In 1921, a series of accidents on a small, rural road, carving through the heart of the boggy marshes and fields of Dartmoor, in South East England, led to a brief explosion in excitement concerning the ghostly image of a pair of disembodied hands, forcing drivers off the road and into potentially fatal accidents. Following a little dash of press magic, the story took hold and grew for over a hundred years, until today where it has become accepted as a staple in British Urban Legend. But how did it happen? How did a relatively innocuous story take such a hold of the public imagination for so long, preserving, evolving and growing with each passing generation? This is the story of the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor, a story that blurs the lines between fact and fiction and spawned into existence a fully fledged cryptid legend from nowhere.
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The Hairy Hands of Dartmoor
In 1921, a series of accidents on a small, rural road, carving through the heart of the boggy marshes and fields of Dartmoor, in South East England, led to a brief explosion in excitement concerning the ghostly image of a pair of disembodied hands, forcing drivers off the road and into potentially fatal accidents. Following a little dash of press magic, the story took hold and grew for over a hundred years, until today where it has become accepted as a staple in British Urban Legend. But how did it happen? How did a relatively innocuous story take such a hold of the public imagination for so long, preserving, evolving and growing with each passing generation? This is the story of the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor, a story that blurs the lines between fact and fiction and spawned into existence a fully fledged cryptid legend from nowhere. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Dartmoor, Devon, South-West England
Dartmoor in Devon, South-West England is an area of National Parkland covering 368 square miles. It’s sprawling green-brown moorland stretches to the horizon in every direction, pierced through by rolling Tor’s, tall capped mounts of granite that jut out into the sky. The landscape, beautiful as it is, can also appear isolating and at times, dangerous, as peat bogs swell beneath fields of grassland, Western Heath and Cotton Grass. Dotted throughout by Neolithic remains and standing stones only seek to elevate the myths and legends from the area, of which there are many. From large stalking Black Dogs of Hellish significance to pixies, spectral hounds and headless horseman, the moors have inspired writers to write both about the natural beauty of the area and the uncompromising atmosphere of rural isolation and mystery, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who set The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of his most famous Sherlock Holmes novels on the moors, using elements of local legends to inspire the mystery of his own ghostly Hell hound. Spawning folklore for hundreds of years, one of the more modern legends to originate from the moors is the story of the Hairy Hands, a pair of disembodied hands, hell bent on causing tragedy to lonely travellers who drive a certain stretch of road. As the legend has grown, so to has the story, leaving a sniff of a trail that allows us to reconstruct the original events and eventual evolution to the tale it has become today.
The Hairy Hands
The Easter weekend of 1921 had seen several road accidents, enough for several newspapers to point out the disproportionate amount, calling it a “feature” of the holiday. In Chelmsford, Reginald E. Arrowsmith, was killed when the motorcycle he was riding on as a passenger crashed into a car. In Manchester, John Edgar Bromley, a young Manchester University student died following a collision on his motorbike and sidecar with a lorry. In a car accident outside Aberdeen, six occupants of the vehicle were alive, but gravely injured in hospital. There was one other casualty that weekend, on a small stretch of road between Princetown and Tavistock, in the Dartmoor National Park, in the County of Devon, South East England. This accident involved Dr Ernest Hasler Helby, a 51 year old Medical Officer at Dartmoor Prison. Born in Lewes, East Sussex in the South East of England in 1870, he later moved West, where he married Agnes Maud Stanley Marshall in 1898. With his own medical career and Agnes being the daughter of a well known local physician, the couple were well thought of and respected in the area, Agnes Helby had been a longstanding feature of the local Parish Church for some time, whilst Ernest had been no slouch in the medical field, having worked previously as the Demonstrater of Bacteriology and later a lecturer in Comparative Pathology and Bacteriology at Kings College London, before advancing into a career within the British prison system, where he held a series of positions as medical officer at Wormwood Scrubs, Croydon Borough Hospital, Wilson Green Prison and eventually Dartmoor. In 1909, during the suffragette movement, Helby had been one of the first doctors to attempt force feeding of prisoners who were protesting via hunger strike, by way of a nasal tube, a move that saw him taken to court by Mary Leigh, a prisoner housed in Wilson Green Prison, who had been striking in order to draw attention to the political fight of the suffragettes. The case ended up falling in his favour, ruling that Helby was under an obligation to save the prisoners lives, including the use of force feeding, it was a contentious ruling in that it supported the health of prisoners whilst serving time, but at the same time, limited the effectiveness of a hunger strike and therefore could equally have been seen as trampling over the rights of an individual to protest. During the First World War, Helby remained as an active medical officer and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant of the 1st Wessex Field Ambulance.
