Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers

Originally published June 19th, 2020 Written by Luke Greensmith


Hello everyone, and welcome to clear over a year of Lukelore!

I think the last episode was technically the one year mark… The time delay between when Patrons get the show and when they go public has thrown me off a little…

We are actually at the point where I’ve accidentally repeated myself. The Okuri Inu, or Seeing Off Dog, has been in both the Black Dogs and Yokai episode with me somehow completely blanking on that. It’s honestly bizarre to me that I’ve been running for this length of time, hopefully my more practiced performance kept the story interesting. It’s a really fun bit of folklore at least.

For today’s topic I am going down the mines to see what strange things I can find down there in the dark. We’ve been gearing up behind the scenes looking at stories from underground, something which ended up a very mixed bag of research you will be seeing across a few different episodes. Part of this had me looking into the Tommyknockers. Now, most people seem to know of Tommyknockers from Stephen King, and as such they pretty much know them wrong. Not really something I want to blame on King, as his story was a great fusion of traditional folklore with modern tales in the 50s flying saucer pulp aesthetic. The only problem is that his modern synthesis of ideas has pretty much overtaken the ideas which he used as a foundation for that story. A very simple summation of Tommyknockers is that they are small miners, generally benevolent but mischievous if disrespected, who will knock on the walls of mines to warn of impending cave-ins, and are thought by some to be the ghosts of miners lost to disasters. They’re supposed to be two foot tall, in some stories are green, and as well as being shown due respect they take well to having offerings of food left for them. Happy Tommyknockers lead to a happy mine, as they will warn the miners away from the most dangers areas while sometimes even appearing to lead miners to new or missed veins of ore. There is quite a wide range of Tommyknocker stories though, with a fair chance of bad as well as the good. Don’t forget that you can also have Unhappy Tommyknockers… There are mentions of how, if they are heard above ground, then they are a portent of death similar to a Banshee. But there is also one story of how Tommyknockers tramping throughout a house aboveground was a sign there was a vein or ore below the house. So the stories go from the good with the warnings, to the mixed bag with Tommyknocker forays aboveground, to the very very bad…

There are stories attributed to Tommyknockers of them mimicking voices, sometimes those of children, to lure people deeper underground to unsafe areas of mines. This seems to track with the idea that the deeper and darker beneath the world you go, the more likely you are to find Tommyknockers, and from there more likely to have a bad Tommyknocker encounter. Tommyknockers apparently managed to close down a mine near Cripple Creek Colorodo called Mamie R. Mine one time, the miners all believed the Tommyknockers were both good as well as bad but this particular mine was a no go area. People who ignored the warnings were prone to hear the mimickry calls, and from there follow them to a point where ceilings would collapse killing people. If the miners say the Tommyknockers have said no, believe them. What’s your best case scenario? “Oh, there’s definitely nothing supernatural down there, it’s just naturally going to cave in and crush you all into people pancakes”? GO A DIFFERENT MINE! Tommyknockers, though, appear to be a European export. I mean, that does make sense, Native Americans were not known for their deep mining methods. It’s the colonising force who got sent down into the depths of the Earth to make some rich git landlord even richer for pennies at the cost of their health. But if you look at these exploitation methods closer to their point of origin it’s easy to see a direct line from the Tommyknockers back to the Cornish Knockers. I would like to get out of the way know that in different parts of the United Kingdom “knockers” is also a slang term for boobs. Should you be struggling with this please pause and get that out one out of your system, Cornish Knockers are spirits in the mines which got their name from the knocking noises they make. Nothing boobs related is occurring. Brennan, please do not just label this Lukelore just as Knockers, you will cause chaos in Britain! Now, when it comes to the description of the Tommyknockers above, that they are small in stature and prone to mischief? That they have a duality of nature? Leaving offerings for them? Alarms bells should have begun ringing for long time listeners of the show. The Knockers from down the mines of Cornwall, either the progenitors or else cousins to the American versions, appear to be yet another branch of Brennan’s Special Friends the fair folk. A type of earth fairie from the dark depths beneath the mountains. The Knockers seem more prone to mischief than their American cousins, on top of making sure you remain respectful or else you’re in for some mischief, if you leave untended tool or food around the Knockers will have them off. The food bit is understandable though, as miners tended to leave offerings for the Knockers. Typically the crimped crusts of their pasties they would take down for lunches. These strange inhabitants of the Cornish underground are supposed to be only two foot tall and mostly look like beard sporting white haired old men, but for the fact that on top of their diminutive stature their heads are disproportionately large and their arms are long enough to reach the floor while they are stood up. The fairy connection is a fun one which stood out to me, but like with the Tommyknockers there are alternative theories as to who these piskies are down the tin mines. The souls of miners again, with some interesting beliefs that they are for whatever reason diminishing in size until they disappear. But also a worryingly specific ghosts of Jewish miners thing I REALLY don’t want to go into the details of. I’ll leave this section light: An alternative pronunciation of Knockers down in Cornwall is Knackers, which in other parts of Britain is slang for… Well, “Kick him in the knackers” would be appropriate. It seems impossible to get away from body parts in British slang. I blame Shakespeare. There are other versions of these tales from around Britain, small folk who will warn miners away from disaster are found anywhere a British miner was sent down into the dark. Not so far from Cornwall we have the Welsh Tappers, the coal mines of Kent had the Kloker. This topic runs pretty deep, for all the Tommyknockers are well known. It’s something I intend to come back to in more detail, even if only in private study. As I dug into research for this topic, the export of the Tommyknockers and the Cornwall connection led me to believe I would have a great lead here. I thought I would find a Mexican version of the Cornish Knocker stories. Mexico and Cornwall ended up with an unusual bit of shared culture as in the early 19th Century with the tin mines drying up a lot of Cornish miners found demand for their services in the now flooded Silver mines of a newly independent Mexico. From this partnership was born a global love of pasties which geography may separate but the hearts, and stomachs, of the two regions are one.

