Dartmoor's folklore is often very grim. As grim as the boggy mires and fog-shrouded tors that dominate the landscape.
There's no part more barren and desolate than the area known locally as Gibbet Hill. Fittingly, it boasts (if that's the right word) arguably the grimmest folklore of all.
Gibbet Hill looms over the old mining village of Mary Tavy. Both roads to Okehampton (the main A386 and the old highway via Brentor and Lydford) skirt its fringe. As the name suggests, the summit once housed gibbets, within which criminals were cruelly caged and left slowly to die. An evil punishment, from the days when the bite of justice was unnaturally hard.
Kindly nursing mothers used to visit the poor souls trapped in the gibbets, offering tit and a little nourishment to keep them living longer. Other visitors weren't so pleasant. The cairns of stones still seen atop the hill were originally left there for folk to throw at the prisoners.
Worse again were those who came to prey morbidly on the corpses of the punished!
A strange belief spread amongst local members of the criminal fraternity. They believed if they cut off a finger belonging to one of the gibbets' victims, they would then be rendered all but invisible when committing burglaries.
Why they should've though so is impossible to know. As Florence Tucker says in Forever Onward, Battling The Beast of Dartmoor, “The superstition makes no sense at all. If the men in the gibbets had been any good at crime themselves, they wouldn’t have been caught in the first place!”
A gruesome practice and the tale remains unique to this one part of Dartmoor. It was a story Sabine Baring-Gould collected from the mouths of local people, when documenting the area's folklore.