This was a right hand of a murderer that was severed while the corpse was still hanging from the gallows. It was then used as a charm or in black magic practices after being magically perserved. It is also believed robbers often used the hand when breaking into buildings and homes.
Preferably the hand was cut off during the eclipse of the moon. Afterwards it was wrapped in a shroud, squeezed of blood and pickled for two weeks in an earthenware jar with salt, long peppers and saltpeter. Then it was either dried in an oven with vervain, an herb believed to be able to ward off demands, or laid out to dry in the sun, desirably in the hot dog days of August.
When the hand was ready, candles were fitted on it between the fingers. These were called the “dead man’s candles” were made from another murderer’s fat, with the wick being made from his hair.
Another method of curing the severed and dried hand was dip it in wax. After this process the fingers themselves could be lit.
The hand with burning candles or fingers was shocking when coming at people. It froze them in their tracks and rendered them speechless. Burglars lit the hand before entering homes. A warning sign was that if the thumb would not light it meant there was someone in the house who could not be charmed or made afraid. It was believed once the hand was lit nothing but milk could extinguish it.
Homeowners attempted to fight back. To combat the hand of glory all sorts of ointments were smeared on the thresholds. The compositions of these various ointments consisted of everything from the blood of screech owls, the fat of white hens, or the bowl of black cats. Perhaps these concoctions worked if they were slimy enough to trip up the burglars.
The hand of glory was linked to witches during the witch-hunt period. There are two noted incidences. One, in 1588, of two German women, Nichel and Bessers, that were accused of witchcraft and exhuming corpses. They admitted poisoning helpless people after lighting the hands of glory to immobilize them. John Fian, after being severely tortured during his witch trial in Scotland in 1590, confessed to using a hand of glory to break into a church where he performed a ceremony to the devil.
The term the “hand of glory” is believed to be derived from the French “main de glorie” or “mandrogore” and be related to the legends of the mandrake. The mandrake plant was believed to grow under the gallows of the hanged man.
Belief in the efficacy of the Hand of Glory persisted as late as 1831 in Ireland. It is described or mentioned in the chapter of “The Folk-lore of the Hand” in “The Hand of Destiny” by C. J. S. Thompson, London, 1932. The belief in the Hand of Glory was the subject of “The Nurses’ Story” one of the “Ingoldsby Legends” of Thomas Ingoldsby (Rev. Richard Braham, 1837).