs have it that the hand, when combined with candles formed from the wax created from the body fat harvested from the same criminal would imbue the same nasty tendencies that the executed villain possessed in life. The wick of candle was made of the hair of the same executed convict as the body fat and hand.
The candle was be positioned inside the severed hand, like a candle in a candlestick; the candle sat in the palm of the hand, the fingers curled around it.
In the case that the hand itself was used as a candle, the fingers were used as the wicks. Either they were bent upwards, while the palm lay flat as a rest, or the hand was positioned upright in a holder.
An Unwholesome Anaesthetic
Several attributes are given to The Hand of Glory. It was by burglars to render the residents of the home they planned to rob unconscious, whilst the contents of the house were looted.
The candle would only grant light to the person who held it, leaving others in darkness, or might even turn the person who held it invisible. The hand was said to also be able to unlock doors. The flame of the candle could only be extinguished by milk.
In the case that the hand itself was used as a candle, each finger going alight indicated that a resident of the house had awoken.
The Body In The Tree
A murder committed during the second world war was believed to have been motivated by a Hand of Glory, a case that remains unsolved today.
In April 1943, the skeletal remains of a woman were discovered in a tree by some young boys out poaching in the Hagley Wood. At first, they thought it was an animal, but the skull still had hair attached to it.
What is a Hand Of Glory?
The boys were reluctant to report their discovery in fear of getting into trouble for poaching, but one eventually told his mum. Police discovered an intact skeleton in the tree, along with ragged clothes and a wedding ring.
It was thought that the woman had been suffocated, as taffeta was found in her mouth. One hand had been severed. This, or the fact that a severed hand had been buried nearby linked the case with the legend of the Hand of Glory.
The Hagley Wood Bella
Searches were made in the records to attempt to identify the victim, but they were fruitless.
The case started to be forgotten, but then mysterious graffiti, apparently connected to the murder started to appear about the town of Hagley. The graffiti asked, “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” “The Hagley Wood Bella” “Who put Loula Belle in the wych elm?”
The graffiti was all in the same hand, adding to the mystery surrounding the murder.
Later, a writer working on the case received letters from a mysterious “Anna”, stating that the woman in the tree had been murdered because of alleged involvement with Nazi spies. However, after that the trail ran cold.
More recently, a face was put to the anonymous victim by the same team who had worked on the skull of Richard III discovered beneath a car park in Leicester. Read about that here.
Overall, the Hagley Wood Bella case seems just as sinister as the Hand of Glory.