Curative Powers Associated with the Dead

A report in the well-known German magazine Peter Moosleitner’s Interessantes Magazin,6 describes how, after a public execution in Berlin in 1864, the executioners’ helpers dipped strips of cloth in the running blood still gushing from the two criminals’ neck stumps. These dripping little bits of material could not sell fast enough, even at exorbitant prices, among the throng of people milling around the execution platform. 

Throughout the ages, certain preconceptions have dominated the practice of healing. For example, it was firmly believed that anything related to death had healing ability and that sanctity had curative powers. This is why immediately after the beheading of Charles I in 1649, every small fragment of the execution block, the bloodstained sand, and even strands of his hair were sold for their believed healing properties. 

In olden times, when little was known about the causes of illness and disease, it was generally believed in Europe and on other continents that evil spirits were the source of all maladies. Only the well to do could afford conventional medicines and medical treatments of the time, despite often involving very painful and unpleasant procedures and treatments without painkillers or anaesthetics. Dependent on largely ineffectual methods such as bloodletting and purging, medical success rate was low. Therefore, the public turned to alternative healing methods, many of which, of course, originated in superstitious beliefs. 

Until 1868, when public hangings in England ceased, offenders were left hanging indefinitely and often coated with tar to delay decay, making it quite clear to all passers-by that crime did not pay. Many deliberate indignities happened with these exposed corpses of convicted criminals. It was thought that because such perpetrators were evil, illnesses – all believed to originate through evil forces – could therefore be repelled and cured by using the various body parts of the unfortunates. Often their teeth were pulled out and kept as charms against toothache. The association, following the principle of sympathetic magic, was that like cures like. Body parts, especially hands and thumbs, were simply cut off and used for varying nefarious needs.

Throughout the ages, powdered fragments of a corpse’s skull were administered to cure fits, or if illicitly removed altogether, the skull was used as a drinking cup for epileptics. In 77 CE, Pliny the Elder recommended water drunk from the skull of anyone who had suffered a violent death as a cure for epilepsy.7 The custom was prevalent as recent as only a few decades ago when it was still believed in certain areas of the Scottish highlands that well water drunk from an ancestor’s skull was a certain cure for epilepsy.8

Splinters of a human skull, grated and ingested or made into a poultice, were believed to be a certain cure for rabies and arthritis. This remedy was also considered effective against epilepsy and other serious conditions. When King Charles II of England faced the final curtain, doctors administered all manner of cures and potions. When these failed to work, he was given the guaranteed cure of forty drops of extract made from a man’s skull. However, even this proved unsuccessful in saving the king’s life, and he died five days later.

Moss growing in a dead person’s skull was used as a cure for ailments as varied as the plague and toothache. Moss taken particularly from a dead man’s skull – dried, powdered, and used as snuff – was thought to cure headaches. Swiss physician, Paracelsus (1493–1541), first introduced chemistry to medicine and was famous throughout Europe for his cures and remedies. Some of his treatments were, however, bizarre to say the least. To treat wounds, he recommended mixing red wine and earthworms with powdered fragments from the skull of a man recently killed or hanged.9 Besides the skull, Paracelsus recommended the powdered remains of executed criminals as a cure-all for everything from asthma to poisoning. A more gruesome remedy advocated by Pliny the Elder was to scrape sore gums with the tooth of a man who had recently been executed.10 In connection with skulls, it is important to note that oracular powers were thought to issue especially from the skulls of departed chieftains and kings, a concept based on the belief that the head was the centre of spiritual power. The Celts preserved the heads of important personages in cedar wood oil, and many are the tales in Teutonic and Nordic mythology describing the gold-trimmed skulls of the enemy used as drinking cups – perhaps to imbibe inspiration with intoxication.

Many healing powers were also attributed to a dead man’s hand, especially if that person had died violently. A notable example is the right hand of St. Edmond Arrowsmith. The hand, preserved with great care and wrapped in white silk, is still kept in St Oswald’s Roman Catholic Church in Ashton-in-Makerfield.11 At a time when England was largely Protestant, Father Edmond was convicted of trying to convert Protestants to the Roman Catholic faith and was later executed at Lancaster in 1628 for this ‘heinous’ crime. After death, his right hand was severed, a custom frequently observed following executions. This holy hand was regarded with great veneration for centuries, and pilgrims came from all parts of the countryside to be cured from various ailments by touching it. The Catholic Church finally officially approved the hand for public veneration in 1934.

The hand of someone who had died violently was considered to have the power to dispel most diseases, especially skin diseases, birthmarks, and growths or swellings of various kinds. It was still customary in England during the late nineteenth century for sufferers of various ailments to crowd around a gibbet hoping to receive the ‘dead stroke’ on execution days, paying the presiding hangman handsomely for his services. 

High on the popularity poll were also chips or cuttings from the gallows or a gibbet, where one or more persons had been executed. Such pieces were worn close to the skin and believed to cure all ailments. Wood splinters from the gallows were especially effective against toothache, and in Sussex, a popular cure for ague, a recurrent fever marked by chills and sweating, was to wear a necklace made of wood chips from the gallows.12 

Equally cherished for various cures was the hangman’s rope. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History advocated binding the temples with a recently used hangman’s rope as a sure way of curing headaches.13 Naturally, hangmen throughout the ages made a tidy profit on the side by selling bits of recently used rope, and until the middle of the nineteenth century, when public hangings ceased in England and other European countries, such pieces of rope were readily available for sale. 

Death was so shrouded in superstition that parts or pieces of coffins were still pilfered to cure illnesses around Europe in the late nineteenth century. Linen used to wrap the corpse before its burial was considered lucky and prized for its curative powers and, consequently, usually did not remain with the dead for very long. Similarly, rings made of decayed coffin handles were worn as amulets against cramp, rheumatism, and epilepsy. Henry VIII reputedly wore a cure-all ring made from the metal of coffin hinges,14 and as the following example goes to prove, belief in the healing powers of the dead was still evident in England during Victorian times, when a woman in Manchester requested a pinch of clay from a priest’s grave to protect her children from epilepsy.15 

Similarly, we find associated beliefs in Australia amongst the Aborigines. Tribes of the Murray River believed that a rope or band made from a dead person’s hair, tied around the head or loins cured and prevented all illness. Amongst some tribes, it was customary when arriving at a burial site, for the women to take handfuls of grave sand and to sniff and inhale its smell and rub it over their bodies, especially their legs. The smell of grave sand was thought to make them strong and healthy, and rubbing it on their legs was believed to keep them from getting tired on their long journeys.


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App