Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mine Spirits: Knockers

Many miners in the 19th century both in the United Kingdom and America believed in the existence of helpful mine spirits.

This folklore began in Cornwall, England, where miners believed in spirits that lived and worked in mines, especially tin mines, these spirits were called "Knockers." 

They were considered to be friendly and helpful, they could also be mischievous, but they were not evil or malicious like the German Kobold mine spirits. They sometimes stole miner’s unattended tools and food. 

Knockers went by many names: Buccas, Knackers, Nickers, Nuggies, and Spriggans. In America, these mine spirits were known as tommyknockers.

Cornish Miner
Knockers were so named because of the knocking sounds they make in mine shafts as they work. 

In Cornwall, they were considered to be the ghosts of Jews who worked in the mines. Some believed these Jews were sent by the Romans to work in the mines to punish them for the death of Christ. 

It is said because of this, knockers cannot tolerate the sign of the cross, so miners avoided making anything with a cross or an X. 

According to the legend, knockers were very industrious—they were seen working through the night. They are most often associated with rich lodes of ore; thus, miners would pay close attention to where they heard these supernatural knockings. 

Miners reported hearing laughter and footsteps, and sometimes they reported seeing them. They were most often described as very small in stature and wearing tiny versions of standard miner’s garb. Miners recounted seeing them working alongside the living.

They were known to help miners in trouble. It is stated that whistling offended knockers, so miners believed it to be unlucky to whistle in mines. 

It was also believed that miners should leave food offerings for knockers so they would not cause trouble. Miners were known to carry extra food in their lunch pails.

In American mines, tommyknockers behaved similarly to their Cornish counterparts. Though a few were attributed with traits more similar to the vicious German Kobolds. 

In the late 19th Century, the Mamie R. Mine, in Cripple Creek, Colorado, was supposedly haunted by malicious tommyknockers.

Miners believed these spirits lured them into a shaft and then they would jump up and down on beams until they collapsed upon these men. 

These tommyknockers were also blamed for snapping cables and for premature blasts; they were heard laughing at the miners as they did their evil deeds. In another post, I write more about this Cripple Creek story.

Cornish miners during the California Gold Rush of 1848, were much sought after. They were often referred to as “Cousin Jacks.” 

This is because mine owners would ask their workers if they knew of other miners that were willing to work. These miners would reply, “Well me cousin Jack over in Cornwall will come, if ye can pay the boat ride…” 

The Cousin Jacks were notorious for losing tools as they were diving out of shafts just before they collapsed. 

They always credited their Knocker friends for saving them and refused to go back to work until assured by the management that the knockers were already back working. 

Belief in knockers lasted well into the 20th century. 

When one large mine was closed in 1956, the owners sealed the entrance. Then several generations of Cousin Jacks circulated a petition calling on the mine owners to free the Knockers so they could move to other mines. The owners complied.

Throughout the southwest, including other mines in Colorado, friendlier tommyknockers were described as protective and helpful. 

Miners, in general, viewed these supernatural companions with fondness, and told many stories about them—miners were known to make room for them at the bar at the end of their shifts. 

Tommyknocker stories were frequently written about in local newspapers. While doing research on western mines and miners; I often find references to tommyknockers.

Today these spirits are believed to haunt abandoned mines.

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