Mythical Monday: Tommyknockers by Mae Clair

Ancient mining tools and basket full of rocks inside a tunnel in a mineStephen King made the name famous in his 1987 science-fiction novel. But people of the Old World, and those who worked in coal regions, knew about Tommyknockers long before then. Some believe them to be the spirits of departed miners, others insist they are sprite-like creatures who cast an eerie blue glow as they move through darkened mine shafts.

Whatever their nature, Tommyknockers dwell in the shadowy recesses below ground. Like many supernatural beings they can be helpful—digging industriously and assisting miners in locating ore—or harmful if not treated well. As a result, workers frequently left pans of water and food, occasionally even coins as gifts to these gnomish mine-dwellers. In the event of an impending cave-in, Tommyknockers alerted the miners by a repeated sharp rapping sound. They were even known to lead rescuers to injured workers or guide men clear of dark shafts seconds before collapse.

It is believed the Tommyknocker legend grew from the tales of Welsh immigrants who arrived to work the coal mines of Western Pennsylvania. After the California gold rush of 1848, the legend spread west.

Often simply called Knockers in Welsh and Cornish folklore, Tommyknockers were the equivalent of the Irish leprechaun or Scottish Brownie. Mischievous as well as helpful, they had a fondness for unattended tools. Thus most misplaced items or petty thefts were blamed on the creatures. Welsh mine workers believed so strongly in these fey spirits, they would not work in a mine until assured by the owners that Tommyknockers were already in residence.

As late as the mid-twentieth century, mine workers clung to the superstition. When a large mine was sealed in 1956, workers petitioned the owners to reopen it in order that the Tommyknockers could be set free and find a new mine. The owners complied.

Today, though many scoff at the idea there are Tommyknockers, others who live in the vicinity of mines insist they still see blue lights weaving among the dark passages, and hear the sound of industrious workers digging away.

Or perhaps steadily knocking . . .

14 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: Tommyknockers by Mae Clair

  1. Good morning! I love waking up to another myth in my mailbox. I was thinking as I read this how much myth and legend was integrated so entirely in the earlier centuries – how badly they needed them to explain circumstances, or to help them in life. To be able to believe someone is guiding them. Anyhoo, how many do we still have left today? And those that are still around will most likely be phased out with this last generation. When I lived in Ireland, some of the elderly Irish still left a shot of pootchen outside their houses for the leprechauns. And this was in 2007!

    • Hi, Cd! So cool to hear of the there were still Irish folk looking out for the wee folk as late as 2007! I’ll miss our legends when they fade into obscurity. That makes me think of Neil Gaiman’s book “American Gods.” Hopefully, people will still enjoy sharing folklore, even if we no longer need it to explain away missing tools and such. I definitely like the superstitious explanation better than the practical one!

  2. You know, the funny thing is, I always thought of leprechauns when I heard about Tommyknockers. I watched a show last summer called, Ghost Mine (I think that’s the name), and they hinted on Tommyknockers a lot. Very interesting.

    • Oooh, I’m going to have to see what I can find online about Ghost Mine. So cool to hear Tommyknockers got a mention (and that you were thinking of leprechauns)!

  3. We have plenty of old mine here in Southern Nevada and I have gathered the courage to enter a few of them. They are dark and scary…and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find a Tommyknocker or two flitting about! Thanks for another wonderful post Mae!

    • You’re braver than I am, Debbie. Underground things freak me out (I’d never be a cave explorer). Hopefully, if I ever did wander into a mine, there would be a Tommyknocker hanging around to lead me out, LOL

  4. When I think of the closed in feeling of working underground, I can certainly understand why miners would want the help and protection of the Tommyknockers. How interesting that the owners of a mine reopened it to free those little blue sprites in 1956, I’m impressed by that. Thanks for the post!

    • If I were underground, I’d want the assurance of someone else there with me too! I think it’s very cool that the mine owners gave so much credence to the beliefs of their workers that they unsealed the mine. I wonder how long they waited before announcing that the Tommyknockers had left in search of a new home!

  5. I love the legend of the Tommyknockers. I think I’ve seen them refered to along with Brownies in several places. Thanks for another fascinating post, MAe. I do look forward to reading these.

    • Hi,Daisy. So nice to know you enjoy these! I had never heard of Tommyknockers being compared to leprechauns and brownies before, so that was an eye opener for me. I love learning about these old legends!

  6. As late as the mid twentieth century? That seems astonishing to me. Wow. Wonderful post, Mae.
    Were Tommyknockers aliens in that Stephen King book? I saw the movie years ago, but haven’t read the book. Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers knocking at the door. Gah, that rhyme still gives me the creeps.

    • I was shocked to learn the legend lasted as long as it did with the importance it did too. Pretty mind-boggling. And yep, SK’s novel had to do with aliens ( good call!). I never read t, but like you, watched the movie/mini-series. It was so long ago, my memory of it is very spotty.

      Thanks for the reminder about the rhyme. Very creepy!

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