A poor woman living in the neighborhool of Hartlepool, England, some years ago was induced by a "wise woman" to go alone at night to an outhouse where a suicide lay awaiting the coroner's inquest and to hold the hand of the corpse on her wen all night. She died shortly after from mental shock. Another woman at Cuddesden, Oxfordshire, asked for the hand of a corpse in order to cure a goiter. Her father, she said, had been cured by the same means, the swelling having diminished as the hand mouldered away. In 1850, it was common for numbers of invalids in certain parts of England to congregate round the gallows in order to receive the " death stroke"—the touch of an executed criminal's hand. The practise declined because of the high fees the hangmen came to charge for applying the remedy.
source: "Popular Science Monthly", Volume LXXXIV
source: "A Dictionary of Domestic Medicine and Household Surgery", 1877
A lady who was staying at Penzance in 1859, and was present at a funeral, observed that when the clergyman came to the words, 'Earth to earth,' a woman made her way to the edge of the grave and dropped a cloth upon the coffin, closed her eyes, and apparently said a prayer. On the lady making enquiries as to the reason of this peculiar proceeding, she was informed of the superstition just recorded. The poor people in Launceston and its neighbourhood, say that a swelling in the neck (the goitre or bronchocele, as it is variously termed) may be cured by the patient going before sunrise on the first of May to the grave of the last young man who has been buried in the churchyard, and applying the dew gathered, by passing the hand three times from the head to the foot of the grave, to the part affected by the ailment.
source: "Bygone days in Devonshire and Cornwall, with notes of existing superstitions" ... by Mary Elizabeth Whitcombe, 1874
This led me to further inquiry and I found the custom to be widely spread. In two notable and quite recent instances, those of a Carmelite nun dying in Baltimore and a well-known Catholic priest who died in this city, many applications of the dead hand were made with reputed success. In both of these cases throngs of people pressed to obtain the coveted touch. Nor is the belief confined to those of the Roman Catholic faith; a female homoeopathic physician, formerly an army nurse, told me that once during her hospital service two soldier patients, suffering from malarial fever of a persistent type, came to her and asked permission to prepare for burial the next patient who might die. Upon inquiry it was found that they firmly believed that they could "break the chills" by an application of the dead hand, and it was for that reason that they sought this task. They were allowed to make the trial and were thereby speedily cured! Neither of these patients was a Catholic. In another case a white swelling was cured by a murderer's hand surreptitiously obtained. The moral quality of the individual to whom the member belonged seems to be a matter of importance. I was told, by a person who had knowledge of the facts, that, in the burial place for the paupers of this city, graves are not infrequently violated for the purpose of obtaining a hand or an arm, the cadaver being otherwise uninjured.
In Staffordshire and in Galloway it is held that a dead hand rubbed on warts causes them to disappear.* In Berwickshire, a short time ago, applications of the dead hand were made to remove wens, and in Northamptonshire crowds of sufferers used to congregate about the gallows-tree on days of public executions to receive "the dead stroke," nurses even bringing children for the purpose. The swelling is believed to decrease as the body of the criminal moulders away. Eye-witnesses living in 1868 in West Sussex, England, described the revolting ceremony of stroking at the gibbet, and the touch of the dead hand (not criminal) was still used for goitre and other affections, the stroke being applied nine times from east to west and nine times from west to east. Similar occurrences are related at the execution of Dr. Dodd, in 1777, and at the execution of the murderer Crowley, at Warwick, in the year 1845.
It is needless to say that no record has been kept of the failures of this strange remedy, and the curious critic might imitate the Roman who, on seeing the tablets hung in the temple of Neptune by those who had been delivered by calling on the god, asked to see the tablets of those who had been drowned after a similar appeal.
The reason for these curious superstitions is obvious. The hand is so intimately connected with the brain as the executor of its behests that the savage mind naturally ascribes to it a separate and distinct force independent of the rest of the body—makes it, in fact, a fetish. Savage tribes wear necklaces made from the phalanges of those slain in battle, as witness the Cheyenne necklace of this character recently deposited in the National Museum. A similar custom prevailed among the Greeks, who wore the fingers and toes of a murdered relative under the armpits to avert the vengeance of the Furies.
