On the edge of a small town, from a hastily erected gallows, two bodies, dead for not more than a few hours, cast ominous shadows as they swung gently in the summer breeze. In the blood-red glow of the sinking sun, the black silhouettes of crows could be seen swooping and picking at the remains of the once powerfully framed men who now occupied the ropes. The gnarled wood from which the ropes were suspended creaked slightly as they swung, as if the gallows itself was softly breathing.
In life both men has been brutal; one had robbed with much violence, the other murdered without pity or remorse. Nobody had cheered them on their final journey to the gallows, or shed any tears at their deaths, or petitioned the authorities to remove their bodies for burial. So there they swung, as a warning, to deter others foolish enough to be considering a life of crime.
However, they were not the only ones casting a shadow that night!
In a nearby lane, hidden deep in the gloom of the gallows huddled two men. Crouched behind some barrels and old tarred ropes, they waited patiently for the red sky to turn to black. The taller man had a pocked marked face and swarthy skin. His eyes were mismatched in colour and direction, so they could hold clearly no one’s gaze. He carried a grimy canvas bag, caked with dirt and stained with dried blood. The other man was smaller with pinched features and eyes that constantly flicked around.
The smaller man held in his hand a knife; the blade had been lovingly honed to such a degree of sharpness that it would meet with little resistance, even when slashing through the toughest of materials. As the full moon rose in the sky and the hour approached midnight, he began to chant softly:
"Blade born of fire and sharpened with stone
Work well your spell for t’night is flown
Approaching now the witching hour
Endow us with your magic power."
As the church clock struck twelve, the two men crept swiftly and silently from their hiding place. In a matter of seconds, the smaller man had grasped tightly the right hand of the nearest corpse and lopped it off with one swift slash of his knife. As it detached from the body, he cast it into the open canvas bag held by the second man. They retreated once more into the dark shadows of the night.
A couple of hours later, in a dim candle lit room, the two men watched an old woman wrap the hand in a piece of winding-sheet and draw it tight to remove any remaining blood. As she worked, she was muttering incantations. Carefully she bent up the fingers so that when the back of the hand was laid flat they curved into an upright position. Next she powdered the hand with nitre, salt, and long pepper and placed it in an earthenware jar. She nodded to the men indicating the work was complete.
Two weeks later, the hand was removed from the jar. For many weeks during the dog-days of the summer, it lay on a back window sill in the small dwelling, exposed to the noontide sun. Four months passed.
In early October, the parched fingers, now thoroughly dried and greyed, were anointed by the old woman with a mixture of oil and wax. The men looked triumphant. Now they had a weapon with power above all others; soon they would be rich beyond their wildest imaginings.
It was the evening of the 27th October, 1797 and, in an old stone inn high on the moors, four people sat huddled around a blazing log fire that crackled and spat on the broad hearth. They listened as fierce gusts of wind lashed raindrops as big as pennies across the battered window casements, striking the glass with such ferocity that it seemed as if the small panes must surely shatter.
The rambling old inn lay on a remote moorland pass. It offered the only shelter for travellers for many miles as well as stabling and a place for stage coaches to change horses. Consequently, the owners were kept well informed of all the latest gossip. Recent tales had included shocking details of robberies in nearby villages. Several households had lost all their money and valuables whilst they slept. It would be a hard winter for those left without the means to help support their businesses.
The innkeeper and his wife were discussing the robberies with their only guest that night, a soldier travelling north to visit his family. A little way back from the fire sat a young servant girl, she was spinning by the firelight and listening intently as the soldier spoke. The innkeeper’s only son had already retired to bed early with a slight fever. The last coach had gone by and the house door had been secured for the night.
Shaking his head in disgust, the traveller finished his account: “...everything taken and whilst they slept, n’ere heard a thing.”
“Ay tis bad times,” the inn owner agreed.
“Are yee sure t’ inn is secure?” asked his anxious wife.
They had been fortunate recently to win a large sum of money at the fair and this was now stowed away in a strongbox in the small parlour at the side, along with the other family treasures.
“Ay, aa’d syah so”, said the innkeeper.
Lost in thought, the innkeeper looked towards the deeply recessed windows in the thick walls, which were strongly barred with iron and then glanced at the stout oak door which was chained, banded and bolted.
Their conversation at an end, the group were just considering retiring to bed, when there was a tap at the door.
"Best slacken t' chain hinny," said the innkeeper to the servant girl. "See whose ootbye, ah waddent wanna keep a dog oot on a neet leik this."
The girl went to the door and saw that the visitor was a poor woman, shivering, shaking, and soaked to the skin. She opened the door. The woman was stooped and dressed in a long ragged cloak, the hood drawn partially over her face. Her eyes were mismatched, one blue and one brown, and neither held the girl’s gaze as she nodded her thanks and entered the room. She walked feebly to an armchair which the innkeeper pushed hastily forward. Rain streamed from her clothing onto the bare floor boards.
The old woman’s hands were white with cold, as she asked in a croaky voice if she could warm herself by the fire. The woman refused to take off her cloak and have it dried, as well as the offer of food and a bed. She was, she said, on her way to the north and must start very early. All she wanted was to rest beside the fire and would sleep in the chair. The innkeeper bid her welcome, he was well used to such wayfarers.
Shortly afterwards the innkeeper, his wife and the soldier went to bed leaving the servant girl alone with the shivering old woman. As the girl put away her spinning, her eye was caught by something strange. The woman had stretched out her feet to warm them and the hem of her skirt had raised a little, exposing men’s riding gaiters. The girl felt an instant pang of unease. She was a bright young woman and resolved to keep a close eye on the stranger.
