As a lover of caving, or spelunking as many like to say (although most caving club members will tell you that “cavers” are the ones that the “spelunkers” have to call when they get lost in caves), the Tommyknockers could be very helpful to me.
I have had the pleasure of exploring a few old abandoned mines in my life. As a kid, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Granny who lived close to some old abandoned limestone mines. She was awesome about letting all of us kids explore as much as we liked. Those caves provided the foundation for many unforgettable adventures.
When I lived in the western region of the United States, I enjoyed exploring old ghost towns built during the era of the great gold rushes. Many of these abandoned towns in the middle of nowhere, include old mines to explore as well.
Originating in the Cornwall region of England, the Bucca Boo fairies were brought to the United States with the Cornish when they immigrated into America to work in the western Pennsylvania coal mines in the 1820s. They became known as Tommyknockers in the U.S. When the California Gold rush took off, the miners and their Tommyknockers made their way westward.
Said to be approximately two feet tall, and green in color, they are often compared to “leprechauns” and “brownies.” In Germany, they are called Kobolds, Berggeister or Bergmannlein, meaning “mountain ghosts” or “little miners.” There are known by many names in many cultures including the Manx Buggan, the Irish Pooka, and the Welsh BWCI. In these other cultures, in which fishing and farming were more dominant than mining, the fairies were just as helpful in these occupations.
Sometimes the little mining fairies like to play little jokes and be ornery, as typical fairies are wont to do, but usually their purpose for hanging around was to inform the miners of trouble. They would knock on the walls of the mine to warn the workers of an approaching cave-in.
Many believed that the Tommyknockers favored them with gifts and good luck. But, there’s always a few bad apples in any bunch, and they brought down disaster and death to some of the miners. There were mines that had to close because of the evil doings of the Tommyknockers. The little men were said to stay in the area of the closed mines, moving into the homes near the mine shafts, and wrecking havoc on the families living there.
Usually the Tommyknockers were looked upon favorably by the miners, though they would blame the creatures for missing hammers, they just as readily would thank them for their help. In addition to warning of collapses in the mines, they also helped with other mining duties, working along with the men. Oftentimes, the miners would leave bits of food and little gifts for the creatures.
The Cornish believe the Tommyknockers contain the souls of the Jews who crucified Christ and were sent by the Romans to work as slaves in the tin mines. As time went on, this belief seemed to change somewhat, and Tommyknockers were often looked upon as dead miners’ souls.
Cornish immigrants were insistent about not entering the mine to work until they were assured by the mining company that Tommyknockers were in residence.
In 1956, the closing of a huge mine in California, prompted descendants of the original Cornish immigrants to petition the owners of the mine to “set the knockers free enabling them to move on to other mines.” The owners met the petition’s demand.
Sources/References/For further Information and Reading:
Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, © May, 2006
Cousin Jacks & Tommyknockers Remain a Part of Our Mining Culture & Heritage
by Anthony Belli
Lisa Butler, Miners kept safe with help from tiny, magical men, El Dorado, Ca., County Times & Review, Vol. 6 No.8, August, 1999, p.1
F. D. Calhoon, Coolies, Kanakas & Cousin Jacks, Sacramento, Ca., Cal-Con Publishers, 1986, p. 294 – 316
Leifchild, John R. Cornwall: Its Mines and Miners. NY: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans,