The Spital Inn at Stainmore was in an interesting location. A completely wild part of the country even now, it was for centuries the main route into the Eden Valley and northern Cumbria. During the eighteenth century, the Spital Inn was a crucial part of the long-distance coaching route, and was the place where the national mail coach changed horses before heading down the hill in either direction.
At some point at the end of the eighteenth century – possibly 1797 – the innkeeper, George Alderson, was preparing to settle for the night when an old lady appeared at the door and asked if she could sleep by the fire. Alderson was not a man to turn the needy away, so he assented but asked his maid Bella to sleep downstairs, too.
After the men of the house had retired, Bella noticed that the ‘old lady’ was wearing men’s riding gaiters under her dress. Bella considered this suspicious and feigned sleep. Sure enough, the traveller took a ‘Hand of Glory’ from his bag, lit its candles, and said,
‘Oh, Hand of Glory, shed thy light
Direct us to our spoil tonight’.
He then went to the inn door to call for his companions.
The ‘Hand of Glory’ was the preserved hand of a hanged man. The hand – either the left (the ‘sinister’ hand) or the hand that performed the capital deed – was removed from the corpse whilst still on the gallows. The Hand of Glory was pickled in salt and saltpetre, then dried in an oven with the herb vervain. Candles made from the fat of the hanged man, with wicks made from his hair, were inserted between the fingers. In some cases the whole Hand was dipped in wax and the actual fingers formed the ‘candles’.
The name, ‘Hand of Glory’ can only be traced back to the early eighteenth century, although it seems that some variation on the Hand had been in existence since the mid-fifteenth. Certainly, the Hand of Glory’s hey-day was the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; ownership was enough to label Margaret Teasdale of Over Denton as a witch upon her death in 1777.
Once lit, the Hand ensured that occupants who were awake, stayed awake; and those who were asleep could not be woken. The only way to break the spell against the will of the Hand’s owner was to douse it in milk.
Back in the Spital Inn, Bella the maid leapt to her feet and bolted the inn door behind the brigand. She tried to raise the household from sleep, but could not; she remembered her folklore, took a jug of milk from the kitchen and poured it over the candle flame. George Alderson woke and fired his blunderbuss towards the men. They realised that they were uncovered, and said that they would go away if the hand was returned to them. Alderson shot them again, and the thieves retreated.
The story goes that the Alderson family kept the Hand of Glory for many years afterwards.