Mummified severed human hand is on display in Whitby Museum

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Today’s Object of the Week is surely one of the more gruesome items in the series to date.

THIS mummified severed human hand in Whitby Museum was discovered in the early 20th century hidden on the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton by a stonemason and local historian, Joseph Ford.

He immediately identified it from popular stories of such objects as a “Hand of Glory”.

It was given to Whitby Museum in 1935 and is the only alleged Hand known to survive.

A Hand of Glory was supposedly the carefully prepared and ‘pickled’ right hand of a felon, cut off while the body still hung from the gallows and used by burglars to send sleepers in a house into a coma from which they were unable to wake.

In one version the clenched hand is used as a candleholder for a candle incorporating human fat, but in another – consistent with the Whitby hand – the outstretched hand has its own fingers lit.

In this case should one of the fingers refuse to light it is a sign that someone in the household remains awake.

In either case the light cannot be extinguished by water or pinching but only by blood or skimmed milk – the usual method in the tales.

Stories of the use of such hands became common across Europe, from Finland to Italy and Western Ireland to Russia in the last 400 years.

At least two were current in North Yorkshire – one relating to the Spital Inn on Stainmore in 1797 and the other to the Oak Tree Inn, Leeming, supposedly in 1824. The following shorter, but typical, version comes from Northumberland.

The Whitby hand has appeared on the TV show QI and a hand of glory is also mentioned in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Harry gets lost on Diagon Alley and goes down Knockturn Alley where he happens upon Borgin and Burkes, a shop which deals in dark magic:

“Can I have that?”, interrupted Draco, pointing at the withered hand on its cushion.

“Ah, the Hand of Glory!” said Mr Borgin, abandoning Mr Malfoy’s list and scurrying over to Draco.

“Insert a candle and it gives light only to the holder! Best friend of thieves and plunderers! Your son has fine taste, sir.”

The hand is on display within Whitby Museum’s ‘Chronicle of Curiosities’ exhibition.

Ceramicist, Layla Khoo, has taken inspiration from the hand to produce stunning candlesticks which are available to purchase once the museum reopens.

The museum, situated in the stunning surroundings of Pannett Park. is presently closed, on government advice, but you can find out more by visiting the website www.whitbymuseum.org.uk or follow it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

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