On the afternoon of Thursday 21st June, 1921, Dr Ernest Helby jumped onto his motorbike and began the journey along the B3212, a small rural country road that cuts through the countryside from East to West between Two Bridges and the nearby village of Postbridge, where he was due to attend an inquest. Today the B3212 is a narrow, two lane, asphalt road, gently rolling over low peaks and undulations, slashing through expansive flat fields that stretch out on either side as far as the hills on the horizon, surrounding and fencing off the green, but somewhat bleak landscape. In 1921, it was a singular lane with no markings and perhaps only one step up from A gravel track, with large pieces of loose, light coloured stone and rock breaking free from its scarred surface. This was a country that inspired Conan Doyles Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, it’s granite hills and expansive boggy fields draped in hazy fog enhancing the feeling of isolation.
As Dr Helby was riding along this road, two thirds of the way through his journey, a sudden jerk at the front wheel and a splintering of metal saw the front axle fail and the spokes of the wheel collapse under the weight of the steel bike. Throwing him from the road into a ditch, he suffered severe head injuries. Within a few minutes of the accident, a passing car stopped by the scene, and pulling over to help out, drove as fast as they could to Postbridge to secure the aid of a doctor. Sadly, upon their return, it was unfortunately too late for Dr Helby, who upon inspection, was thought to have died almost instantly in the crash.
An inquest held on the following Saturday, carried out at the Princetown Prison by the Okehampton Coroner, found a verdict of Accidental Death, attributed to a Fracture of the skull. Interestingly, when the story is repeated today, it is often mentioned that Ernest was riding with his two daughters in the sidecar. When looking at the original reports of the accident, the presence of the two young girls is mentioned in some newspapers, whilst others make no mention of them at all. As it happens, there exists no Birth records at all for any Helby Children and it appears as far as all census records are concerned, the couple remained childless throughout their lives. One suggestion is that if the presence of the young girls was a reality and not just a fiction inserted at a later date to spice the story up, then they were perhaps the daughters of the Prison Governor, though quite why they would have been in Helbys sidecar is anyone’s guess. Dr Helbys accident may seem fairly inconspicuous when taken as an isolated incident and though at the time it was reported on in the newspapers as a tragic and unfortunate accident, little else was mentioned about it for some years. It grew in significance over the years, simply because it became the first of what would turn out to be several accidents all on the same stretch of road, with each growing slightly stranger than the last.
Just a matter of months later, on Wednesday 24th August, a large Charabanc car filled with eleven tourists travelling through Dartmoor on holiday from Torquay suffered a failed steering gear, which saw the vehicle carreen off the road and mount a bank to the side of the road. Though there were no fatalities on this occasion, one of the visitors, a Mrs Fitton, was hospitalised due to the injuries she sustained after being thrown out of the back of the open topped vehicle.
It was, however, the third accident in as many months that drew the most attention. Two days later, on the evening of August 26th, an Officer in the British Army took a spill on the road whilst driving his motorbike. Self proclaimed “psychic investigator” and friend to the officer, T. Gifford, later wrote up the story of the accident, complete with first hand account by the victim, for the Daily Mail, which published the article in mid-October of 1921,
“It was not my fault, believe it or not, something drove me off the road. A pair of hands closed over mine. I felt them as plainly as I ever 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 until I came to myself, lying a dozen feet away on my face on the turf.”
