Dartmoor’s Hairy Hands: an evolving myth

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(Last Updated On: October 23, 2017)

 

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One of the most popular articles we’ve done on WASD looked at the Dartmoor legend of Jay’s Grave. A few readers asked about other local legends, the most common request being for more information on the legend of the Hairy Hands. So here goes.

The Hairy Hands is a ghost story that focuses on a stretch of road which supposedly had a high number of accidents during the early twentieth century. The suggested cause for the loss of control of these vehicles was given to be supernatural interference.
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The legend is set between Postbridge and Two Bridges on the B3212. According to the stories, the Hands appear suddenly, seize the steering wheel of a car or the handlebars of a motorcycle, and then force the victim off the road. In these early cases, the Hands are described as being invisible.

Since around 1910, drivers and cyclists had allegedly been reporting unusual accidents, the victims reporting that their vehicle had swerved violently and steered off the side of the road. Some described that it was as if something had wrenched the vehicle out of their control. This could happen to cars, motor coaches, cyclists and even pony and traps.

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In June of 1921 Dr. EH Helby, who was at the time serving as the Medical Officer at the nearby Dartmoor Prison, lost control of his motorcycle and sidecar. In the sidecar were seated his two children who survived. He had just about enough time to warn the children to jump before he was thrown from his bike and killed. His children related that as he shouted at them to get to safety he was fighting against an invisible force in his efforts to control the bike.

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On August 26 of the same year, a young British Army captain lost control of his motor-cycle and was thrown on to the verge. He was described by the local media as being “a very experienced rider” and in response to questioning the captain stated, “It was not my fault. Believe it or not, something drove me off the road. A pair of hairy hands closed over mine. I felt them as plainly as ever I felt anything in my life – large, muscular, hairy hands. I fought them for all I was worth, but they were too strong for me. They forced the machine into the turf at the edge of the road, and I knew no more till I came to myself, lying a few feet away on my face on the turf.”

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Predictably perhaps, on 14 October the Daily Mail picked up the story under the title, “The Unseen Hands”. A coherent narrative was made and the series of events became national news.

Then the Hands seem to have gone off-road. In the summer of 1924, the well-known folklore enthusiast Theo Brown was staying in a caravan around half-a-mile from the B3212. The author of ‘Devon Ghosts’ (1982) remembered, “I knew there was some power very seriously menacing us near, and I must act very swiftly. As I looked up to the little window at the end of the caravan, I saw something moving, and as I stared, I saw it was the fingers and palm of a very large hand with many hairs on the joints and back of it, clawing up and up to the top of the window, which was a little open. I knew it wished to do harm to my husband sleeping below. I knew that the owner of the hand hated us and wished harm, and I knew it was no ordinary hand, and that no blow or shot would have any power over it. Almost unconsciously I made the Sign of the Cross and I prayed very much that we might be kept safe. At once the hand slowly sank down out of sight and I knew the danger was gone. I did say a thankful prayer and fell at once into a peaceful sleep. We stayed in that spot for several weeks but I never felt the evil influence again near the caravan. But, I did not feel happy in some places not far off and would not for anything have walked alone on the moor at night or on the Tor above our caravan.”

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A further anecdote can be found in Michael Williams 2003 book ‘Supernatural Dartmoor’. The author was told by journalist Rufus Endle that he was driving near Postbridge when, “a pair of hands gripped the driving wheel and I had to fight for control.” When he successfully avoided crashing his car, the hands disappeared. Rufus asked that the story not be published until after his death so we don’t have the opportunity to further check out the report.

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Another anonymous poster recently placed the following on a ghost enthusiasts’ web site, “I live on the road that goes toward Princetown but I have I have heard it happen to people elsewhere in Devon… My uncle was working for a builders late on a site when he got held up and came home a different way and had to go down that same road. He was driving a small van and said it was very dark & first he felt like the van was being followed or someone was watching him and just felt spooked anyway then he thinks he saw someone on the side of the road but he knew no one was there. When he went further down the road he felt his van grabbed like by a force and he could not keep the steering wheel straight so he was going to go into the side of the road. He is a builder and a big strong man not a weakling and was trying to turn the wheel as hard as he could but no way. Then he felt something ON the wheel and looked down – as his eyes were just on the road till then – and saw pair of large hands covered in hair on the wheel grabbing it and pushing the other way. His van went up on the verge and banged hard onto the grass moor and almost wound up hitting a tree but stopped. Just then the hands disappeared but he was really scared and lucky someone came up the road a few minutes later behind him in another car stopped to see he was alright as he was up on the bank so had clearly come off the road – and he was alright but was in shock. My uncle still swears blind that this happened to him and he is not someone who admits to things like this. That was 20 years ago, but he did not know about the story of hairy hands till he was told about it.”

