Feeling Out the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor
The year was 1921. The doctor twisted hard on the throttle of his motorcycle as he raced to the scene of the medical emergency: the infamous Dartmoor Prison, tucked into the foggy moors of Devon County, England. He leaned into the corners as best he could, as his motorcycle had a sidecar occupied by the two small daughters of the prison's governor. The moors posed a challenge to even the most seasoned driver. But when the doctor found himself at the very extent of his skills, he suddenly found an even greater challenge: he was not the only one at the controls of his bike! He felt, quite keenly, the pressure of a pair of invisible yet hairy hands squeezing down upon his own. But not just squeezing down; they were actively twisting the handlebars, forcing him to fight back and struggle to keep the motorcycle straight. "Something is wrong," he shouted to the children, "Jump!" and jump they did, landing in the soft clover beside the road. But the doctor, straining against the malevolent force, was not so lucky. He screamed as his cycle left the road, slamming headlong into the rocks. The doctor was killed on the spot — and the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor had claimed only their first known victim. Soon more would follow.
It's quite a tale, and a frightening one. But one is tempted to wonder: since the doctor was killed and couldn't tell his story to anyone, how do we know the detail of the invisible, hairy hands? It's not recorded that he shouted anything about the hands to the children. The reason for this remains vague, but we do know how this element became part of the story. The whole affair was first reported in the October 14, 1921 issue of the Daily Mail. Even then, a century ago, the Daily Mail had a reputation for tabloid journalism — oversimplified and overdramatized — as much as it does today. The article, titled "The Unseen Hands", described the motorcycle sidecar crash and then described a second incident which took place at the same spot on the road:
Like the first incident, this report made no mention of any monstrous invisible hands, except, of course, for the headline. But it also included a third tale, in which a Captain M. showed up at a friend's house bloodied, having just suffered a motorcycle accident — again, at the exact same spot on the road as the other two. He told the story:
Then on October 17, three days later, the Daily Mail published a followup article giving a few extra details on the first crash, including the name of the doctor who died on the motorcycle sidecar, Dr. E. H. Helby. According to his obituary published in The Scotsman following the crash, he was indeed a real person who died in that crash, and was indeed the Medical Officer for the prison:
So most of the basic facts of the story are true and correct, but note that the obituary gave mechanical failure as the reason for the crash, not unseen hairy hands.
A different article, in the August 25, 1921 issue of the Western Morning News, was about the second crash — that of the motor coach. It was a very large, open-topped car called a charabanc with six rows of seating, and not a seatbelt to be found. In this case, the article gave as the cause of the crash a broken spring, which rendered the steering uncontrollable.
But of the third incident — the only one in which a driver blamed invisible hairy hands — there seem to be no other mentions in any press. The mysterious Captain M., of whom nothing more is known, appears only in that original October 14 article. And yet, today, the hairy hands — nearly always told in the context of Dr. Helby's fatal crash — are found in numerous books of ghost stories and tales of Dartmoor and Devon county. A purely unverifiable anecdote of the apocryphal Captain M. was given, which contained a mysterious story element; and then that element was applied to multiple accounts of actual road crashes, thus turning them into unwitting further examples of this ghostly menace on the roads.
This was done from the very beginning. Recall that the headline of the original article, the one with all three crashes, was "The Unseen Hands", a clear suggestion that ghostly hands were responsible for all three crashes. Let us now have a look at the reporter of this article, and see if we can learn what may have been on his mind.
The reporter was not a regular, but a contributor named T. Gifford. There was nothing about him in his original Daily Mail piece, but in the followup piece written three days later by an anonymous editor, a bit of insight into Mr. Gifford was provided:
So — mystery explained, at least in part — the creator of the legend was a believer in spirits and the paranormal. But he was hardly the only one, and this is where the greater context of this time and place in history comes into play. Spiritualism was all the rage at the time. As World War I came to a close, the appeal of communicating with the dead — not incidentally including many who had died during the war — spread throughout the Western world. A 1919 article in The Globe described it thus:
When T. Gifford wrote his piece for the Daily Mail, England was enraptured in what came later to be known as the Spiritualism Revival period, so his piece fell on welcoming ears. Within days, a spiritualist newspaper called Truth published an article concurring with Gifford's identification of an "elemental" as the probable cause for these road accidents. (And, by the way, many of these obscure newspaper references were collected by Blake Smith of the MonsterTalk podcast, for his article in an upcoming issue of the UK Skeptic magazine.)
Another thing that Blake researched was the state of the public attitude toward motor vehicles in England in 1921, and it turns out that this sentiment formed another important part of the context for the hairy hands story. From his piece in UK Skeptic:
I'm reminded right away of today's electric car forums online. For half the population, electric cars are the same kind of moral panic Blake described. In the forums, anti-EV people post all the most ridiculous "sky is falling" claims, anything they might have heard or read that casts electric cars in a negative light; and this is very likely the same cultural phenomenon that motor vehicles of any kind produced in 1920s England. Populist anti-motorcar sentiment made the newspaper-reading public hungry for any story that said evil tidings will befall anyone who drives a motor vehicle, and widespread embrace of spiritualism made them salivate for any story such as an "elemental" spirit clinging to a particular spot of geography. In combination, these two cultural currents begat fertile soil indeed in which to grow a story such as that of the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor.
Why was it hairy hands? I honestly came across nothing that explained that. But, given the cultural context, it could have been slimy lips on the back of the neck and the story would have taken off just as well. Invisible hairy hands just happen to be what T. Gifford came up with for his apocryphal Captain M. They make sense; the story was about a motorcycle, and someone else's hands taking over your handlebars are the surest way to cause a crash, and are an idea that's disturbing at a deeply organic level to any motorcyclist. Make the hands hairy to suggest some kind of evil, powerful, monstrous entity. Why not.
Urban legends often reflect the cultural trends from the times when they were conceived. Notice that, in our examination of this story, we didn't try to debunk Captain M.'s hairy hands claim, and we didn't try to rationalize what might make someone perceive hairy hands covering their own, and we didn't try to declare that ghosts aren't real and insist that T. Gifford must have been lying or suffered from a delusional disorder or was drunk or had a hypnogogic hallucination. None of that stuff matters. If I can quote from Blake Smith one last time:
In answering that, we find an inherently positive process that enriches everyone with interesting new knowledge. Compare that to the inherently negative process of speculating on what delusion Captain M. suffered from, and it's clear that understanding a story is better than explaining a story.
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