Fire has a strangely mutable quality when it comes to the paranormal. It flickers through stories of incendiary poltergeists, spontaneous human combustion, and spook lights. Mysterious lights and fires were part of the standard repertoire of the séance room and there is an entire genre of “fiery hand” stories typically found in Catholic literature, which tell of Poor Souls in Purgatory returning to ask for prayers and scorching textiles or wood to prove to the witness that they were not dreaming. In fact there is a Museum of Poor Souls in Purgatory, in Rome, Italy, which houses scores of these relics.
As with so many Fortean anomalies, there is ambiguity and overlap: is that scorched hand-print the mark of a poltergeist, an abortive attempt at SHC, the spot where a spook light touched down, or a sign from a troubled soul? It is all in the eye of the beholder….
Like the elusive Jack-o-Lantern’s flame, today’s post will rove and flit, but probably lead us into a bottomless morass, shedding little light on the subject of mysterious fiery hands and their scorched-palm policies.
Let us start with the oldest story in this selection of stories:
The Apparition of the lllustrissima Signora Marchesa Laura Poppoli Astalli, -who died suddenly at Rome on February 26th, 1683, aged about 29 years.
By C. Carlo Galateri
Deposition of Domenico Densa, made by the order of His Holiness Innocent XL, given to His Eminence Cardinal Carpegna,
I the undersigned depose on oath as follows :—
(1) That on the eleventh of March of the present year, 1683, being Thursday, at about eight o’clock at night, while sleeping in my chamber, I saw before me a woman’s figure, all dressed in white, sitting on a chair with one elbow on the arm of it, and her hand to her cheek in a meditative attitude, looking at me without saying anything; and after remaining thus for about the space of a Credo she disappeared in an instant.
(2) On the 14th of the same month, Sunday, at six o’clock, being asleep, I again saw before me the same figure dressed in white as before, sitting in the chair in the same way, with a majestic air, looking fixedly at me, and on her brow she had a white band with gold letters on it, which read: “Vanitas Vanitatum,” and this was the only time that she appeared with this symbol. After remaining thus for the space of an Ave Maria, she departed; and as I am accustomed every day to do some act of devotion for the souls in Purgatory, in the morning, being Monday, I went up the Scala Santa for the benefit of this soul, whoever it was.
(3) On the 19th of the same month, in a dream, I saw before me the same soul, just as described above, about nine o’clock; I say it was the same, because I have always seen her dressed in white, with the same full red face, sitting in the same chair and in the same manner; she regarded me very attentively and asked me twice whether I knew her? As I had never known or seen her in my life, I replied, “No,” and added, “Tell me who you are”; and she said, “I am the Marchesa Astalli, who passed to the other life many days ago.” Then I asked her to tell me whether she wanted anything from me; and she, fixing her eyes on the ground, began to weep and suddenly disappeared.
(5) On the 19th of April in the same year, 1683, Monday, the second day of Easter, at about half-past seven at night, while I was going to sleep, I felt myself, between sleeping and waking, touched lightly by a hand on the coverlet of the right side of the bed, at the lower end of the thigh near the knee; and hearing myself called three times by name I roused myself, believing that it was my brother Giuseppe who called me, I said aloud twice: “Giuseppe,” and turning my eyes quickly to the door to see if it was closed, I saw that it was open, and near the right side of the bed I saw the same soul that had previously appeared to me four times in a dream, and I saw that she was standing upright with the white mantle she previously wore, which covered her from the top of her head to the ground; her aspect was noble and grave, her face round and full, and somewhat red in colour; she was of moderate stature, but the white mantle which she wore appeared so luminous that it seemed as though there were lighted torches under it which emitted a dazzling light, which illuminated the whole room.
