Three men sat in the corner of the public house. They didn’t say much, they were waiting.
The other people around them were still talking about the hanging seven days earlier. The executed man had struggled for a long time when he dropped, the crowd had gone quiet by the time he went still. Most people had known him, he was always a bit odd, a bit menacing.
Sometime after midnight the three men went out into the dark and then kept walking till they got to the bridge. The moon was hidden by clouds, but they could hear where the gibbet was by the creaking and clanking, and they could smell it too. Not for the first time the smaller man, Esau Fawcett, regretted saying yes but it was too late now. The other two grasped his legs and lifted him up, he thought he would fall and he reached out at what was in front of him. He grasped the chained corpse of the gibbeted man. His eyes were sinking, his jaw was dropping, his skin was rotting. Esau managed to pull out his boning knife and reach for the caged right hand. It came away easily enough, and dropped onto the road.
There was no one to see the three men as they returned with their prize. Esau went home to his wife and his bed but he couldn’t sleep, he kept remembering how the hand had felt, so cold and clammy. On the agreed day they met up again, the older man had the hand. It had been cured like a ham, the smell was now of saltpetre. It looked grey and withered and had been dried hard. The long straight fingers looked like dead twigs. Esau wondered aloud whether it would actually work. The older man promised that it would, that they could rob the farmer’s house and no one would wake, because of the Hand of Glory.
Esau kept thinking of what he would do with the money as they approached the farmhouse. There was no signs of life but they had to be sure that everyone was definitely asleep. The older man struck a flint and lit the dry moss in a tinderbox. It crackled and glowed and he lowered the hand towards the flame. For a moment nothing happened, Esau hoped that there was someone still awake in the house and they’d just have to go home and go to bed … but then the middle finger caught alight. Esau scrambled through a small back window they forced open. The older man passed him the hand. Esau grasped it tightly holding the flame upwards.
In the dark of the house the ghastly candle provided little light, it flickered and hissed. Esau didn’t see the edge of the table or the jug of gale beer, it fell onto the flagstones with a loud crash. Esau froze – but nothing happened. No one came. From outside the other two urged him on so he went on into the larder, and found the money box. He made a lot more noise opening it up with his iron crow, but it didn’t matter, still no one came. The Hand of Glory had spellbound the household just like it was supposed to.
Outside and away from the farmstead they struggled to extinguish the flame until the older man remembered blood would work, and they found a recently disembowelled rabbit. Esau felt much better than he had for weeks as he went home in the early morning. He had the hand with him because the other two had to carry the money box away but they’d be sure to meet up soon to share out the spoils. He wasn’t afraid of the hand anymore, he thought of it as a tool not a piece of a person, and he put it under his bed for safe keeping in case he needed it again. He got into his bed beside his sleeping wife.
Sometime later he woke up. He felt a cold dry hand around his wrist. He noticed a growing smell of decay. He heard a metallic creaking. He didn’t want to but he couldn’t help opening his eyes. He looked straight into a face whose eyes were sunken, whose jaw had dropped, whose skin was rotten. ‘Give me back my hand’ it said.
As the mourners walked back to the village after Esau’s burial, none of them looked at the gibbet by the bridge and no one noticed the hanging blackened corpse had two hands again.
The idea of a Hand of Glory is found across Europe complete with different rules and traditions for what it could do and how to make it work. In Britain and Ireland stories from antiquarians are mixed up with reports of actual use. There is a hand kept in Whitby Museum, supposedly a Hand of Glory, it was apparently found in the wall of a cottage in Castleton.