source: American Anthropologist, Volume 1, 1888
Happening to pass by Newgate on the morning of the execution of the unfortunate John Anderson, my steps were arrested by the contemplation of the termination of this poor wretch's crime. I bad stopped but a few moments, when I observed the executioner untying the criminal's hands, and immediately afterwards a woman ascended the scaffold, and began rubbing the dead hand across her throat- She was succeeded by another who also exhibited this disgusting and foolish ceremony to us. I have discovered that these silly women are affected with a tumour which the surgeons call "Bronchocele;'' it is frequent in elevated and bleak parts of this island, and commonly known by the general term, Wen. Now, Sir, I had been induced to believe that the age of superstition and charlatanry was past; judge then my surprise when I saw this indelicate and disgusting instance of delusion sanctioned by the officers of the government of this self-called enlightened country ! It surely is the duty of every man, jealous of the honour of his country, to use his endeavours to clear her name from such folly as this ; both because it is folly, and because it is injurious to the weaker-minded part of the community. Allow me then, Sir, through you, to beg my countrywomen to discontinue this practice:—First, because it is of no use.—Secondly, because it is indelicate, and contrary to female modesty, to exhibit the person upon a scaffold before an immense body of people, to rub the throat with the hand of a dead man; and thirdly, because it is wicked, and contrary to religion, to use this species of conjuration.
Let them, on the contrary, seek their cure from those means which reason and experience approve. And there is, Mr. Editor, one remedy, perhaps not enough known, and that is, to dissolve in the mouth gradually, and often in the day, trocks of burnt sponge. This has often effected a cure. There are also other means of relieving this complaint, but it would lake up too much of your room to describe them. But, before I quit the subject, 1 would first suggest, that, as prevention is better than cure, and, as the same causes, operating on the rising generation of females, will produce the same complaint,
it would be well if the cause were discovered ; that, by avoiding it, we might prevent the disease altogether. Now, this cause will be found to exist in the exposure of the throat to cold and piercing air, in the occupations of the labouring poor. The reason why it does not attack males is, that they have their throats covered, or partially so, from a very early age. And because females in a more comfortable state of life are not so much exposed to the open air, (in those parts of the country where the air more particularly produces it,) the disease is rarely seen amongst them. The conclusion, Mr. Editor, is obvious~ Let the girls of those parts of the country wear dresses that come close up to the chin, and then, Sir, we shall hear only of the " Goitres" of the Alps, or of other countries.
source: The Busy body, or Men and manners, ed. by Humphrey Hedgehog, 1816
Goitre, the scourge of the Swiss valleys, is sometimes found in our country, and superstition offers a remedy for it, though a revolting one. The late Rev. J. W. Hick, Incumbent of Byer's Green, informed me that on asking a parishioner thus afflicted whether she had tried any measures for curing it, she answered: "No, I have not, though I have been a sufferer eleven years. But a very respectable man told me to-day that it would pass away if I rubbed a dead child's hand nine times across the lump. I've not much faith in it myself, but I've just tried it." Somewhat similar measures were resorted to by another sufferer not many years ago. The body of a suicide who had hanged himself in Hesilden-dene, not far from Hartlepool, was laid in an outhouse, awaiting the coroner's inquest. The wife of a pitman at Castle Eden Colliery, suffering from a wen in the neck, according to advice given her by a "wise woman," went alone and lay all night in the outhouse, with the hand of the corpse on her wen. She had been assured that the hand of a suicide was an infallible cure. The shock to the nervous system from that terrible night was so great that she did not rally for some months, and eventually she died from the wen. This happened about the year 1853, under the cognisance of my informant, the Rev. Canon Tristram. This belief extended, not many years back, as far south as Sussex. "Some five-and-twenty years ago," writes the Sussex lady, to whom I am so much indebted, " there stood a gibbet within sight of the high road that wound up Beeding Hill, our nearest way to Brighton Among my nurse's fearful stories about it was one relating to the curing of a wen by the touch of the dead murderer's hand, and she described most graphically the whole frightful scene: how the patient was taken under the gallows in a cart, and was held up in order that she might reach the dead hand, and how she passed it three times over the wen and returned home cured. This practice has happily become extinct with the destruction of the gibbet; but the remedy of a dead hand is still sometimes resorted to. Not very long ago, in the neighbouring village of Storrington, a young woman afflicted with goitre was taken by her friends to the side of an open coffin in order that the hand of the corpse might touch it thrice." It may be observed that they say in North Germany that tetters and warts disappear if touched by the hand of a corpse.
source: Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, by William Henderson, 1878