“‘ She then said to me: “I am not Giuseppe, I am the Marchesa Astalli.” On thus seeing her and hearing her speak my blood froze in my veins, and I remained speechless for the space of half a Credo. Then it seemed as though someone spoke within my heart and said to me: “Ask her in God’s name to tell you what she wants,” and I did so. But she was silent for the space of half an Ave Maria, and then said: “Go to the Marchese Camillo and tell him to have 200 masses said for me.” I could not speak for the beating of my heart, but summoning up my strength I asked where she wished the masses to be said, and she replied gravely: “At the Gesu,” and added, with a slight pause between the words: “At Ara Coeli, at S. Francesco a Ripa, at the Capuchins.” I replied in great perplexity, and almost with my heart in my mouth: “They will not believe me; they will take me for a madman.” Then the spirit, opening its white mantle, exclaimed: “My son, pity me!” and as she said this streaks of fire came towards me from her breast, as though two bundles of tow had been lighted. Then she closed her mantle with her hands, folding one side over the other as it was at first, she moved a few steps, looking me in the face; and I, lying almost in mortal agony, all bathed in a cold sweat, which passed through the mattress to the boards, plucked up spirit and said to her: “Why do not you go to the Marquis?” Then the spirit, with a trembling voice and with many tears, which issued from her reddened eyes, as though she had wept long and bitterly, replied: “God does not will it.” I again summoned up courage and said: “They will not believe me.” Then the spirit replied: ” Look where I touch,” and departed. When she had gone out of the chamber she locked the door, and the noise made by the lock and key in closing could be heard. After she had gone I remained languid and speechless for half an hour, then, as it pleased the Lord, having come somewhat to myself, I knocked on the door at the head of the bed, which led into my brother’s room, and he immediately answered, and believing that some ill had happened to me he immediately lit the candle and came to my chamber; finding the door locked as usual he opened it from outside with the key, and on entering found me languid and pale, like a dying man, and all wet with sweat, so that it could be wrung out of my shirt. I immediately asked him if he had seen any woman in the hall. He replied angrily: “What woman? Are you dreaming?” He went, however, to look, even under the covered table at the end of the hall. Then I asked him to look whether there was anything on the bed. He replied that there was nothing; then, looking more attentively, he said with a surprised air that the coverlet was burnt, and in the middle of it was the imprint of a right hand. Having myself also seen it with great surprise I dressed and went with him into his room to gain a little more strength, and after taking a little wine at my brother’s request I told him all that had occurred. I, Domenico Denza, in the interests of truth, attest and confirm what is above written with my own hand.
After a discussion of the characters of the witness and the Marchesa, proofs are offered that the apparition was really that lady:
With regard to the imprint of the hand, this was so clearly visible that there appeared with perfect distinctness all the fingers and prominences, with their outlines as a dark burn, while the rest of the palm remained white in contrast; especially noticeable was the twist in the little finger, a defect which the Marchesa had contracted in consequence of falling into the fire when she was a
child. In her lifetime she was accustomed to cover this with her gloves, which she nearly always wore, and it seems as though the Lord God had willed this to distinguish the Marchesa’s hand, so that no one could doubt that the miraculous imprint was really hers. It is certain that those most familiar with her exclaimed on seeing it: ‘This is the hand of the Marchesa Astalli.’ It seemed too large for a woman’s hand, but on being measured several times with the deceased woman’s gloves it corresponded precisely with them.
“In this state the imprint was seen and recognised by very many cavaliers and ladies, by prelates and cardinals, and by the Most Excellent D. Livio Odescalchi; but by none with a greater sense of piety and religion than by Her Majesty the Queen of Sweden [Christina] and by His Holiness the Supreme Pontiff.
“Nevertheless, the said imprint has now lost much of its original appearance, because having been sent round to houses and monasteries it has become rubbed and worn by the devotion or curiosity of the people; yet it does not fail to arouse in those who see it a feeling of the supernatural. At present it is preserved in the house of the Astalli family.
