Mining is an ancient profession and along with
the back breaking work and dangers of working in the dark underground,
comes century old superstitions, the most notable being that of the
These impish, gnome-like
men are the Cornish equivalent of Irish leprechauns and English brownies.
Germans called them Berggeister or Bergmännlein, meaning "mountain
ghosts” or "little miners.”
The Cornish believed these wee little men were
the souls of the Jews who crucified Christ and were sent by the Romans to
work as slaves in the tin mines. This belief was so strong that the
Tommyknockers were allegedly never heard on Saturdays, nor at times of
two feet tall, and often described as greenish in color, they look
like men and are most often spied wearing a traditional miner’s
outfit. Living beneath the ground, they have been "known” to
have committed both good and bad deeds through the centuries, often
playing practical jokes and committing random acts of mischief, such
as stealing unattended tools and food.
The Tommyknockers were first heard of in
the United States when Cornish miners worked in the western
Pennsylvania coal mines in the 1820’s. When the
Gold Rush began, these experienced Cornish miners were welcomed
and often sought after by the mine owners. Attempting to recruit
more minders, managers often approached the immigrants, asking if they
had any relatives back in England who might come to work the mines.
The Cornish miners would reply something like this: "Well, me cousin
Jack over in Cornwall wouldst come could ye pay ’is boat ride." Soon, these many immigrant miners took on the nickname Cousin Jacks,
who formed the core of America’s early western mining workforce. As such, their superstition of the Tommyknocker thrived and spread
throughout the mines of the west.
The name "knockers,”
pronounced "knackers,” comes from the knocking on the mine walls that
often happens just before cave-ins. Actually caused by the
creaking of earth and timbers, some thought these sounds of
"hammering” were malevolent, indicating certain death or injury, while
others saw their "knocking” as well-meaning, warning the miners that a
life-threatening collapse was imminent. Yet, others believed
that the knocking sounds would lead them to a rich ore body and or
signs of good luck.
When these grizzled
little gnomes were good, they were thought to bring miners favors and
wealth. But when they were bad, they were said to bring about
misery, injury, and death to those who doubted their power or who did
not believe in them.
These highly spirited characters were also
known to perform many of the mining duties, working right along side
the men, as well as being blamed for many a prank, and credited with
saving the lives of many miners. If a hammer was missing, it was the
Tommyknockers who had taken it, but if a miner escaped a collapse, the
Tommyknockers were given credit.
Later, the legend of the
Tommyknockers evolved into the idea that the knockings were caused by dead
miners who were kind enough to give warnings of danger to the living. In praise of these kind gestures, the miners would leave offerings of food
and other items in order to secure their good graces and protection.
In some mines, where the
Tommyknockers’ presence was known to be overwhelmingly malevolent, the
mines were forced to close because of the mens’ fear of the spirits. When the mines played out, the legend continued, as many said the Tommyknockers found "work” in the homes surrounding the old mineshafts.
Superstitions continued when many a family death or disaster was
allegedly foretold by a knocking in the house.
Belief in these
diminutive miners remained well into the 20th century until modern systems
and education replaced these earlier superstitions. Though not much is
heard of the Tommyknockers today, they will forever have a place in our
history, legend and lore.
of America, updated November, 2015.