The article, which took the headline “Unseen Hands”, suggested the culprit to be either “an elemental”, or “natural spirit”, or that of the “earthly spirit of a murderer.” With such sensational theories bandied about by Gifford, the piece caused a brief flurry of column inches being granted to the mysterious force that was apparently forcing drivers off of the road between Two Bridges and Postbridge. The articles, despite being sensational and exciting to wider folk, were not given as much shrift locally. In the Western Morning News, a local paper that interviewed people from the nearby towns of Princetown and Postbridge on the phenomenon, seemed to be much more sceptical,
“I found the article on the “Unseen Hands” to be a general topic of conversation in Princetown, where the people with whom I discussed it, besides at once pooh-poohing the suggestion, expressed their candid belief that the author is some practical joker who is, unwittingly, tending to do the district a great deal of harm by frightening nervous people away. “I’ve known the moor all my life,” said one man, “and this is the first time I’ve heard of any ghosts. It’s too ridiculous to talk about. I’ll give you my explanation of the three accidents. One was due to the bad state of the road, another to faulty mechanism, and the third might be easily accounted for.”
Local opinion didn’t improve as the author of the piece moved to Postbridge, with others calling it “all durned rot”. Perhaps even more interestingly, the third accident, whose report drew the attention to the unseen hands in the first place, was looking likely to be a complete fiction as no report of the accident was ever made at the time and the rider who crashed was never named as anyone more than “a Captain M,” with no locals being aware of who the man was, nor when the accident had happened.
More widely, the article fuelled a debate that saw readers writing in to air their own thoughts and theories on the matter to newspapers across Britain, leading to some pretty wild, loosely scientific suggestions,
“Sir – In reference to the various press reports on this subject, I may mention that I happened to see one of these extraordinary swerves in the same place at 3:30pm on September 15. We were motoring up from Two Bridges, and saw a motor coach, full of passengers, ahead of us on the road coming towards us. While several hundreds yards distant, the coach suddenly swerved into the roadside almost at right angles. It seemed for a few seconds impossible either that I should not turn over, or that passengers did not get thrown out. It was a long, straight piece of road, with no curve and no other traffic, and the coach was being slowly and carefully driven. When we came up to the place we examined the tyre marks on the road, which were almost right angular. I never saw such a thing. May I suggest that these things may be due to magnetic rocks, of which there are many on Dartmoor? This extraordinary season may have increased or altered magnetic currents. It would appear to have some connection with metal, and the steering wheel or handle bars would act as conductors, and an electric shock might account for the strange sensation described by the young officer. In the interests fo the public, it would be nice if someone with the requisite instruments could test the road from the top of Merripit Hill to Archeton.”
Sadly, it seems no one with the “requisite tools” stepped up to the challenge, or at least, nobody who the press reported on. Instead the writer found themselves challenged in another correspondence signed “Sanity”, two days later, by a writer with his own theory,
“Sir – Most cars run on rubber tyres. Rubber is a non-conductor of electricity. Steering wheels are of vulcanite or wood, which are equally good non-conductors. Motor cycle handlebar grips are vulcanite or rubber. It does not, therefore, require even the perusal of a 1s6d manual of elementary electricity to describe Mrs Chase’s suggestion as futile. Any car driver of experience knows certain places on certain roads where he always finds a tendency for his car to get into the ditch. It is due to camber, pot-holes, or grooving of the roads surface, or a combination of these and is particularly common on a downward slope. Dr Helbys accident was proved to be due to fracture of the motorcycles steering.”
After the initial 1921 flurry of accidents, things seemed to calm down on the innocuous stretch of road and although there was one further accident reported in August of 1922, no more talk of the Hairy Hands appeared and things seemed to go quiet on the story, but in 1928, a random letter to the local paper, the Western Times, showed that the subject had not quite been put to bed.
“A Dartmoor Warning – To the editor of the Western Times – Sir – On Tuesday morning last a party of us who were motoring across Dartmoor were interested in some notices on each side of the road not many miles from Moretonhampstead with these words in large print: “Beware of death by Hairy hands.” We should very much like to know the origin of these signs. Perhaps one of your readers will kindly satisfy our curiosity. Thinking of you in anticipation of an insertion in your columns, A Lover of Dartmoor, Exeter, Sept. 13th, 1928.”
Sadly, neither the writers nor our own curiosity was ever satisfied and no one ever wrote back in reply with any explanation of the story. Once again, the story appeared to fall into obscurity, possibly kept alive in oral tales, but not again in print until 1983, when a story originally taking place in 1924 was published, escalating the mystery of the Hairy Hands in a quite bizarre manner.