People visiting the UK can be surprised by how much we love our pasties, and for context our pasty vendors still somehow outnumber the invasive species of US coffee chains.

Cornish pasties are currently a protected geographical delicacy, as odd as that sounds to someone like me who grew up taking this food on the go for granted. Anywhere copying this beef, turnip, carrot, and potato snack that isn’t getting their supply from Cornwall itself just labels them a “traditional pasty” now, something I could usually pick up in a five minute walk to either a Supermarket, Pound Bakery, or my nearest Greggs. Mexico was not satisfied with merely having a “traditional” model on offer though has made the pasty their own with a pineapple, tinga, and mole filling which I didn’t know I needed to try so badly until I pulled up some details researching this script.

Back to the topic at hand, I did not manage find a fun Mexican variation of the Knockers, unfortunately.

What I found was much, much worse. The mines in Mexico did NOT mess around when they unearthed a fairy under the bedrock. Getting instead “El Espiritu del Oro”, or the “gold spirit”. They… Are not interested in helping wayward miners.

Here’s a quote about El Espiritu del Oro from a September issue of the ‘Arizona Express’ in 1893:

"By common report, this ogre is a dwarf of most hideous aspect. His head, far above the natural size, is fronted with a face more hideous and horrible than any other gnome or goblin in the Aztec or Mexican category of mythical devils. His eyes are eyes of firelike resplendence glowing like coals in the darkest recesses. His arms are long, reaching almost to his feet when standing erect and his strength is so phenomenal that no man, though giant he might be, has ever yet been known to get away once in his clutches.

"He inhabits the dark drifts and passageways in the deepest and richest gold mines where, without other light than emitted by his luminous eyes, he passes from point to point remaining invisible when he so wishes. When he meets a miner carrying his load of precious mineral climbing up some ladder unaccompanied . . . he pounces upon him and chokes him to death. . . ."

It could be that the mines mean something culturally different to Mexico, something more adversarial and as such they got an ogre instead of frequently helpful mischief makers. It could also be simple supernatural geography, and instead of mostly benign fairies Mexican miners hit a damn Balrog down there. The diminutive stature and odd proportions does sound like the Cornish Knockers, although it sounds like El Spiritu del Oro is not happy to have found encroaching miners down there. Trying to find a rational origin or alternative to angry miner ghosts, or else more fairies, there is a strong and simple to this folklore. Not to write off beliefs, and people who slave away in the underworld with the constant threat of being buried alive are absolutely entitled to any damn superstition they can get to help them, but there’s a natural component here. Every single human alive today had ancestors who overreacted to strange sounds around them. It only takes a single tiger to end a genetic line, even if 99 shaking bushes were just the wind. It’s the early hominid who nopes out away from all 100 shaking bushes to make absolute sure there are no tigers who eventually led to us humans.

Knocking sounds, deep underground, in the carved out capillaries of unnatural industry, are far too often the sounds of stress. Stress from the crushing tons above waiting to come back down. Those who heard the knocking and turned back were the ones who got to tell tales in the pub at the end of the work day. Those who ignored the knocks, ignored the warnings, not so much. Does it even matter who are what the warnings are, when the warning is “Leave Now Or Die Down In The Dark, Uppity Surface Dwellers!”

Down in the deepest reaches of the mines, no one shrugged off sounds as meaning nothing. Not more than once they didn’t, anyway.

It might be fun to speculate that the miners who came back most days, or at least as many days as they could until physics tragically caught up to them, found something down there. Whether finding faith, or tiny miners of either ghost or fae persuasion looking out for them, or just the story they needed to tell themselves someone was looking out for them so they could face going back down into the dark again, it all adds up to something indisputable. It was the miners who listened to the knocks who came back, and they got to tell the story. The happy miner without a care in the world was the one who found out the hard way that knock meant something, like that 1 in 100 rustle in the bush that was a tiger, and the hundredth time they did not listen is why we have the stories of the superstitious miners today and not that of the careless care free ones. Well… As I said to Brennan while I was working on this: Holy crap mining is a terrible thing humanity did to get ahead. Brennan for his part said “Mines are the worst, and being underground is for assholes. You can quote me on that.” That’s all for this surprisingly chilling Lukelore, the reality of what people went through down the mines really got to me while researching this one. Hopefully the assorted knackers, knockers, and pasties lightened it up some. That’s all for this month though.

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Goodbye for now.