Category: Ireland

Gallows Lore

Gallows Lore

We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.

We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope).  Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.

Punch with Jack Ketch, early 1900s.

Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782.  We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.

Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.

The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia.

Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored.  (And we stop at some pubs en route!)

One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874.  We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.

Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.

The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.

In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages.  A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.

The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory.   This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain and Ireland as a charm that would incapacitate the occupants of a home they would burglarize — usually by a deep sleep, but some other mechanisms are also discussed.   We hear some directions for creating and using the hand of glory from the 1706 French grimoire known as the Petit Albert.

Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert
Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert

Belief in the power of such charms seems to have arrived in the British Isles from the continent.  Particularly in German-speaking regions, there are a number of variations on the theme featuring the hands of unborn children, and other iterations discussed.

Two further hand of glory stories are recounted: one telling of a very strangely dressed visitor who might not be trusted from the  1883 volume About Yorkshire, and another from the delightfully comic 1837 collection of folk tales and ghost stories, The Ingolsby Legends by Richard Harris.

As for the actual use of this charm in a non-literary context, we hear a newspaper account from 1831 involving some Irish burglars unsuccessfully employing the talisman, and of an actual specimen recovered from inside a wall in 1935 and now preserved in the museum of the north English town of Whitby.

Whitby hand
Hand of glory in the Whitby Museum

The strange name for this talisman, btw, comes from the French word for mandrake “mandragora,” which was heard by Brits as “main de gloire” (“hand of glory”).

But there are other parallels contributing to this confusion.  As we noted in our “Bottled Spirits” episode in our discussion of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel Galgenmännlein, or “little Gallows man,” the mandrake plant was believe to be seeded by bodily emissions (almost always semen) ejected from the hanged man at death.

We hear a bit more of the strange folklore of the mandrake, and then have a look at how this theme was explored in the 1911 novel Alraune (another German word for “mandrake”),  a sort of early science-fiction story by Hanns Heinz Ewers describing the results of an experiment in which a prostitute is impregnated with the semen of a hanged man. The novel has been adopted several times in German cinema, including a 1952 version featuring Erich von Stroheim, which we hear in the background.

We close with a cheery hanging ballad: “MacPherson’s Lament,” supposedly composed by Scottish outlaw Jamie MacPherson on the eve of his execution in 1700.

Alraune
Poster for Alraune, 1930

 

 

 

 

Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Bottled Spirits: Imps, Devils, Ghosts

Western tales of bottled spirits, imps, devils, and even ghosts are largely borrowed from the Islamic and Jewish legends of jinn captured by King Solomon.  In this episode, we explore how this is expressed in folk tales, demonological treatises, and literary borrowings.

We begin with a nod to the Assyrian god Pazuzu (and a clip from Exorcist II, The Heretic.) Here, aconnection between feared Assyrian spirits such as the jinn is mentioned. Pazuzu’s identity as a spirit of ill winds, brings us to a wind-related track from the original Exorcist soundtrack (from 1972’s oddball album Songs from a Hill.)  It’s a recording of a wind harp, or Aeolian harp.  And this brings us to the Greek god of winds, Aeolus.

Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.
Pazuzu figurine in Louvre.

Aeolus features in the Odyssey in an episode that anticipates our bottled spirit motif.  He presents Odysseus a bag of wind to speed him on his journey.  The wind spirits contained in this bag then brings us to a story about King Solomon trapping a wind demon in Arabia to aid him his construction of the Jerusalem Temple. We hear this particulsar tale from the medieval text,  The Testament of Solomon read by Mrs. Karswell.

We then look a bi from further medieval texts commenting on Solomon’s capture of demons in various vessels, and how thesee are later broken open by heedless conquerors of Jerusalem, releasing a Pandora-style plague of demons upon the world.

Our motif entered the literary world via 17th-century Spain, in Luis Velez de Guevara’s satirical novel El Diable Cojuelo, “the lame devil.”  We also hear a bit about a French adaptation, Alain-René Lesage’s 1707 novel, Le Diable Boiteux.  Both of these feature the demon Asmodeus, and referenced Asmodeus’s identity as  demon of lust, a notion taken up in various demonological treatises.

Le Diable Boiteux,
Alain-René Lesage’ss 1707 as Le Diable Boiteux, The Lame Devil

Next we look at folk tales, beginning in County Cork, Ireland, with the “Legend of  Bottle Hill,” which takes its name from a curious (and curiously inhabited) bottle obtained by one Mick Purcell on this particular Irish hill.  Both good and rather surprising bad luck follow.

From Scotland, we hear the legend of the Wizard of Reay and of his efforts to evade Satan’s over-eager efforts to claim his soul, as well as his bottle-imp story, involving a cask in the Cave of Smoo, a reputedly haunted sea cave in Sutherland.

The Wizard of Rea’s tactic for controlling the demon he finds in the cask is the same as we find in the folk tale, “The Wizards of Westman Islands,” from Iceland (in which we learn what role the sinister “Sending” plays in Icelandic folklore.)