Theo Brown, born Theodora in 1914 was a British Scholar on West Country Folklore, specifically focusing around the area of Dartmoor and Devon. Her father was a Welsh scholar and later head of department in the British Museum, sadly, however, her mother died during childbirth and so she was placed up for adoption, where Devon based family the Langford Browns took her in two years later. The Langford Browns were a well to do family and her adoptive father busied himself with matters of family estates and fishing, whilst her adoptive mother had a particular interest in art and the folklore of fairies. The family encouraged Theo in her own interest in art and her mother specifically was more than likely instrumental in shaping Theo’s own later career into investigating the local tales. In 1952 she became the recorder of Folklore for the Devonshire Association, where she collected and published many stories and works on the folklore surrounding Dartmoor, including stories of “The Black Dog” and West Country entrances to the Underworld. She authored papers for the Folklore Society, though she often found herself meeting harsh criticism from the wider academic community due to her lack of formal training. Despite this, she became a research fellow at the University of Exeter in the departments of Theology and History, until the 1970s when suffered a stroke and never fully recovered. Until her death in 1993 she taught twice a week at the Broadclyst Primary School in East Devon. Following her death, many of her works, including notes, maps, incomplete papers and correspondence were installed into the archives of the University of Exeter.
Importantly for the story of the Hairy Hands, Theo Brown published a book titled “Devon Ghosts” in 1983, in which she tells her own story of the hairy hands, which she claimed to have personally witnessed in 1924, whilst staying with her parents in a caravan just half a mile from the spot of the accident on the fateful stretch of road between Two Bridges and Postbridge,
“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 not eh joints and back of it, clawing up and 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 int hat 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 not the moor at night or on the Tor above our caravan.”
Quite different to the original tales, the story presents a muddled picture of the Hairy Hands. Most online sources and some well known authors on the subject of the Paranormal and occult world regurgitate a singular story, that this event happened in 1924, to Theo Brown herself. This immediately throws up complications. The difficult question of the husband being the most obvious. Theo, who, you’ll remember, was born 1912, was obviously not married in 1924. In the original source, the book “Ghosts of Devon”, published in 1983, Theo actually never states that the story was attributed to her, in fact, the original teller of the story is kept nameless throughout and some more serious researchers into the subject have suggested that it is perhaps a story told to her by her mother, though they only suggest this based not eh known fact that Theo’s parents did own a caravan out on the Moors that they routinely visited. It could be just as likely that she had the story recounted to her by any number of people with similar get away caravans on the Moors. Theo’s own thoughts not eh story are in all likelihood, a little more agnostic. In an image tweeted by Exeter University, a portion of Theo Browns original notes can be seen, open on a draft of her story of the hairy hands, where she stated that,
“Whatever the basic facts of the story it is certain that they have been magnified out of all recognition by the popular imagination of visitors and a scoop-starved press, and as a result, every bend in the Postbridge-Merrivale road has become associated with this lurking danger.”
Nevertheless, the account is now forever linked to the earlier road accidents and adopted as canon as the internet has taken hold of the story and multiplied it in unresearched, copy-pasted blog spam and click bait articles. Despite all its historical flavour, in fact the vast majority of accounts that mention the hairy hands in most retelling, do, in fact, come from 21st century sources. After Theo Brown published her book in 1983, things once more fall silent on the Hairy Hands front until 2003, when author Michael Williams a prolific author on the subject of the Paranormal focusing on the South-Western Counties of Devonshire and Cornwall, published his book “Supernatural Dartmoor”, in which he recounted a story told to him by local journalist Rufus Endle. Endle, had passed away in 1986, aged 80, however, he had recounted his own experiences of the Hairy Hands to Michael Williams, wishing him to hold it back from publication until after his death. In Endles account, he stated that he fought with his vehicles steering wheel as “A pair of hands gripped the driving wheel and I had to fight for control”, Endle survived his brush with he hands, but only after an exerted effort to keep his car on the road.
Here the published accounts of the hands end, though the story has been expanded upon since the spread of the legend around the internet. There have been numerous claims from people who have said to have had their own personal brush with he hands and anecdotes have spread, evolving the story into modern times. One fo the more popularly cited, internet era anecdotes comes from poster Dby, ont eh forum “everythingghost.co.uk”, who wrote in 2014,
“My uncle was working for a builder then working 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 now about the story of hairy hands till he told about it, now he is sure he had the same thing happen to him as that.
