9 June 1893
Strange Superstitions That Influence Criminals
One of the most curious and strange phases of superstition is that which relates to the criminal classes. The mystic code which regulates the lives of these enemies of society is in many cases a survival of fetichism of the oldest kind. Believing tenaciously in the dread efficacy of certain ghastly charms and incantations, the malefactor boldly enters on his enterprise occasionally carrying with him "a dead man's hand" - taken from one who had died a violent death. Such a charm being supposed to over power with sleep those who come under its influence, it is naturally an invaluable adjunct to the implements employed with thieves, says the Pall Mall Budget.
Some years ago an attempted robbery was made by burglars on an estate in the county Meath, and, to quote a contemporary account of the affair, "they entered the house armed with a dead man's hand, with a lighted candle in it, believing that a candle so placed will not be seen by any but those by whom it is used, and also that if a candle in a dead man's hand be introduced in a house it will prevent those who may be asleep from awakening. The inmates, however, were alarmed; the robbers fled, leaving the dead man's hand behind them."
Many similar stories are told of the use of the dead hand by thieves, one communicated by Rev. S. Baring Gould being worthy of notice. Two men, having come to lodge in a public house with a view to robbing it, asked permission to pass the night by the fire, and obtained it. When the house was quiet, the servant girl, suspecting mischief, crept downstairs, and looked through the keyhole, when she saw the men open a sack and take out a dry, withered hand. They anointed the fingers with some unguent, and lighted them. Each finger flamed except the thumb, which indicated that one of the household was not asleep.
Grose gives a full account of this charm as used by French housebreakers, and a variation of the same belief prevailed in Belgium. Not far from Bailleni, in West Flanders, a thief was captured on whom was found the foot of a man who had been hanged, which he used, when engaged in his robberies, for putting person to sleep. Similar instances are quoted from Spain and Germany, and it is noteworthy that Mexican thieves have been known to carry with them the left hand and arm of a woman who died at the birth of her first child.
Then there is the corpse candle, a weird implement of the robber's trade, which, although common throughout Europe, seems to have been more general in Germany than any other country. Not so long ago, it may be remembered, four peasants in the south Russian government of Kursk murdered a girl in order to make candles of her body, the notion being that such a hideous light not only renders the perpetrators of robberies invisible, but actually throws the victim or victims into a state of somnolence. In the German criminal codes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries we find express mention made of penalties against a crime the motive of which was the making of "thieves" or "sleep producing" candles. This superstition has figured in many a trial, and seems to be, even to the present day, implicitly believed in by the criminal classes. Indeed, it was suggested that the Whitechapel murders were instigated by this idea - a theory which the celebrated Dr. Bloch, a member of the Austrian reichsrath, was induced to support. An instance of this piece of criminal lore occurred during the trial of the German thief, Theodore Unger, who was executed at Magdeburg in 1810, when it was brought out in evidence that a regular traffic existed for the supply of these grewsome implements of the burglar's trade. But, instead of making the criminal invisible, this grim light has more than once done the reverse, and caused him to be brought to justice.