On hearing the story, Pope Innocent XI “ judged that entire credence should be attached to it, and on seeing the terrible imprint of the fiery hand, he continued weeping and sighing for the space of an hour, and spoke to this effect: ‘If the Marchesa Astalli, a lady so retiring, modest and pious, burns in so great a fire, how will it be with those who, not having so great a capital of virtue, thesaurizant sibi iram in die irae, with so much vanity and so little modesty in dress?’…often, in speaking with great personages on the matter, he referred to it with extraordinary feeling.” The Annals of Psychical Science, Volume 7, 1908: pp. 555-561
The classic West Virginia legend of Wizard Clip is an odd blend of Poor-Soul-in-Purgatory and poltergeist motifs. A Lutheran farmer named Livingston refused to send for a priest for a dying stranger. The man died unabsolved and was buried without the rites of the Church. The Livingstons began to be tormented by an entity that played all the usual poltergeist pranks, with the addition of the sound of scissors, accompanied by the slitting of clothing and household linens. Even visitors to the house would find their hats and handkerchiefs cut to ribbons by the invisible clipper. You can find fuller versions of the story here and here.
But here are the points in the story where we find fiery hands:
The following is from a letter in Wizard Clip, written by Father Enders, present Superior of Conewago Chapel: “They (the Livingstons) never lived at Conewago any length of time; tbey only visited this place soon after their conversion, a visit that may have been more than a flying one. Some of the clipped clothes had been kept in this house for a long while, at least till 1830 odd, when Father Lekeu had them burnt.” A few of the old citizens of Cenewago remember having seen these old clipped clothes, which were destroyed on account of the curiosity they excited, aud the throngs of people constantly asking permission to see them.
Rev. John McCaffrey, President of Mt. St. Mary’s, says in his letter published in Wizard Clip: “Mr. Gallitzin took from Wizard Clip to Conewago, a trunk full of articles clipped by the ghost, a book among the rest described correctly by Mr. Huntington, and a new shawl, and some other clothes with the print of a hand burned through it by the spirit. Father Mulledy, when a scholastic at Conewago, saw and handled these articles.” History and Directory of the Boroughs of Gettysburg, Oxford, Littlestown, John Timon Reily, 1880: p. 132
One night the Voice made the Livingstons get up three times to pray for a certain soul in Purgatory. And when one of the girls began to think that after all the souls could have saved themselves and they deserved their pains and anyhow the whole thing was exaggerated, suddenly they all heard a voice shrieking: “Help! Help!” When asked what kind of help was needed it replied, “Prayers – for we are in excruciating torments. Hand me something – and you will be convinced!” And as soon as a shirt was held up, a whole human hand was burned into it, leaving the spaces between the fingers not scorched. The entire family saw both the flame and the hand. On another occasion, the letters IHS were cleanly burned in deep red colors on a vest. These supernaturally marked objects, as well as some of the clipped cloth, were kept and seen by many persons for over thirty years, although unfortunately they were all eventually lost or destroyed. The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, J. M. Finotti (Baltimore, 1879)
If fiery hands leave marks in a non-Catholic household, witchcraft, illness or malice can be blamed:
There is witchcraft, or cutaneous disorder, or epileptic fits, or downright lying in Washington borough near Columbia, Pennsylvania. A woman living in a small frame house is pursued by uncanny spirits of the air and also by cats. A mysterious hand grasps her and throws her to the floor. The hand is as cold as ice at first and then it is burning hot and leaves a red mark on her body. Sometimes the hand chokes her until she is black in the face, and again the clutch is so terrible that the imprint of finger-nails are left in her flesh. Soon after she took to her bed she saw a fiery hand before her face, and after that two balls of fire at the window. One night a black cat jumped against the window trying to force an entrance. Noises as if sticks being rattled together and of horses trampling on the porch were heard every night. All the neighbors have flocked to her cottage, and there are many simple souls who insist that the woman is bewitched. Territorial Enterprise [Virginia City, NV] 15 February 1878: p. 2
The author may have gotten it in one with “cutaneous disorder,” because this affliction sounds like an instance of dermographia, or possibly hysterical “stigmata.” In 1935 Dr. Edward Hartung theorized that the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi was caused by a complication of quartan malaria called purpura, a subdermal hemorrhage. Could this unfortunate woman have suffered from something similar?
In this next story we have a bona-fide ghost with a burning hand, emerging from a burying ground. This tale comes from Maryland, a predominately Catholic state, but while there are some overtones of purgatory (and a judicious use of phosphorus), the dead man’s state is ambiguous.
