Tuesday 13 August 2019

Gaslight and Shadow: urban folklore of the mid-nineteenth century

All of these are authentic. Most are from Karl Bell's The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, though some come from other sources.

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Cutting crosses into the backs of your ears will protect you from harm. Unfortunately it's very difficult to know when they've healed up. Get your friends to check them every day.

The severed hand of a hanged man has healing properties. This is why the authorities always hand the corpses of executed criminals over to the doctors, rather than returning them to their families.

The Book of Murder is an evil book that describes how the poor can and should be murdered by poison gas in order to reduce the surplus population. (Its official title is On the Possibility of Limiting Populousness, but if you refer to 'the book of murder' everyone will know what you mean.) Its author, a wicked clergyman known only as Marcus, roams the country in secret, murdering the children of the very poor with the connivance of the authorities. His Malthusiast followers could be coming to a slum near you any day now, armed with official warrants and barrels of poison gas.

Lucky amulets affixed to the side of a stall or barrow will bring good fortune in business.

A drunken man with a torn umbrella is the very luckiest customer you can have first thing in the morning. Tear the umbrella yourself if you have to.

Graveyard soil and holy water can be used as all-purpose protections against bad luck and evil magic.

Dragon's blood (red guam) can be burned to ensure the faithfulness of an absent lover. If they betray you, then mix more dragon's blood with brass pins and urine and bury the resulting mixture inside a glass jar, and they are sure to come to harm.

Steel Jack is a monstrous ghost or demon who roams the city by night, wearing brass armour with clawed gauntlets. He can breathe fire, is impervious to bullets, and can take the shape of a bull or bear. He escapes by springing away over walls or rooftops once he has suitably terrified his victims, although sometimes he also pulls their hair out in bloody clumps or marks them with his horrible claws. Some speculate that he is actually a wicked aristocrat who is trying to scare people to death as part of a horrible wager with his equally wicked friends.

Books of Fate can be used to tell fortunes and predict lucky and unlucky days. If you can read at all then you should own one - and if you can't, then ask someone else to read one for you. Only an idiot would attempt anything important without first consulting their Book of Fate.

Cunning men and wise women can carry out divinations, cast spells to protect you against witchcraft, and help to locate stolen goods. Every community has at least one of them, and if you have been the victim of crime then they are much more trustworthy than the Detective Police, who are probably just looking for an excuse to have your family gassed by Marcus. Don't trust a cunning man who doesn't have a magic book, or a wise woman without a magic mirror.

A boggart seer can help to protect your community against boggarts and evil fairies. If your town has boggarts but no boggart seer then you're going to be in trouble. You might be able to borrow one from another town in an emergency.

Evil spirits can be driven out by an exorcism performed by a clergyman. If you're being troubled by evil spirits, demand an exorcism from your local vicar. If he objects, threaten to get one from a dissenting minister, instead. That usually brings them round.

White pigeons tapping on windows are an omen of death. Someone within the household will die soon.

Workhouses are always looking out for ways to kill the children entrusted to them, so that they can butcher their bodies and sell the meat for pies.

Innkeepers sometimes rig their beds with spring-loaded blades, allowing them to murder and rob lone travellers by night. Always check your bed when travelling alone.

Bread baked on Good Friday has healing powers.

Nunneries are simply used as brothels by the Catholic clergy, who murder the resulting infants and bury the bodies in the grounds. Never allow your daughter to enter a nunnery.

Doctors are infamous for viewing their poorer patients as opportunities to practise the latest surgical techniques, whether their surgeries are needed or not. If you value your internal organs then you should have as little to do with them as possible.

Resurrection Men are grave robbers who secretly dig up the bodies of the recently dead in order to sell them to medical students. When they can't find enough fresh corpses they abduct and drown the living, instead. Everyone knows that the medical schools don't ask any questions.

Mesmerists can heal both mind and body with their powers, but beware: some misuse their gifts to exploit, enslave, or sexually abuse their patients. Some cruel mesmerists even mesmerise their patients into believing that they are dead, or made of glass.

Captain Swing is coming to burn down Parliament any day now. The day of reckoning approaches. Be ready.

Folklorists are an extremely dangerous breed. They will listen to your ghost stories, and pretend to believe them, but as soon as your back is turned they will write them down and print them, and ghosts hate that more than anything. Never talk to a folklorist unless you want the wrath of the whole spirit world brought down upon you.

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