dead man's hand

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John Aubrey (1626—1697) antiquary and biographer


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A traditional cure for cysts, wens, scrofula, goitre, and ulcers was the touch of a dead man's hand—preferably, as Reginald Scot wrote in 1584, one who has died an untimely death. Aubrey knew of a man's wen and a child's hunchback cured by this means (Aubrey 1686/1880: 198). Margaret Courtney noted instances in 19th-century Cornwall where the cure was used for persistent sore eyes, for a ‘peculiar tuberous formation’ on a child's nose, and for a sore on a child's leg; she was told that ‘there is no virtue in the dead hand of a near relation’, presumably because that would be too easy of access (Courtney, 1890: 152–3).

Throughout England, the hand of a hanged man was thought to be especially effective. People went to public executions and paid the hangman to let them rub the corpse's hand across their swellings as it hung on the gallows; in 1785, Boswell saw ‘four diseased persons … rubbed with the sweaty hands of malefactors in the agonies of death’.

In the Fens, where families were large and poverty acute, it was thought that if a woman held the hand of a dead man for two minutes, she would not become pregnant during the next two years (Porter, 1969: 11–12, Sutton, 1992: 92).


Opie and Tatem, 1989: 99–100;Roud 2003: 137–40.Mabel Peacock, Folk-Lore 7(1896),268–83, includes European parallels.

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