It turns out lots of people experienced this same thing over many years and they think it could be someone was killed on that road much earlier and other ideas about it.”
The story of Florence Warwick, a young lady on holiday on the moors is another popular, modern anecdote, that tells of her car breaking down along the stretch of road and when Florence leaned over to the cars glove box to retrieve some sort of user manual, she saw the ghostly visage of hands through the windscreen,
“As I was reading in the falling light, a cold feeling suddenly came over me. I felt as if I was being watched. I looked up and saw a pair of huge, hairy hands pressed against the windscreen. I tried to scream, but couldn’t. I was frozen with fear. It was horrible – they were just inches away. After what seemed a lifetime, I heard myself cry out and the hands seemed to vanish.”
As the story grew and the vacuum of solid information became ever wider, the absence of an explanation has led people to create their own theories on what happened, some with more truth in historical fact than others. One popular theory suggests that the road was built through the remains of a Bronze Age village, which, for some reason, seems to have adopted the same concepts of the common trope that the spirits are left angry with the trespass, a theme more often attributed to native burial grounds or other colonial tales of xenophobia. Although other theories are equally spurious, such as attempts to link the hairy hands with stories of escaped murderers, or even a British Bigfoot, one theory that actually does have some historical fact is that the road lies close to the site of an old gunpowder mill that suffered an explosion, the hands attributed to the spirit of one of the victims. In reality, there actually was a gunpowder mill on the outskirts of Postbridge, built in 1848 by George Frean, a well to do Plymouth businessman who established the Plymouth and Dartmoor Gunpowder Company. The mill was built to produce black powder, a mixture of salt Peter, sulphur and charcoal, used in the local quarries and tin mines for blasting. The complex, which consisted of the main mill factory and a series of workers houses and water stations, operated until 1887, where following the invention of dynamite, gunpowder fell out of favour and the mill eventually closed its doors.
Interestingly, there were cases of explosions at the powder mill, reported in 1851 and ther does exist a case that loosely marries two of the theories, that of the gunpowder and an escaped convict, that took place just before the mills closure, when an explosion took place nearby the mill in September of 1887, killing one man and injuring two more,
“A shocking explosion occurred at the quarrying operations at Dartmoor prison yesterday. A hundred convicts had been told off to blast. About eleven, a hole was charged with gunpowder in the usual way, but the fuse failed to answer. After the lapse of nearly a couple of hours a party, including two convicts named Roberts and Gaskell, went to the scene with buckets of water, in order to extinguish any lingering sparks. No sooner had they began to pour it in than the gunpowder went off with a tremendous report. Roberts fell beneath a block of granite several tons in weight. His companion was blown bodily across the quarry, where the officers received the explosion in their faces, and were rendered unconscious. The convicts immediately and spontaneously rallied, and running to the assistance of the injured, extricated Roberts, who was frightfully mutilated, in time to see him die. They also picked up Gaskell, who was shockingly cut and crushed, and the two officers, one of whom, Mr Moore, was found on arriving at the hospital to have lost the sight of both eyes.”
Whilst the story is only tenuously linked to both the gunpowder mill and the story of the hairy hands, it does at least provide some historical precedent for one theory at least. Throughout the 19th Century, it seems that explosions at powder mills across the country were not such a rare occurrence and it seems that the commonly repeated theory in the hairy hands case, usually attributed to a spark coming from the metal flooring, stems from a similar explosion in Roslin that took place in 1857, one of the workers was cleaning the rust from the metal floor with a copper hammer, when a rogue spark ignited the powder dust.
All told, however, most of the theories seem to be relatively tenuous, often formed from spurious tales. The reality of the Hairy Hands lies much more in the original stories of accidents that took place throughout the summer of 1921. As the story has mutated over the years, even the original accidents have found themselves tainted with fictional additions, such is the case with the story that Dr Helby, the motorbike driver int eh original accident, called out to the two young girls, who may or may not have been present in his sidecar at the time of his fatal accident, telling them to throw themselves out of the vehicle. The curious addition of the children only became part of the accepted story in August of 1921, after the third accident when the likely fictional Captain M, of whom there appears to exist no records of, told his story to the self proclaimed psychic investigator T. Gifford, another man who apparently left little record of his existence, of the “unseen hands” that had gripped his handlebars.
