Men who work where danger is a way of life have a tendency to embrace superstitions or habits that might seem strange to an outsider. For example miners believed it was bad luck for a woman to go into a mine. If a man’s clothes slipped off the hook in the change room he was going to fall off into a hole. Or, if a man’s lamp didn’t burn bright underground it meant above ground his wife was stepping out with another man.

The most unusual of the Cornish Miner’s superstitions were the “Tommyknockers.” These were mischievous little people who stood only two feet tall, had big heads, long arms, wrinkled faces and white whiskers.

It was said the little sprites sneaked into the luggage of the Cornishmen as they left for America. Once here they infiltrated the mines by hiding in the miner’s lunch boxes. It was claimed the Tommyknockers communicated with miners by tapping on the walls with a code similar to the one devised by Samuel Morse. Sometimes these tapings warned of pending disaster while others gave directions to rich pockets of ore. Many a hard rock miner swore his life was saved only because he heeded the tapping of the little people and made a hasty exit from the mine. Tommyknockers were credited with locating many a bonanza. But it was vitally important to listen to the tommy knocks. Miners claimed that if one heard “tap tap,” it meant “Dig here!” or “That’s it;” whereas “Tap tap tap” meant “Don’t dig here” or “It ain’t here!”

Gassy Thompson was one of those Cornishmen who benefitted from the Tommyknockers. His two assistants were a dog aptly named Digby and a diamondback rattlesnake. He trained the dog to do the digging and came upon a baby rattler that had been orphaned and took it home and made a pet out of it. As the snake grew he noticed the population of pesky rats and mice diminished. He also figured that since the snake was much closer to the ground it could spot the gold nuggets he missed. So, he trained the big fellow to recognize gold. Whenever the snake found a nugget it would coil up around it and start rattling. Gassy claimed on one occasion the rattler found a pocket of gold worth almost three thousand dollars.

During the hot summers Gassy would search for gold in the cool confines of the abandoned gold mines. There he learned to communicate with the Tommyknockers and they would tell him where to look for gold then Digby would do the manual labor.

There were skeptics who were prone to doubt Gassy’s method of finding gold but one thing is certain, the local merchants claimed he always found more rich pockets of gold than all the other desert rats combined.

Related Articles

  • New True West merchandise is here! Now in the Mercantile you can find True West…

  •   The rocky wilderness of the American West turned out to be the richest treasure…

  • The word “sport” had a slightly different meaning in the Old West. Back in the…