Friday 28 October 2016

Guest Post: ‘A Deadman’s Hand will Open any Lock’ by Karen Maitland

TITLE: The Plague Charmer
AUTHOR: Karen Maitland

PUBLICATION DATE: October 20, 2016

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Riddle me this: I have a price, but it cannot be paid in gold or silver.

1361. Porlock Weir, Exmoor. Thirteen years after the Great Pestilence, plague strikes England for the second time. Sara, a packhorse man's wife, remembers the horror all too well and fears for safety of her children. Only a dark-haired stranger offers help, but at a price that no one will pay.

Fear gives way to hysteria in the village and, when the sickness spreads to her family, Sara finds herself locked away by neighbours she has trusted for years. And, as her husband - and then others - begin to die, the cost no longer seems so unthinkable.

The price that I ask, from one willing to pay... A human life.

‘A Deadman’s Hand will open any Lock’ 
by Karen Maitland

In my new medieval thriller, The Plague Charmer, one of the characters fears that a severed hand is about to be put to criminal use as a Hand of Glory. A hand of glory could be used to open any lock, render a thief invisible and put the occupants of a house into a deep sleep so that the house could be burgled or a woman raped.

To create an object with such power, you needed the hand of an executed felon, cut off while he was still dangling on the gallows. Medieval people reasoned that if the relic of a saint’s hand could work miracles, then the hand of a murderer must be able to work evil.

Hangmen often supplemented their income by selling sections of gallows’ rope to apothecaries who bound it around the heads of patients to cure headaches. Executioners also sold body parts of felons to be mummified and ground up to use as medicine. Even as late as the 18th century, ‘mummy’ was an essential part of the medicine chest and was thought to cure anything from abscesses to heart disease. The trouble was by the 12th century the supply of genuine mummies from Egypt was almost exhausted and very expensive, so some apothecaries started making fake Egyptian mummies from bodies obtained from executioners. If a burglar wanted to buy a dead-man’s hand, the hangmen would not ask what the buyer wanted it for, provided he was offered a good price.

The blood was squeezed out of the felon’s hand and it was embalmed using salt, herbs and saltpetre scraped from the walls of damp cellars or crypts. Sometimes a candle made from the hanged man’s fat was pushed between the fingers, or the fingertips themselves could be lit and used as the candle. Once lit, the room would be filled with an unearthly blue light and those asleep would be unable to wake, and those awake unable to move. The flames could only be extinguished using milk or blood. The belief in the hand of glory was so enduring that there was a report in the Observer newspaper of 16th January 1831 of a burglar being arrested with the tools of his trade which include a hand of glory.

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