Monday, July 15, 2013

The Hairy Hands of Dartmoor

Since the early 1900s, something sinister has haunted the back roads of Dartmoor in Devonshire, England. Around 1910, an unknown force began to torment the locals on what is now B3212 Road, which can be found between the villages of Postbridge and Two Bridges. By coincidence (or perhaps not), Dartmoor is also the setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 crime thriller, The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring the world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes. The local people know this spectral entity as the Hairy Hands.
According to local legends, this entity manifests itself as a pair of large, hairy disembodied hands. Sometimes, the Hands are described as having claws. According to the stories, the Hairy Hands appear out of thin air and clamp themselves down onto the steering wheel of the car or the handlebars of the motorcycle (whatever the victim happens to be driving at the time), badly frightening the victim. The Hands are described as having great strength, and many witnesses can attest to having struggled with the phantom appendages for control of the vehicle. Eventually, the struggling victims are violently forced off of the side of the road, resulting in serious injuries to many witnesses and causing at least one death. Curiously enough, in at least one case a victim described “an overwhelming smell of sulfur” remaining after the Hairy Hands disappeared. Could this be an indication of a demonic manifestation? Perhaps. But one thing is clear: the Hairy Hands hate people, and this entity particularly loathes those who are using vehicles of any kind as transportation. The only purpose of the Hairy Hands seems to be to wreak death and destruction on as many living people as it possibly can.
While the origins of the Hairy Hands remain murky and shrouded in legend, the history of the entity’s attacks has been documented surprisingly well. For a little over a decade, the attacks were actually, while malicious, very mild. But in 1921, tragedy struck on the moors.  In June, Dr. E.H. Helby, a medical officer at Dartmoor Prison, met an untimely death on the B3212 road when he lost control of his motorcycle and the adjoining sidecar, which held his two children. He shouted at them to jump to safety, and they obeyed. The good Doctor Helby himself was thrown out of his seat and died instantly, apparently of a broken neck. There seems to have been no mention of the Hairy Hands in this particular account, but that does not rule out the possibility that this was an attack by the Hairy Hands.
On August 26th of that same year, a young captain of the British Army also lost control of his motorcycle and was thrown into the verge (or shoulder) of the road, despite being described by the media as “a very experienced rider”. The young man survived, but just barely. Later, in response to media questioning, the captain made the following statement: “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.”
In the summer of 1924, another attack took place. This time, the mother of the respected and well-known Devonshire folklorist Theo Brown found herself under a supernatural assault while vacationing in a caravan that was only half a mile from the dark road where pretty much all of the previous activity had taken place. Later on, long after the encounter had taken place, Brown went on to write up a very detailed account of her mother's nighttime encounter with the Hairy Hands. While out on that particular night, Brown said that her mother had sensed that there was “some power very seriously menacing” nearby, and knew that she had to act quickly. Looking through a small window, she saw something move. As she stared out the window, she realized that it was “the fingers and palm of a very large hand with many hairs on the joints and back of it”, pulling itself up towards the slightly-open window. Mrs. Brown knew immediately that the entity wanted to hurt and possibly even kill herself and her husband, who was asleep. She knew that this hand didn’t belong to anything human, and that “no blow or shot would have any power over it”. Almost immediately, Mrs. Brown made the Sign of the Cross and “prayed very much that we might be kept safe”. The hand almost instantly began to sink out of sight, and she knew that the danger had finally passed. Mrs. Brown said a prayer of thanks and fell into a deep sleep afterwards. Mrs. Brown and her husband stayed in that area for several weeks, and they never encountered the evil of the Hairy Hands again after that. Mrs. Brown admits, however, that she “did not feel happy in some places” near that particular spot, nor would she “have walked alone on the moor at night or on the Tor above our caravan.”
One tale of the Hairy Hands was related to writer Michael Williams, author of the book Supernatural Dartmoor, by a journalist by the name of Rufus Endle. Endle himself had encountered the Hairy Hands whilst driving near the village of Postbridge on an unknown date, where he says that “a pair of hands gripped the driving wheel and I had to fight for control”. In the end, Endle narrowly managed to avoid a crash. The Hairy Hands themselves mysteriously vanished. Understandably, Endle specifically asked that his story was not to be published until after his death.
Another incident was related to Theo Brown by Mrs. E. Battiscombe in 1961: “A young man undertook to run in to Princetown on his motorcycle to get something for his landlady. In about an hour he returned to Penlee, very white and shaken, and saying he had had a curious experience. He said he felt his hands gripped by two rough and hairy hands and every [effort] made to throw him off his machine.” No further details are recorded.
There is one notable tale of an attack by the Hairy Hands that is slightly confusing, in that there is no date or even a year given. So, it could be an older case, or it could be a more recent one. However, the story mentions that the Hairy Hands had been haunting the B3212 road for sixty years at this point, and the first reports of this entity started occurring in 1910. So, it may be reasonably assumed that this encounter took place in the early 1960s or 1970s. This account involves a twenty-eight-year-old woman by the name of Florence Warwick, a holiday-maker (someone who has taken a vacation or a holiday). At this point, Florence had never heard of Dartmoor’s Hairy Hands in Devonshire. That very night, however, Florence would discover everything that she never wanted to know on the dark B3212 road…
