A knocker is in the folklore of Cornwall, England, a spirit that lives and works in mines, especially tin mines. Knockers are friendly and helpful, but can be mischievous; they are not evil and malicious like the German KOBOLD mine spirit. Knockers also are called BUCCAS (the Cornish term for seagoing Goblins), as well as Gathorns, Knackers, Nickers, Nuggies, and Spriggans. In mines north of Cornwall, the spirits are called BLUE-CAPS and Cutty Soams. In American folklore, mine spirits are known as tommyknockers.
Knockers are so named because of the knocking sounds they make in mine shafts as they work, perhaps in imitation of human miners. They are believed to be the ghosts of Jews who worked the mines, or of the Jews who crucified Christ and were punished by being sent to work below the earth. Jews did not work in Cornish mines until the 11th and 12th centuries. Perhaps because of their alleged associations with punishment for Christ, knockers cannot tolerate the sign of the cross, and so miners avoid marking anything with a cross or an X. The aversion may also stem from the Christian displacement of pagan religions and spirit beliefs.
According to lore, knockers are industrious beings, toiling away through the night. They are associated with rich lodes of ore; thus, miners pay attention to the locations where they heard the supernatural knockings. Knocker laughter and footsteps are said to be heard, and sometimes the spirits are said to manifest in doll-sized form. They have been said to help miners in trouble. Whistling, however, offends them; consequently, it is unlucky to whistle in mines. Food and tallow must be left for them in payment, otherwise they will cause trouble.
In American mines, tommyknockers mirror the behavior of their Cornish counterparts, though some have been attributed vicious streaks akin to the kobolds. In the late 19th century, the Mamie R. Mine on Raven Hill in Cripple Creek, Colorado was said to be haunted by malicious tommyknockers that beckoned to miners and then jumped up and down on beams until they collapsed upon the men. The tommyknockers also were blamed for snapping cables and for premature blasts, and they were said to snicker at the miners as they wrought their evil deeds.
Friendlier tommyknockers in other Colorado mines were said to be protective and helpful, although they yielded to practical jokes upon occasion. Miners generally regarded their supernatural companions with fondness, and liked to talk about them and make space for them at the bar at the end of a shift. Tommyknocker stories frequently were written up in the press.
Mine spirits of all names are said to continue to haunt abandoned mines.
- Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins – Brownies – Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
- Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest Assn. Ltd., 1973.
- Martin, Maryjoy. Twilight Dwellers: Ghosts, Ghouls & Goblins of Colorado. Boulder: Pruett Publishing Co., 1985.