From The Brothers Grimm, we hear “The Spirit in the Glass Bottle,” involving another bottled imp discovered in the gnarled roots of an ancient tree, and of a similar tactic used to subdue his volatile nature.

Jumping ahead a bit, we look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1891 short story, “The Bottle Imp,” which likewise adapts themes from the previous folk tales, while adding further complications and convolutions.  The story has served as basis for several films, an opera, a standard  magician’s trick, and more than one radio adaptation. (We hear a bit of one from a 1974 production by CBS Radio Mystery Theater.)

Stevenson makes use of some elaborate caveats attached to his bottled spirit, conditions that will produce either good or very bad luck, involving among other things, the need to rid oneself of the infernal talisman before one’s death by selling it for less than one payed for it.  This motif is also found in German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel  Galgenmännlein (“little gallows man”), a name taken from the German word for the mandrake plant, and here we dig a bit into the grim folklore of that plant. Fouqué’s story makes use of some nice, gothic elements in its resolution, a “Black Fountain,” ravening beast, and sinister black rider, among others.

Switching gears a bit, we have a look at the topic of witch bottles. It’s a perhaps questionable how well these fit our theme, but we dig up some interesting source texts describing their original use, unseemly as it is.  And we hear of some startling, tragic accidents involved in their historical use.

Witch bottle from Padstow
Witch bottle from Padstow England, 1800s.

We close our show with a look at near contemporary instances of those who claim to capture demons and ghosts in bottles.  Apparently, bottled ghosts can be a big money maker. At least in New Zealand.

 

 

Banshees

Banshees

Banshees are spirits of Irish folklore, who warn of impending deaths.  Originally considered fairies, their Irish name, bean sídhe, means “woman of the mounds,” those mounds (sídhe) being the ancient burial mounds believed in Ireland to be the home of fairies.

The banshee’s wailing, which betokens imminent death of a blood relative, is probably based upon the wailing of Irish mourners called “keeners,” from the Irish word caoineadh, or “lament.”  You can hear some snippets of traditional keeners in this segment, incliuding  a 1957 field recording released by Smithsonian Folkways.

Next we look at how the banshee’s appearance and behavior derives in part from that of Irish keeners, including some odd details having to do with petticoats.  Her origins in the fairy world also has often suggested that she may be small of stature.  We also examine some folktales involving combs lost by or stolen from banshees, and what you should or should not do should you find one.

While the banshee is attached strictly to particular families, she is not bound to the Emerald Isle.  We hear some accounts of her following travelers to other countries, including a surprising tale involving a party aboard an Italian yacht.

The figure, as she’s known today, receives no mention in print until the 17th century.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us what is probably the earliest account, retelling an incident experienced by Lady and Sir Richard Fanshawe, an English ambassador and his wife visiting Ireland.

This account also introduces the notion that a banshee may not originate in the fairy world, but may also be a vengeful ghost.  We hear another tale in this mode associated with Dunluce Castle in County Antrim, a location known for its “banshee room,” a feature duplicated in Shane’s Castle, about an hour to the south.  Both of these castle banshees are sometimes called “the red sisters,” so named for the color of their hair.

After a brief side trip to make note of figures similar to the banshee in Scotland (the caoineag) and Wales, the cyhyraeth and gwrach y rhibyn, we turn to older figures of the fairy realm regarded as banshees, but rather different from the figure born in the Early Modern Period.

The first of these is Clíodna, who was known as the queen of the banshees of southern Ireland, particularly the province of Munster. Unlike the modern banshee, a solitary figure who does little more than wail and make those well-timed appearances, Clíodna engages in romantic affairs, including a romantic rivalry with her banshee sister Aoibhell, a matter culminating in a magical battle with both transformed into cats.

Aoibhell also appears in an important story about Brian Boru, founder of the O’Brian Dynasty, whose army defeats an alliance of Vikings and Irish lords fought at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin in 1014. While Boru’s forces are victorious, he and his son are visited by Aoibhell, who heralds their deaths not with a wail, but music played on her harp from the fairy world.  We hear a similar story about the Irish hero and demi-god Cúchulainn encoutering Aoibhell as a death omen.

Les Lavandières de la nuit, 1861, Yan' Dargent, oil,
Les Lavandières de la nuit, 1861, Yan’ Dargent, oil,

Cúchulainn also encounters a banshee-like figure of the type folklorists call, “the Washer at the Ford,” or in Celtic regions elsewhere, like Celtic Britanny, “the Midnight Washer.”  The figures appear at lonely bodies of water washing bloody shrouds, or often armor, as they are particularly inclined to predict the deaths of soldiers and armies. We hear a particularly splendid account of one such figure from the 12th-century Triumphs of Torlough — one, which in its generous use of horrific adjectives sounds as if it were written by H.P. Lovecraft.

The episode ends with a quick look at a couple cinematic bamshees, including one which has earned a place in the nightmares of children encountering it in the 1950s-70s.  The two movies we hear bits of are Damned by Dawn and Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Banshee from "Darby O'Gill"
Banshee from “Darby O’Gill”