One night, Florence was driving down the B3212 road when her car began to sputter. She proceeded to pull over to the side of the road, where she pulled out a handbook to read. She had just gotten done with a sightseeing tour, and now she was having car trouble! Florence recalled that, “As I was reading in the failing light, a cold feeling suddenly came over me.” She had the distinctive feeling that she was being watched. Florence looked up and saw “a pair of huge, hairy hands pressed against the windscreen." “I tried to scream,” she said, “but couldn’t. I was frozen with fear.” Florence watched as the disembodied hands (which, as noted earlier, were said to have haunted the B3212 road for sixty years at this point) began to slowly crawl across the windshield. She recalled the experience clearly, saying “It was horrible, they were just inches away,” she had said. “After what seemed like a lifetime, I heard myself cry out and the hands seemed to vanish.” Florence was so frightened at this point that she hardly noticed that her car started immediately when she turned her key in the ignition. She proceeded to hit the accelerator and drove the full twenty miles back to Torbay, where she was staying with some friends. By the time she had arrived, Florence had started to believe that she had imagined the entire thing. But then, once she had arrived home, her friends told her the story of the Hairy Hands. Florence was shocked, and more than just a little shaken. She now knew that she had just encountered the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor.
Several decades later, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, it would seem that the Hairy Hands are still pursuing their evil agenda. In an encounter told to author Nick Redfern, as related in his book Wildman! The Monstrous and Mysterious Saga of the 'British Bigfoot' (CFZ Press, 2012), Michael Anthony was traveling back home after a long day of working. Michael works for the largest supplier of photocopy machines in Britain and therefore has to travel frequently in order to sell his wares. Late at night, on January 16th, 2008, Michael was driving along on the B3212 road at around 11pm, on his way home to the city of Bristol. That day, he had been visiting with a customer in the village of Postbridge, who wanted to rent several photocopiers for his new business endeavor. Deals were made, contracts were signed, and Michael was finally headed home for some well-deserved rest. Little did the salesman know that he would have an encounter with supernatural forces on his way home that he would never forget…
Michael had just driven out of Postbridge when his skin began to feel cold and clammy, apparently for no reason. Furthermore, he began to feel a kind of dread and began to grow inexplicably fearful. He was at loss for a logical explanation, which only made matters worse. After being away from his wife and his two daughters for several days, the leisurely drive home usually cheered him up. Tonight, fate had terrifyingly different plans for him, though. A couple of minutes later, the atmosphere within the confines of his car began to feel oppressive, and even evil. His hands went numb, and Michael added “I actually thought I was having a stroke.” The reality of the situation turned out to be far worse, however.
As had occurred so many times mere decades earlier, a huge pair of hairy hands, “or paws” (as he described them), clamped themselves over his own as Michael stared in horror. Suddenly, the disembodied hands attempted to force his car off of the road and onto the dark moors. The monstrous hands tried this three times, but Michael managed to fight off the attempts each time. Perhaps tiring of its victim’s struggles, the hands suddenly disappeared in a flash of light (which illuminated the inside of the car), leaving behind an overpowering odor of sulfur. Understandably, Michael sped up and didn’t stop until he reached a service station on the M5 motorway. Michael had just been attacked by the Hairy Hands. Fortunately, the entity was prevented from claiming yet another victim on that dark night.
With that ends the accounts of encounters with the Hairy Hands. However, while the eyewitness stories may have come to an end, the legend itself does not. Strangely enough, most versions of the legends do not give the origins of the Hairy Hands, which is usually not the case with most ghost stories. A few local versions of the story blame the manifestations on an unnamed man who died on the road due to an accident. Again, no specific details of when this happened, who the man actually was, or how exactly he died are given. So, what are the Hairy Hands? And where did they come from? One story, which may or may not have some validity to it, gives one possible (if rather unsatisfying) answer to this part of the mystery.
In the early 1800s, there were a number of powder mills around Dartmoor. These mills were used to manufacture gunpowder for use in the local quarries. It was a very busy business, having around one hundred workers (and their families) at a given time. Still, it was extremely dangerous work, as even the slightest spark could set off a huge explosion that could cause serious injuries and even death. Thus, the workers wore rope-soled shoes while working, as the steel-studded worker’s boots, which were common at the time, would emit sparks whenever the man wearing them came into contact with any rocks. This would prove to be the downfall of one man, and would go on to cause a terrifying haunting.
Among the workers at this particular powder mill was the local blacksmith, a big, burly man with strong, hairy arms and hands. He was a friendly and hard-working man who used his considerable skills in metalwork to fix and maintain the machinery around the mill. He was both respected and well-liked by everyone. One summer’s evening, after having had a few tankards of ale with some friends, he decided to stop down at the mill. The problem was that the blacksmith was still wearing his steel-studded boots! He took one misstep, and the resulting explosion was heard for miles around. When the dust had settled, all that was found of the blacksmith was his large, hairy hands, with the rest of the body presumably consumed by the explosion. To this day, it is said, those hands still roam the moors at night, most likely searching for its lost body.
