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 . . .