Many retellings of the story say it goes back to the early 1900s or 1910s, though they never cite any actual accidents, more than likely this is yet another addition, probably inserted in an attempt to draft in a few more years to the tale and give it more mystery and intrigue by adding vague statements such as “could date back to..”.
Origins in Traditional Philosophy and Folklore
But where do the origins of the ghostly, disembodied hands lie in our popular imagination? In Victorian spirit photography, hands were often depicted reaching out from the other side, to our own modern interpretations, where disembodied hands creep out of the darkness controlled by an unseen master. Katherine Rowe, in her book “Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern”, puts forth the argument that disembodied hands in literature represent criticisms to the concepts of free will and a humans ability to act on their own independence and make their own choices. From Shakespeare to the Addams Family and especially in 19th century gothic fiction and 20th century horror movies, ghostly hands toy with our fear that we are being pressured, pushed or otherwise forced into an action that we otherwise would not do of our own free will. It subscribes to ideas more universal and fundamental than fiction of the last 200 years, however.
In “The Tale of the Three Army Surgeons” published in 1815 by the Brothers Grimm, but with roots much further back in German folklore, a crew of surgeons accidentally attach the hand of a thief onto the arm of one of the surgeons, causing him to lose his own free will and begin stealing against his wishes.
In Japan, tales of the Aketeko, a ghost, colloquially known as a Yokai, of a disembodied red hand belonging to a child are said to live in Honey Locust trees and drop down as people pass underneath in order to scare them, whilst Manekute no Yurei are ghost hands extending from a wall, beckoning passers by. The hands are the manifestations of the spirits of dead people who have only the strength to summon into being the image of their hands, which they use to signal their want of something in the physical world to terrified passers by. In Russian Stories of Baba Yaga, the infamous witch is often depicted with pets, usually of animatic origin, but at times, she is said to be served by a pair of disembodied, sentient hands and in Iroquois legend, the Oniate, or “Dry Hand” exists to punish badly behaved people, killing, inflicting disease or rendering blind any that feel its scaly touch.
In Western Philosophy, the hand demonstrates the difference between human and animal bodies, as well as confirming the superiority of humans as the dominant species. Aristotle called the hands, “the instrument of instruments”, embodying the relation between intention and act. The concept of a free moving, disembodied hand provoke feelings of unease, as we see an inanimate thing gain sentience and turn on the self, removing our own will. They also raise troubling questions as to the origin and existence of the self as well as its existence in space. Disembodied hands have all the free agency of a human, without the limitations of moral conscience or the physical handicap of a lumbering body to get in the way, allowing unnatural movement and unhindered action and cast into doubt our own sense of self. In the Hairy Hands legend, these concepts are most obviously rendered in the image of the hands gripping the wheel of a travelling vehicle and forcing it off the road, inevitably causing harm to the driver or passengers, or in the story retold by Theo Brown and of Florence Warwick, that saw the ghost hands creepily move with menace towards their victim.
Getting back specifically to the Hairy Hands legend, sceptics of the story of course, have their own theories, the most common of which lies with the camber of the road. Cited as being unusually steep at the point of the accidents, most suggest that this camber was the source of the un-natural feeling pull of the steering in the stories, however, if this indeed were true, the stories would not have progressed much past the mid century, when the road was entirely relayed with asphalt. Realistically, the troubling fact of it all was simply that road fatalities were not particularly uncommon throughout the 1920s. Motor vehicle technology still remained fairly primitive and road surfaces oftentimes more so, making motoring far from the safest past-time. It’s likely that a combination of the camber in the road, the state and condition of the road and the veracity of a press, keen for a sensational story worked together to create the origins of what has grown into an urban legend today. Told and retold, always evolving, it grew from a long tradition of fear and unease in the fundamental ways that we see ourselves in the world, amped up by the gothic fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries, all of which help it to remain fascinating and intriguing, despite its almost guaranteed status as a tongue in cheek, fireside folk tale of the ghosts of Dartmoor, an area steeped in folklore, tradition and desolate landscapes that evoke a natural propensity for such imagination.