While this story could be true, as most ghost stories have a historical background that lends credence to the haunting, what is the real story behind the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor? Theories abound as to what the entity’s true nature might be. Some people believe that it could be a modern-day manifestation of goblins or something related to the Will O’the Wisp, an eerie, spectral flame or luminescence that delights in leading travelers astray and into dangerous situations. Others have suggested that it may be a present-day Gremlin, a goblinlike creature that is known for sabotaging airplanes and electronic equipment. Gremlins were often blamed for mechanical failures in aircraft during World War II. Wreaking havoc with motorists and drivers in cars and on motorcycles wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Still, the aggressive nature of this entity suggests that there is a much more malevolent force at work here than ghouls and goblins out for a good time on an isolated stretch of road…
Other, more intriguing theories have been suggested as to what the true identity of the Hairy Hands really is. Authors and cryptozoologists Jonathan Downes and Nick Redfern have suggested that this ghostly entity may in fact be a modern-day manifestation of a shapeshifting evil that has been spoken of for centuries, a deadly monster known as the Kelpie. Legends from the Highlands of Scotland say that the Kelpie (sometimes known as the water horse or each-uisge) is a supernatural beast that dwells within the lochs and rivers of Scotland, and is said to have the ability to shapeshift at will. Most commonly, the Kelpie takes the form of a horse, tempting weary travelers to climb onto its back. Those who do so find themselves stuck to the creature’s back, unable to escape. The Kelpie then dashes headlong into the water, where it proceeds to drown and devour its prey. According to some legends, only the liver is left untouched. Additionally, the Kelpie is able to take the form of a gorgeous young woman or a large, hair-covered man that hides in the vegetation along the waterways. It then attacks and slaughters the unwary who happen to pass by. Perhaps the Kelpie has adapted somewhat to the modern world, and now actively seeks to cause car accidents in order to prey on the drivers by assuming the form of a pair of large, hairy hands that suddenly appear and strives to force cars and motorcycles off of the road, thus causing grievous injuries and even death. People in such a state would be easy prey for the Kelpie at this point. Still, there are other theories to consider.
Based on the eyewitness accounts and their descriptions of feeling a cold sensation and, in one case, the overwhelming stink of sulfur, another theory that could be presented is that the Hairy Hands are a demonic manifestation. This also explains, as in Theo Brown’s 1924 encounter, why making the Sign of the Cross and praying for deliverance from evil was able to scare the entity away. And finally, as most people believe, the Hairy Hands could be a malevolent ghost. The feeling of dread and feeling unnaturally cold before the Hairy Hands appear would point the investigation in the direction of a haunting. Sudden or tragic death are both known to create ghosts, and stories of a man dying in an accident on the road or of a friendly blacksmith who died in a tragic explosion and leaving only his hands remaining both fit the bill for a vengeful, restless spirit.
Regardless of which theory (or theories) a person chooses to believe, it is apparent that the Hairy Hands are a supernatural manifestation of relentless evil. Once the stories appeared in the national newspaper, it prompted several investigations into the B3212 road. Eventually, it was determined that the sheer number of accidents was most likely due to the camber (or arches) of the road’s surface, which was dangerously high in some places. This was immediately fixed. There were even some skeptics who questioned the stories and the validity of the eyewitnesses. These skeptics stated that most of the accidents were cause by people who were unfamiliar with the area driving too fast down the narrow roads, causing them to misjudge the road and lose control of their vehicles. But what about the Hairy Hands themselves? Can the skeptics be so quick as to dismiss the legends and the many encounters that have taken place on the road over the years? One would be inclined to say that too much has happened for the tales to be so easily dismissed. Most recently, a speed limit of forty miles per hour was imposed upon the B3212 road to protect wandering livestock. But will this stop the Hairy Hands? It might just be too early to say.
Without a doubt, the legend of the Hairy Hands is ingrained into the folklore and culture of Dartmoor. As the 2008 encounter of Michael Anthony has proven, the legend of Dartmoor’s Hairy Hands persists to this day, and the inhabitants of Dartmoor still greatly fear the sudden appearance of the sinister Hairy Hands.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my good friend Nick Redfern for graciously allowing me to use some of his books for my research. Otherwise, this would have been a very short entry, indeed. He has greatly helped me through messaging and answering my questions (not to mention having had patience with me as well!), and I owe him a debt. Thank You, Nick!!!

Nick's blog may be found at Nick Redfern's World of Whatever...

Brown, Theo. Devon Ghosts. Jarrod Bay Publishing. Copyright ©1982 by Theo Brown.

Redfern, Nick. Wildman! The Monstrous and Mysterious Saga of the 'British Bigfoot'. North Devon, England: CFZ Press, 2012.
Steiger, Brad. Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits, and Haunted Places (Second Edition). Canton, Michigan: Visible Ink Press®, 2013.

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