Tommyknockers & Red-haired Women

Tap... tap, tap

Mines are dark, dangerous places filled with strange, creaky noises

Tap... tap, tap

Mines are dark, dangerous placed filled with even stranger happenings.

If you are lucky, a mine will bless you with gold, silver, precious ores and gems. A lucky strike can make you rich beyond all your dreams.

If you are unlucky, a mine can snatch your breath, crush your skull, or send you plummeting to an early grave.

Tap... tap, tap.

No wonder, then, that mines are places of rumor, legends, and lore—just superstitions.

Tap... tap, tap.

Or are they?


When the Cornish miners came to America in the 1800s to dig the hardrock mines of copper, gold and silver, they brought with them their belief in the tommyknocker. Called knockers in Cornwall, tommyknockers were small dwarf-like creatures who worked in the mines, tapping away and making strange noises deep in the rocks. They were often heard, but rarely seen. Exactly what their origins are is unclear. Some folks believed that the knockers were the ghosts of Jews who had been brought by the Romans as slaves to work in the Cornish mines. Others felt the knockers were the spirits of miners in general who had died in the mines or they were the spirits of souls who hadn’t been good enough to make it to heaven but hadn’t been bad enough to go to hell.

Tommyknocker standing by an ore bucket

Whether they were spirits of dead men or simply creatures of faerie, tommyknockers were generally considered to be friendly and helpful by the Cornish. They often warned miners of cave-ins, and, upon occasion, would lead a miner to a rich vein of ore. But they also could be vindictive if neglected or abused through disrespect. Whistling could offend them, and, therefore, was considered to be bad luck. Speaking with disdain about the knockers could also result in a series of unfortunate events. As a result, many men played it safe and often left a bit of their lunch behind, often the crusty edge of a pasty, as a gift for their unseen companions.

Red-haired Women

Because mines were such dangerous places and luck played a large role in the miners’ well-being, a great deal of lore developed around signs of luck, especially bad luck. One such bit of lore involves women. In general, women in or near a mine were considered bad luck. Perhaps this belief arose because historically women only came to the mines in times of tragedy, looking for lost loved ones. A red-haired woman was considered particularly bad for red-haired women were considered omens of death. I suspect that this aversion to red-hair comes from Cornish mining lore and is a remnant of the aversion to the red-haired Danes who ravaged parts of Cornwall in 997 A.D..

A wonderful resource that gives a thorough survey of mining folklore is John Greenway’s Folklore of the Great West (1969, American West Publishing Company).

©2006 Daryl Burkhard. All Rights Reserved.