In the dim past a rich old man of Talbot, whose home still stands, left his fortune to his three sons in equal shares ; but the eldest, in the absence of his younger brothers, so changed the will that he was to get the lion’s share, and also to hold the estate in his keeping. His plan went well with him until one night, a year after his father’s death to the day, he was returning on foot with some friends from a long hunt after birds, and, to save time, being tired, decided to cut across a field and over a fence where his father had lost his life. The old man had died from the effects of a fall in getting over a fence, which the party of hunters would have to scale at the fatal spot.
The family burying-ground was right at this very place, and the son did not care to pass where his father lay buried, after his act against his brothers. But with friends to accompany him he pushed on, and the three were suddenly brought to a halt when within a rod of the fence and old burying-ground. And no wonder, for there stood in their path a shrouded, misty form. The face was indistinctly visible, but the erring son knew it and stood in horror, trembling violently. Suddenly a voice was heard, cold, sepulchral, yet distinct: “My son, do not wrong your brothers, but do right by them as you hope for mercy when you die!” Then the white form turned, placed one hand upon the top rail of the fence and leaped over—a flash of fire and sulphurous smoke bursting forth from where the fingers touched it.
Another moment and the form leaped the wall of the burying ground and disappeared among the trees that surrounded the old man’s grave. The three men had seen the form, as also the flash of the burning rail, though the latter felt sure that the ghost of the old man had come from a very hot place, and from the advice he gave his son about hoping for mercy could realize how it was himself. Whether it was a real ghost or one of the brothers, the next day the imprint of a hand was found burned on the rail. The ghost served its purpose, too, for the eldest brother hastened to the county Court-house the next day and “did the right thing by his brothers,” so that he might “hope surely for mercy when he came to die.” Land of legendary lore: sketches of romance and reality on the eastern shore, Prentiss Ingraham, 1898
This next story of a fiery hand searing the wallpaper during a wake, which comes from The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales, is quite an unusual one. Was the wallpaper glue spontaneous combusting? If so, that does not explain the hand of fire witnesses saw. Was it some form of ball lightning perhaps tracking metals in the ink of the wallpaper? In its appearance at a funeral ritual, it suggests the burning hand of a soul in Purgatory, but we know nothing about the religious beliefs of this family.
SAW A FIERY HAND
WATCHERS IN A CHAMBER OF DEATH VERY MUCH FRIGHTENED
Midway between Mechanicsburg, Ohio, and the neighboring village, Catawba, a something ghostly has been creating a stir. The house is upon the Springfield Pike, and is a neat appearing two-story frame house of modern architecture. It is in the interior of this house that the ghostly scenes are enacted. The last person who occupied the house with his family was a gentleman of the name of Prentiss, but himself and family remained no longer than they could help. A little child of Mr. Prentiss died, and several of the intimate friends of the family were sitting up with the remains. The occasion afforded the first intimation of a ghostly vision about the premises.
It was about 12 o’clock at night, and the occupants of the room sat dozing from their vigil, when with a muffled exclamation, one of the ladies arose from the chair, and, with a trembling hand, pointed toward one of the walls of the room. Seemingly a hand of fire had suddenly appeared upon the wall. The hand first appeared near the ceiling, but did not remain motionless. With the index finger again pressed against the papered wall the hand moved downward until the floor was reached. It then returned to the ceiling and back again, making six perpendicular visits downward and upward, after which it disappeared and was seen no more that night.
What it meant no one could tell or conjecture. Upon examining the wall where the hand had traveled another strange sight was disclosed. Lines, the width of an average adult finger, were upon the wall in the track the fiery finger had pursued, and along each line the wall paper appeared as though seared with a red hot iron. It is not ascertained whether any unaccountable noise occurred during the manoeuvres of the mysterious hand, as the living occupants of the room fled in terror. Although the house is not now occupied, it is supposed that the hand of fire is still at work, as visitors to the house during the day notice additional tracks where it is supposed the hand had traveled and the same seared appearance of the wall paper.
How long the mysterious proceedings will continue is, of course, unknown, but at the present time it appears as though the hand of fire is going to leave its mark upon every inch of paper on the wall. Repository [Canton, OH] 23 January 1892: p. 11
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.