"Ah'm sleepy," said the girl, lying down on the long settle at the side of the room. After a few minutes she pretended to fall asleep, whilst she watched the old woman through half closed eyes. It was a little time before the figure in the chair stirred; then she seemed to raise her head as if listening intently. There was no sound but the feigned heavy breathing of the servant girl and the wind and the rain battering on the windows.
The figure rose slowly to its feet, no longer bent, but tall and powerful-looking. The cloak was discarded on the chair revealing the profile not of an old woman but a swarthy harsh faced man. The servant girl closed her eyes as the figure turned towards her. Moments later she felt the stranger approach her, her heart beat so fast that she could hardly keep up the regular deep breathing of pretended sleep.
Going back to the chair, the man removed his skirts and extracted from his pocket a cloth covered bundle. He carefully unwound it to reveal a grey withered human hand with blackened fingers. He placed this on the plain oak table with the fingers pointing upwards. Next he placed a spill in the fire and as he held the spill to each finger in turn he chanted in a low but sinister voice:
"Let those awake, their senses keep
Let those who sleep, more deeply sleep,
Be as dead for the dead man’s sake
Those whose eyes are not in wake
O skeleton hand, flash out thy blaze,
And sharper still our senses raise."
Each of fingers instantly flamed, filling the immediate area with a bright livid gleam; all, that is, except for the thumb, which refused to light. The man nodded in satisfaction, believing that only four were present in the house besides himself.
The girl felt her senses quicken, never had she felt so awake, so focused. The man continued to chant looking even more malevolent in the flickering harsh yellow light:
"Oh, hand of glory, shed thy light,
Direct to that we seek tonight.
Light our way to hidden spoils
Make ours the gain of others toils
Fly open lock and bolt and band
At the spell of the dead man’s hand."
Immediately, there were clunks and rattles as, throughout the house, bolts flew open, chains rattled free, bars fell and locks turned without the aid of a key. The terrible light seemed to scan the room, illuminating in turn each crack and crevice before coming to rest in the direction of the parlour door.
Suddenly the girl felt a blast of cold night air. The man had hastened to the inn door and, on opening it, had given a sharp whistle. Almost instantly another, smaller, man entered the inn.
Together, the two men went into the parlour. The young girl’s heart pounded. She slipped silently off the settle and sped up the stairs on trembling legs. Approaching her master’s and mistresses bedroom, she was determined to do all she could to stop the thieves; her job and their livelihood depended on it.
Slipping into the room, she went quickly to the bed but the power of the magic hand had placed all those who had been sleeping into a deep stupor.
Despite her desperate attempts to shake them awake, they slept a charmed sleep. They could not stir any more than if they were dead. Indeed, the only evidence that they were not dead was their loud rattling snores.
Filled with horror, she stole quietly back downstairs. The men were still in the small parlour collecting all the valuables of the house into a large sack. No lock had withstood the power of the magic hand and even the heavily fortified strongbox now lay open.
With little thought for her own safety, the girl rushed to the parlour door, slammed it shut and turned the key in the lock. In seconds, the men began bashing frantically against the door; to her relief the lock held.
Seizing the ghastly hand, she ran to the scullery and, picking up a sizable jug of water, she cast it on the burning fingers. It did nothing to extinguish the quivering yellow flames. Fear coursed through her.
The robbers were keeping up a fierce battery on the door and she knew it would not hold for much longer. If the door gave way, all their lives would be in danger. With rising panic she blew and blew and BLEW at the flames with all her might. All her efforts were in vain for the fingers continued to burn as brightly as ever. In desperation she grabbed a beer-jug and threw the contents across the hand, it only made the fingers burn the brighter still. Frantic tears were pricking in her eyes.
As a last resource, the girl seized a bowl of blue milk, and dashed it over the hand. Immediately the flames were extinguished. Uttering a piercing cry of relief she sped towards the stairs. Before she had reached the bottom, she heard footsteps.
The inn keeper, immediately awakened by the terrible din the robbers were making, had rushed from his room, fire-arm in hand. Hot on his heels was his son. Soon the whole house was aroused.
Within minutes the thieves were apprehended, tied up, shut and barred securely in one of the outhouses, until they could be taken to the local lockup and the magistrate informed.
Later that night, five people sat huddled round the oak table and five pairs of eyes were fixed on the ghastly sight of the withered hand with its blackened fingers. The innkeeper and his wife had never seen the like, but the old soldier had met many strange things on his travels.
“Tis a hand of glory,” he said, and went on to explain that it was the hand of a dead murderer made powerful by dark magic. No locks can withstand its force if the right incantation is spoken over it and, whilst it burns, none asleep in the house can wake. He explained how a finger is lit for each sleeping member of the household. Luckily, the robbers thought only four, not five, were residing in the house.
“Yer a brave canny lass,” said the innkeeper to the servant girl, who smiled with pride.
The story soon spread and the girl became the toast of the neighbourhood. The withered hand remained in the possession of the household for many years and many passers-by stopped to hear its tale. Just how much danger the occupants had been in became apparent at the thieves' trial, for it turned out that the two men were wanted not just for theft but for murder also. Within a few weeks of the trial, two new bodies could be seen hanging from the gallows, illuminated by the setting winter sun.
Before the sun rose again both corpses were as frozen and frosted as the ground beneath them and the swarthy skin of the once tall man was now waxy and pale in the moonlight. There was nothing unusual about this sight, for executions were common, except, in this instance, both corpses had missing their right hands and, as we leave this story, somewhere, in a dingy room, in another town, not too distant from this grisly scene, an old witch was bending over a drawn cloth and chanting incantations.