Murderous Superstitions


In 1888, the Tribune had a great article about strange superstitions that were widely believed by muderers. These included:

“The Corpse Candle” – some murderers (primarily in Germany) believed that if you made candles from the body of a murder victim, the light would make the murderers invisible. It was also thought that it could turn the body into a sort of sleep-walking zombie, like in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

“The Dead Man’s Hand” – apparently, at this time it was popular for criminals to carry a “dead man’s hand” – an actual , dried and withered hand of a person who had died a violent death. It was said that these hands had the power to put people to sleep. A variation of this was to carry a dead man’s hand that was holding a lighted candle, with the belief that the light the candle shed could only be seen by the person carrying the hand. More than once, it was noted, it ended up having the reverse effect, and the light shed on the criminal caused him to be caught.

These were primarily European customs, but Chicago police had to keep an eye out for them, as many of the immigrants around the city who were coming from Eastern europe brought their supersitions with them. Superstitions from all over the world were being thrown together into areas that were heavily populated by recent immigrants, such as the near-southwest area around Hull House. This is part of why the “devil baby” story caught on so quickly in 1913, and gives you some idea of what Jane Addams was up against when she started Hull House. Most of the people had no idea that their superstitions were local beliefs, not facts that everyone in the world grew up knowing. Addams was adamant that clinging to superstitions was a major roadblock keeping these people from succeeding in America, but for many, one of the hardest parts of becoming an American was letting go of some of those folk beliefs – one reason that so many seemed so desperate to believe in the devil baby was that it gave them a new reason to cling to their old superstitions. In a weird way, the story that the devil had been born in the neighborhood gave people hope.

Coming tomorrow: The Ghostly Gunshot in the Florentine Ballroom – caught on film?

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One thought on “Murderous Superstitions

  1. Sounds like the "Hand of glory," a magic item described in various grimoires, mae by making a candle from a hung murderer's hand; each finger becomes a candle, and while lit, it either makes you invisible, or freezes any observers, so you can freely rob their house or whatever. A.E. Waite's book on black magic has translations of several grimoires which make for very entertaining reading.

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