Listening for the Tommyknockers

'Ave you 'eard of the Tommy Knockers
In the deep dark mines of the west
Which Cornish miners 'ear?
And 'tis no laughin' jest,
For I'm a Cornish miner,
An' I'll tell you of it today,
Of the "knock-knock-knock" of a tiny pick,
As we work in the rock and clay.

- Old miner's ballad

This weekend I went to the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. It was fascinating to learn how legendary creatures like griffins and cyclops might be based on real skeletons of dinosaurs and mammoths. There was even a smaller exhibit on mythical beasts from Colorado, like the jackalope and the slide-rock bolter. But I didn't see anything about my favorite mythical being from Colorado--the tommyknocker.

Most people probably associate the word "tommyknocker" with a Stephen King book, but that book was about aliens, and actually had little to do with the legend. So what exactly is a tommyknocker? In the mining towns in Colorado, and across the west, some of the miners thought the knocks and creaks they heard down in the mines were made by little magical miners they called "tommyknockers" or "knockers." Tommyknockers were said to be a couple of feet tall and dressed like miners--with little picks and lamps and everything. Usually they were seen as mischievous, but basically good-natured. Sure, they might hide your tools, but they would also warn you if the mine was about to collapse; frantically knocking on the walls to tell you to head for the surface. Not surprisingly, miners wanted to stay on the tommyknockers' good side. Some would leave pieces of their lunch for them, or even carve little tommyknocker figurines and leave them in cracks in the walls.

They also tried not to irritate the tommyknockers. For example, whistling in a mine was thought to be bad luck because it bothered them. Some old-time mine supervisors even said they had fired people for whistling. They considered it serious business, because the last thing miners wanted to do was anger the tommyknockers. If provoked, they could make life miserable...or even end it entirely. In one story, a miner smashes the tommyknocker carvings that other miners have left in the walls. And then the knocking starts. It comes from all directions; growing louder and louder. The miners run for the surface, and everybody makes it out alive, except the miner who smashed the figurine.

The tommyknocker legend first came to the United States with miners from Cornwall, in the southwest of England. The Cornish had been mining tin in their home country for hundreds of years, and their skills were highly sought after in mining towns in the U.S. Here they came to be known as "Cousin Jacks," because when a mine supervisor asked them if they knew any other miners with similar skills, they would say, "Well, me cousin Jack back in Cornwall might be willing to come over if you pay his passage." Cornish miners were known for dropping their H's at the beginning of words (as in the poem above), for sniffing out the best ore seams, and for their uncanny ability to flee the mines before a cave-in. They said they did so by listening for the tommyknockers. Some Cornish miners wouldn't even start work in a new mine until they were assured the tommyknockers were already on the job.

In Cornwall and the U.S., most miners thought of the tommyknockers as spirits of dead miners. After all, some miners' bodies were never recovered after cave-ins, so miners worked knowing their unlucky coworkers were still down there somewhere. There's one story where a tommyknocker confronts a miner, tells him he's his old coworker who was killed in a cave-in, and asks for the five dollars the miner once borrowed from him. The miner doesn't want to pay, but the tommyknocker makes his life miserable until he does.

As with many mythical beings, the tommyknocker legend is based in part on fact. You really do hear strange sounds deep in a mine, like the echoes of miners hammering in other tunnels, and the creaking of the timbers that hold up the rocks above. It makes sense that timbers would creak and pop just before they gave way, so a sudden burst of "knocking" really would be a good warning of danger. Mines were also a perfect breeding ground for superstition. They were dark, especially in the days before electric lights, and it's easy to imagine how miner's eyes and ears played tricks on them. There's also a huge element of chance in mining, and chance and superstition go hand in hand. Like gamblers today who wear a lucky shirt, or baseball players with a pre-game ritual, old-time miners were obsessed with luck. Good luck meant striking it rich, and bad luck could mean dying in the mine. The stakes down there were pretty high, and anything that might improve your luck was worth trying. If that meant leaving a little food out for the tommyknockers, why not give it a shot?

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Further reading:

An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and other Supernatural Creatures Katherine Mary Briggs

Ballads of the Western Mines and Others Anthony Fitch

California Miner's Folklore: Below Ground / Wayland Hand. California Folklore Quarterly. April, 1942 (Focuses on California, but the Cornish legends were the same in Colorado. Many Cornish miners came from California to Colorado during Colorado's gold rush.)

Popular Romances of the West of England Robert Hunt

Spooky Colorado: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and other Local Lore S. E. Schlosser, Paul Hoffman

Tales, Trails, and Tommyknockers: Stories from Colorado's Past Myriam Friggens

Tommy Knocker Tales of Central City, Colorado Irene Ladd Phillips

Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall William Bottrell (The illustration above comes from this book)

Written by Ross on May 4, 2015

Comments

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Fascinating - thank you!

FrankW on May 4, 2015

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I can honestly say that I never know what a tommyknocker was. If I had know last summer when way down in the Molly Kathleen mine, I would've kept my eyes peeled and ears open! Nice post!

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Thanks! I want to go on a mine tour now. If they start knocking I'm getting out of there, though.

Katie R on May 5, 2015

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Fantastic post! Of course this made me curious to see if Western History/Genealogy has anything in the way of tommyknocker info.

Box 11, file folder 45 of the Caroline Bancroft Family Papers (WH1089) has two photographs of a 1"-tall brass tommyknocker figurine that was sent to Caroline Bancroft from Cornwall.
http://catalog.denverlibrary.org/view.aspx?cn=195952

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That's great, Katie! I'd like to see that photo. I came across something she said about living in Central City, researching the book Gulch of Gold: A History of Central City, Colorado. She lived in a house that was supposed to be haunted by a young woman who died of consumption, but she decided the noises in the house were actually tommyknockers.