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As is usual in these legends we get ‘accretions’, bits of additional information that fill out the story as the years go by. Accordingly, the myth has grown until today when articles appear with titles such as, “Why the B3212 Is One of Britain’s Most Haunted Roads”. As we have no clear indication of who the Hands belonged to in the first place or their purpose, other than endangering motorists, the vacuum has been filled by a range of explanations. It’s been suggested that an escaped convict or a strange Dartmoor beast is the original owner. One American web site even alleges that “Sightings of Big Foot/Sasquatch type humanoids have also been reported in the area” (!). Another proposal is that, “in the far distant past a Bronze Age village stood along the once-busy but now sinister Dartmoor road” – so the Hands are angry at their resting place being disturbed. Or how about, “A chap worked at the gunpowder factory at Powdermills. He went to work in hob-nailed boots that sparked on the stone floor igniting the gunpowder which killed him leaving nothing but his hands. Supposedly it is these hands that terrorise the road”? On the other hand (sic), some local versions attribute the Hands to an unnamed man who died in an accident on the road. Indeed, the legend continues to mutate and evolve. In 2008, for instance, a student animation by the Wimbledon College of Art student Anna Hepworth presented another expansion of the myth:

If we wanted to be sceptical we could point out that the road in question isn’t lit at night, is fairly narrow in places and has sudden unexpected turns. It runs over the sparsely populated Moor so most travellers would be unfamiliar with the area and may be driving too fast on an empty road with high granite-walled sides and the occasional constricting bridge. It’s further worth noting that there are popular pubs in Postbridge, Two Bridges and Princetown – Devon cider can be unexpectedly powerful stuff. Whatever the condition of the driver, it wouldn’t take much to lose control. Indeed, investigations at the time concluded that the road itself was probably at fault, the camber being dangerous in places. The local authorities sent in engineers and repairs were made.

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Notably, spectral hands do show up in other places. For example, in Elias Owen’s ‘ Welsh Folk-lore: a Collection of the Folk-tales and Legends of North Wales’ (1887) there is a story about a man by the name of Roberts. Instead of attending church on Sunday, Roberts went gathering nuts in the nearby fields. When he saw a plentiful supply on a bush he was just about to reach out when a disembodied hand appeared. Roberts assumed that the hand was the Devil’s own and mended his ways, abandoning his nuts for a higher goal…

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Further afield in Mexico the owner of the hairy hand is known as “La mano pachona”. In one version a hated pawn shop owner is cursed by God on his deathbed. After his death his withered hand is seen climbing the cemetery walls, and then as it endlessly prowls the night. Alternatively, the hand used to belong to a Mayan shaman who was tortured and killed during the Spanish Inquisition – before the hand was chopped off, the shaman cast a spell on it. As the story goes, the hand hunted the Inquisitors down as they slept. The story is still used as a warning to young children to be obedient or go to bed, or the “mano pachona” will get them.

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There is another possible background influence. The fantasy novel ‘Les Mains d’Orlac’ (‘The Hands of Orlac’) by the French writer Maurice Renard was first published in 1920 – the year before the death of the unfortunate Dr. Helby. In the novel, a pianist suffers a railway accident that deprives him of his hands. A talented surgeon gives him new hands, transplanted from a freshly guillotined killer, but it all goes badly. In 1924 this early example of the body horror theme in fiction was made into a silent horror film, ‘The Hands of Orlac’ starring Conrad Veidt. Remade twice it was one of the first films to feature the idea of hands with a malevolent will of their own and fed into popular fears around new surgical techniques.

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Still the Hands’ story evolves. In 2010 the Devon filmmaker Ashley Thorpe continued his series of short films based on local legends. ‘The Hairy Hands’ was a stylized 11 minute-long horror, starring Ed Berry and featuring voiceovers by Doug Bradley (Hellraiser), Nicholas Vince (Hellraiser) & the BBC DJ Jo Loosemore:


(Author)

Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD, and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.